Louisiana State University loses climbing wall case because or climbing wall manual and state law.

Louisiana law prohibits the use of a release. That complicates any recreational activity in the state. However, the greater risk is creating a checklist for the plaintiff or in this case the court to use to determine if you breached the duty of care you owed the plaintiff.

Fecke v. The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, 2015 0017 (La.App. 1 Cir. 07/07/15); 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1357

State: Louisiana

Plaintiff: Brandy Lynn Fecke, Stephen C. Fecke, and Karen Fecke

Defendant: The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2015

Louisiana State University converted a racquetball court into a climbing “gym.” It had two bouldering walls and one climbing wall. The climbing wall was 19′ climbing high, and the two bouldering walls were 13′ 1″ high. The plaintiff and a friend went to the climbing wall to work on a required assignment for an “Outdoor Living Skills Activity” course.

Upon arrival, the plaintiff paid to climb and signed a document entitled “Rock Climbing Wall Climbing Wall Participation Agreement.” The agreement was determined by the court to be a release which is void under Louisiana law. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release.)

The plaintiff and her friend were then were asked if they had climbed before. The plaintiff had climbed twice ten years prior. They received some instruction, which was at issue during the appeal. The plaintiff choose to boulder because she did not want to wear a harness and bouldering was the easiest.

The court understood bouldering, which is quite unusual.

Bouldering is when a climber, with a partner standing behind the climber to act as a spotter in case the climber needs assistance, climbs up to a certain point on the wall and then traverses the wall side-to-side, in order to develop proficiency in climbing.

After bouldering to the top of the wall the plaintiff attempted to down climb and got stuck.

She lost her footing and hung from the wall. When she lost her grip after hanging for a few seconds, she let go of the wall and pushed herself away from the wall. As she fell, Ms. Fecke twirled around, facing away from the wall.

The plaintiff sustained severe injuries to her ankle that required three surgeries prior to the trial and might require more.

The case went to trial. The trial court dismissed the release because of La. C.C. art. 2004.

Louisiana Civil Code

Book 3. Of the different modes of acquiring the ownership of things

Code Title 4. Conventional obligations or contracts

Chapter 8. Effects of conventional obligations

Section 4. Damages

La. C.C. Art. 2004 (2015)

Art. 2004. Clause that excludes or limits liability

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for intentional or gross fault that causes damage to the other party.

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury to the other party.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $1,925,392.72 and additional $50,000 to her mother for loss of consortium. The trial court reduced the damages to $1,444,044.54, and the loss of consortium claim was reduced to $37,500. The judgment also received interest at 6.0%.

The University appealed.

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

The first issue on the appeal was the application of Louisiana law on the amount of money awarded as damages. This first issue will not be examined here. The second issue was whether the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement was properly excluded during trial.

Originally, the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement was excluded based on a Motion in Limine filed by the plaintiff. A Motion in Limine is a motion filed by a party that argues the evidence of the other side should be excluded because it violates a rule of evidence, or it violates the law. Arguing this type of issue in front of the jury just makes the jury wonder what you are hiding, and you want to have your arguments correct and in advance. A Motion in Limine is the most powerful motion in a litigator’s bag after the motion for summary judgment.

The defendant raised the issue at trial to have the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement entered into evidence and lost that argument also. The trial court did read to the jury a summary of parts of the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement that did not violate the constitution on releases.

The issue the university argued to allow the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement to be entered into evidence and see by the jury was:

Ms. Fecke was sufficiently educated and understood the inherent risk of injury associated with the activity she was about to undertake and that the LSU UREC employees had properly screened Ms. Fecke prior to allowing her to climb the wall. The LSU Board avers that the Agreement constituted Ms. Fecke’s acknowledgment of the risks of climbing the wall, which is a significant factor in determining her fault, and that this information should have been presented to the jury.

The court found that paragraph four of the agreement violated the Louisiana State Constitution, (La. C.C. art. 2004). “Based on our review of the proffered Agreement, paragraph four is null pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2004 because it, in advance, excludes the liability of the LSU Board for causing physical injury to Ms. Fecke.”

The university argued the rest of the Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement should be allowed to be introduced to a jury because it would help the jury determine the risk assumed by the plaintiff and consequently, the percentage of damages she was responsible for.

The court then looked at when and how under Louisiana law, liability (negligence) was determined.

For liability for damages to attach under a duty-risk analysis, a plaintiff must prove five separate elements: (1) the defendant had a duty to conform his or her conduct to a specific standard of care (the duty element); (2) the defendant failed to conform his or her conduct to the appropriate standard of care (the breach of duty element); (3) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a cause in fact of the plaintiffs injuries (the cause in fact element); (4) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a legal cause of the plaintiffs injuries (the scope of protection element); and (5) actual damages (the damage element).

The court determined that rock climbing was recreational and like other, activities involved a substantial degree of risk. The duty of the climbing wall operator or gym operator was one of reasonable care, to provide a sound and secure environment.

Rock climbing is a recreational activity that involves substantial risk. Many other recreational activities such as weight lifting and swimming also involve a substantial degree of risk. The risks associated with these and other physically-challenging sports are well recognized. The duty on the gym operator, when these types of sports are conducted, is one of reasonable care under the circumstances — to provide a sound and secure environment for undertaking a clearly risky form of recreation and not that of removing every element of danger inherent in rock climbing.

The last sentence is important as the court found the climbing wall operator did not have a duty to warn about the potential for injury because of gravity. “The LSU Board did not have a duty to warn Ms. Fecke as a climber about the potential effect of gravity. A warning that “if you fall you might get hurt,” is obvious and universally known.”

The court did determine that to be found liable the gym must have failed to provide training and supervision and there must be a connection between the failure to train and supervise and the injury.

A gym and its facilities are not the insurers of the lives or safety of its patrons. A gym cannot be expected to foresee or guard against all dangers. Furthermore, the gym must only take reasonable precautions under the circumstances to avoid injury. To prove negligence on the part of the LSU Board, Ms. Fecke must show both a failure to provide reasonable training and supervision under the circumstances, as well as proof of a causal connection between the lack of reasonable training/supervision and the accident.

This was where the university lost the case. The university had created an extensive “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual” that covered all aspects of operating the climbing wall. It was probably created as a way to avoid liability. In this case the court used, the Indoor Climbing Wall Manual became a checklist to prove the defendant was liable.

The LSU UREC maintains an “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual,” which governs the rules, use, and maintenance of the indoor rock wall climbing facility. The manual requires the following of all employees of the indoor rock wall climbing facility:

The manual proved the climbing wall failed to train and failed to supervise. Nothing like your own documents proving the plaintiffs case.

The manual required all employees to know and enforce all rules of the climbing wall. The court then found ten rules in the manual that must be followed. The court then found additional rules that had to be followed beyond the first ten.

Furthermore, the LSU UREC employees are required to instruct patrons who intend to climb in accordance with the guidelines contained in a “safety clinic” document. The safety clinic requires the LSU UREC employees to give examples of danger areas and instruct climbers where to fall on crash pads, which must be placed underneath bouldering climbers at all times.

The rules went on to require the climbers be instructed in spotting techniques and have the climbers demonstrate spotting techniques. “The safety clinic also requires the LSU UREC employees to demonstrate how to properly descend the wall, and in the event of a fall, how to properly land on the ground to reduce injuries.”

The next two pages of the court’s opinion are running through the climbing manual as a checklist for everything the employees of the climbing wall failed to do. There was contradictory testimony, including one witness who said the plaintiff’s friend was in a position to spot but when she fell he moved away. However, the court did not seem to find the employees statements to be persuasive.

After our de novo review of the testimony and evidence presented at trial, we conclude that the LSU UREC employees failed to properly instruct, demonstrate, and certify that Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta understood the proper techniques for climbing the bouldering wall in accordance with their duties as described in the LSU UREC “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual” and the safety clinic document.

Legally, the climbing manual of the wall created the duty and the proof of the breach of the duty necessary to prove the case for the plaintiff.

Consequently, when reviewing whether the agreement should be allowed to be entered as evidence the appellate court decided that it might have been instructional to the jury.

The only portion of the excluded Agreement that might have prejudiced the LSU Board’s case is the portion in paragraph five wherein Ms. Fecke certified that she “agree[d] to abide by all rules of the sport as mandated by LSU University Recreation.” As discussed above, however, instruction as to those “rules” was not provided to Ms. Fecke by the LSU UREC employees nor was she properly screened or supervised as she climbed the bouldering wall.

However, the court also found that even if instructional, it was not sufficient of an issue to reverse the decision.

Thus, we find that the trial court legally erred in excluding a redacted version of the Agreement; however, we hold that the trial court’s error was not prejudicial. The inclusion of the remainder of the Agreement at trial could not have permissibly changed the jury’s verdict based on our de novo review of the record.

The court then went back and looked at how the damages were determined. Ultimately, the damages were lowered to $650,000.

So Now What

You can have manuals and checklists and other pieces of paper that tell your employees what they must do. However, if you do have these pieces of paper, you better have another employee standing around making sure everything on the paper is done.  

If you write it down, call it a standard, a manual, procedure it will become proof that you owed a duty to someone and breached that duty. Your own documents are proof that you are negligent.

Here a comprehensive manual was written to protect patrons of the climbing gym, and it ended up being an easy way for the court to find the gym had failed in its duty. Where did the court find the duty? In the climbing wall, manual easily laid out in lists.

This case is relevant in another light. If your state law says releases are not valid, you may not want to risk using one. You would be better off creating an acknowledgement of risk form for guests to sign.

Better, create video showing guests what they can and should do and more importantly what they should not do. Have the guest acknowledge in the assumption of the risk form, that they have watched the video. That helps prove the guest knew and assumed the risk of the activity.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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