Push a release too far, in a state that is not sure Releases should be valid, and you provide the court with the opportunity to void releases and indemnification in the state.

Non-mother brought a group of kids to climbing gym and signed release for the kids. One was hurt, and the climbing wall sued the non-mother for indemnification in the release for the damages of the injured child.

Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, 2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261

State: Connecticut; Superior Court of Connecticut

Plaintiff: Cindy Cannon PPA Emma Cannon (minor)

Defendant: Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, Carabiners Fairfield, LLC and Matthew Conroy

Defendant Third Party Plaintiffs: Kate Licata, Indemnifier

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in supervising the rock climbing activities

Defendant Defenses: release and indemnification

Holding: For the Defendant Third Party Plaintiff, Indemnifier

Year: 2020

Summary

When litigating a case, you don’t look to the future effects of what you are doing. You look at winning. That is the only thing, your client and the client’s insurance company want. That is the only thing as an attorney you are allowed to do. You must represent the client and win.

In this case, the defendant used every argument they could to try to win, and not only lost the case, but voided releases for recreation in the state an eliminated any value the indemnification clause might have had in a release.

Facts

The case arises from an incident where the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, fell from a climbing wall at the Rock Climb defendant’s indoor rock climbing facility located in Fairfield, Connecticut. The minor plaintiff claims she sustained personal injuries. On behalf of her minor child, Cindy Cannon instituted the present action alleging the facility, its agents and employees were negligent in supervising the rock climbing activities, thereby causing the minor plaintiff’s injuries. The defendants have filed an answer and eight special defenses to the amended complaint.

Thereafter, the Rock Climb defendants filed an apportionment complaint against the defendant Kate Licata, who brought the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, and several other girls to the facility for a group birthday party event. The apportionment complaint is dated February 6, 2019. The apportionment complaint alleges that Licata was negligent in numerous ways and seeks an apportionment of liability and damages as to Licata for the percentage of negligence attributable to her. The apportionment complaint is not the subject of the motion for summary judgment that is presently before the court. The Rock Climb defendants also filed a cross claim against Licata alleging contractual and common-law indemnity. The cross claim, which is the subject of Licata’s motion for summary judgment, is dated February 22, 2019.

The cross claim alleges that the Rock Climb defendants, who are the third-party plaintiffs, require all invitees to its facility to complete a “Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” form before participating in rock climbing activities. If the participant is a minor, the form must be signed by the minor’s parent or court-appointed guardian, which Licata was not. The release form contains language to the effect that the parent or guardian of the minor has explained the inherent risks of the activity to the minor and the minor understands the said risks and that the minor, nonetheless, wishes to participate in the activities. The release form further provides that “the parent of the minor visitor . . . forever discharge, and agree to indemnify . . . Carabiners Fairfield, LLC, its agents, owners, officers, volunteers, employees, and all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on its behalf . . . from any and all claims, suits, demands, causes of action, which are in any way connected with my or the minor visitor’s visit to the RCF activity site . . . My agreement of indemnity is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by me (an adult climber or parent) or the child and losses caused by me or the child. The agreements of indemnity and release include claims of negligence . . . of a Released Party.” The Rock Climb defendants allege that Licata completed an online version of the Release form and electronically signed it on behalf of the minor plaintiff Emma Cannon on October 3, 2016. Thus, Licata is contractually obligated to defend and indemnify the Rock Climb defendants for the injuries and damages resulting from Emma Cannon’s fall at the Rock Climb defendants’ facility pursuant to General Statutes §52-102a.5

The Rock Climb defendants also allege Licata is liable for common-law indemnification, claiming that any injuries sustained by the minor plaintiff were proximately caused, in whole or part, by Licata’s negligence and carelessness in multiple ways. Among these allegations are failing to supervise and monitor the minor; failing to instruct the minor; and failing to warn the minor of the dangerous nature and risks of the activity. Lastly, the Rock Climb defendants argue that a substantial amount of discovery remains outstanding and various issues of fact are yet to be settled, and therefore, it argues that Licata’s summary judgment motion should be denied.

The defendant argued on appeal that:

Licata argues that she was not given any opportunity to negotiate the terms of the Release document, which was presented to her on a “take or leave it” basis.

It was the Rock Climb defendants who were responsible for training Licata and/or the minor plaintiff to ensure safe rock climbing, as Licata claims she did not possess the knowledge, experience or authority to ensure the rock climbing facility was in a safe condition.

Additionally, Licata argues she was not in control of the situation on the date in question, and the cross claim does not even allege she was in control of the situation. Therefore, any claim for common-law indemnification also fails as a matter of law.

These three arguments made by the defendant are critical in how the court viewed the situation and more importantly the realities of using this type of document in a recreation case.

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

The court first set out the requirements to win a motion for summary judgment. In doing so it defined the term “a material fact.” “A material fact is a fact that will make a difference in the result of the case….”

“[a] genuine issue has been variously described as a triable, substantial or real issue of fact . . . and has been defined as one which can be maintained by substantial evidence . . . Hence, the genuine issue aspect of summary judgment procedure requires the parties to bring forward before trial evidentiary facts, or substantial evidence outside the pleadings, from which the material facts alleged in the pleadings can warrantably be inferred.

Summary judgment will not be granted if there is a material fact in question. So knowing the definition is important since most summary judgement claims revolve around whether there is a material fact that must be adjudicated.

The court then looked at the indemnification clause in the release; contractual indemnification. Under Connecticut law, indemnification is defined as:

Indemnity involves a claim for reimbursement in full from one who is claimed to be primarily liable.” “A party may bring an indemnification claim based on the terms of an indemnity agreement . . . [A]llegations of contractual indemnification must be supported by the terms of the contract or the contract itself . . . Under Connecticut law, to state a contract-based indemnification claim, the claimant must allege either an express or implied contractual right to indemnification

Indemnification agreements are contracts and as such construed under the principles of contract law.

The essential elements for a cause of action based on breach of contract are (1) the formation of an agreement, (2) performance by one party, (3) breach of the agreement by the opposing party, and (4) damages . . . [and] causation

Additionally, for a contract to be valid, there must be mutual assent between the parties to create a contract and the parties to the contract must be reasonably clear.

The court then looked at the indemnification language in the release in this case.

Paragraph 3 is titled “Release and Indemnity. That paragraph notes that the signor of the agreement is an adult visitor or parent of a minor visitor and that the signor releases and discharges and agrees to indemnify the RCF defendants from all claims, suits, demands or causes of action, which are connected to the minor’s visit to and participation in, RCF activities. The agreement is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by the child and losses caused by the signor or the child. By signing the agreement, the signor agrees to indemnify and release claims of negligence of the RCF defendants.

Lastly, paragraph 5 of the Release notes that the signor acknowledges that if the minor visitor for whom the signor has signed their signature, is hurt and files a lawsuit, the signor will protect the released and indemnified RCF defendants from any claims of the minor visitor.

The court did point out, but did not act upon the issue that release was not signed by anyone at the gym.

The court then looked at release law in Connecticut. The Supreme Court of Connecticut set forth three requirements for a release in a recreational activity to be valid.

(1) the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe; (2) the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with the activity from the burden of proper maintenance of the snowtubing run; and (3) the fact that the release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis.

The court then found that the release in this case violated public policy in Connecticut.

We conclude that, based on our decision in Hanks, the totality of the circumstances surrounding the recreational activity of horseback riding and instruction that was offered by the defendants demonstrates that the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement in their favor from liability for ordinary negligence violates public policy and is not in the public interest. First, similar to the situation at issue in Hanks, the defendants in the present case provided the facilities, the instructors, and the equipment for their patrons to engage in a popular recreational activity, and the recreational facilities were open to the general public regardless of an individual’s ability level. Indeed, the defendants acknowledged that, although the release required riders to indicate their experience level, it also anticipated a range in skills from between “[n]ever ridden” to “[e]xperienced [r]ider,” and that the facility routinely had patrons of varying ability levels. Accordingly, there is a reasonable societal expectation that a recreational activity that is under the control of the provider and is open to all individuals, regardless of experience or ability level, will be reasonably safe.

Meaning, a release cannot be used to protect the provider of a recreational activity that is open to the public and requires skill because there is a general expectation that those activities are safe. On top of that, the plaintiff lacked any knowledge, experience or skill to determine if the defendants’ facility were in good working order or safe.

To the contrary, it was the defendants, not the plaintiff or the other customers, who had the “expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone [could] properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management.” In particular, the defendants acknowledged that they were responsible for providing their patrons with safe horses, qualified instructors, as well as properly maintained working equipment and riding surfaces.

The court looked at the statements from the guest’s point of view and found it illogical that the guest could make those judgements.

As we concluded in Hanks, it is illogical to relieve the defendants, as the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with engaging in horseback riding at their facility, from potential claims of negligence surrounding an alleged failure to administer properly the activity.

The defendant also argued the release was an adhesion contract.

Specifically, we have noted that the most salient feature of adhesion contracts is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts, and that they tend to involve a standard form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position, usually a consumer, who has little choice about the terms.

Because the plaintiff could not negotiate the release provisions, and her only option was not to participate, because of that, the court concluded the contract was an adhesion contract.

The court circled back to the knowledge and skill of the guest by looking at the facts, that the guests and injured child did not bring any equipment or provided any training, guidance and/or supervision to the children under the third party plaintiff’s care.

Neither the minor plaintiff or Licata provided any of the equipment to be used. Licata, herself, did not provide training, guidance or supervision to the minors, including the minor plaintiff. Licata possessed no special knowledge regarding rock climbing or bouldering activities including training and safety procedures other than an initial orientation by RCF employees. Maklad testified at her deposition that the orientation lasted only five to ten minutes. The RCF defendants/third-party plaintiffs admit that there was zero expectation that Licata would “train and guide climbers” or to inspect various facility equipment. RCF argues that they did expect that parents and guardians would supervise children.

Because the third party plaintiff had no knowledge or skill concerning climbing, she could not have been supervising the children while climbing, it does not matter whether or not she was “adequately supervising” the children because she could not. This created another whole in the indemnification argument and another issue that must be decided by the trial court.

This brought the court back to the indemnification issue.

To hold a third party liable to indemnify one tortfeasor for damages awarded against it to the plaintiff for negligently causing harm to the plaintiff, a defendant seeking indemnification must establish that: (1) the third party against whom indemnification is sought was negligent; (2) the third party’s active negligence, rather than the defendant’s own passive negligence, was the direct, immediate cause of the accident and the resulting harm; (3) the third party was in control of the situation to the exclusion of the defendant seeking reimbursement; and (4) the defendant did not know of the third party’s negligence, had no reason to anticipate it, and reasonably could rely on the third party not to be negligent.”

The definition in Connecticut basically ruled out the third party plaintiff as a possible indemnifier for the gym.

“Our Supreme Court has defined exclusive control of the situation, for the purpose of a common-law indemnification claim, as exclusive control over the dangerous condition that gives rise to the accident.”

Since the third party defendant did not have any control over the situation because she lacked the knowledge, experience and skill to climb or supervise anyone else climbing and because she, and the children went to the gym because of the gym’s knowledge, skill, ability to see risks and the gym had the needed equipment, there could not be indemnification.

On top of that, because the court found the climbing gym had done such a poor job of prosecuting it’s indemnification claim the court found the claim had been abandoned.

The third-party plaintiffs, the RCF defendants, have produced little to no credible evidence; nor have they alleged or argued that Licata was in control of the situation to the exclusion. “Where a claim is asserted in the statement of issues but thereafter receives only cursory attention in the brief without substantive discussion or citation of authorities, it is deemed to be abandoned.”

That means the indemnification claim could not be brought back up at trial.

So Now What?

There is a dozen interesting statements found in this release that when brought to the light of reality will cause or should cause concern for the way some releases are written. Not legal as much as how the assumptions on how the law would work when applied to the facts which the court rejected.

  1. Having signor of the release accept the equipment and facility as is or to be in good shape, was determined to be a joke. The signor was coming to the facility for their expertise and had no expertise to make that determination on their own.

You don’t want to have your release thrown out because a clause in the release, no matter who it protects is false.

  1. Having the signor of the release agree that they are in control of the children they bring to the gym was found ridiculous for the same reasons.
  2. The Indemnification clause was not written to follow Connecticut law and as such was found to be worthless.
    1. Worse when argued by the defendant gyms, it was found the language, and their arguments were so futile as to be abandoned.
  3. The release placed so many burdens, which the signor could not get around; the release was found to be void because it violated public policy.

I have yet to read a case where an indemnification clause has been upheld in a release, unless the circumstances were very odd and the parties knowledgeable about what they were agreeing too.

Are there situations where there is a need, and you can properly write an indemnification clause in a release. Yes. However, the injured part will be indemnifying you not for your losses, but for the losses you incur when their actions involve a third party.

An example might be you are billed for the cost of search and rescue under your permit or concession agreement to find the lost guest. A well-written indemnification clause can be used to recover for the costs of these expenses, because the defendant did not cause the loss and is not trying to recover for its losses, only the losses the guest has made the defendant liable for.

The three arguments made by the defendant set forth in the summary will soon be present in many third party defenses I predict. They are simple yet set forth the reality of the people signing the indemnification clauses. Uniformly, the courts have struck down indemnification clauses when used to recover money for a plaintiff’s claim.

For more articles on Indemnification Clauses see:

Indemnification between businesses requires a contract outlining the type of indemnification and a certificate of insurance from one party to the other so the insurance company knows it is on the hook.

New Jersey does not support fee shifting provisions (indemnification clauses) in releases in a sky-diving case.

Indemnification agreements? What are you signing?

One case where an indemnification agreement was upheld:

A federal district court in Massachusetts upholds indemnification clause in a release.

This case will have far reaching effect in other states.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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