Release stops lawsuit by plaintiff thrown from ATV in Pennsylvania.Posted: November 4, 2019
Release signed 8 months earlier saved defendant.
Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742
State: Pennsylvania; United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania
Plaintiff: Patrice Scott-Moncrieff
Defendant: The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: for the Defendant
Year old release still valid to stop claims. Plaintiff rented ATV and signed a release. Eight months later she rented an ATV from the same defendant again but did not sign another release. The original release was enough to stop her lawsuit.
On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding.
The release the plaintiff signed had several places to initial the release which she did.
The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment and this is the response to that motion.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The release in this case also had an assumption of the risk clause, which the court found as valid proof the plaintiff assumed of the risk, “…within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities.”
The plaintiff argued the release was void because:
Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced.
The court then reviewed the requirements for a release, an exculpatory clause in a contract in Pennsylvania.
An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion.
A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”
A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals
Under Pennsylvania law, the release did not contravene public policy because it did not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. Recreation is not a public interest in most states. Also, the release was between private parties and only affecting the rights to the parties to the agreement.
Pennsylvania has a three-prong test to determine if a release violates public policy, the Topp Copy standard.
The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.
The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.”
The court went on to define a contract of adhesion is a contract where the signor has no other choice but to sign the agreement.
“The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so.
The court then went on to determine if the release was enforceable under Pennsylvania law, meaning that was the language sufficient to give notice to the parties of what they were doing. The agreement must relieve a party for the liability of their own negligence. To determine if the release was enforceable the court must determine if:
1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.
Here the court found the language was sufficient and the agreement was valid.
The plaintiff then argued that the release should not be held against her because she did not sign the release on the day she was injured. She found the defendant had a policy that all persons must sign the release each time they came to the defendant. This policy was discovered by questioning a maintenance man that had been terminated.
Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014.
The court found the testimony of the maintenance man had no bearing on the case. He was not working for the defendant at the time of the accident, he was not involved in getting releases signed when he did work for the defendant and he did not represent nor was he acting on behalf of the defendant.
The release signed by the plaintiff on her first trip to the defendant’s business was still valid. The release stated it was to remain binding “for all time thereafter.”
The court did not seem to care that even if the policy had been in place it did not matter because the plaintiff signed a release that was still in force.
Here, the language of the waiver form is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,
The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.
The court found the release executive by the plaintiff on her first trip was valid to prevent the lawsuit when she was injured on her second trip.
Then the plaintiff argued she was rushed and unable to read the first release she signed. The court quickly shot that argument down.
One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract. In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.”
Finally, the plaintiff argued the release not “properly conspicuous.” This was based on language a Pennsylvania court used to void a “release” on the back of a lift ticket because it was not conspicuous. Since this release was found within a contract, signed by the plaintiff that argument also failed.
Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph.
The release was upheld and the case was dismissed.
So Now What?
This seems like the same old person gets hurt recreating and tries stupid ways to get out of the consequences of signing a release. And to a major extent it is. However, there are a few interesting issues.
Courts are less likely to enforce a release for activities involving motors, unless NASCAR is big in your state. Add an engine to recreation and some courts think differently.
The second is the use of a release signed by the plaintiff prior to the date of her injury. Your release should always be written so there is no date for the agreement to terminate. Having the person sign a release each time they use your facilities is good. Handing the court a dozen releases signed on different dates proves the plaintiff had plenty of time to read and understand the release and assumed the risk of the activity.
But making sure your release is valid for more than that date and time is critical. First a release good for a specific time frame may be out of date when it is needed to stop a lawsuit in court. Second, you never know when someone will slip through the system and not sign the release and get hurt. Finally, you could lose the release you need. Granted there are ways to get lost documents admitted into court, however, it is much easier to present the court with a signed release that covers the incident no matter when the release was signed or the incident occurred.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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