Illinois upholds release stopping a claim for injury from bouldering at defendant North Wall.

However, defendant climbing wall admitted it had not followed its own procedures or Climbing Wall Association manual with the plaintiff, law in Illinois saved defendant.

Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Patricia Cizek

Defendant: North Wall, Inc., d/b/a North Wall Rock Climbing Gym

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence & Willful & Wanton Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Open & Obvious & Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Plaintiff was boulder for the first time and not given the normal or required introduction at the bouldering gym. She fell off the wall and missed a crash pad breaking her ankle. Court held the release she signed stopped her lawsuit.

Facts

On February 14, 2013, she attended respondent’s gym with Kosinski, a coworker. She characterized Kosinski as a “good climber, experienced.” Kosinski told her climbing was one of his hobbies. She did not think climbing would involve any risk because “[k]ids were doing it.” Further, climbing occurred at a gym, which she viewed as a “safe zone.” Also, based on what she saw on television, she believed she would be using a harness. She and Kosinski did not consume any alcohol prior to arriving at North Wall, and she was not taking any medication at the time.

When they arrived, Kosinski paid the fee. Plaintiff signed and returned a waiver form. Kosinski had climbed at North Wall before. At the time, plaintiff did not know whether Kosinski was a member at North Wall, though she later learned that he had been at the time she was injured. Plaintiff acknowledged that she did, in fact, read and understand the waiver form. She did not look at the back of the form, but she recalled that she was given only one sheet of paper. She was provided with a pair of climbing shoes.

When she first arrived, she observed “children in harnesses with ropers.” There were two large green pads that covered most of the floor. Plaintiff did not recall seeing any bulletin boards or posters. She also did not recall seeing a black line running “continuously around the parameter [sic] of the climbing wall.” At the time of the deposition, she was aware that such a line existed. Beyond signing the waiver when she arrived, she had no further interaction with respondent’s staff. Plaintiff reviewed a number of pictures of the facility and testified that it had changed since her accident. She also identified a photograph taken in October 2013 that showed where she was injured.

She and Kosinski then proceeded to the climbing wall. She asked, “What about my harness?” Kosinski said that harnesses were “more trouble than they were worth.” Plaintiff stated that she “kind of was dumbfounded.” Plaintiff proceeded to climb without a harness. Kosinski went first. He told her to follow some yellow markers, as they were for beginners. While she watched Kosinski, she did not see a black, horizontal line on the wall. Prior to climbing, Kosinski placed a mat below the area in which he intended to climb. Plaintiff found climbing “very difficult,” explaining that “[y]ou use your core.” Plaintiff would “shimmy” down when she got “sore.” She added, “[i]ts tough work getting up there, so I need[ed] to get down.” She would jump down from two to three feet off the ground. Plaintiff made three or four climbs before she was injured.

Large green mats covered almost the entire floor of the gym. There were also smaller black mats that could be placed in different locations by climbers. Kosinski was not near plaintiff when she was injured. Before being injured, plaintiff had moved to a new climbing area. She placed a black mat where she planned on climbing. A green mat also abutted the wall in that area. The black mat was three to six inches away from the wall.

Plaintiff was injured during her third attempt at climbing that day, and she did not feel comfortable climbing. She explained that she was not wearing a harness, but was trying to do her best. There was a part of the floor that was not covered by a green mat in this area, which is where plaintiff landed when she was injured. Plaintiff stated she jumped off the wall and when she landed, her right foot was on a green mat, but her left foot landed on the uncovered floor. She felt pain in her left ankle and could not put weight on it. Kosinski and an employee came over to assist plaintiff. Kosinski got plaintiff some ibuprofen. Plaintiff felt “a little dizzy.” An employee called the paramedics. The paramedics stated that plaintiff’s ankle was broken. They assisted plaintiff to Kosinski’s car, and he drove her to St. Alexius hospital. At the hospital, they x-rayed plaintiff’s ankle and confirmed that it was broken. She was given some sort of narcotic pain killer, and her ankle was placed in a cast. Plaintiff was discharged and told to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon.

She followed up with Dr. Sean Odell. Odell performed a surgery six days after the accident. He installed eight pins and a plate. Plaintiff had broken both leg bones where they intersect at the ankle. She took Norco for months following the surgery. She engaged in physical therapy for years, including what she did at home. The hardware was removed in December 2013. Her ankle continues to be stiff, she has trouble with many activities, and she takes ibuprofen for pain several times per week.

The court also went through a litany of issues the defendant climbing gym did not do with the plaintiff.

Novice climbers were supposed to sign a waiver and view a video. Spencer trained Cipri [gym manager] to go over “any and all safety procedures” with new climbers.

There was no manual on “how to run North Wall,” but there was an “unofficial manual” kept on the front desk. This was comprised of a couple of binders that concerned how to teach climbing, use of the telephone, memberships, employee conduct, and various rules. He did not recall anything specific relating to dealing with novice climbers. There was a copy of the Climbing Wall Association manual in a file-cabinet drawer; however, he never used it for anything. Cipri did not recall Spencer [gym owner] instructing him to use this manual. Spencer did train employees on climbing, particularly new hires. Cipri described Spencer as an “absentee” manager.” He would come in early in the day, and Cipri typically would not see him.

Aside from ascertaining a customer’s age and climbing experience, they did nothing else to assess his or her proficiency. They would show new climbers a video and explain the rules of the gym to them. Cipri could not say whether a copy of a manual shown to him was the manual they were actually using when he worked for respondent. However, he stated various forms shown to him, including one concerning bouldering orientation, were not used when he was there. Spencer never told Cipri to get rid of any document; rather, he was adamant about keeping such material. Weekly inspections of the premises were conducted, but no records documenting them were maintained.

One document stated, “If the facility allows bouldering, the staff provides an orientation before novice climbers are allowed to boulder without assistance or direct supervision.” Cipri testified that this was not generated by respondent, but they followed it. Employees working the counter were trained to have new customers watch a video, instruct them on safety procedures, and assess their abilities. To the left of the front door, posters from the Climbing Wall Association were displayed. There was also one near the back door. Cipri did not remember what they were about beyond that they concerned “stable rules” of the Climbing Wall Association.

On redirect-examination, Cipri agreed that beyond verbal questioning, they did not test new customers. They did not “inspect or observe climbers while they were actually climbing to determine competency.” They did “orientate climbers” and show them the video. Further, new climbers read the waiver forms. Climbers were instructed on general and bouldering safety rules. Cipri was aware of an earlier incident where a young boy cut his head while climbing. Cipri stated that it was arguable that climbing with a rope was more dangerous than bouldering because a person could get tangled in the rope. Cipri did not give plaintiff an orientation, and he had no recollection of anyone giving her one.

Employees were instructed to follow the policies of the Climbing Wall Association. If an employee did not spend time with a new customer “explaining the policies and procedures of bouldering, that would be a violation of company policy.” This is true even if the new customer is accompanied by a more experienced climber.

Obviously, the defendant gym failed to follow its own rules or the rules and ideas of the CWA that the gym, in the court’s mind, had adopted.

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

The court first looked at the issue that falling was an open and obvious risk.

In Illinois, obvious dangers include fire, drowning in water, or falling from a height.”). Thus, for the purpose of resolving this appeal and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will presume that plaintiff was aware that falling off the climbing wall presented certain obvious dangers.

The court moved on to review release law in Illinois. Illinois supports the use of releases, unless the contract is between parties with unequal bargaining power, violates public policy or there is a special relationship between the parties.

Absent fraud or willful and wanton negligence, exculpatory agreements of this sort are generally valid. An agreement may be also vitiated by unequal bargaining power, public policy considerations, or some special relationship between the parties; however, such issues are not present here. This court has previously explained that “[a]n exculpatory agreement constitutes an express assumption of risk insofar as the plaintiff has expressly consented to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him [or her].

When written the release must be expressed in clear, explicit an unequivocal language. The release must also be written in a way that both parties to the contract intended to apply to the conduct of the defendant which caused the harm to the plaintiff. However, the release must not be written precisely to cover the exact conduct or exact harm.

Thus, an exculpatory agreement will excuse a defendant from liability only where an “injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff.” The foreseeability of the danger defines the scope of the release.

The court found the language “…arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym, whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however, the injury or damage is caused.” w sufficient to the injury the plaintiff received based on the conduct (or lack of conduct in this case) of the defendant.

The court held “In sum, the release, here is clear, pertains to use of defendant’s climbing gym, and is broad enough to encompass falling or jumping from the climbing wall.”

The court then reviewed the willful and wanton claims of the plaintiff. The court described willful and wanton as “”Conduct is “willful and wanton” where it involves a deliberate intention to harm or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. It is an “aggravated form of negligence.”

The plaintiff argued that failing to follow the defendant bouldering gym’s own policies or evaluate her abilities was proof of willful and wanton conduct. She also pointed out the defendant failed to tell her not to climb above the bouldering line.

Quickly, the court determined the plaintiff had not pled or provided any facts to support her willful and wanton claims. Even if the defendant had followed its own policies, the plaintiff could not show that would have prevented her injuries. Falling at a height above the bouldering line is an open and obvious risk so failing to tell the plaintiff not to climb high is not relevant.

The risk of falling is open and obvious and none of the arguments made by the plaintiff as to the defendants actions overcame that doctrine.

So Now What?

It is great that Illinois supports the use of releases. Even in a case where the defendant failed to follow its own policies or the “manual” of the trade association it belonged to. Even better the court did not find the CWA manual or the defendant’s failure to follow its policies as an issue that could over come the release.

However, from the court’s writing, it is obvious, that the open and obvious doctrine was the most persuasive in supporting both the release and ignoring the defendant’s actions or lack of action.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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