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Only a New York City bike share case create a 34-page opinion on just motions that are filed. The results are all over the board, both the defendants and the plaintiff winning issues on an electronic release

A Ten-page release was upheld as valid. But the process was full of enough holes the plaintiff is still in the game.
Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

State: New York: United States District Court for the Southern District of New York

Plaintiff: Ronald D. Corwin, et al

Defendant: NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al

Plaintiff Claims: was improperly designed, installed, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice

Defendant Defenses: Release, Assumption of the Risk Immunity

Holding: Mixed

Year: 2017

Summary

Extremely complicated decision because of the number of claims of the plaintiff and the number of defendants in the case. Each defendant has a different perspective to the defenses.

The decision looks at what happens if you are not wearing a helmet while cycling and you receive a head injury as well as how assumption of the risk and open and obvious defenses are dealt with in a city and against city agencies.

The last issue, is electronic releases in New York City.

Facts

The plaintiff had signed up for a year long bike share rental agreement with New York City bike share. He did that online and, in the process, agreed to a release that was ten pages.

He rented a bike one day and was riding on the street. He felt pressure from traffic on his left. A bike share area was coming up on his right and he rode into it. The bike share locations must be on the streets in New York. He continued through the area and at the end hit a concrete wheel stop. He crashed suffering injuries.

Ronald D. Corwin, an annual member of the Citi Bike bicycle sharing program, was riding a Citi Bike in Midtown Manhattan. Upon passing through a Citi Bike station located on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, he collided with a concrete wheel stop and violently hit his head against the cement. Alleging that the Citi Bike station in question was improperly designed, in-stalled, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice, and Beth Blumenthal, Corwin’s wife, brought derivative claims for loss of her husband’s services, society, companionship, and consortium.

He sued everyone there was in New York. Sixteen different law firms are listed in the case. The plaintiff sued:

City of New York (“City”), who planned, oversaw, and collaborated with the other defendants in implementing the Citi Bike program

NYC Bike Share, LLC (“NYCBS”), the company operating the Citi Bike system

New York City Department of Transportation

Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. (now named “Motivate, Inc.”), which is NYCBS’s parent company

Alta Planning + Design (“APD”)

Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York (“APDNY”), a design company and its wholly-owned subsidiary who drafted site plans for the Citi Bike system

Metro Express Services, Inc. (“Metro Express”) installation

Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Sealcoat”) installation

The lawsuit was in Federal District Court. This opinion is the magistrate’s opinion on the motions filed by the parties. Judge assign non-trial work, such as deciding motions to magistrates. After the magistrate’s opinion is filed the parties have X days to respond/object. The judge then reviews and either adopts, modifies or writes his own opinion.

When the judge rules on the magistrate’s opinion there is usually a written record of the ruling. There are two additional motions the magistrate writes about that are in the record, but no ruling from the court.

Probably the parties settled based on this ruling.

There are a lot of arguments in this 34-page ruling. I’m only going to write about the ones that are important to the outdoor recreation and cycling community.

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

The first defense discussed here is the electronic release signed by the plaintiff to become a bike share member and rent bikes.

The first issues were plaintiff did not remember signing the release, but did sign up and admitted that he probably agreed to things.

The Bike Share program could not produce a release “signed” by the plaintiff. The produced a release that was in use at the time the plaintiff signed the release and the produced testimony of a former manager to testified that the only way the plaintiff could have become a member and ride bikes was if he had agreed to the release.

The plaintiff also argued the release was Unconscionable.

A contract or clause is unconscionable when it was “both procedurally and substantively unconscionable when made–i.e., some showing of an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party

The court first went into the issue of whether the release existed and was signed. The release was determined to be a “clickwrap” agreement.

Such an agreement requires the user to take an affirmative action, usually, the clicking of a box that states that he or she has read and agrees to the terms of service. “[U]nder a clickwrap arrangement, potential licensees are presented with the proposed license terms and forced to expressly and unambiguously manifest either assent or rejection prior to being given access to the product.”

The court found clickwrap agreements were enforceable.

Clickwrap agreements are “more readily enforceable [than online contracts that do not require the user to take an affirmative action], since they ‘permit courts to infer that the user was at least on inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement, and has outwardly manifested consent by clicking a box.

However, the presumption of enforceability is based several factors.

The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided “reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind them-selves to contract terms

In New York the courts have already set a group of tests to determine if a clickwrap agreement is enforceable.

First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement.

Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through hyperlink.

Conversely, terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage” or “tucked away in obscure corners.” (collecting cases refusing to enforce such agreements).

Special attention should be paid to whether the site design brought the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable (“When contractual terms as significant as . . . the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink . . . with text about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Broad exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence would certainly qualify as material terms that alter a contracting party’s commonly-understood default rights.

Using this set of parameters, the magistrate reviewed the bike Share release and found it was not unconscionable.

The plaintiff then argued the release was not clear, coherent or unambiguous.

To be enforceable, an exculpatory agreement must be stated in clear, coherent, unambiguous language and expressly release a defendant from ordinary claims.

This ambiguity was based on contradictions between two sections in the ten-page release. However, the court found there was no ambiguity.

Then the plaintiff argued the release was void on public policy grounds.

The plaintiff raised three arguments on why the release violated public policy. It violated New York City Administrative Code, it violated New York General Obligations law § 5-326 and it violated the cities common law duty to maintain roads.

The court found New York City administrative code could not serve as a basis for invalidating a release.

New York General Obligations law § 5-326 is the statute that restricts on who can use a release. The language of the statutes says that “operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities” can’t use a release. Since the bike share program was not a facility, the release was valid.

Finally, the common law duty the city of New York had to maintain the roads did not violate the release because “…the Citi Bike station, including all of its on-street equipment located in the parking lane, falls within the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain the public roads.”

The release was not void based on public policy considerations.

However, the release did not apply to the city of New York because that would be contrary to public policy.

In the end the negligence claims of the plaintiff were denied because of the release. The gross negligence claims were still valid. Under New York Law and the law of most states, claims for gross negligence cannot be stopped by a release.

The next issue was how the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet, at the time of his injury, would be used in the case.

The defendants argued that the plaintiff not wearing a helmet should be used by the defendants to show the plaintiff was liable for his injuries, (that the plaintiff was comparative negligence), to prove assumption of the risk and to mitigate the damages he incurred.

The plaintiff argued that since there was no statutory duty to wear a helmet, then the defendants could not make their arguments.

The court applied the same rationale to wearing a bike helmet as the courts had done in New York to wearing a seat belt in a car crash. Not wearing a bike helmet, it could not be used to prove liability on the part of the plaintiff but it could be used to reduce damages.

…the Appellate Division explicitly applied this reasoning to bicycle helmets, noting that “[Corwin’s] failure to use a helmet is akin to a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt in a motor vehicle case. It is well settled that any such failure does not go to comparative liability, but rather to how dam-ages, if any, should be assessed.

The defendant then argued they should have qualified immunity on the plaintiff’s claims of failing to provide a bike helmet to him while renting a bike.

Immunity is granted by statute to governments and their agencies for the decisions they make. As long as the decisions are not intentional and thought out the immunity applies. The immunity then stops the courts from reviewing those decisions as long as the decisions are made under the guidelines the law has set out.

Although the city may use the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet to reduce any damages the city might owe to the plaintiff. The plaintiff cannot use that argument to say the city was liable for not providing helmets. Nor can the plaintiff argue the his not wearing a helmet was unreasonable and did not breach a duty of care.

Corwin will, of course, be free to demonstrate that his “conduct was not unreasonable under the circumstances and that he did not breach a duty of care because adults are not required to wear helmets while riding bicycles in New York City and the Citi Bike program does not provide helmets.

Here those guidelines were made by the city in its decision to not include helmets in the rentals of the bikes.

He may not, however, seek to hold the City liable for what was a well-reasoned and studied determination made in the public interest. (“[C]ourts should not be permitted to review determinations of governmental planning bodies under the guise of allowing them to be challenged in negligence suits.”). Accordingly, the City is granted summary judgment on Corwin’s negligence claim regarding its failure to provide helmets because it has qualified immunity on this issue.

Assumption of the Risk

The defendants moved for summary judgment because the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries while riding a bike. Primary assumption of the risk is defined as:

In voluntarily undertaken recreational activities, the duty of a defendant is “to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.

The risks were also identified in the release the plaintiff signed and which had been accepted by the court.

Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death . . . and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.”

However, the court rejected the defense because the plaintiff at the time of his injury was not engaged in a sporting activity.

Accordingly, the assumption of the risk doctrine is not applicable to this case. “In determining whether a bicycle rider has subjected himself or herself to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, we must consider whether the rider is engaged in a sporting activity, such that his or her con-sent to the dangers inherent in the activity may reasonably be inferred.” Courts have consistently held that riding a bicycle on a paved road is not such a “sporting activity.” The fact that an individual may be engaging in a recreational or leisure activity is not enough because the doctrine “is not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition.

So, assumption of the risk only applies to recreation and sports in New York? If you are walking down a sidewalk and see a hole in the sidewalk, on your way to work you don’t assume the risk if you fall into the hole?

The next argument by the defendants are not liable because the danger the plaintiff encountered was open an obvious.

The Open and Obvious defense seems fairly simple. If the thing or condition that injured the plaintiff was open and obvious then the plaintiff cannot sue for his injuries. It is very similar to an assumption of the risk defense.

A defendant has “no duty to protect or warn against an open and obvious condition which is not inherently dangerous. Whether a condition was open and obvious is generally a question of fact inappropriate for summary judgment and “depends on the totality of the specific facts of each case.” Nevertheless, “a court may determine that a risk was open and obvious as a matter of law when the established facts compel that conclusion

The defendants argue the concrete wheel stop was open and obvious.

…because the concrete wheel stop, located in a striped white box with “zebra” cross-hatching underneath and surrounded by four three-foot-tall flexible delineators, was “open and obvious.

The plaintiff’s argument, based on the testimony of his expert witness was the wheel stop was not open and obvious because it was too big and was located in the travel lane had been camouflaged, in the way it was put in and painted.

The declaration of James M. Green, Corwin’s engineering expert, brings forth various issues relevant in this analysis. First, Green alleges that the Citi Bike station in question was wider than the specifications required, presenting Corwin with the “choice of continuing through the bike parking facility, or turning out into traffic, with only approximately 0.75 feet between [him] and moving vehicular traffic.” hour-long traffic study conducted by Green found that “cyclists circulate through the [Citi Bike] station with regularity” and that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design.” Green therefore argues that the wheel stop, though in a parking lane, was placed within the foreseeable path of a cyclist. He further concluded that various factors, including the wheel stop’s partial obscuring by parked bicycles, its lack of contrast against the grey asphalt, and a cyclist’s need simultaneously to pay attention to dynamic vehicular and pedestrian traffic, would have made the wheel stop inconspicuous, not “open and obvious.”.

How something could be too big and then not be open and obvious is confusing. This was enough for the court to deny motion for summary judgment based on the open and obvious theory.

Gross Negligence of the Bike Share defendant

Gross negligence under New York law is

…conduct that evinces a reckless disregard for the rights of others or ‘smacks’ of intentional wrongdoing.” “[T]he act or omission must be of an aggravated character, as distinguished from the failure to exercise ordinary care.” “In order to establish a prima facie case in gross negligence, a plaintiff ‘must prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence’ that the defendant ‘not only acted carelessly in making a mistake, but that it was so extremely careless that it was equivalent to recklessness.

The plaintiff’s expert opined that the defendants ignored sound engineering practices when creating and installing the wheel stop and that it was foreseeable that the injuries would occur when the wheel stop was placed in the cycling path. Based on that language, the court found that the actions of the defendants could be defined as gross negligence.

The defendant won most of the decisions, however the plaintiff won enough and won significant ones that allowed the litigation to continue.

So Now What?

The final paragraph of the decision has a review of all decisions for the plaintiff and the defendants if you would like to keep a tally. However, there are several decisions concerning plaintiffs that were not reviewed here because they had no relationship to outdoor recreation or the legal issues commonly faced in outdoor recreation.

Obviously, the injuries to the plaintiff are significant to bring such forces to this litigation to justify this much work. The amount of effort put into prosecuting a case for a plaintiff can SOMETIMES be an indication of the damages to the plaintiff when those damages are not identified in the decision.

More importantly, the legal issues of suing New York City and its agencies are far more complex then found in most cities.

There are some interesting points worth noting. You could guess that the judge thought a ten-page release was long since she pointed it out. However, you cannot argue that your release is too long. Especially since electronically they do not have a length that is measured so easily.

Not wearing a helmet can be an issue in cycling and possibly skiing, even though the effectiveness of wearing one can be disputed. I suspect the next step would be to find a helmet expert by the plaintiff to argue that a helmet would not have prevented the damages the plaintiff received and the defendants will find an expert to argue the opposite.

The failure to provide proof that the plaintiff signed the release was overcome. However, design your system so you don’t have to jump through these hurdles. Crate a system that matches the signing to the credit card or other way of showing that on this date at this time the person entered his name and address, credit card number and clicked on this button saying he accepted the release. Then you add, his credit card would not have been charged unless he agreed to the release.

If you are designing bike share locations, do so in a way that people on bikes can assume they can ride through them.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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