Sign-in sheet language at Michigan’s health club was not sufficient to create a release.Posted: June 20, 2016
Ignorant health club faces negligence and wrongful-death claim for failing to have a release that meets the requirements of Michigan’s law.
State: Michigan, Court of Appeals of Michigan
Plaintiff: Junyi Xu and Haini Hou
Defendant: Hiedi Gay, d/b/a Vital Power Fitness Center
Plaintiff Claims: ordinary negligence by defendant, loss of consortium, and wrongful death and later gross negligence
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: For the Plaintiff
This is a health club case. The deceased was visiting the defendant health club on a one-week complimentary pass. Each time he visited the club he was required to sign in. Signing in, consisted of signing a “sign in” sheet. The sign-in sheet had at the top had a paragraph titled release.
While using the treadmill the defendant fell and hit his head. The plaintiff contended the deceased stumbled and was thrown off the treadmill hitting his head on a window ledge that was 2.5 feet behind the treadmill. The defendant claims the deceased became ill and fell. No one saw the plaintiff fall or the accident.
The personal representative of the deceased sued the health club for negligence and wrongful death. The defendant filed a motion for summary disposition (motion for summary judgment) arguing the release should stop the claims. The trial court agreed and granted the defendants motion for summary disposition. At the same time, trial court allowed the plaintiff to amend their pleading, which had been filed earlier. The new pleading argued the defendant was also guilty of gross negligence.
Later, the defendant renewed their motion for summary disposition to dismiss the gross negligence and wrongful-death claims. The trial court found there was insufficient evidence to support a claim for gross negligence, and the wrongful-death claim failed because it was a derivative claim.
A derivative claim is one where the second claim is solely based upon the success of the first claim. If the first claim fails, as in this case, then the second claim, which is derivative automatically, fails.
This appeal followed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court started its analysis by defining some of the issues under Michigan’s law. At the time of the decision, Gross Negligence was being redefined by the courts. “Common-law gross negligence is not a higher degree of negligence, but rather ordinary negligence of the defendant that follows the negligence of the plaintiff.”
In this case, the definition was adapted from a statute that had a similar intent. “Gross negligence is defined in the GTLA as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” [GTLA is the Government Tort Claims Liability Act]. The court then redefined the definition to state:
Therefore, applying this definition, the question becomes whether reasonable minds could differ regarding whether defendant’s conduct was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted to the decedent.
Looking at the facts, the court found that although the plaintiff’s expert witness stated the defendant had to be “the worst, poorly educated owner/operator of a health club” the facts pointed only to the fact the defendant was ignorant, not grossly negligent. “…mere ignorance does not constitute conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted to Yan.”
The court then looked at the requirements for a release to be valid in Michigan. The first issue was the validity. A release is valid if it was fairly and knowingly made. The scope was the next issue, how far the release was to extend or what the release was to cover.
A release of liability is valid if it is fairly and knowingly made. The scope of a release is governed by the intent of the parties as it is expressed in the release.
The next step is whether the release was unambiguous.
A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. If the terms of the release are unambiguous, contradictory inferences become “subjective, and irrelevant,” and the legal effect of the language is a question of law to be resolved summarily.
A release is knowingly made even if it is not labeled a “release,” or the releasor fails to read its terms, or thought the terms were different, absent fraud or intentional misrepresentation designed to induce the releasor to sign the release through a strategy of trickery. A release is not fairly made if “(1) the releasor was dazed, in shock, or under the influence of drugs, (2) the nature of the instrument was misrepresented, or (3) there was other fraudulent or overreaching conduct.”
The first issue on the list, the “releaser was dazed in shock” is a new issue I’ve not seen in contract law. Generally, when someone enters into a contract, they have to have their full faculty, although there as some exceptions if you are high or drunk. Contract then and you can still be on the hook.
Applying these issues, the court found the release language on the sign-in sheet was insufficient to stop a claim by the plaintiff.
With these cases as guidance, we simply cannot read the purported release in the instant case as releasing defendant from liability stemming from its own negligence. We find that the language in the alleged release is unambiguous, and clearly states that defendant would not assume responsibility for “any injuries and/or sicknesses incurred to [sic] me or any accompanying minor person as a result of entering the premises and/or using any of the facilities.” However, this provision does not inform the reader that he is solely responsible for injuries incurred or that he waives defendant’s liability by relinquishing his right to sue, nor does it contain the words “waiver,” “disclaim,” or similar language that would clearly indicate to the reader that by accepting its terms he is giving up the right to assert a negligence claim. While such words are not necessary to create a release, we believe that, at a minimum, a release should explicitly inform the reader regarding the effect of the release.
The release failed to inform the reader/signor that he would be responsible for his or her own injuries, a requirement under Michigan’s law. Nor did the release have language indicating the signor was giving up any legal rights or releasing the defendant from liability.
Specific wording is not required for a release to be valid in Michigan. However, the court found that the release should explicitly inform the reader of what the reader is giving up, what the effect of the release will be when signed.
Simply put, the paragraph at the top of a sign-in sheet does not have the necessary language to be a release and stop a claim for negligence. Since the negligence claim could proceed, then wrongful-death claim could proceed. The necessary superseding claim supporting the wrongful-death claim was back, supporting the wrongful-death claim.
Here, because Yan, had he survived, would have been able to maintain an ordinary-negligence claim against the defendant, on the basis of our decision above, plaintiff can maintain an action for damages on the basis of the ordinary negligence of the defendant.
So Now What?
Sign in sheets are simply that. They are a record of who came into the facility and maybe at what time. A release is a contract written to meet the specific requirements of the state the release will be used in.
That language might be found by stealing someone else’s release, searching the internet, or getting lucky. However, in this case the health club was did not get lucky. In fact, I suspect a big check was written to settle this case.
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