Negligence suit over injuries from falling out of a raft that was rented from outfitter. Release was part of raft rental contract.

Federal District court grant’s motion for summary judgment on release language in a rental agreement with multiple signatures from renters on one page. Scary!

Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206

Date of the Decision: August 22, 2013

Plaintiff: Cari J. Wroblewski

Defendant: Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: release in raft rental agreement

Holding: for the defendant

The plaintiff had recently gone rafting on the Salt River in Arizona. Two months later she with her friends rented a raft and equipment from the defendant to a raft the Youghiogheny River. The Youghiogheny River is a Class III run although it allegedly borders on Class IV at certain water levels.

Once the water level rises above a certain level the defendant is allowed to operate as a guide service and run river guides with its customers.

While the plaintiff was taking a long time in the restroom, the rest of her group talked to the defendant’s employees about the high water and declined a guided service. The normal price of a guided trip is $60 per person. The rental cost is $20 per person. The defendant offered to add a guide to the trip for $40 per person, a $20 per person discount from the regular price.

After leaving the restroom the plaintiff testified that she was rushed to sign the release and get her “stuff.” The court took note that the plaintiff was not the last person to sign the release. “Plaintiff was not the last person in her group to sign the Rental Agreement, as her signature is the second to last signature on the Rental Agreement.”

After signing the release and getting her gear the plaintiff received a safety briefing and then was sent down the river. During one of the final rapids, the plaintiff fell out of the boat and “was dragged under water and struck her knee on a rock, sustaining serious injuries.”

The case was filed in Federal District Court, which is the trial court, and the opinion is the court’s which was used to grant the defendants motion for summary judgment.

Summary of the case

The court pointed out several issues that the court, and the plaintiff identified. The release started half-way down the page and was titled “Terms and Conditions.” Multiple lines were provided where the parties all signed the same document. Additional legal information was found under section identified as “SAFETY PRECAUTIONS” and “RECOMMENDATIONS.” The overall title of the document was “Rental Agreement.” The court did point out that the font used in the form was small but sufficient.

The plaintiff argued the release was not enforceable because:

…Plaintiff points out that the document was titled “Rental Agreement” and therefore does not provide adequate notice to signors that it is a release of liability. Furthermore, the exculpatory language is placed at the bottom left of the form and not directly above the signature line, is written in small font, and does not appear until paragraph 9 of the form. Plaintiff also argues that no one specifically informed her that she was entering into a contract that would affect her legal rights, and that she was “rushed along” by Defendant’s employees.

The court then went through the cases in Pennsylvania that had thrown the release out. However, in each case this court found the facts were different or the case was not applicable to this one.

The statement of the court as to the relationship between a party signing a release for recreational activities and one for other purposes sets recreational releases apart.

Plaintiff voluntarily chose to engage in the sport of white-water rafting purely for recreational purposes. Plaintiff signed the Release; she was not compelled, as a legal matter, to sign it, but chose to sign it so that she could go on the white-water rafting trip with her group. (“[R]ecreational sporting activities may be viewed differently in the context of exculpatory agreements, as each party is free to participate, or not, in the activity, and, therefore, is free to sign, or not, the release form.”)

The court also took on issues the plaintiff did not identify, which is whether or not the plaintiff attempted to negotiate the release terms. As it has been pointed out several times in other cases, the opportunity or not to negotiate an activity without signing a release or to change a release may void the release.

There is no evidence that plaintiff sought to negotiate the terms of the Release or asked for additional time to read it, and to the extent she was “compelled” it was a compulsion arising solely from her personal desire to meet up with her group.

The court also eliminated the plaintiff’s argument she did not understand what she was signing in one sentence. “Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.” The court stated the “Plaintiff could have requested additional time to read the agreement, or she could have chosen to not sign the Release and not go white-water rafting.”

The court held the release stopped the plaintiff’s claims.

The Release, even when construed against Defendant, clearly spelled out the parties’ intention to release defendant from liability and encompassed the risk of varying water levels and falling out of the raft. Consequently, the Release meets the enforceability test under Pennsylvania law. Plaintiff brings a claim for negligence. Negligence is explicitly encompassed within the Release, and Defendant’s motion for Summary Judgment is granted.

So Now What?

Remember a release that is involved in litigation is one that is poorly written. Well written releases do not end up in front of judges and juries. This court upheld the release but in doing so pointed out several issues that in other jurisdictions or maybe in Pennsylvania with different fact patterns would have held the other way.

First, the document was a rental agreement. It was labeled as such and most of the information the court pointed out was based on rental information. You may be able to combine a rental agreement and a release in one document; however, you should clearly label the document as such.

What was amazing is in the day and age when this accident happened, 2010, that a recreation business was still using a sign-in sheet as a release. You don’t buy a house on the same document as your neighbor used. Why would you risk your business by using a document signed by multiple people that defend against a multi-million dollar lawsuit?

Add to that the print size, the release language divided into three different columns in the document and the plaintiff’s arguments that she was hurried; this is a thank heaven’s decision.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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