Well written decision from Wyoming defines release law and how releases should be written.Posted: July 7, 2014
This case is interesting because one of the attempts to remove the release from the decision was a claim the plaintiff was at the defendant gym working out because he was told to by a physician, and the gym was owned by a different physician.
Plaintiff: James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill
Defendant: S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C.
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, loss of consortium
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: For the defendant
The plaintiff was injured when a pin in a lat-pull-down machine that secured the weights came out, and he fell backwards injuring his wrist. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant raised the defense of release.
The plaintiff was told by his physician to exercise more. One day while at a drugstore, he had met an owner of the defendant gym, a physician, who talked to him about the gym.
The plaintiff and his wife went to the gym. They were given a release and told to take it home and read it. Three days later the plaintiff’s came back, signed the release and began to use the facilities.
The plaintiff had not asked for instructions on the lat-pull-down machine and did not ask for any because he had used one previously. He had been using the particular machine for a month and had noticed that the pin did not appear to fit when he was injured.
The trial court ruled the release was valid and barred the claims of the plaintiffs, dismissing the case. The plaintiff’s appealed. This case is based in Wyoming, which only has trial courts and the Wyoming Supreme Court, in intermediate appellate courts.
Summary of the case
The court first looked at the language of the release, to determine if the language was clear and unequivocal.
Our reading of the Agreement and Release convinces us that the intention of S.M.A.R.T., and the Massengills is expressed in clear and unequivocal language. The language clearly assigns the risk to members who agree to be liable for any and all risks. The Agreement and Release continues with an unequivocal statement that S.M.A.R.T. shall not be liable for any injuries or damages to any member or the member’s property, including those caused by the negligence of S.M.A.R.T.
The court found the language was clear and unequivocal as well as broad and specially released the defendant from claims and actions for negligence.
The court then examined the release based on contract law. Releases are contracts and are interpreted using traditional contract principles. The entire document is examined as a whole.
The language of the Agreement and Release is clear in manifesting an intention to release S.M.A.R.T. and those involved with the facility from liability; it specifically states that S.M.A.R.T. will not be held liable for “those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents.”
Wyoming has four factors to examine to determine if a release is valid.
(1) whether a duty to the public exists;
(2) the nature of the service performed;
(3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and
(4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language
The court found the release in question was properly reviewed by the trial court, and the release met all four tests. The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims the release violated public policy. Under Wyoming law, a duty to the public exists “if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest, and the service performed is considered an essential service.” A release that affecting a public interest giving rise to a duty to the public is one that:
“concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. 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. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it * * *. 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.”
In Wyoming, this list of businesses would be “common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers, and services involving extra-hazardous activities.”
A health club or gym is recreational in nature and do not meet the requirements and do not qualify as a business suitable for public regulation. A gym or health club is not essential.
The services offered by S.M.A.R.T. to its members were those of a private recreational business which did not qualify as suitable for public regulation because they did not affect the public interest nor could they be considered as necessary or essential….
Then court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims that he was at the gym for medical reasons. However, the court could find no evidence that the plaintiff was at the gym engaging in rehabilitation.
The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claim that there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties which should void the release. However, this argument also failed.
Since membership in a private recreational facility such as S.M.A.R.T. is purely optional and does not qualify as an essential service, no decisive bargaining advantage exists. “A disparity of bargaining power will be found when a contracting party with little or no bargaining strength has no reasonable alternative to entering the contract at the mercy of the other’s negligence.
The plaintiff’s raised one final argument that claimed the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to 1-1-123:
…creates a statutory duty on the part of providers of a sport or recreational opportunity because it preserves actions based upon negligence if damage or injury is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.
The court called this a convoluted argument and did not agree with the argument.
The final argument was based on the wife’s claim for loss of consortium. The court held there were two different ways this claim also failed. The first was the wife signed a release at the same time as her husband; the plaintiff and the release stopped her suit. Also because her claim of loss of consortium is derivative, meaning only can exist if the original claim exists, then her claim fails also.
The record reflects that Massengill’s participation was purely recreational and S.M.A.R.T. did not owe him a public duty. S.M.A.R.T. is not engaged in a type of business generally thought suitable for public regulation, and Massengill was engaged in a recreational activity not an activity pursuant to a physician’s order.
The court upheld the trial courts dismissal of the claims.
So Now What?
This is a great decision to assist in writing a release in Wyoming. Of interest was the fact the court pointed out, the plaintiffs were given three days to review the release before signing.
The four requirements for a release are similar to most other states. How you deal with the issue of someone at your facility for health or rehabilitation reasons might present a problem.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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