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Zuckerman v. The City of New York, 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 465; 2011 NY Slip Op 30410(U)

Zuckerman v. The City of New York, 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 465; 2011 NY Slip Op 30410(U)

[**2] Jonathan Zuckerman, Plaintiff, -against- The City of New York, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, New York Road Runners, Inc. and Road Road Runners Club Of America, Defendants.

105044/2010

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY

2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 465; 2011 NY Slip Op 30410(U)

February 18, 2011, Decided

February 23, 2011, Filed

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: runner, marathon, gross negligence, affirmative defense, amend, enforceable, reply, factual issues, participating, oppose, ice, exit, nunc pro tunc, risks associated, reckless indifference, grossly negligent, collectively, spectators, humidity, website, weather, traffic, invoked, waive, heat, void, registration, disbursements, encompassed, registrant

COUNSEL: [*1] For Plaintiff: Frank Taubner, Esq., Jasne & Florio, LLP, White Plains, NY.

For defendant NYRR: Deborah Peters Jordan, Esq., Havkins, Rosenfeld et al, New York, NY.

For defendant City: Anthony Bila, ACC, Michael A. Cardozo, Corporation Counse, New York, NY.

JUDGES: Barbara Jaffe, JSC.

OPINION BY: Barbara Jaffe

OPINION

DECISION & ORDER

By notice of motion dated August 20, 2010, defendants New York Road Runners, Inc. and Road Runners Club of America (collectively, NYRR) move pursuant to CPLR 3212 for an order summarily dismissing the complaint, and defendant Road Runners Club of America, Inc. (RRCA) moves pursuant to CPLR 3211(c) for an order dismissing the complaint. Plaintiff opposes as to NYRR, and does not oppose as to RRCA. Defendants City and New York City Department of Recreation (collectively, City) move separately pursuant to CPLR 3025(c) for an order granting leave to amend their answer nunc pro tunc to add an affirmative defense, and pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) and (a)(7) for an order dismissing the complaint. Plaintiff opposes City’s motion.

[**3] I. FACTS

NYRR conducts more than 100 events a year, including the Manhattan Half Marathon (Half Marathon). (Affirmation of Kenneth L. Winell, Esq., dated Aug. 20, 2010 [Winell [*2] Aff.], Exh. D). Participants in the Half Marathon register through NYRR’s website which contains the following provision:

I know that participating in NYRR events is a potentially hazardous activity. I agree not to enter and participate unless I am medically able and properly trained. I agree to abide by any decision of an event official relative to my ability to safely complete the event. I am voluntarily entering and assume all risks associated with participating in the event, including, but not limited to, falls, contact with other participants, spectators or others, the effect of the weather, including heat and/or humidity, traffic and the conditions of the course, all such risks being known and appreciated by me. I grant to the Medical Director of this event and his designee access to my medical records and physicians, as well as other information, relating to medical care that may be administered to me as a result of my participation in this event. Having read this Waiver and knowing these facts, and in consideration of your acceptance of this application, I, for myself and anyone entitled to act of my behalf, waive and release New York Road Runners Club, Inc., Road Runners Club [*3] of America, USA Track & Field, the City of New York and its agencies and departments, the Metropolitan Athletics Congress, and all sponsors, and their representatives and successors, from present and future claims and liabilities of any kind, known or unknown, arising out of my participation in this event or related activities, even though such claim or liability may arise out of negligence or fault on the part of the foregoing persons or entities. I grant permission to the foregoing persons and entities to use or authorize others to use any photographs, motions pictures, recordings, or any other record of my participation in this event or related activities for any legitimate purpose without remuneration.

(Id., Exhs. C.F. [emphases added]). The registrant must then either select “I accept and agree to the above waiver,” or “I do not accept and do not agree to the above waiver.” (Id.) If the registrant selects the latter, he cannot register. (Id., Exh. C).

Plaintiff, a member of NYRR, is an experienced runner, having participated in over 100 NYRR events. (Affirmation of Frank Taubner, Esq., dated Oct. 11, 2010 [Taubner Aff.]). He registered for the 2009 Half Marathon online approximately [*4] one week earlier, and recalls seeing [**4] a waiver as part of the registration procedure. (Id.).

At approximately 8:00 a.m. on January 25, 2009, plaintiff arrived at the starting area of the Half Marathon in Central Park. (Id.). Snow banks flanked the course’s pathways. (Id.). An NYRR official orally instructed the participants that if they had to stop for any reason, they were to exit the course and proceed to the shoulder of the roadway so as not to block other participants. (Id.). While running, plaintiffs shoe became untied and seeing no designated exit areas, he stepped off the path as instructed and proceeded to what he believed to be a patch of dirt. (Id.). There, he slipped on ice that he had not seen, and fell backward, seriously injuring himself. (Id.).

II. NYRR’S MOTION

A. Contentions

NYRR contends that it is entitled to summary dismissal as plaintiff executed a valid and enforceable waiver of liability, and because it did not organize, supervise or control the half marathon. (Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, dated Aug. 2010 [NYRR Mem.]). In support, it annexes the affidavits of three of its employees, (id., Exhs. C, D, E), a copy of the waiver (id, [*5] Exh. F), and proof of plaintiffs registration (id., Exh. F).

Plaintiff argues that in light of defendants’ gross negligence and his compliance with the instructions given at the commencement of the half marathon that he exit the course if he needed to stop, the waiver is unenforceable. He also denies having assumed the risk of slipping on ice when exiting the course. (Taubner Aff.).

In reply, NYRR asserts that plaintiff’s injury is encompassed by the waiver and that plaintiff has failed to establish that NYRR’s conduct rises to the level of gross negligence. (Reply [**5] Affirmation of Deborah Peters Jordan, Esq., dated Nov. 18, 2010).

B. Analysis

Contractual agreements to waive liability for a party’s negligence, although frowned upon, are generally enforceable where not expressly prohibited by law. (Gross v Sweet, 49 NY2d 102, 105, 400 N.E.2d 306, 424 N.Y.S.2d 365 [1979]). Language relieving one from liability must be unmistakable and easily understood. (Id. at 107). Agreements to indemnify for gross negligence or willful behavior, however, are void. (Id. at 106). “Gross negligence, when invoked to pierce an agreed-upon limitation of liability . . . must smack of intentional wrongdoing . . . that evinces a reckless indifference [*6] to the rights of others.” (Sommer v Fed. Signal Corp., 79 NY2d 540, 554, 593 N.E.2d 1365, 583 N.Y.S.2d 957 [1992]; Abacus Fed. Sav. Bank v ADT Sec. Servs., Inc., 77 A.D.3d 431, 433, 908 N.Y.S.2d 654 [1st Dept 2010]).

As plaintiff does not deny that he agreed to the waiver or that it is generally enforceable and not void as a matter of law or public policy, I need only address whether there exist factual issues as to whether NYRR was grossly negligent and whether the accident was outside the scope of the waiver. That the waiver references the “conditions of the course” does not remove plaintiff’s accident from its scope as the waiver extends to “all risks associated with participating in the event, including, but not limited to, falls, contact with other participants, spectators or others, the effect of the weather, including heat and/or humidity, traffic and the conditions of the course.” The breadth of the provision permits the inference that plaintiff was aware that by executing the waiver, he assumed the risks of running through Central Park in the winter, where the presence of ice is reasonably anticipated, which risks are reasonably deemed part of the activity, and not just of the course. (See Bufano v Nat. Inline Roller Hockey Assn., 272 A.D.2d 359, 707 N.Y.S.2d 223 [**6] [2d Dept 2000] [*7] [plaintiff assumed risk of injury during fight while playing inline roller hockey]), Nothing in the provision precludes its application to accidents incurred by a participant who momentarily steps off the course.

And, although plaintiff acted in compliance with defendants’ instruction to leave the race course if he needed to stop, such an instruction constitutes a sensible means of protecting participants from colliding with one another, and neither invites nor would naturally lead to an accident sufficient to constitute reckless indifference. Consequently, an inference of gross negligence is not reasonably drawn therefrom. (See Lemoine v Cornell Univ., 2 AD3d 1017, 769 N.Y.S.2d 313 [3d Dept 2003], lv denied 2 N.Y.3d 701, 810 N.E.2d 912, 778 N.Y.S.2d 459 [2005] [plaintiff fell from wall after rock-climbing instructor told her where to place her hands and feet; waiver of liability enforced; not gross negligence]). And, assuming that NYRR had a duty to keep the park free of slippery substances, the failure to do so constitutes ordinary negligence at best.

Given this result, I need not address RRCA’s alternative argument that it did not organize, supervise, or control the half marathon.

III. CITY’S MOTION

A. Contentions

City argues that it should [*8] be granted leave to amend its answer to add an affirmative defense that the action is barred by plaintiffs execution of a written release. It observes that leave is freely granted, that plaintiff will no suffer no prejudice, and that, although this motion was served after joinder of issue, it is procedurally proper as City moves pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) as well as (a)(5). (Affirmation of Anthony Bila, ACC, dated Sept. 29, 2010).

Plaintiff asserts that City is not entitled to dismissal given the factual issues as to City’s [**7] gross negligence and whether plaintiff’s accident is encompassed by the waiver, and that the motion to amend should be denied because the affirmative defense is meritless and prejudicial. (Taubner Aff.).

In reply, City maintains that as it moves only pursuant to CPLR 3211, the existence of factual issues is immaterial. It contends that the amendment is meritorious and will not prejudice plaintiff, and that plaintiffs accident falls squarely within the scope of the waiver and that there is no evidence of gross negligence. (Reply Affirmation of Anthony Bila, ACC, dated Nov. 18, 2010).

B. Analysis

Although objections pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) are waived if not invoked [*9] in the movant’s answer (CPLR 3211 [e]), a motion to amend an answer may be granted in order that the affirmative defense be addressed on the merits. (Siegel, NY Prac § 274, at 435 [3d ed]; Marks v Macchiarola, 221 AD2d 217, 634 N.Y.S.2d 56 [1st Dept 1995]). Thus, and absent any discernible prejudice given plaintiffs having addressed the substance of the motion above (II. A.), leave is granted. (Cf Young v GSL Enter., Inc., 170 AD2d 401, 566 N.Y.S.2d 618 [1st Dept 1991] [Supreme Court properly addressed merits of proposed affirmative defense in motion to amend]; Scheff v St. John’s Episcopal Hosp., 115 AD2d 532, 534, 496 N.Y.S.2d 58 [2d Dept 1985] [same]).

Although plaintiff executed the waiver on NYRR’s website, City was expressly included therein. (See Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348 [2d Dept 2008], lv denied 11 N.Y.3d 704, 894 N.E.2d 1198, 864 N.Y.S.2d 807 [upholding waiver against NYRR and City]; cf Tedesco v Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Auth, 250 AD2d 758, 673 N.Y.S.2d 181 [2d Dept 1998] [bicycle tour waiver included party not specifically named in release]). Moreover, the waiver of liability is a release within the meaning [**8] of CPLR 3211(a)(5). (See Brookner, 51 AD3d 841, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348).

Having already determined that the waiver is enforceable as against plaintiff, and as NYRR’s [*10] conduct was not grossly negligent, the same result is reached as to City.

IV. CONCLUSION

Accordingly, it is hereby

ORDERED, that the motion for summary judgment by New York Road Runners, Inc. and Road Runners Club of America is granted, and the complaint dismissed against them with costs and disbursements to defendants as taxed by the Clerk upon the submission of an appropriate bill of costs; it is further

ORDERED, that the motion by City of New York and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation for leave to serve an amended answer is granted, and the annexed answer is deemed timely served, nunc pro tunc; and it is further

ORDERED, that the motion for dismissal as against City of New York and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is granted, and the complaint dismissed against them with costs and disbursements to defendants as taxed by the Clerk upon the submission of an appropriate bill of costs.

This constitutes the decision and order of the court.

/s/ Barbara Jaffe

Barbara Jaffe, JSC

DATED: February 18, 2011

New York, New York

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