One paragraph would have eliminated this lawsuit.

Badly written release and a bad attempt to tie two documents together almost cost the defendant outfitter.

Hamric v. Wilderness Expeditions, Inc

State: Colorado, United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Alicia Hamric, individually, as representative of the Estate of Robert Gerald Hamric, and as next friend of Ava Hamric, a minor

Defendant: Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

Deceased died while repelling with the defendant and surviving spouse sued Colorado company in Colorado but attempted to use Texas law, where the release was signed, as a way to void the release.

Facts

Members of the Keller Church of Christ in Keller, Texas, scheduled an outdoor excursion to Colorado, contracting with WEI for adventure planning and guide services. WEI is incorporated in Colorado and has its headquarters in Salida, Colorado. Jamie Garner served as the coordinator for the church group and the point-of-contact between the church members and WEI. The experience WEI provided included guides taking participants rappelling. WEI required all participants, before going on the outdoor excursion, to complete and initial a “Registration Form” and complete and sign a “Medical Form.”

WEI made the forms available to Mr. Garner for downloading and completion by the individual church members several months prior to the booked trip. Mr. Hamric initialed both blanks on the Registration Form and signed the Medical Form, dating it April 5, 2017. Andrew Sadousky, FNP-C, completed and signed the “Physician’s Evaluation” section of the Medical Form, certifying that Mr. Hamric was medically capable of participating in the outdoor activities listed on the form, including rappelling. Mr. Hamric’s signed forms were delivered to WEI upon the church group’s arrival in Colorado in July 2017.

After spending a night on WEI property, WEI guides took the church group, including Mr. Hamric, to a rappelling site known as “Quarry High.” Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course. [emphasize added]

Several members of the church group successfully descended Quarry High before Mr. Hamric attempted the rappel. As Mr. Hamric worked his way down the overhang portion of the course, he became inverted and was unable to right himself. Efforts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died of positional asphyxiation.

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

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is an appellate court that sits in Denver. The Tenth Circuit hears cases from Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming federal district courts. The court, consequently, hears a few appeals of recreation cases because of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming recreation activities.

This appealed covered four different legal issues. Three of the issues were procedural and won’t be reviewed here. The fourth was the dismissal of the case by the lower-court magistrate on a motion for summary judgement because of the release.

The plaintiff argued the release should be read using Texas law because the release was read and signed in Texas.

There was no Jurisdiction and Venue Clause in the Release!

The defendant had the deceased sign two forms. One was a release, and the second was a medical form. Neither form had a venue or jurisdiction clause. Having a medical information formed signed is a quick give away that the defendant does not understand the legal issues involved. The defendant wrote both forms, so they conflicted with each other in some cases and attempted to tie the forms together. Neither really worked.

The plaintiff argued the forms were one because they conflicts would have made both forms basically invalid.

Further, language on the Medical Form is conflicting and ambiguous as to whether the two forms comprise a single agreement: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document. I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

Both the italicized language and the use of “forms” in the plural to describe the agreement support the conclusion that the Registration Form and the Medical Form are a single agreement. But the underlined language, using “form” in the singular, suggests the forms might constitute separate agreements. Otherwise, the singular use of “form” would suggest the unlikely result that a participant could not alter the wording of the Medical Form but could alter the wording of the Registration Form.

However, after a lengthy review, the court found the forms were two different documents and ignored the medical form and the release like language in it.

We conclude, however, that this dispute of fact is not material to resolution of the primarily legal question regarding whether Mr. Hamric entered into a valid liability release with WEI.

The next issue is what law should apply to determine the validity of the release. Choice of laws is a compete course you can take in law school. I still have my Choice of Laws’ textbook after all these years because it is a complicated subject that hinges on minutia in some cases to determine what court will hear a case and what law will be applied.

The case was filed in the Federal Court covering Colorado. Since the defendant was not a Texas business or doing business in Texas, the lawsuit needed to be in the defendant’s state. Federal Court was chosen because disputes between citizens of two states should be held in a neutral court, which is the federal courts. A Texan might not feel they are getting a fair deal if they have to sue in a Colorado state court. That is called the venue. What court sitting where will hear the case.

If the defendant had operated in Texas, been served in Texas or had a history of actively looking for clients in Texas this would have been a Texas lawsuit, probably with a different outcome.

So, the decision on what court to sue was somewhat limited. However, that is not the end. Once the court is picked, venue, the next argument is what law will be applied to the situation. The Plaintiff argued Texas Law. Texas has stringent requirements on releases. If Texas law was applied to the release, there was a chance the release would be void under Texas law. The defendant argued Colorado law, which has much fewer requirements for releases.

Ms. Hamric further contends that under contract principles in the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, Texas law applies because Mr. Hamric was a Texas resident who completed the Registration Form and the Medical Form while in Texas.

Here is the court’s analysis on what states laws should apply.

A more specific section of the Restatement addressing contracts lacking a choice-of-law provision provides additional guidance: (1) The rights and duties of the parties with respect to an issue in contract are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the transaction and the parties under the principles stated in § 6. (2) In the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties . . ., the contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include: (a) the place of contracting, (b) the place of negotiation of the contract, (c) the place of performance, (d) the location of the subject matter of the contract, and (e) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties. These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.

It is not a slam dunk for Colorado law. In this case, the plaintiff made a very good argument that Texas law should apply. The deceased was a Texas resident recruited in Texas by the defendant. The release had been given to the deceased in Texas, and he signed it in Texas. If the analysis ended there Texas law would have applied.

However, there was more to the investigation the court is required to do.

We conclude that, under the Restatement, a Colorado court would apply Colorado law to determine the validity and enforceability of the liability release relied upon by WEI. First looking at § 6 of the Restatement, the liability release was drafted by a Colorado corporation to cover services provided exclusively in Colorado.

Honestly, the trial court and appellate court bent over backwards to help this defendant.

This argument switched the discussion from applying Texas law to Colorado law.

Applying out-of-state law to interpret the liability release would hinder commerce, as it would require WEI and other outdoor-recreation companies to know the law of the state in which a given participant lives. Such a rule would place a significant burden on outdoor-recreation companies who depend on out-of-state tourists for revenue because it would require a company like WEI to match the various requirements of the other forty-nine states. This approach would not give WEI the benefit of having logically molded its liability release to comply with Colorado law, the law of the state where WEI does business. Furthermore, Ms. Hamric’s primary argument for applying Texas law is that Mr. Hamric signed the forms in Texas. But a rule applying out-of-state law on that basis is likely to deter WEI from furnishing the liability release until a participant enters Colorado. And, while not providing participants the forms until arrival in Colorado might lessen WEI’s liability exposure under out-of-state law; such a practice would not benefit participants because it would pressure participants into a last-minute decision regarding whether to sign the liability release after having already traveled to Colorado for the outdoor excursion.

It is significant to note that the court looked at the issue of waiting until customers arrive in the state of Colorado to have them sign the release. The court intimated that doing so would put pressure on them to sign after already traveling to Colorado. Legally, that could be argued as duress, which voids a release or contract.

It is these small statements in decisions that must be watched and remembered so that in the future they are not used to void a release. You must have your clients sign a release as soon as possible and waiting until they travel to Colorado maybe to late to have the release survive in court.

In a rare statement, the court also commented on the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado and the need for releases.

Colorado also has a strong interest in this matter. Colorado has a booming outdoor-recreation industry, in the form of skiing, hiking, climbing, camping, horseback riding, and rafting excursions. Colorado relies on tax receipts from the outdoor-recreation industry. And while many out-of-state individuals partake in these activities within Colorado, they often purchase their tickets or book excursion reservations before entering Colorado. If we applied Texas law because it is the state where Mr. Hamric signed the liability release, we would essentially allow the other forty-nine states to regulate a key industry within Colorado.

The final analysis the court discussed on the issue was the legal issue of binding effect. When a contract does define what is required to create the contract, such as the signature of both parties to the contract, then the last act that gives life or that is necessary to form the contract is considered the point when the contract was valid. Where that last act occurs is the place where the contract should be litigated and the law that should be applied to the contract. Here the last act occurred when the deceased was in Colorado and the church group he was with, handed over the signed releases.

Further, the considerations and contacts listed in § 188 of the Restatement favor application of Colorado law. As to the first contact, in accord with the commentary, a contract is formed in “the place where occurred the last act necessary to give the contract binding effect.” Here, that act occurred when the church group provided the forms to WEI in Colorado; for, before the forms were provided to WEI, Mr. Hamric had not conveyed his acceptance to WEI, and WEI did not know whether Mr. Hamric would complete the forms and agree to the liability release.

The plaintiff then argued the release did not meet the requirements of Colorado or Texas law. The plaintiff argued the contract was ambiguous. Colorado has five factors that must be considered to determine if a contract is ambiguous.

In general accord with this statement, federal district courts in Colorado have discerned five factors from Colorado Supreme Court decisions to determine if a release is unambiguous: (1) “whether the agreement is written in simple and clear terms that are free from legal jargon”; (2) “whether the agreement is inordinately long or complicated”; (3) “whether the release specifically addresses the risk that caused the plaintiff’s injury”; (4) “whether the contract contains any emphasis to highlight the importance of the information it contains”; and (5) “whether the plaintiff was experienced in the activity making risk of that particular injury reasonably foreseeable.”

The court reviewed the release and found it was not ambiguous. Only one factor the last one, whether the plaintiff has experience in the activity, was possible and the Colorado Supreme Court had weakened that requirement.

The sole factor clearly cutting against enforcement of the liability release is Mr. Hamric’s lack of rappelling experience. However, as noted above, the Colorado Supreme Court has not found this consideration to be dispositive against the enforcement of a liability waiver.

So, the court first determined that the release should be reviewed under Colorado law and then determined that under Colorado law, the release was valid and stopped the claims of the plaintiffs.

Finally, I have to comment about one incredibly stupid move on the part of the defendant. As quoted in the facts and by the court.

Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course.

Besides eliminating the defense of assumption of the risk by doing this, you have created a situation where you have increased the chance of a participant getting injured or as in this case died. You cannot assume a risk which you don’t know about.

First, what are you doing taking beginners rappelling over an overhang. This is not a beginner move.

Second, you have a scary section you CANNOT hide it from people, especially if they cannot see it or understand it. You MUST inform your participants of the risk.

Third, the defendant did not tell the deceased how to correct the problem if they found themselves in a compromised position. That is the main goal of any safety talk, to tell your participants how to keep themselves safe and how to rescue or be rescue.

Fourth, you need to hire new guides because it is clear your current guides do not understand the gravity of the situation, let alone the legal liability, of doing this to someone.

So Now What?

However, for one simple paragraph, or actually, one sentence, this lawsuit would have never gotten off the ground. The issue is a jurisdiction and venue clause. If the release would have stated any lawsuit must be in Colorado and Colorado law must apply, this lawsuit would not have had a chance.

Of special note in writing a release in Colorado and a few other states, if you do not outline or identify the possible risks to the participant signing the release, the release may be ambiguous. This issue is facing more scrutiny by the plaintiffs, and you are seeing more courts have to deal with the issue. On top of that, failing to identify the possible risks, eliminates the defense of assumption of the risk, which might be needed.

The other issue that the court waded through that could have done the defendant in was the competing language in the two contracts. First why collect information you cannot use, such as medical information? Only a physician and the participant have the ability to make the decision, as to whether or not they can medically undertake an activity. If you, the activity, business or program, decide a person can’t participate because of a medical issue, you are practicing medicine without a license which is a crime.

That does not mean you cannot collect information that you might need if a participant is injured.

Worse the above in this case, was both documents attempted to include release language and neither agreement had language stated which one was controlling. If you have your participants sign multiple documents you need to make sure that the release is not voided by another contract. You need to make sure one contract is primary, and the other contact has nothing in it that cancels, modifies or revokes the release.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2021 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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One Comment on “One paragraph would have eliminated this lawsuit.”

  1. Riggs, Shawn says:

    Excellent review of this case.
    Thanks for your input.

    Shawn Riggs, AIC, AINS | General Adjuster
    1302 24th St. W., #149 | Billings, MT 59102-3861
    Cell 970-232-4707
    EMAIL: Shawn.Riggs@sedgwick.com
    http://www.sedgwick.com | Caring counts

    [Email signature logo – smaller]

    Like


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