Zip line accused of being common carrier which makes releases unenforceable. Issue still not decided, however, in all states common carriers cannot use a release as a defense.

Many ropes courses have determined that agreeing to be supervised by the state is the way to go. In Illinois, that supervision would have voided all defenses for a challenge course because they would have been classified as a common carrier. Common carriers’ have extremely limited defenses to claims.

Dodge v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, 2015 IL App (5th) 140124-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1584

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Fifth District

Plaintiff: April Dodge

Defendant: Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, and Michael Quinn

Plaintiff Claims: negligently designing and operating its course, intentionally or recklessly violated the safety regulations promulgated by the Illinois Department of Labor, and thereby engaged in willful and wanton misconduct. In count II, the plaintiff claimed that Quinn, a tour guide for Grafton Zipline, was negligent in instructing the plaintiff, in inspecting and maintaining the braking system, and in failing to prevent the plaintiff from colliding with the tree. The plaintiff also alleged willful and wanton misconduct against Quinn

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Sent back to the trial court to determine if a zip line under Illinois law is a common carrier

Year: 2015

The facts are pretty normal for zip line lawsuits. The plaintiff while riding was unable to slow down or stop and hit the tree holding the platform. In this case it was the eighth line of multiple zip lines down the mountain.

The defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on a release signed by the plaintiff. The plaintiff argued that the release was barred because the zip line was a common carrier under Illinois law and as such “they cannot exempt themselves from liability for their own negligence.”

The trial court agreed with the plaintiff that a zip line was a common carrier. That analysis was based on the theory that:

…in that zip lines fell within the definition of amusement rides pursuant to the Illinois Carnival and Amusement Rides Safety Act (430 ILCS 85/2-2 (West 2012)) and were akin to merry-go-rounds or other amusement rides that had been held to be common carriers.

The defendants filed a motion for permissive interlocutory appeal which was denied by the appellate court. However the Illinois Supreme Court directed the appellate court to vacate (reverse) its order denying the appeal.

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

The court first looked at Illinois law on releases, calling them exculpatory clauses.

An exculpatory clause is a contractual provision that excuses the defaulting party’s liability. “Courts disfavor such agreements and construe them strictly against the benefitting party, particularly one who drafted the release.” “Nevertheless, contracting parties are free to ‘allocate the risk of negligence as they see fit, and exculpatory agreements do not violate public policy as a matter of law.'”

The analysis under Illinois law concerning releases is pretty standard. Although “disfavored” they are upheld.

Accordingly, if a valid exculpatory clause clearly applies, and in the absence of fraud or willful and wanton negligence, courts will enforce it unless “‘(1) it would be against a settled public policy of the State to do so, or (2) there is something in the social relationship of the parties militating against upholding the agreement.

Releases under Illinois law however are unenforceable when applied to common carriers as releases for common carriers create a violation of public policy.

Exculpatory agreements between the public and those charged with a duty of public service, such as those involving a common carrier, an innkeeper, a public warehouseman, or a public utility, have been held to be unenforceable as contrary to public policy.

The unenforceability of a release between a passenger and a common carrier is due to the relationship between the two.

Courts have alternatively recognized that exculpatory agreements between common carriers and passengers are unenforceable because of the special social relationship of a semipublic nature that permeates the transaction between the parties.

Arguments given for this are based on the fact the passenger pays for transportation from one location to another and during that transportation the passenger is totally at the control of the common carrier. The passenger cannot drive, inspect the track, road or path of travel, work on the engines or anything of that manner. The only thing the passenger can do is sit back and ride. The passenger has no control over their safety.

In this case, slowing or braking was under the control of the plaintiff.

A common carrier is held to the highest duty of care when transporting passengers.

Common carriers are charged with the highest duty of care when transporting passengers because passengers must wholly rely upon a common carrier’s proper maintenance and safe operation of its equipment during passage.

In Illinois common carriers have been identified as: “owners of buildings with elevators; a scenic railway at an amusement resort, where “steep inclines, sharp curves, and great speed necessarily are sources of peril”; a merry-go-round; a taxicab; and a Ferris wheel.” Here, as in most states, the safety of the passenger is totally under the control of the owner of the ride. What is different is normally a common carrier is taking people from once location to another, not around in circle or down a mountain you just ascended.

The court also examined and compared common carriers with private carriers.

Further, courts have distinguished between a common and a private carrier. “A common carrier, generally, is a carrier hired to carry any person who applies for passage as long as there is room available and there is no legal excuse for refusing.” “Ordinarily, a common carrier must accept as a passenger any person offering himself or herself for passage at the proper time and in the proper manner and who is able and willing to pay the fare.”

Here again, a common carrier is easily identified as a train, bus service or airline.

A common carrier holds himself out as such by advertising or by actually engaging in the business and pursuing the occupation as an employment. The test to distinguish a common carrier from a private carrier is whether the carrier serves all of the public alike.

The distinction between private carrier and a common carrier is gray in Illinois and the court spent time reviewing the issues. If the passenger actively can participate in the transportation and contributed to his or her own safety, the carrier is not a common carrier. In Illinois not being a common carrier does not necessarily mean a private person is a Private Carrier.

Private carriers as ordinarily defined are those who, without being engaged in such business as a public employment, undertake to deliver goods or passengers in a particular case for hire or reward.” A private carrier makes no public profession to carry all who apply for transport, transports only by special agreement, and is not bound to serve every person who may apply.

Normally the distinction is made by the courts based on whether or not the carrier is a business, in the business of moving people from one place to another for a fee. Trains, busses, airlines are common carriers. Here the definition is confused because of the existence in Illinois of a broad definition of private carrier that is to say the least confusing.

Whether a particular transportation service is undertaken in the capacity of a private or of a common carrier must be determined by reference to the character of the business actually carried on by the carrier, and also by the nature of the service to be performed in the particular instance.”

It is this distinction that the court found to be at issue in this case, whether a zip line is a common carrier or a private carrier.

The appellate court sent the case back to the trial court to determine if a zip line under Illinois law is a private carrier or a common carrier. If the trial court, which has ruled once already that a zip line, is a common carrier, rules the zip line is a common carrier, the sole issue at trial will be damages. How large will the check be that the zip line writes the plaintiff?

So Now What?

Readily accepting government regulation may provide a degree of relief in that you pass the safety inspection you are good for the season. However, once you are under that regulatory umbrella, you may also be classified by the regulations, statutes or the courts in a way you did not anticipate. You may lose defenses available to you prior to regulation.

This is similar to having a statute passed which provides liability protection for you. However this can be a two edge sword. Many state supreme courts have held that once a statute is enacted to provide protection, the only protection available is from the statute.

Many states create special categories for regulated industries. Here, falling under the regulation of the state classified the zip line as a common carrier.

The good news is the appellate court did not see the zip line as immediately qualifying as being controlled by the statute. Statutes usually define what they cover and the court did not even investigate the definition in this case.

However the court did look into whether or not a zip line was a common carrier. If the trial court finds that it is, there will be no end to the claims against zip lines in Illinois. Looked at another way, if the trial court determines a zip line is a common carrier, there will be an end to zip lines.

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