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NY determines that falling off a wall is a risk that is inherent in the sport. Plaintiff argued it wasn’t???

Plaintiff also argued the standards of the trade association created a legal liability on the part of the defendant. Trade association standards come back to haunt the business the standards were created to protect.

Ho v Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

State: New York: Supreme Court of New York, New York County

Plaintiff: Min-Sun Ho

Defendant: Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk (although a release was signed it was not raised as a defense)

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

This case borders on the absurd because of the plaintiff’s claims and the statements of the plaintiff’s expert.

At the same time, this case borders on the scary because the standards of the trade association were used effectively to put a big dent in the defendant’s defenses.

It came down to simple logic. If you are ten to twelve feet off the ground is there an inherent risk that you could fall? Because it was to the court, the Plaintiff assumed the risk of her injuries, and her case was dismissed.

Facts

The plaintiff took a climbing class as a student in high school. Over a decade later, she signed up online to go bouldering at the defendant’s bouldering facility. She also checked out the defendant’s Facebook page.

She and her roommate went to the gym. At the gym, she realized that this was different from the climbing she had done in high school. She signed an electronic release, which she did not read. She also was questioned by an employee of the gym about her previous climbing experience. When talking with the employee she did not ask any questions.

She started bouldering and understood the grade system of what she was climbing. She had climbed once or twice to the top of the route she chose and down climbed or jumped after coming half-way down.

On her third or fourth climb, she was a few feet from the top of the wall when she fell. She landed on her right arm, tearing ligaments and breaking a bone which required surgery.

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

The decision first goes through the deposition testimony of the manager or the bouldering gym. The testimony was fairly straight forward, even talking about rules the gym had were not covered.

The next discussion was over the plaintiff’s expert witness. I’m just going to quote the decision.

After his review, Dr. Nussbaum opined that Plaintiff should have been provided with the following: a harness, a rope, or some similar safety device; a spotter; an orientation; and an introductory lesson. Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the only time a harness or similar device is not required is “when the wall is low, less than 8 feet[,] and where it is angled so that a [climber] cannot fall directly down[,] but simply slides down the angled wall. Here, the wall was high and not angled, and therefore the safety devices including the harness and rope are required.”

The plaintiff probably would not have fallen off a V1 on a slanted wall, if you can call a slanted wall a V1 or V2. More importantly with holds on the wall you would have not slid off, you have bounced off the holds as you slid down.

Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the reading Steep Rock Bouldering waiver form, which Plaintiff did not, would not mean that the reader understands or assumes the risk. Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the padding “likely” gave Plaintiff a “false sense of security” and “no appreciation of the risk here.”

Judges are responsible of interpreting the law in litigation. An opinion by an expert on a contract would not be allowed into evidence. More importantly, nothing in the background of the expert indicates any training or experience in what someone like the plaintiff would understand in reading a contract.

However, then it circled back around to industry practices. The plaintiff’s expert:

…cited to the Climbing Wall Association’s (“CWA”) Industry Practices § 4.06 and opined further that Defendant’s gym should have provided “a thorough orientation to bouldering and how to mitigate the risk of predictable falls” per the CWA guidelines.

Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.01, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:

“[Plaintiff’s] ‘level of qualification or access to the climbing should [have been] checked upon entering and prior to climbing in the facility.’ In the absence of demonstrated proficiency in climbing, [Plaintiff] should have been ‘supervised by staff or a qualified climbing partner, or her access to the facility must [have] be[en] limited accordingly.’ In the case at hand, there was a cursory transition from the street into the gym and the commencement of climbing. [Plaintiff] was simply asked if she had previous climbing-experience and essentially told ‘here’s the wall, have at it.'”

Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.02, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:

“[T]he climbing gym staff should [have] utilize[d] a screening process before allowing potential clients to access the climbing wall/facility. The purpose of the screening is to determine the ‘new client’s ability to climb in the facility’ and ‘to assess the client’s prior climbing experience, knowledge and skills (if any).’ [Plaintiff] was not asked about how long she had been climbing, whether or not she had experience at a climbing gym or facility, how often or how recently she had climbed, and/or the type of climbing she had done. She was not asked if she had knowledge of or experience bouldering. Again, she was simply asked if she had prior climbing experience, reflecting a wholly inadequate screening process.”

The Defendant’s expert did a great job of countering the claims made by the plaintiff’s expert. However, it is difficult to argue the language of a trade association is meant to mean something else when quoted by the plaintiff’s expert.

The court looked at the issue focusing on one main point. Did the plaintiff know and appreciate the risks of falling? This seems absurd to me. One of the basic fears that I think everyone has is a fear of falling. How it manifests itself may be different in different people, but everyone is afraid of falling.

The plaintiff in her testimony and the testimony of the expert witness made this the central point of the litigation and one the court had a difficult time reaching a conclusion on.

The court first looked at the assumption of risk doctrine in New York.

“Under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, a person who voluntarily participates in a sporting activity generally consents, by his or her participation, to those injury-causing events, conditions, and risks which are inherent in the activity.”

I cannot believe that when you are ten feet from the ground, there is not some form of awareness of the risk of falling.

The court then looked at the necessary elements of risk to determine what was inherent in a sport and what that means to the plaintiff and defendant.

“Risks inherent in a sporting activity are those which are known, apparent, natural, or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation.” However, “[s]ome of the restraints of civilization must accompany every athlete onto the playing field. Thus, the rule is qualified to the extent that participants do not consent to acts which are reckless or intentional.” “[I]n assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport.” In assessing whether a plaintiff had the appropriate awareness to assume the subject risk, such “awareness of risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff.”

Boiled down, when you assume the risks of a sport or recreational activity:

In assuming a risk, Plaintiff has “given his consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.”

The court was then able to find that the plaintiff had assumed the risk.

The Court finds that injury from falling is a commonly appreciable risk of climbing–with or without harnesses, ropes, or other safety gear–and that Plaintiff assumed this risk when she knowingly and voluntarily climbed Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall for the third or fourth time when she fell. To hold that Defendant could be liable for Plaintiff’s injuries because it allowed her to climb its wall without a rope and harness would effectively make the sport of bouldering illegal in this state.

However, what an agonizing intense effort for the courts to come to what seems to be a fairly simple conclusion. When you are standing 10′ in the air, do you feel apprehension about falling off. If you do and you stay there you assume the risk of falling I think.

So Now What?

I’ve written before about how easy it is to write about New York decisions. They are short and quick. One or two pages. This decision is fifteen pages long, an unbelievable long decision in New York. An unbelievable long decision for what I believe to be an extremely simple and basic concept. Did the plaintiff understand she could get hurt if she fell from the wall?

Yet the plaintiff made the court work hard to decide she assumed the risk. The plaintiff made an argument that the court found compelling enough to take 15 pages to determine if are 10′ in the air are you apprehensive.

There are several take a ways from this decision.

The decision indicates the plaintiff signed a release electronically. However, it was never raised as a defense. Probably because of New York General Obligations Law § 5-326. This law states releases are not valid at places of amusement. There has been one decision in New York were a release for a climbing wall injury was upheld; however, the court specifically distinguished that issues saying the climbing wall was for educational purposes since it was at a university and not a recreational situation. Read Lemoine v Cornell University, 2 A.D.3d 1017; 769 N.Y.S.2d 313; 2003 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 13209 (NY 2003).

The industry standards came back to play a role in the decision. There are dozens of arguments in favor of an industry creating standards. There is one argument on why they should not be made. Plaintiff’s use them to attack the people the standards were meant to protect.

No matter how many reasons why it might be a good thing; it fails in all of those reasons when it is used in court to beat a defendant over the head and prove they were wrong. A piece of paper, written by members of the industry, with the industry logo and name on it is proof to any juror that this is the way it must be done. If not, why would the piece of paper be written? Why would the industry and everyone else take the time and energy to create the rule, print it and hand out if that was the way it was supposed to be done.

So, then it is left up to the defense expert to find a way to prove that the piece of paper is wrong. That is impossible in 99% of the cases. As a member of the association, as a person who helped make the piece of paper, you are now saying what you did was wrong? It is not going to fly.

Here the defendant’s expert could not. So, he did not, his opinion walked all around the issue but did not bring up the standards that the plaintiff through at the court. Granted, the plaintiff had taken the standards and twisted them and their meaning in an attempt to apply them to this case, in a way that they were not meant to be. However, it is difficult to say to a judge or juror the plaintiff’s expert twisted the standards, and they don’t mean that. Of course, that is what the judge and jury would expert.

Thankfully, the defendant’s expert was great and just refused to take on the plaintiff’s expert and the far-out statements he made.

Here the plaintiff used the industry standards in an attempt to prove the defendant had breached its duty of care to the plaintiff. Here the name had been changed by the association over the years to lessen their impact and damage in a courtroom from standards to practices. However, they were still used to bludgeon the defendant who had probably paid to help create them.

Standards do not create value in a courtroom for defendants. You cannot say we did everything right, see read this and throw the standards at the judge and jury. However, we all need to learn from our mistakes, and we need ideas on how to get better. Besides there is always more than one way to do everything.

Create ideas, best practices, anything that allows different ways of doing things so the plaintiff cannot nail you down to one thing you did wrong. The simple example is there is no one way to belay. Yet standards for various industries have superficially set forth various ways over the years you “must” belay. Body belays went out decades ago with the introduction of belay devices. Yet when your lead is on a precarious move, and the piece below him might not be able to take the full weight of a fall, a body belay works because it helps absorb the energy and spread the belay over time putting less pressure on the pro.

There is no magic solution to everything and spending hours and dollars trying to tell the world, there is, will only come back to haunt you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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