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Scary and Instructional case on assumption of the risk in a climbing wall case in Pennsylvania

Release blocked the claims for negligence; however, the gross negligence claims relied on assumption of the risk as a defense. The release helped prove the plaintiff assumed the risk, but I suspect that defense would only work in a bouldering case like this.

Mcgarry v. Philly Rock Corp., 2015 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3767

State: Pennsylvania: Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Rebecca Mcgarry

Defendant: Philly Rock Corp

Plaintiff Claims: gross negligence in that the defendant

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

The plaintiff and her husband wanted to try something new, so they went to the defendant indoor climbing facility. The plaintiff signed the release and took a class in belaying and use of the belay equipment.

Around the facility were numerous signs warning of the risks of the activity: bathrooms, reception desk, and pillars in the building. There was also a sign about mat placement that the plaintiff remembered and drew correctly during her depositions.

On their second visit, the plaintiff tried bouldering. The bouldering area had mats; however, the mats were moveable and were supposed to be moved by the people bouldering. The plaintiff was approximately four feet of the ground when she jumped off. She did not move the mats prior to bouldering and did not look for the mats when she jumped. She shattered her ankle, which required three surgeries.

The plaintiff sued, and the case went to trial on the issue of the gross negligence of the defendant. The release precluded all the negligence claims of the plaintiff. As in most states (if not all) a release is not valid for gross negligence claims. “Because McGarry signed a waiver, no one in this case disputes that McGarry was required to prove that PRC was grossly negligent to recover.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $150,000 for her gross negligence claims. The defendants filed a motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV). This motion, JNOV, requests the judge to overrule the jury and grant the defendant’s motion for dismissal. The judge did and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The plaintiff appealed claiming the trial court made four errors of the law. The first two were based on the procedural issues associated with the JNOV. The third was whether the trial court correctly applied the assumption of the risk doctrine, and the final issue was whether the court properly denied the introduction of evidence that the defendant’s employees had not been trained properly.

The court started by defining gross negligence as per Pennsylvania law.

Gross negligence has . . . been termed the entire absence of care and the utter disregard of the dictates of prudence, amounting to complete neglect of the rights of others. Additionally, gross negligence has been described as an extreme departure from ordinary care or the want of even scant care [and] . . . as [a] lack of slight diligence or care, and [a] conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and of the consequences to another party . . . .

[G]ross negligence is clearly more egregious than ordinary negligence.

Under Pennsylvania law, if the plaintiff assumed the risk which caused her injury, then the defendant does not owe the plaintiff any further duty. The trial court found the plaintiff had assumed the risk based on the following:

McGarry knew that there was a risk in bouldering, knew she could be injured from a height of four feet, knew she was jumping from the wall without looking for the mats, and jumped anyway. The trial court also found that, because the dangers were obvious, PRC reasonably could expect that McGarry would take steps to protect herself, precluding a finding that PRC was grossly negligent.

The plaintiff countered by staging she could only assume the risks she understood. Since there was no written safety material, and she had not been trained in how to use the mats or a spotter, she could not assume the risk.

McGarry first notes that assumption of risk is subjective and that McGarry only could assume a risk that she understood. McGarry argues that, because there were no written safety materials, McGarry did not know how to position the mats or how to use a spotter to avoid injury.

The court looked at the assumption of risk doctrine. As in most (if not all) states assumption of the risk as a defense was merged into comparative negligence. However, in Pennsylvania the Supreme Court had not eliminated assumption of the risk as a defense, it was now only in disfavor.

In Pennsylvania, the doctrine of assumption of the risk is defined as:

[A]ssumption of risk is established as a matter of law only where it is beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition. Voluntariness is established only when the circumstances manifest a willingness to accept the risk. Mere contributory negligence does not establish assumption of risk. Rather, a plaintiff has assumed the risk where he has gone so far as to abandon his right to complain and has absolved the defendant from taking any responsibility for the plaintiff’s injuries. In order to prevail on assumption of risk, the defendant must establish both the “awareness of the risk” prong and the “voluntariness” prong.

Assumption of the risk eliminates a duty from the defendant.

If the case is viewed from the perspective of a duty analysis, the evidence presented at trial establishes that [the plaintiff] voluntarily encountered a known risk, thereby obviating any duty which might otherwise have been owed him by [the defendant]. Under this analysis, the case is controlled by the assumption of risk principle that one who voluntarily undertakes a known risk thereby releases the defendant from any duty of care.

The court quoted another Pennsylvania decision to explain what elimination of the duty from the defendant meant.

Similarly, “[w]hen an invitee enters business premises, discovers dangerous conditions which are both obvious and avoidable, and nevertheless proceeds voluntarily to encounter them, the doctrine of assumption of risk operates merely as a counterpoint to the possessor’s lack of duty to protect the invitee from those risks.”

The court then applied those definitions to the present case. The first analysis was whether the dangers were open and obvious. (Jumping from four feet high I believe is obvious to everyone in the world) The court found the dangers had been pointed out to the plaintiff.

Multiple signs throughout the facility warned that climbing and bouldering are dangerous and may result in serious injury. Additionally, the danger of these activities “is well understood by virtually all individuals of adult age.” Falling and causing a injury to an ankle or wrist is a “common, frequent, and expected” risk of climbing or bouldering.

The plaintiff had also admitted during her deposition that she knew of the risks.

Further, McGarry knew of and appreciated the risk. McGarry testified that she knew there were risks in bouldering and that she knew she could be injured when jumping even from a height of four feet. McGarry saw the sign stressing the importance of mat placement and drew it from memory much later at her deposition. Despite knowing that mats and their placement were important, McGarry nonetheless did not look before she jumped and landed in the wrong place.

The court also found that the fact the plaintiff had signed a release; she knew she was responsible for her injuries.

McGarry also acknowledged that she signed a waiver, which she understood meant that she was responsible for any injuries. She then voluntarily proceeded with the activity despite her appreciation of that risk.

The court then went back to the testimony to sum the assumption of the risk defense and why it agreed with the trial court. “However, McGarry’s own testimony compels the trial court’s finding that she assumed the risk, which, as a matter of law, precludes a verdict in her favor.”

The next issue was the application of the assumption of the risk defense to a claim of gross negligence. Because assumption of the risk removed the necessary duty from the defendant, there could be no gross negligence. In Pennsylvania once the plaintiff assumes the risk the defendant has no further duty to the plaintiff, with respect to the duty the plaintiff is assuming.

…we conclude that McGarry’s assumption of the risk barred her recovery regardless of whether PRC was grossly negligent. Because the evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that McGarry as-sumed the risk of injury, PRC owed no duty to McGarry and, therefore, was not legally responsible for her injury.

If there is no duty, there is no negligence. To prove negligence, the plaintiff must prove there was a duty, a breach of that duty, an injury proximately caused by the breach and damages. Failing to prove all four points and the plaintiff does not prove her case. If the case is not proved, then the defense has no need to present any defenses because there was no negligence.

The final issue the court reviewed was the plaintiffs claim the employees were not sufficiently trained.

Finally, McGarry complains that the trial court erred in precluding her from introducing evidence regarding whether PRC’s employees were trained or qualified. McGarry argues that this evidence was relevant and should have been presented to the jury.

The court found this was not at issue. Because the plaintiff did not receive instruction on bouldering from an employee of the defendant, the training and qualifications were immaterial.

Because McGarry did not receive instruction from PRC employees, the trial court reasoned that if PRC was obligated to provide instruction to clients as part of its duty, PRC would be negligent regardless of whether it’s the employees were adequately trained. If PRC was not obligated to provide instruction to clients, then PRC would not be negligent regardless of employee training.

The defendant did not have a required bouldering class and told the plaintiff to ask questions which the plaintiff did not do. However, because her complaint did not involve the training, she received or how her questions were answered, the training and qualifications of the defendant employees did not matter.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court and upheld the dismissal of the case.

So Now What?

First, this is another example where the risks of the activity should be included in your release. Here the court found the release proved the plaintiff had assumed the risk of her injury.

The next issue is the training issue. This issue seemed to have been developed by the plaintiff’s expert witness. Besides training he stated the defendant was below the standard of the industry in the following ways.

Mr. Andres testified that some of the safety signs were placed where they were unlikely to be noticed. Some of the signs warned about possible dangers, but gave no instructions about how to avoid those risks. Mr. Andres testified that belaying and bouldering are different and that, in bouldering, mat placement, the use and limitations of mats, and how to control one’s descent are important. Mr. Andres opined that it was insufficient to have signs instructing clients to ask an employee about climbing or safety because novice climbers may not know what to ask in order to participate safely.

You will see experts making many, and in a few case’s extremely absurd claims to assist the plaintiff in making his or her claim. Signs that warned but did not instruct which the plaintiff ignored anyway mat placement and controlling your descent when falling was argued by the plaintiff’s expert.

I think mat placement is pretty obvious. You put the mats where you think you may land. As far as controlling your descent, I’m lost. I’ve tried a lot of things when falling, clawing the air, kicking madly, flapping my arms and screaming may make me feel better at the time but did nothing to “control my descent.”

I go back to education on this type of claim again. The more you educate your client the less likely they might get hurt and the less likely they can sue. The problem always is. How do you educate a client and then who do you prove you educated them.

In my opinion, that is where the business website comes in. The more information and videos you can put on the website the better. When you post these videos be real. Post the right way and the wrong way, show the risks and show people being stupid. Just make sure you point out when someone is doing something wrong that you make sure that is indicated on the video.

You can then require people to watch the videos before starting the activity, or you can have them acknowledge in the release, they have watched the videos. You can also tell them in your marketing or communications to watch the videos to learn more about climbing or whatever the activity is.

This case was decided in October of 2015. I believe the time to appeal is only thirty (30) days, and it does not appear that an appeal has been filed in this case. However, until a longer period of time has run, this case might be appealed and possibly over turned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

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