No written signature on the release so there is no release, even though the plaintiff acknowledged she would have signed one.

A contract requires a meeting of the minds and the agreement to contract. Even though the defendant proved the plaintiff had the intent, the defendant could not prove their own intent.

Soucy, v. Nova Guides, Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95438

State: Colorado

Plaintiff: Megan Soucy

Defendant: Nova Guides, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2015

Warning, this case is probably not over so any decision, here can be altered, changed or appealed. However, the decision is so interesting it was worth the review.

The case involves an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) accident. Normally, engines are outside the scope of these articles. However, the facts surrounding the incident are not at issue or even discussed. The main issue is the defense of release raised by the plaintiff.

The plaintiff, her mother and sister were visiting Colorado. While there the party contracted with the defendant for a jeep tour. During that tour, all three signed a release. Two days later, the parties came back and contracted for an ATV tour. The mother and sister signed the release, but the plaintiff did not.

The release for both activities was identical, in fact, it covered, Jeep Tours, ATV, Mtn. Bike, and Hiking in one document. Dependent upon what activity the person signed up for the appropriate box was checked. For the first tour, the box Jeep Tour was checked. The mother and sisters ATV box was checked for the second tour.

The release in the language even spoke the risks of ATV tours but all in the same sentence as the other tours.

I/We have asked to participate in the sports of mountain biking, all terrain vehicle riding, hiking, and jeep touring and related activities with Nova Guides, Inc. I understand mountain biking, all terrain vehicle use, hiking and jeep touring also include the risk of falling from said vehicles.

However, because the box for the only release the plaintiff signed was for a jeep tour, the court did not by the argument it also applied to the ATV tour.

The interrogatory answers of the plaintiff and her testimony in deposition indicated she knew releases were required, understood them, had signed them in the past and would have signed one if asked for the ATV tour.

Moreover, with respect to the tours with Nova in July 2012, Soucy testified that, had a waiver of liability been presented to her on July 11, 2012, she would have signed it. In fact, Soucy attested that she believed the waiver of liability she executed on July 9, 2012 for the Jeep tour carried over for her participation in the July 11, 2012 ATV tour.

This decision is based on a Motion for Summary judgment filed by the defendant based on “release” which was denied by the court.

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

Under Colorado law contracts can be formed orally and based on the party’s intent.

Under Colorado law, contractual conditions may be express or implied. When interpreting a contract, courts consider “the facts and circumstances attending its execution, so as to learn the intentions of the parties.

A release is an agreement that follows the rules of interpretation and construction of contracts.

By her acts of paying for and taking the ATV tour after admitting she would have signed a release the court found the necessary intent on the part of the plaintiff.

Accordingly, the Court concludes it is not disputed that Soucy paid for a commercial service, willingly received that service, and believed the waiver she signed on July 9, 2012 — in which she “assume[d] the risk of personal injury, death, and property damage … which may result from [her] participation … in … all terrain vehicle riding” and waived “any claims based on negligence or breach of warranty [she] might assert on [her] own behalf … against Nova Guides, Inc.” — was valid and necessary for her participation in the ATV tour on July 11, 2012.

However, the reason why the court dismissed the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was the court could not find the same intent on the part of the defendant.

A contract implied in fact arises from the parties’ conduct that evidences a mutual intention to enter into a contract, and such a contract has the same legal effect as an express contract. … [thus, t]o be enforceable, a contract requires mutual assent to an exchange for legal consideration.” (emphasis added). Nova has proffered no evidence of its intention that Soucy be bound by an agreement to waive liability for the ATV tour on July 11, 2012; that is, nothing in the record demonstrates that either Hilley or any Nova personnel asked Soucy to execute or otherwise agree to a waiver for that tour, either by verbally asking her or by presenting her with a written agreement. Nor has Nova provided any affidavit evidencing, or even an argument by Nova concerning, its intent for this verbal agreement.

Because the defendant could not and did not offer any evidence that it had the same intent as the plaintiff, there was no proof of the intent to contract by the defendant, and the motion was denied.

However, for an oral agreement to be enforceable, there must be mutual assent from both parties. The evidence proffered by the parties does not show that Nova intended to be bound by an agreement with Soucy to waive liability for the ATV tour on July 11, 2012. Because an issue as to this material fact exists, the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is denied.

Again, this is not a final decision. The issue can be reargued before or at trial with the defendant showing the intent to contract.

So Now What?

There are several major flaws in this case by the defendant besides not being able to prove the intent to contract. This is a classic case of making your release complicated thinking it will save your butt, and the complications created a nightmare.

The first is the defendant is using a release with check boxes. If the wrong box is checked or not checked, then the release has no value. The same thing could have been accomplished, and the case ended if the boxes were eliminated.

The second is no system to make sure the release is signed by all adults and by adults for all children before the trip starts. The classic example was a rafting company that required participants to hand in their release to receive their PFD. No release, no PFD. No PFD you could not board the bus to go to the put in.

While working for one whitewater rafting company the shop manager realized one person had not signed a release. She ran and caught the bus before it pulled out and asked who had not signed the release. No one said anything. She said OK, everyone off the bus; you can get back on when I call your name. She had every release with her, and the bus was not leaving until everyone had signed.

The non-signer, not pretty sheepish, raised his hand and was handed a release to sign.

Normally, I write releases around activities. You can cover the risks of most paddlesports in one release for kayaking, rafting, stand up paddleboards, etc. Oceans pose different threats than lakes and streams so ocean activities are on a different release.

Here, however, the release combined the risks of human powered and motorized activities. Jeep tours and ATV tours probably run similar risks. However, they also have different state laws applicable to them. Mountain biking has different risks than hiking. Dependent upon the area where the mountain biking occurs and the hiking you might be able to cover the risks in one document.

However, to be on the safe side, I think three different releases should be used. Jeep and ATV tours on one, mountain biking on the second and hiking on the third. It would be easy to track them, having each one printed on a separate color of paper. You know based upon the color of the paper on the release what the customers are expecting and where they should be going.

Don’t make your release complicated in an attempt to make it work, or make it cover too much. This is one instance where killing a few more trees to write the release may save a hundred trees in defending a lawsuit.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law              James H. Moss

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