In a strange round about way, Missouri Appellate Court finds release stops tubing hill claim, but only after release identified the risk the plaintiff complained of.

Court comes to the conclusion the release is valid, but starts at the very beginning of the law and circles continuously to get there.

The Good News is releases are valid under Missouri’s law. The bad news is, you might never know from this decision.

Ferbet v. Hidden Valley Golf and Ski, Inc. and Peak Resorts, Inc.,

State: Missouri, Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

Plaintiff: Douglas E. Ferbet

Defendant: Hidden Valley Golf and Ski, Inc. and Peak Resorts, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent maintenance and operation of the tubing hill

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Release

Year: 2020

Summary

Plaintiff was snow tubing, and his foot got caught in a hole or divot breaking his leg. The plaintiff signed a release, which stopped the lawsuit. The court reviewed all the possible ways the plaintiff could win and lose the lawsuit in this 12-page opinion.

Facts

Hidden Valley’s snow tubing operation, located on a hillside adjacent to its ski resort, consists of a series of parallel and adjacent lanes descending down the hill. Customers slide down the lanes while perched on rubber inner tubes provided to them by Hidden Valley. Hidden Valley maintains the surface of the lanes covered in snow and ice and separates the lanes from each other by raised rows of packed snow and ice.

On January 25, 2013, when Ferbet arrived with his family at the ticket window, he was presented with this one-page, single-spaced, form agreement. He signed and dated the agreement in the spaces designated at the bottom, purchased tickets, and then proceeded to the tubing hill. Hidden Valley provided Ferbet an inner tube to use to slide down any of the tubing lanes he chose. And during what would turn out to be Ferbet’s last slide of the day, his right foot lodged into a crevice in the sliding surface fracturing his tibia and fibula when his momentum carried the rest of his body forward.

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

This court decided to write a law school analysis of the law concerning outdoor recreation injuries. The problem was the decision is extremely difficult to read because it keeps circling back on itself to bring up new legal topics.

The first issue the court reviewed was whether the release contained assumption of the risk language specific to the injury the plaintiff suffered.

Here, since Hidden Valley has asserted the release as an affirmative defense, we review de novo the legal and fact questions (1) whether the release before us is enforceable to release Ferbet’s claims as a matter of law, and (2) whether Hidden Valley has established as a matter of undisputed fact that the injury-causing negligent conduct alleged by Ferbet is within the purview of this release.

I’ve argued that releases need this language for years. However, my argument is based on proving assumption of the risk if the release is thrown out by the court. Here, the appellate court seems to require the language in a release in Missouri, but never comes right out and says so.

The first analysis the court undertook was whether the release met Missouri’s law. This is a common analysis of any case where a release is used to stop the lawsuit. The second analysis, whether the thing that caused the plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release, is also sometimes seen in reviewing releases. In that analysis, the issue is, was the release written broadly enough to cover the injury the plaintiff is complaining about.

However, in this case, the court wanted to know if the release specifically looked at the specific issue that caused the plaintiff’s injury. Did the release cover the cracks and divots in the snow where the plaintiff caught his foot?

First looking at whether the release was valid under Missouri’s law the court reviewed Missouri’s law.

It is a “well-established rule of construction that a contract provision exempting one from liability for his or her negligence will never be implied but must be clearly and explicitly stated.” In doing so, courts must ensure that the exculpatory clause complies with the bright-line test established in Alack, the seminal case on this question, requiring that the words “negligence” or “fault” or their equivalents be used conspicuously so that a clear and unmistakable waiver and shifting of risk occurs.

Here is where the case starts to veer into new areas. The exact same clause the court is reviewing was already found valid in a prior case involving the same defendant on the same tubing hill with a different plaintiff seven years earlier.

Moreover, this Court has already considered this exact same release in Guthrie v. Hidden Valley Golf and Ski, Inc., 407 S.W.3d 642 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013) (Van Amburg, J., dissenting), in which a divided panel of this Court affirmed summary judgment in Hidden Valley’s favor and found that the language in paragraph 7 releasing Hidden Valley from its future negligence was sufficiently clear and conspicuous. Id. at 648. There, Guthrie’s foot was broken when another snow tuber collided with him in the run-out portion of the hill, the area where all of the snow tubers end their runs. So, Guthrie differs somewhat from this case because of the mechanism of injury which was a collision with another snow tuber, a risk the release covered repeatedly and extensively in paragraph 2 and again in the 8th bullet point of paragraph 3, while here the injury was allegedly caused by the condition of the premises.

Normally once a court finds a release valid in a prior case, they won’t even review the latest decision, they court just issues an order saying the prior decision is controlling. Here, they acknowledge the prior case and still analyzed every possible aspect of release and assumption of risk law in Missouri.

The court found the language of the release was valid. The court also found the word negligence was a necessary requirement of the release.

The court then quoted the decision forming the basis for release law in Missouri, which stated the word negligence was not necessary as long as similar language was used and also requires a notification to the defendant of the specific risks of the activity.

Alack instructs that doing so would be insufficient because the agreement must not only pass the bright-line conspicuity test by employing the word “negligence” or its equivalent, but it also must notify the participant of the specific nature of the claims he or she is releasing.

I believe that the word negligence is not required under Missouri’s law, but I would not bet on it. If you are using a release in Missouri, make sure your release says you are not liable for your own negligence.

The court, after finding the release was valid because it was identical to a release in a prior decision, reviewed all aspects of the document, starting with whether or not the release met Missouri’s requirements for a contract.

Since this is a contract, we apply our rules of contract interpretation to determine whether the language of the agreement should be construed to encompass Ferbet’s specific claim of negligence and whether Hidden Valley is released from that claim. The Supreme Court in Alack framed the issue thusly: “There must be no doubt that a reasonable person agreeing to an exculpatory clause actually understands what future claims he or she is waiving.” “Because standardized contracts address the mass of users, the test for reasonable expectations is objective, addressed to the average member of the public who accepts such a contract, not the subjective expectations of an individual adherent

The cardinal principle of contract interpretation is to ascertain the intention of the parties and to give effect to that intent. The terms of a contract are read as a whole and are given their plain, ordinary, and usual meaning. Courts prefer a contract construction that gives meaning to all contract provisions and we avoid construing the contract so as to leave portions meaningless and inexplicable. Under the doctrine of contra proferentem, the language of the contract is construed against the drafting party. And this doctrine is enhanced in this case because we strictly construe contracts that seek to exonerate a party from acts of future negligence against the party claiming the benefit of that provision.

This is a pretty good analysis of contract law for any state. However, it is pages longer than any other decision reviewing a release as a contract, 99% of which do so in a paragraph.

The court then concluded that it was their job to determine if a reasonable party would have understood what they were signing.

Here, our task is to determine whether a reasonable person would clearly understand and be put on notice that he or she was releasing Hidden Valley from liability for a claim arising from an injury suffered as a result of Hidden Valley negligently maintaining in a dangerous condition the surface of the sliding area so that parts of the body extending from the tube would not become lodged in the sliding surface and cause injury.

It is that last section, that departs from all other reviews of releases. Whether the plaintiff knew, by reading the release, that his food could become lodged in a hole in the ice causing him injury. Normally, the analysis is, did the release say the plaintiff could be injured and was that clear and unambiguous.

The court then looked at inherent risk to determine if the risk of a hole in the snow and ice was inherent in tubing. A first in release law, but here the court found a way to tie it back in by including another area of the law never reviewed when looking at release law.

First, it looks at whether term inherent risks as mentioned in the release, define the inherent risks of the sport.

Unfortunately, while Hidden Valley tells its customers in paragraph 1 that “there are inherent and other risks associated with the sport . . .” it does not identify or define in the contract which risks are inherent and which are the “other risks.”

Inherent risks are identified as such because you assume them no matter what. You know the inherent risks of a sport or activity, by law. There is no need to list them in a release.

The court then looks to Missouri’s law to define inherent risks.

Our Supreme Court has defined a risk that is “inherent” to an activity as something “structural” or involving the “constitution or essential character” of the activity. And, generally, a participant is deemed to have assumed the risk of injury from the inherent risks of an activity that are known and understood, and the defendant is not liable for injuries stemming from such inherent risks because no duty is owed as to those risks.

The Missouri Supreme Court stated that a participant is “…deemed to have assumed the risk of injury from the inherent risks of an activity that are known and understood…” Why would there be any requirement to list them in a release? You know what they are. In fact, any releases that only protects the defendant from the inherent risks are worthless. You can’t sue for the inherent risks of a sport or activity. Therefore, you release does not need to protect you from the inherent risks. A release must protect you from the risks of the sport or activity that are not inherent.

If your release only protects you from claims from the inherent risks of a sport or activity send me a copy. jim@rec-law.us And get a new release written.

The court then veered into assumption of the risk under Missouri’s law. The case that was referenced to define inherent risks, and this court then determined a further review of assumption of the risk was needed.

Judge Wilson expounded on the history and current state of Missouri law regarding assumption of the risk. Coomer [a legal decision] identified three types of assumption of the risk, “express assumption of the risk,” “implied primary assumption of the risk,” and “implied secondary assumption of the risk.” For our purposes, implied primary assumption of the risk and express assumption of the risk are helpful to illustrate the concept of inherent risks raised by Hidden Valley in the participation agreement with Ferbet and the impact of assumption of the risk on duty. Implied primary assumption of the risk bars a plaintiff from recovery when the plaintiff has knowingly and voluntarily encountered risk that is inherent in the nature of the defendant’s activity. In express assumption of the risk, which is directly applicable to this case, the plaintiff makes an express statement that he is voluntarily accepting a specified risk and is barred from recovering damages for an injury resulting from that risk. The plaintiff’s consent relieves the defendant of any duty to protect the plaintiff from injury and as a result, the defendant cannot be negligent.

The definitions are the same as in most other states. What is confusing is why the court is taking this circuitous route to get to its decision? If the release is valid, it stops the claims, whether or not the risk is assumed or not in most states, including Missouri.

The court then attempted “tied” everything together, unsuccessfully.

Application of these principles to this case illustrates the circumstances to which the release here applies and those to which it may not and also the extent to which assumption of the risk principles may apply. It is for that reason that we have incorporated into our legal rationale these assumption of the risk principles even though the trial court relied solely on the release for its grant of summary judgment. Disposition of this case requires application of the release and of assumption of the risk.

The court circled back to the facts in this case by setting forth the analysis of the facts of the case. The court stated if the risk encountered by the plaintiff was an inherent risk of the activity, and the defendant did not increase that risk, there is no duty owed to the plaintiff. No duty, means there cannot be negligence.

Thus, if Ferbet’s injury resulted from a known and understandable risk deemed to be inherent to the sport of snow tubing, and Hidden Valley did not negligently enhance or increase that inherent risk, then the release language in paragraph 7 is not relevant nor applicable because Hidden Valley owed Ferbet no duty with respect to risks inherent to snow tubing. But if Hidden Valley negligently enhanced or increased that inherent risk, then the release language in the agreement is applicable and operative and we would look to the agreement as a whole to determine whether that enhanced risk was covered by the release.

A defendant owes no duty to anyone for the inherent risks of the activity. That is a basic year two of law school analysis.

However, if the defendant enhanced or increased the risk, then the risk is not inherent and whether or not the defendant is liable is based on the validity of the risk. Again, year two basic law school analysis.

Neither analysis has anything to do with release law. Is the release a valid contract? Doe the release meet the requirements of the state law on releases? If so, case over.

The court then looked at the issue if the risk was not an inherent risk.

In addition, if Ferbet’s injury was not the result of an inherent risk, but was the result of negligence on the part of Hidden Valley, then we apply the release and our analysis is whether that “other risk” was adequately covered by the release such that Ferbet was on notice that he was releasing Hidden Valley for its negligence in causing or creating the risk which resulted in his injury.

The analysis is correct, it is just written in a way that is confusing to read and seems to start a discission, leave it and then circle back to it. On top of that, it does not matter if the release is valid.

The court circled back again and reviewed if the risk suffered by the plaintiff was inherent in the activity.

We turn now to the crevice in the sliding surface that caused Ferbet’s injury and we find that an uneven sliding surface and the potential risks it creates for snow tubers are inherent risks of snow tubing because they are “structural” to the activity and involve the “essential character” of snow tubing.

Then the court changes its mind……. again. “But how uneven can the surface be and still be considered an inherent risk?

After more analysis, the court concluded the risk was not inherent and if the claim was to be stopped it must rely upon the release. Which it could have found in the first paragraph of the decision.

As a result, we find that to the extent the particular variation that resulted in Ferbet’s injury was the result of Hidden Valley’s negligence, then this release extinguished that claim.

The court found the risk was not inherent, and the release stopped the claim. (Inherent risks, if an issue for the decision, are usually determined by the trier of fact, the jury.)

The court took off on another deviation, one which I found entertaining and correct. Many releases have stupid language in them because they are written by attorneys who don’t understand releases or written by non-attorneys. One of those phrases is the person accepts the facilities as is.

Before we turn to Ferbet’s remaining points, we briefly address paragraph 4 in which Hidden Valley seeks to exonerate itself by having the participant accept the snow tubing facility “AS IS” and that “NO WARRANTIES” are being made with respect to the snow tubing facility. These are terms of art with specific meanings in the context of the sale of goods and the sale of real estate. But these concepts have no role in this case involving a business inviting a customer onto their premises for a fee to participate in a recreational activity. Hidden Valley’s customers are not buyers and there is little if any opportunity for them to inspect the snow tubing facility before executing the release and paying their money or even before plunging down the hill.

If your release uses the language “as is” or “no warranties” send me a copy. jim@rec-law.us And get a new release written.

The court points out that the language is from the sale of goods and real estate and has no place in a release. On top of that, you are asking a person, who probably has never seen the activity to agree it is OK. If there is an opportunity for a release to be invalidated, it is by forcing the signor to agree to something that they cannot legally agree to.

The plaintiff argued the snow tubing hill was a common carrier, which requires the highest level of care. The court quickly found a tubing hill is not a common carrier.

In Missouri, neither the common carrier designation nor the application of the highest degree of care has ever been extended to amusement parks or recreation areas such as ski resorts or snow tubing hills.

After that the issue of whether the plaintiff knew what he was signing came back, and the court dismissed the claim with this statement.

It has been uniformly held that a person who can read, and is in no way prevented from reading a written contract before he signs it, is bound by its terms, and cannot void it on the ground that he did not know its contents when he signed it.”). Ferbet testified that nothing prevented him from reading the document.

Which seems to be contrary to its statement where the court determined if the plaintiff would have been fully informed of the possible risks as I quoted above.

Here, our task is to determine whether a reasonable person would clearly understand and be put on notice that he or she was releasing Hidden Valley from liability for a claim arising from an injury suffered as a result of Hidden Valley negligently maintaining in a dangerous condition the surface of the sliding area so that parts of the body extending from the tube would not become lodged in the sliding surface and cause injury.

After twelve pages, the court concluded the defendant was not liable.

So Now What?

There is a great analysis of how the legal system looks; it is just rarely done outside of law school. However, reading and understanding the decision the way it jumps around makes it very difficult.

The decision makes several great points; it is just maddening to try to find them and understand them in the circular decision.

What is confusing it the courts’ statement about wanting the release to identify the inherent risks of the activity. Inherent risks are known by people under the law and do not need to be identified. You can’t sue over the inherent risks because they are inherent, and you know them.

The good news is Missouri allows the use of a release, if it is carefully written correctly.

If you email me, a release with either of the language pointed out above, include your mailing address, and I’ll send you a sticker or magnet or something cheap and kitschy!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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

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