Release signed for whitewater rafting also works to stop claim for tripping getting out of raft bus. Tennessee release law broad enough to protect items enumerated in the release

Henderson v. Quest Expeditions, Inc. 174 S.W.3d 730; 2005 Tenn. App. LEXIS 334

Plaintiff: Nathan & Brandy Henderson

Defendant: Quest Expeditions, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendant based on the release

This Tennessee case is quite interesting. The plaintiff was a first-time whitewater rafter. After the raft trip ended, he boarded the bus to ride back to the office. For some reason, not in the record, he was forced to get out of the first bus and board another bus. While disembarking from the first bus he slipped and fell sustaining injuries.

He filed this suit which was dismissed by the trial court based on a Motion for Summary Judgment. The plaintiff appealed arguing the release was barred by public policy and void because it was too excessive in its scope.

Summary of the case

The court looked at all arguments raised by the plaintiff on appeal. Some that I have reviewed and written about before and some new and “novel” theories.

The first issue was the plaintiff stated the release should be thrown out because the plaintiff “had no previous white-water rafting experience, and was given a pre-printed document to sign prior to the excursion which was not reviewed with him by an employee of defendant.”

Can you imagine the pile up in an office if you had to go over each release with each patron who came to purchase a trip from you?

The plaintiff also argued that “he was not advised whether there were any other rafting companies who would allow him to go rafting without having to sign a waiver, or whether he could pay additional money to not have to sign the waiver.”

This is a rare argument, but it has been used to defeat releases in a few cases. See Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2.

The next argument was the release was void because it violated public policy. The court first looked at whether releases were valid in Tennessee. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld releases.

It is well settled in this State that parties may contract that one shall not be liable for his negligence to another but that such other shall assume the risk incident to such negligence. . . . Further, it is not necessary that the word ‘negligence’ appear in the exculpatory clause and the public policy of Tennessee favors freedom to contract against liability for negligence.

Of note is the statement by the court that the word negligence does not need to appear in the release. The Tennessee Supreme Court adopted the requirements of Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33 (Ca. 1963) to determine if an activity should not be covered by a release.

(a.) It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.

(b.) The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.

(c.) The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards.

(d.) As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.

(e.) In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence.

(f.) Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.

The court then looked at the factors as explained by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Generally, professionals are not allowed to receive a release for their negligence, where tradesmen could.

…not all of the factors had to be present in order to invalidate an exculpatory agreement, but generally, the factors were limited to circumstances involving “a contract with a profession, as opposed to ‘tradesmen in the marketplace’

Whitewater rafting is not a professional trade and as such the defendant could use a release. Whitewater rafting “is not a service of “great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.” There is no necessity that one goes whitewater rafting.

The plaintiff then argued that because whitewater rafting was regulated it was of a public interest. Tennessee’s legislature passed 2005 Tenn. Pub. Acts 169 which regulated whitewater rafting in the state. However, the statute specifically allowed the use of releases. T.C.A. 70-7-205. Written waivers, exculpatory agreements and releases.

The final argument was the injury received by the plaintiff, slipping exiting a bus, which not an inherent risk of whitewater rafting and thus of outside the scope of the release. The plaintiff described the busses of the defendant in his complaint as: “…dilapidated school buses.” (Seems like a normal rafting company to me……

However, the court rejected that argument on two grounds. The first was the release was written broadly and covered all negligent acts of the defendant. The second was the release mentioned bus or van transportation. “Moreover, the Contract specifically mentions that plaintiffs are being furnished and participating in white-water rafting and “bus or van transportation” provided by the defendant.”

The court concluded:

The Contract under consideration is clear and unambiguous, and states that plaintiffs agreed to release defendant from any and all liability, including defendant’s own negligence. Moreover, the Contract specifically mentions that plaintiffs are being furnished and participating in white water rafting and “bus or van transportation” provided by the defendant. The Contract states that plaintiffs realize that they could be injured due to dangers from the rafting as well as the use of white water equipment, forces of nature, or even due to the negligence of defendant’s employees and other rafters. The Con-tract states that defendant is being relieved of any liability caused by its own negligence in no less than four places, the last of which is in bold print above the signature line. This Contract is plain, and enforceable as written.

So Now What?

First never run the risk of having a release thrown out because it does not include the magic word negligence. Even though the Supreme Court may not require it today, your lawsuit tomorrow may set precedence on that issue. It is easy to put in and should be in every release.

To defeat the argument that you should be able to bargain your way out of the release or that whether there are any other companies offering trips without requiring a release to be signed you should put language in your release advising your clients about those issues. A release that states that the person is signing the release voluntarily and undertaking the activity voluntarily and is free to go, as in this case, whitewater rafting with someone else can eliminate this argument in most states.

To engage or purchase a trip with you without signing a release have your insurance company send you a letter stating how much your insurance would cost if a release is not signed. Then if asked you can show a patron the letter to support charging the normal price plus the increase in your insurance premium to go on a trip without signing a release. A $10,095.00 raft trip is probably not worth it for a day on the water.

If anyone asks if they can go rafting and not sign a release, the easiest way to respond is to send them to a competitor.

Whether or not transportation will be covered by a release will be different for each state. In some states if the transportation is incidental to the activity it may be covered. Here the release was written broadly, and releases are interpreted broadly to allow the scope of the release to cover transportation.

In some states, however, transportation is an activity that cannot be released because it is protected by public policy.

 

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss               #Authorrank

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