New Jersey Federal District Court decision attempts to narrow New Jersey law on releases by restricting the scope of the release.

NJ only allows releases to be interpreted narrowly and can only cover one issue.

Martin v. Hudson Farm Club, Inc. (D. N.J. 2021)

State: New Jersey, United States District Court, D. New Jersey

Plaintiff: David Martin and Luisa Martin

Defendant: Hudson Farm Club, Inc.; Lukas Sparling; and Griffin & Howe, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Not stated specifically, obviously negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2021

Summary

The New Jersey appellate court found a release was void because it was written to cover a shooing event and NJ law does not allow releases to be interpreted broadly to cover the injury the plaintiff suffered, falling out of a trailer.

Facts

On September 19, 2017, Martin participated in a charitable clay shooting event at HFC in Andover, New Jersey. Upon arriving at HFC, Martin signed a Release and Hold Harmless Agreement (the “Release”), which consists of three “Sections” on a single page. (

The clay shooting event had multiple starting stations at which the charity participants would begin their shooting activities. While the charity participants at certain locations walked to those locations, others-including Martin- were transported to their starting location in wagons pulled by vehicles. Defendant Sparling drove the vehicle which pulled the wagon in which Martin rode. In route to the station, the tractor ascended an incline and, during the ascent, the vehicle stalled. While Sparling engaged the vehicles’ brakes, the vehicle and attached wagon began skidding backwards. Martin at some point during the descent leapt from the wagon and suffered injuries as a result.

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

The decision by the trial court came on a Motion for Summary Judgement. This case was brought in the Federal court system where decisions of the trial court are reported. State courts do not report decisions until they have been appealed to the appellate courts above the trial courts. Consequently, decisions by trial courts in the Federal system should be understood to be trial court decisions and in cases like these federal judges interpreting state law.

The defendant in this case filed a motion for summary judgement to dismiss the case based on the release. This decision then is based solely on the paperwork presented to the court without a trail or evidentiary hearings.

To start there were some evidentiary issues that the court pointed out as the plaintiff tried to wiggle out of prior sworn testimony. The plaintiff testified under oath at his deposition. After a deposition, you have the right to correct mistakes made by the court reporter during the deposition. A lot of time a lot of corrections are made to clean up testimony. In this case, fighting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff filed affidavits, sworn statements, there were contrary to his sworn testimony during his deposition.

At best, the testimony made during a deposition is used a trial to make the deponent look bad. The person on the stand says he saw ABC, and the opposing attorney asks if he remembers being deposed, and if he remembers stating he says XYZ. Either the person on the stand looks like a liar or wiggles he way out of the mess.

Here the judge just noticed the issue.

There can be no dispute that the Martin Affidavit attests to certain facts that are contrary to those which he testified under oath in prior sworn testimony. Martin’s deposition testimony clearly evidenced that he did not read the Release prior to signing the document…

Later, the judge closed the door on the plaintiff’s attempt to play the system by being deposed and stating one thing and then trying to change those sworn statements by providing affidavits that stated differently.

Martin cannot now-well after discovery closed and nearly two and half years after he was deposed-contradict his own testimony to give rise to a dispute of material fact in connection with the Parties’ competing motions. This is plainly improper, and the affidavit will be set aside as a sham affidavit.

The court then went into whether the release was valid under New Jersey law. New Jersey has a plain language statute, Plain Language Review Act (“PLRA”), N.J.S.A. 56:12, that applies to all consumer contracts. The statute has six factors the court must review to make sure the consumer contract does not violate the statute.

The statute sets forth six non-exclusive factors that a court “may consider” in its determination of whether a consumer contract is “clear, understandable and easily readable, ” including:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

The court found, other than the font size, that the release did not violate the plain language statute. However, the court found that since the plaintiff admitted he never read the release; the size of the font could not have any bearing on the legal issues.

New Jersey has a four-point test the release must meet to be valid.

…will be enforced if (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

The court started out reviewing why releases in these cases are such a problem in American law. US law in all fifty states requires business owners to keep their premises safe for their guests. Safe does not mean the elimination of the inherent risk of entering into a business or the open and obvious risk upon entering the premises. Nor is the business owner liable beyond the “ordinary duty owed to business invitees, including exercise of care commensurate with the nature of the risk, foreseeability of injury, and fairness in the circumstances.”

A release, therefore, waives the duties of a business owner to keep the premises safe. That bothers most courts hence you get the line “reviewed with enhanced scrutiny,” “views such exculpatory releases with disfavor,” “looked upon unfavorably” or “subject to close judicial scrutiny.” These are legal terms of art used to identify this chasm in the legal field. The duty of a business owner to keep the premises safe and ability for two parties to freely contract.

In this case, this issue allowed the court to look at the release only as to the risky activity, not broadly for any injury that could befall the plaintiff. As such, the release was for injury for engaging in shooting sports, not for riding on a trailer. The release is not reviewed broadly in New Jersey, thus the injury the plaintiff suffered since it was not from engaging in a shooting sports activity, was not covered.

By contrast, New Jersey courts will set aside exculpatory clauses where a potential claim arises from an activity that is not squarely within the ambit of the risky activity offered by an establishment.

The court further divided the risks in its analysis.

Here, the “inherent risky nature” of Defendants’ firearm business was immaterial to the injury Martin suffered. Martin’s injury occurred while he was being transported in a tractor-pulled wagon to his starting shooting location. The Release, while clearly referring to various elements of using a firearm-such as the “rental, instruction, [or] use . . . of firearms” and “discharge of firearms and firing of live ammunition”- does not self-evidently concern transportation while on the property.

The court then went on and held that were so disputed material facts, facts that can only be decided by a jury, that summary judgement could not be granted. This issue came back to whether or not the plaintiff had time to review the release before signing.

The court then circled back around to the “time to sign” issues. The plaintiff stated:

However, Plaintiffs contend that Martin had a limited opportunity to review and consider the Release prior to assenting to its terms. When asked at his deposition why he failed to read the Release, Martin testified that “there was about twenty people in line behind me, and we were a press for time to get the events started.

The court felt that this situation created “procedural unconscionability” if the plaintiff felt rushed to sign the release. If a release is unconscionable, then it is void in New Jersey. This is the fourth test to determine if a release is valid under New Jersey law.

A long appellate court opinion to determine two legal arguments as to why a release would not stop the claims of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

New Jersey is sliding into one of those states where releases are difficult to write. Over a decade ago the court held a parent could not sign away a minor’s right to sue, and this decision is following down the path of narrowing what a release can accomplish.

The issue that is frustrating is whether or not the plaintiff had time to read the release before signing. The law consistently states if you signed the document you read the document.

To prevent this from happening in your business you should do several things. First make sure you tell everyone who may be attending your event, program or business that they must sign a release. Second, make sure you make the release available to everyone in advance. Put the release on your website and allow participants and guests to download the release in advance of attending. Third put language in the release that states the signor agrees they have had ample time to read and review the release, and they understand what they are signing and what the effects of their signing will be.

It is also interesting that after finding the release did not protect against the plaintiff’s claims because the release was too broad, it also developed the defense of unconscionability which also sent the release back to trial.

It is also interesting that because the plaintiff admitted to not reading the release, the court found this did not violate the New Jersey consumer contract law, and then later found because he said he had no time to read the release; it was improper to hold him to the release.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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