Tough fight on a case, release used to stop all but one claim for a CO ski accident

Squires v. Goodwin, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129234

But for an outrageous expert opinion, the release would have ended this lawsuit.

This case is a lawsuit against Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) and two of its employees by a disabled skier. Also sued was the manufacturer of the bi-ski, a device that allows people with no mobility to experience skiing. BOEC is a non-profit that provides tons of great services for people, most of whom are disabled. In this case, the plaintiff was a “legally blind, cognitively delayed, and physically limited by cerebral palsy” minor.

The plaintiff went to BOEC with a group people from Kansas, the Adventure Fitness Program at Camp Fire USA. Before going on the trip the plaintiff’s mother signed the necessary documents, including a release and reviewed the marketing and other information provided to her. Upon arrival, the plaintiff was taken to Breckenridge Ski Area with two BOEC employees. She was skiing in a bi-ski with the two defendant skiers. One was a lookout or later termed blocker in the case and one held tethers, which controlled the bi-ski.

On the second run, the three were skiing down a blue or intermediate ski run. A third party not part of the suit lost control and skied between the defendant employee and the bi-ski into the tethers. This separated the BOEC employee from the bi-ski. The bi-ski proceeded down the ski slope, out of control hitting a tree. The injuries to the plaintiff were not described.

The plaintiff through her mother sued the bi-ski manufacture, BOEC and the two BOEC employees. The plaintiff claimed four counts of negligence per se because of violations of the Colorado Skier Safety Act against the defendant employee who was holding the tethers. (To see a definition of Negligence Per Se under Colorado law see Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability.) The plaintiff argued another claim sounding in “negligence, willful and wanton, reckless, and/or gross negligence” against BOEC. The remaining claims were against the manufacturer of the bi-ski which was dismissed in another action not the subject of this opinion.

This motion was a motion for Summary Judgment filed by BOEC to eliminate the fifth claim, the negligence, willful and wanton, reckless, and/or gross negligence of BOEC.

Validity of a Release for a minor signed by a parent under the CO Statute

The court first looked at the requirements for a release signed by a parent to be upheld under Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107, generally that the parent’s signature must be voluntary and informed. Prior to this decision, the only case that has taken a look at this issue was Wycoff v. Grace Community Church of the Assemblies of God, 251 P.3d 1260, 1277 (Colo. App. 2010) which I reviewed in Releases are legal documents and need to be written by an attorney that understands the law and the risks of your program/business/activity and your guests/members/clientele.

In Wycoff, the release signed by the mother for the child was not upheld. The Wycoff release only had one sentence referring to releasing any claims. Here, the BOEC release had a minimum of six paragraphs informing the plaintiff’s mother that she was waiving her daughter and her legal rights.

Colorado law does not require the specific use of the word negligence in a release. However, all Supreme Court decisions to date had some language referencing waiving personal injury claims based on the activity the release covered.

The court concluded that the plaintiff’s mother signed a document that was clearly identified as a release, and thus she signed it voluntarily.

The court then looked at the release to see if it informed the plaintiff’s mother of the risks of the activity. The release had one full page that explained in detail the degree of risk involved in the BOEC programs. On top of that, the plaintiff’s mother had called and talked to the staff at BOEC as well as the staff of Adventure Fitness Program at Camp Fire USA that was taking her daughter on the trip.

After all of this, the plaintiff’s mother the court concluded was informed of the risks of the trip and the activity.

Validity of the Release

The court started by reviewing the Colorado requirements on how a release will be reviewed under Colorado law. This is fairly standard in all legal decisions.

Exculpatory agreements are construed strictly against the party seeking to limit its liability.” Hamill v. Cheley Colorado Camps, Inc.,     P. 3d    , 2011 Colo. App. LEXIS 495, 2011 WL 1168006, (Colo. App. March 31, 2011) (Reviewed here in Release stops suit for falling off horse at Colorado summer Camp.)

The determination of the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court to determine. B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 136 (Colo. 1998)

Although an exculpatory agreement that attempts to insulate a party from liability for his own simple negligence” is disfavored, “it is not necessarily void as against public policy . . . as long as one party is not at such obvious disadvantage in bargaining power that the effect of the contract is to put him at the mercy of the other’s negligence. Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004)

To be effective, the release must meet four criteria: (i) there must not have been an obvious disparity in bargaining power between the releasor and releasee; (ii) the agreement must set forth the parties’ intentions in clear and unambiguous language; (iii) the circumstances and the nature of the service must indicate that the agreement was fairly entered into; and (iv) the agreement may not violate public policy. Robinette, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34873, 2009 WL 1108093

BOEC bears the burden of proving each of these elements

The court then went through each of the four steps to make sure this release met the requirements.

(i) there must not have been an obvious disparity in bargaining power between the releasor and releasee;

(ii) the agreement must set forth the parties’ intentions in clear and unambiguous language;

(iii) the circumstances and the nature of the service must indicate that the agreement was fairly entered into; and

(iv) the agreement may not violate public policy

Other courts had found that recreation services are not essential services and there is no unfair bargaining advantage in these types of services. Those recreational services in Colorado where courts had made this decision included mountain biking, bicycle rental, skydiving, handicapped downhill ski racing, and rental of ski equipment.

The issue of whether the party’s intentions are clear and unambiguous requires a review of the document. To do that the court looked at the requirements for a contract in general. (A release is a contract, an agreement between two parties with consideration flowing between the parties.) “Interpretation of a written contract and the determination of whether a provision in the contract is ambiguous are questions of law.“

In determining whether a provision in a contract is ambiguous, the instrument’s language must be examined and construed in harmony with the plain and generally accepted meanings of the words used, and reference must be made to all the agreement’s provisions.

The meaning and effect of a contract is to be determined from a review of the entire instrument, not merely from isolated clauses or phrases.

Here, the release was written in simple and clear terms that were free from legal jargon, not inordinately long and/or complicated. Finally, the fact that the plaintiff’s mother indicated she understood the release satisfied this requirement.

The third requirement requires that the contract be fairly entered into. That means that one party is not so obviously disadvantaged that they are at the mercy of the other party. Because recreational activities are not essential services, and those services can be found through other parties who offer them this requirement is always met in the recreational setting. Essential services are those necessary for life. Examples are public transportation, utilities or food.

The last requirement is that the release does not violate public policy. This means that the release does not waive a duty of BOEC’s which cannot be waived. Again, recreational services do not make up a public policy or violate a public policy. In fact, under Colorado law, the public policy is to support recreational activities and thus have parent’s sign releases.

The expressed public policy in Colorado is “to encourage the affordability and availability of youth activities in this state by permitting a parent of a child to release a prospective negligence claim of the child against certain persons and entities involved in providing the opportunity to participate in the activities. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107(1)(a)(VI)

Was there a Material Misrepresentation or Fraud in the Inducement in the relationship between the plaintiff and her mother and the defendant BOEC.

or

Marketing makes promises that Risk Management must pay for.

A release is voidable if it was secured based on a material misrepresentation or fraud in the inducement. Here, the plaintiff argued that BOEC claimed it met the highest standards of the Association of Experiential Education (AEE), which it did not. The plaintiff claimed that BOEC claimed that it was accredited by AEE when it was not, and it met the standards of AEE for adaptive ski programs when there was not any standard for that program.

BOEC stated that at the time of the accident, BOEC did not have any written ski lesson policies and procedures for the adaptive ski program. BOEC also admitted that at the time of the accident the accreditation was for other programs of BOEC, and that AEE did not accredit adaptive ski programs.

Based on these two representations, the plaintiff then argued that BOEC misrepresented itself to the plaintiff.

To establish fraud, a plaintiff has to prove that

(1) a fraudulent misrepresentation of material fact was made by the defendant;

(2) at the time the representation was made, the defendant knew the representation was false or was aware that he did not know whether the representation was true or false;

(3) the plaintiff relied on the misrepresentation;

(4) the plaintiff had the right to rely on, or was justified in relying on, the misrepresentation; and

(5) the reliance resulted in damages.

Here, the plaintiff could not prove that it relied on the misrepresentations of the BOEC and that the reliance was justified. The court did not find that BOEC had not misrepresented itself or its credentials. The court found the plaintiff had not proven reliance the final step needed to prove fraud.

The court also found that BOEC had not misrepresented the facts to the extent needed to be an intentional fraudulent misrepresentation.

At the time, BOEC followed the adaptive ski standards of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, (PSIA). BOEC was accredited by AEE for its other programs. The letter which had the critical information in it about standards, and accreditation was a letter used for all BOEC programs.

Was the conduct of the parties Willful and Wanton rising to the level of Gross Negligence?

This is always an issue when a release is signed because if the actions of the defendant rise to this level than the release cannot be used to stop claims for gross negligence or intentional acts.

“Gross negligence is willful and wanton conduct; that is, action committed recklessly, with conscious disregard for the safety of others.”  

The court then reviewed the opinion of the plaintiff’s expert witness. His report labeled the BOEC program as inherently unsafe and went on from there. (See Come on! Expert’s will say anything sometimes.)

Based on the expert witness report, the court did not dismiss the last claim of the plaintiffs for gross negligence. The opinion of the expert raised enough facts to create an issue that could not be decided by the court.

All but this final claim was dismissed by the court.

A well-written  release in this case almost won the day; it definitely took a lot of fight out of the plaintiff’s case. The only issue the release could not beat was an outrageous opinion by the plaintiff’s expert witness.

So Now What?

1.       Don’t make the court look for a clause to support your release. Put in the release the magic word negligence and that the signor is giving up their legal rights for any injury or claims based on your negligence. Here, the court was able to find six paragraphs that did the same thing. You can eliminate a few paragraphs if you are up front and honest. You are giving up your right to sue me for any claim or loss based on my negligence.

2.      Identify your document as a release. The court based its decision upholding the release based on the language in the release, and because it was labeled a release.

3.      If you communicate with a client in advance of the activity about the risks or the release, make a note of it. This again was important to the court in proving the mother was not misled and knew what she was signing.

4.      Besides specifically informing the signor of the fact they are giving up their right to sue, your release needs to point out the risks of your activity. Here, the court points out the page long list of risks as important in upholding the release. Too many releases do not include the risks.

5.       Make it easy for your guests to contact you and ask questions about your release, your activity and the risks. Again, the court pointed this out as a specific issue that was important in the court finding for the defendant in this case.

6.      The burden on proving that the release meets the requirements needed in a specific state is on the defendant. Consequently, it behooves the defendant recreation provider to place those requirements in the release so the plaintiff, upon signing, helps prove the document is valid.

7.       Marketing sinks more ships in the outdoor recreation industry than injuries. Make sure your marketing matches who you are and what you do, and that you are not misrepresenting who you are and what you can do. In this case, BOEC escaped a disaster with its marketing of standards and accreditation that either did not exist, or that it did not have.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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