University climbing wall release along with Texas Recreational Use Act and Texas Tort Claims Act defeat injured climber’s lawsuit

Court looks at whether a release will defeat a claim for gross negligence but does not decide the case on that issue. Case is confusing, because court discussed defenses that were not applicable. Plaintiff waived all but the gross negligence claims.

Benavidez v. The University of Texas — Pan American, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 11940

State: Texas, Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Rolando Benavidez

Defendant: The University of Texas — Pan American

Plaintiff Claims: failure to properly use the climbing equipment and properly supervise [Benavidez] during the climb, Under the theory of respondeat superior, Benavidez claimed that his injuries were caused by the negligence and gross negligence of UTPA (University of Texas– Pan American), negligent use of tangible personal property in that UTPA breached its “legal duty to [Benavidez] to provide supervision of [Benavidez], use safe equipment with [Benavidez], and to properly secure [Benavidez’s] harness prior to climbing.” negligent use or condition of real property in that UTPA breached its duty to provide a safe climbing wall for Benavidez and failed to use ordinary care to protect Benavidez from an unreasonably dangerous condition. UTPA had subjective awareness of a high degree of risk and acted with “conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of [Benavidez] or others similarly situated.

Defendant Defenses: Release, Recreational Use Statute and the Texas Tort Claims Act

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2014

The plaintiff was climbing at the university’s climbing wall. He signed a release to climb. On the back of the release was a set of rules about climbing that the plaintiff also had to sign. i.e. Two legal documents on one sheet of paper.

The plaintiff argued the rules on the backside of the agreement were part of the contract. Because the climbing wall had not followed the rules, the release was no longer valid and the defendant had acted negligently and gross negligently.

While climbing the plaintiff reached the top of the wall and was told to lean back while he was lowered. The plaintiff fell 33’ suffering injuries. Based on witness statements of other employees of the wall, it appeared the figure 8 (knot) used to tie the plaintiff’s harness to the rope had been tied incorrectly.

The trial court dismissed the case, awarded costs against the plaintiff based on the Texas Tort Claims Act, and the plaintiff appealed.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court first looked at the Texas Tort Claim Act and its application to the case.

As a governmental unit, UTPA is immune from both suit and liability unless the Tort Claims Act has waived that immunity. Section 101.021 of the Tort Claims Act has been interpreted as waiving sovereign immunity in three general areas: “use of publicly owned automobiles, premises defects, and injuries arising out of conditions or use of property.”

The court then brought in the Texas Recreational Use Statute. Under the Texas Recreational Use Statute, a state landowner (governmental entity) can only be liable for gross negligence.

When injury or death results on state-owned, recreational land, the recreational use statute limits the state’s duty even further to that owed by a landowner to a trespasser, which means that the State only waives immunity for conduct that rises to the level of gross negligence.

The university is state land, and the climbing wall is on the land. It was used for recreation and probably as a student for free, although this was not discussed in the case. Consequently, the Texas Recreational Use Act protected the university from negligence claims.

With the ordinary negligence claims gone, the court turned to the gross negligence claims and looked at the release. Under Texas law to be valid, a release must:

(1) provide fair notice by being conspicuous, and (2) comply with the express negligence doctrine. To be conspicuous, a release must be written, displayed, or presented such that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have noticed it. A release satisfies the express negligence doctrine if it expresses the intent of the parties to exculpate a party for its own negligence.

The burden is on the defendant, the person relying on the defense of release, to prove the validity of the release and the requirements set forth by the court.

The court then looked at whether the release then barred the claim for gross negligence. The court reviewed several Texas cases; however, the court did not decide whether a release in this situation barred a claim for gross negligence. The court found the gross negligence claim was not raised on the appeal.

For a legal argument to be argued in the court, there are two basic components that must be met before any argument can be made. The argument must be made in the trial court and in many cases an objection to the court’s ruling made. Second the issue must be argued in the statements (pleadings) at the appellate court also. Here, although argued in the trial court the issue was not argued or probably raised at the appellate court.

The court then went back to the release to see if the release was still valid. The plaintiff claimed the defendant violated the release because it failed to follow the rules on the reverse side of the release. Because the rules were on the document called the release the plaintiff argued they were part of the release. Those rules set forth how the climbers and allegedly the gym was supposed to act. One of the rules required all knots to be checked by specific persons at the gym, which was not done in this case, and allegedly not done at all until after the plaintiff’s injury.

Arguing the rules and release were one document, the plaintiff stated the failure to follow the rules was a material breach of the contract. A material breach or avoidance of the contract voids it.

Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written expression of the parties’ intent. This court is bound to read all parts of a contract together to ascertain the agreement of the parties. The contract must be considered as a whole. Moreover, each part of the contract should be given full effect.

A prior material breach one that occurs before the execution of the contract discharges the parties from the contractual obligations. “Under the theory of prior material breach, a party is discharged from its contractual obligations based on the other party’s material breach of the contract.”

Execution of the contract means the contract by its terms has not been completed. Meaning there is part so the contract that have not been complied with by one or more parties. Here the failure of the gym to check the plaintiff’s knot was prior to the climbing of the plaintiff. “Under the theory of prior material breach, a party is discharged from its contractual obligations based on the other party’s material breach of the contract.”

Under Texas law for a court to determine if a prior material breach to occur the court must determine the following:

(1) the extent to which the injured party will be deprived of the benefit which he reasonably expected;

(2) the extent to which the injured party can be adequately compensated for the part of that benefit of which he will be deprived;

(3) the extent to which the party failing to perform or to offer performance will suffer forfeiture;

(4) the likelihood that the party failing to perform or to offer to perform will cure his failure, taking account of all the circumstances including any reasonable assurances; and

(5) the extent to which the behavior of the party failing to perform or to offer to perform comports with standards of good faith and fair dealing.

This court also examined whether or not checking the knot was a condition precedent. A condition precedent requires one thing to occur before the rest of the contract must be done.

Alternatively, a condition precedent is an event that must occur or act that must be per-formed before rights can accrue to enforce an obligation. Ordinarily, terms such as “if,” “provided that,” “on condition that,” or similar conditional language indicate the intent to create a condition precedent. Conditions precedent, which can cause forfeiture of a contractual right, are not favored under the law, and we will not construe a contract provision as a condition precedent unless we are compelled to do so by language that may be construed in no other way.

However, the court found that the language of the safety rules did not relate to the language of the release. The safety rules, overall, were simply rules the plaintiff was to follow and was not part of the contract. “…the safety policy’s side of the document, by its clear language, does not indicate that UTPA promised to comply with the policies or that compliance with the policies by UTPA…

However, reading the safety policies document as a whole, we find that the language of the agreement placed the sole responsibility on the climber to ensure that the procedures in the safety polices were followed.

Because we find that, by its clear language, the waiver and release form did not express the intent of either party to condition the release from liability on any performance by UTPA and did not include a promise by UTPA to follow the safety policies as consideration for the contract, we conclude that UTPA did not breach or fail to satisfy a condition of the release contract.

The remaining issues before the court were dismissed because without a negligence claim, they were also decided. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims and the award of costs under the Texas rules of civil procedure.

Costs are not attorney fees. Costs are the cost of going to trial, the filing fee, witness fees, possibly deposition costs, etc. Most states allow the winning side to recover costs of a trial.

So Now What?

This was close. It was obvious by the amount of time the court spend discussing the issue of a material breach that the language on the back of the release was an issue for the court. Always remember a release is a contract. You don’t buy a house with a laundry list on the back. You don’t rent an apartment with state driving laws on the back. Releases are contracts, and you need to make sure there is no issue that the document you are having your guests sign. A Release must be a contract and nothing else.

The university, because it was a state college was subject to broader and more protective statutes that provided defenses, than a private commercial gym or a private college. A state’s tort claims act provides a broad range for protection.

Whether or not a state’s recreational use statute provides protection for governmental agencies is different in each state. If you are in this position, you should check with counsel to see what protection any state statutes may provide.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law              James H. Moss

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