Johnson v. Recreational Equipment, Inc., 2011 Wash. App. LEXIS 351

Johnson v. Recreational Equipment, Inc., 2011 Wash. App. LEXIS 351
Monika Johnson, Respondent, v. Recreational Equipment, Inc., Petitioner.
No. 65463-2-I
Court of Appeals of Washington, Division One
2011 Wash. App. LEXIS 351
January 6, 2011, Oral Argument
February 7, 2011, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]
Appeal from King County Superior Court. Docket No: 09-2-14346-3. Judgment or order under review. Date filed: 05/10/2010. Judge signing: Honorable Steven C Gonzalez.
DISPOSITION: Affirmed.
SUMMARY:
WASHINGTON OFFICIAL REPORTS SUMMARY Nature of Action: Action for damages for injuries sustained while riding a bicycle. The plaintiff brought the action as a product liability claim against the seller of the bicycle. The plaintiff alleged that her injuries were caused by a defect in the carbon fiber front fork of the bicycle. Both the bicycle and the carbon fiber fork, although not manufactured by the defendant, were marketed under the defendant’s brand name.
Nature of Action: Action for damages for injuries sustained while riding a bicycle. The plaintiff brought the action as a product liability claim against the seller of the bicycle. The plaintiff alleged that her injuries were caused by a defect in the carbon fiber front fork of the bicycle. Both the bicycle and the carbon fiber fork, although not manufactured by the defendant, were marketed under the defendant’s brand name.
Superior Court: The Superior Court for King County, No. 09-2-14346-3, Steven C. Gonzalez, J., on May 10, 2010, denied the defendant’s motion to be permitted to seek to have the jury allocate fault to the manufacturer of the carbon fiber fork and granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of strict liability.
Court of Appeals: Holding that the defendant’s statutory vicarious liability for the manufacturing defect precludes a right to have fault allocated to the manufacturer and that the factual averments in the record were sufficient for the trial court to rule on the issue of strict liability as a matter of law, the court affirms the trial court’s rulings.
HEADNOTES WASHINGTON OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES
[1] Statutes — Construction — Review — Standard of Review. Questions of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo.
[2] Statutes — Construction — Legislative Intent — In General. A court’s primary duty in interpreting a statute is to implement legislative intent.
[3] Statutes — Construction — Unambiguous Language — Statutory Language — In General. The meaning of an unambiguous statute is derived from the statute’s plain language.
[4] Statutes — Construction — Superfluous Provisions. A statute must be construed so that no provision is rendered meaningless or superfluous.
[5] Products Liability — Defect — Seller Liability — Own Brand Product — Statutory Provisions — Nature of Liability — Vicarious Liability. RCW 7.72.040(2)(e) holds a product seller liable for a manufacturing defect in a product marketed under the product sellers’s own trade name or brand name even though the manufacturer necessarily is the entity that actually caused the defect. The statute creates a form of vicarious liability that enables a claimant injured by a defectively manufactured product to recover fully from the product seller where the seller branded the product as its own.
[6] Statutes — Construction — Meaningful Interpretation — In General. Because a court assumes that the legislature does not engage in meaningless acts, a statute should not be construed as if the legislature has.
[7] Statutes — Repeal — By Implication — Disfavored Status. Implied repeals of statutes are disfavored; courts have a duty to interpret statutes so as to give them effect.
[8] Products Liability — Defect — Seller Liability — Own Brand Product — Allocation of Fault — To Manufacturer — In General. A product seller that is subject to vicarious liability for a manufacturing defect in a product under RCW 7.72.040(2)(e) because the product is marketed under the product sellers’s own trade name or brand name does not have a right to an allocation of fault to the manufacturer on the same manufacturing defect claim. This rule is not inconsistent with the law of comparative fault as set forth in chapter 4.22 RCW because RCW 7.72.040(2)(e) provides that the seller’s proportionate amount of damages is the full amount of damages, in which case no apportionment of fault is necessary to ensure that the seller pays only its share of damages.
[9] Products Liability — Defect — Seller Liability — Own Brand Product — Allocation of Fault — Private Contract. The rule of RCW 7.72.040(2)(e) that a product seller can be vicariously liable for a manufacturing defect in a product marketed under the product seller’s own trade name or brand name suggests a legislative intent to leave to the marketplace the means of allocating risk between commercial entities. The Washington Product Liability Act (ch. 7.72 RCW) presupposes a contractual relationship between the product seller and the manufacturer, with or without an intermediary supplier, and, rather than legislatively imposing a means of risk allocation, assumes that sophisticated commercial parties will contract to allocate risk between themselves.
[10] Judgment — Summary Judgment — Burden on Moving Party — Absence of Factual Issue. In a summary judgment proceeding, the party moving for summary judgment has the burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact.
[11] Judgment — Summary Judgment — Determination — Single Conclusion From Evidence. Summary judgment is appropriate if reasonable persons could reach only one conclusion from the facts submitted.
[12] Judgment — Summary Judgment — Issues of Fact — Material Fact — What Constitutes. For purposes of a summary judgment proceeding, a material fact is a fact on which the outcome of the litigation depends, in whole or in part.
[13] Judgment — Summary Judgment — Affidavits — Sufficiency — Evidentiary Facts. An affidavit submitted in response to a motion for summary judgment does not raise a genuine issue of fact unless it sets forth facts that are evidentiary in nature, i.e., information as to what took place–an act, an incident, a reality–as distinguished from supposition or opinion. Ultimate facts, conclusions of fact, and conclusory statements of fact or legal conclusions are insufficient to raise a question of fact.
[14] Products Liability — Defect — Strict Liability — Manufacturing Defect — Deviation From Manufacturer’s Specifications or Standards — Proof — Expert Testimony — Sufficiency. In a strict liability product liability action alleging that a product was not reasonably safe in construction, where the manufacturing defect is such that no conceivable performance standard would call for the product to be manufactured that way, expert testimony that such defect caused the product’s failure can be sufficient to establish that the product deviated in some material way from the manufacturer’s design specifications or performance standards, or deviated in some material way from otherwise identical units of the same product line, within the meaning of RCW 7.72.030(2)(a). Direct evidence of the manufacturer’s design specifications or performance standards is not required in this situation.
[15] Judgment — Summary Judgment — Burden on Nonmoving Party — Averment of Specific Facts — Speculation. A party opposing a motion for summary judgment cannot rely on speculation and conjecture to raise a genuine issue of material fact.
[16] Trial — Bifurcation of Issues — Review — Standard of Review. A trial court’s decision to order separate trials is reviewed for abuse of discretion.
[17] Products Liability — Defect — Seller Liability — Own Brand Product — Contribution — Third Party Action — Against Manufacturer — Bifurcation of Trial. In a product liability action alleging that a product seller is vicariously liable for a manufacturing defect in a product marketed under the product seller’s own trade name or brand name, the trial court may properly rule that any contribution claim by the seller against the product’s manufacturer must be tried separately because joining the manufacturer as a third party defendant would delay and prejudice the plaintiff’s claim against the seller. The trial court may properly bifurcate the claims despite negative consequences for the seller’s contribution rights.
COUNSEL: V.L. Woolston and Paul S. Graves (of Perkins Coie LLP), for petitioner.
Robert L. Christie, Jason M. Rosen, and Thomas P. Miller (of Christie Law Group PLLC), for respondent.
JUDGES: AUTHOR: Stephen J. Dwyer, C.J. We concur: Michael S. Spearman, J., C. Kenneth Grosse, J.
OPINION BY: Stephen J. Dwyer
OPINION
¶1 Dwyer, C.J. — [HN1] The Washington product liability act (WPLA), chapter 7.72 RCW, sets forth a statutory form of vicarious liability whereby a product seller assumes the liability of a manufacturer where a product is marketed under the seller’s brand name. Because permitting the product seller to attribute fault to the actual manufacturer would abrogate this provision of the WPLA, principles of comparative fault do not apply, notwithstanding the possibility that statutory contribution may thereby be precluded. Such a result is not in contravention of our state’s statutory comparative fault system, as commercial entities [*2] can themselves contract to allocate liability where the WPLA’s vicarious liability provision applies.
¶2 Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s ruling that Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) is not entitled to seek to allocate fault to the manufacturer of the defective product that REI branded as its own. We also conclude that the trial court erred neither by finding REI strictly liable for the injuries caused by the defective product nor by ruling that any third party claim by REI against the manufacturer would be severed for trial.
I
¶3 In November 2007, Monika Johnson was riding her bicycle along a downtown Seattle sidewalk when the front carbon fiber fork of the bicycle, which attaches the bicycle’s front wheel to its frame, “sheared from the steer tube suddenly and without warning.” Clerk’s Papers (CP) at 57. The fork and front wheel detached from the frame of the bicycle, and Johnson fell face first onto the sidewalk, sustaining serious injuries.
¶4 Johnson brought an action against REI pursuant to the WPLA, alleging that her injuries were caused by a defect in the carbon fiber fork. Both the bicycle and the carbon fiber fork, although not manufactured by REI, were marketed under REI’s [*3] brand name, Novara. Johnson had purchased the Novara brand bicycle from REI in 2002. In 2005, she had taken the bicycle to REI for repairs following a collision with a car door. The Novara carbon fiber fork that fractured in November 2007 was installed on the bicycle during those 2005 repairs.
¶5 Johnson did not name the manufacturer of the fork, Aprebic Industry Company, Ltd., as a defendant in the action. REI filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking a ruling that it was entitled to ask the jury to allocate fault to Aprebic pursuant to Washington’s comparative fault system, set forth in chapter 4.22 RCW, or, in the alternative, requesting leave to file a third party complaint against Aprebic. In response, Johnson filed a motion for partial summary judgment, asserting that REI was strictly liable for her injuries.
¶6 In support of her summary judgment motion, Johnson submitted to the trial court the declaration of Gerald Zaminski, a professional engineer, who examined the bicycle and the carbon fiber fork and destructively tested the fork. He found that the section of the fork where the fracture occurred “was manufactured using a relatively small number of [carbon fiber] layers.” [*4] CP at 106. He concluded that “[t]he small number of carbon fiber layers and their orientation interface resulted in the nucleation and propagation of cracking” and that this cracking “led to the catastrophic fracture and failure of the fork.” CP at 106. According to Zaminski, the thickness of the carbon fiber layering where the fracture occurred was “just a fraction of the thickness of the carbon fiber layup elsewhere in the fork and steerer tube.” CP at 106. He stated that the carbon fiber layers also “displayed voids, gaps, separations, and kinks, which are all indicative of defective manufacturing.” CP at 106. Zaminski also observed that the carbon fiber layers at the point of the fracture were “starved of epoxy,” making them “more susceptible to failure.” CP at 107. Zaminski declared that “[t]he orientation and makeup of the carbon fiber layers can only occur during manufacturing; they are not defects that can occur after the product has been manufactured.” CP at 107.
¶7 In response, REI submitted the declaration of David Mitchell, also a professional engineer, who inspected the bicycle and carbon fiber fork. Mitchell asserted that “there is presently insufficient information to rule [*5] out the accumulation of prior damage to the front fork as the cause of ultimate fork separation.” CP at 178. He stated that “the nature of the fracture was not determined” and that additional laboratory testing should be conducted, including loading an examplar fork to determine its breaking strength. CP at 177. He also noted that the bicycle itself was “clearly a high mileage vehicle” that displayed “substantial wear and tear.” CP at 176. Mitchell further suggested that a 2006 collision involving the bicycle, in which the rear wheel was damaged, could have contributed to the fork’s fracture. He opined that “[i]f an element of that crash involved the front fork without creating visible damage, then it could be considered an initiating event for the fracture that serves as the basis for this law suit.” CP at 178.
¶8 The trial court denied REI’s motion to be permitted to seek to have the jury allocate fault to Aprebic and granted Johnson’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of strict liability. The trial court ruled that “[d]efendant REI has the liability of a ‘manufacturer’ as set forth in RCW 7.72.040(2)(e) and is strictly liable as a matter of law for all damages and injuries that [*6] plaintiff sustained.” 1 CP at 196. The trial court further determined that the fact that Aprebic is the actual manufacturer of the fork has no bearing on REI’s liability to Johnson, as “REI has the same liability as the actual manufacturer.” CP at 196. The trial court concluded that Johnson could look to REI exclusively for compensation for her injuries. Although the trial court denied REI’s request to attribute fault to Aprebic, it did grant to REI leave to join Aprebic as a third party defendant. However, the trial court noted that if REI did so, the court would “require separate trials under CR 20(b) to prevent delay and prejudice to [Johnson].” CP at 198.
1 The trial court noted that its ruling would not “preclude REI from asserting that [Johnson] was contributorily negligent if any facts to support this are developed.” CP at 196.
¶9 REI sought discretionary review of the trial court’s rulings. A commissioner of this court granted discretionary review of the trial court’s rulings on three issues: (1) whether comparative fault principles apply to Johnson’s claims, (2) whether REI is strictly liable for Johnson’s injuries, and (3) whether any third party claim brought by REI against Aprebic [*7] should be severed for trial.
II
¶10 REI first contends that the statutory comparative fault system adopted by our legislature in 1986 demands that it be permitted to ask the jury to allocate fault to Aprebic for the fork’s manufacturing defect. Because the WPLA expressly provides that REI, by selling the defective product under its own brand name, assumes the liability of the manufacturer, we disagree.
[1] ¶11 [HN2] Questions of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo. Happy Bunch, LLC v. Grandview N., LLC, 142 Wn. App. 81, 88, 173 P.3d 959 (2007). Whether the WPLA permits a product seller that brands a defective product as its own to attribute fault to the actual manufacturer is a question of statutory interpretation; thus, we review the question de novo.
[2-4] ¶12 [HN3] Our primary duty in interpreting a statute is to discern and implement legislative intent. Dep’t of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4 (2002). Where a statute is unambiguous, we derive its meaning from the plain language of the statute. Campbell & Gwinn, 146 Wn.2d at 9-10. Moreover, we must construe statutes such that no provision is rendered meaningless or superfluous. Whatcom County v. City of Bellingham, 128 Wn.2d 537, 546, 909 P.2d 1303 (1996).
¶13 [HN4] In [*8] 1981, our legislature codified the law of product liability by enacting the Washington product liability act (WPLA), chapter 7.72 RCW. The WPLA distinguishes between and imposes different standards of liability on manufacturers and product sellers for harm caused by defective products. See RCW 7.72.030, .040. As a general rule, manufacturers of defective products are held to a higher standard of liability, including strict liability where injury is caused by a manufacturing defect or a breach of warranty. RCW 7.72.030(2). 2 In contrast, product sellers are ordinarily liable only for negligence, breach of express warranty, or intentional misrepresentation. RCW 7.72.040(1). In limited circumstances, however, product sellers are subject to “the liability of a manufacturer,” including where “[t]he product was marketed under a trade name or brand name of the product seller.” RCW 7.72.040(2), (2)(e). 3
2 RCW 7.72.030(2) provides, in pertinent part:
[HN5] (2) A product manufacturer is subject to strict liability to a claimant if the claimant’s harm was proximately caused by the fact that the product was not reasonably safe in construction or not reasonably safe because it did not conform to the manufacturer’s [*9] express warranty or to the implied warranties under Title 62A RCW.
(a) A product is not reasonably safe in construction if, when the product left the control of the manufacturer, the product deviated in some material way from the design specifications or performance standards of the manufacturer, or deviated in some material way from otherwise identical units of the same product line.
3 The limited circumstances in which a product seller assumes the liability of a manufacturer are set forth in RCW 7.70.040(2), which provides:
[HN6] (2) A product seller, other than a manufacturer, shall have the liability of a manufacturer to the claimant if:
(a) No solvent manufacturer who would be liable to the claimant is subject to service of process under the laws of the claimant’s domicile or the state of Washington; or
(b) The court determines that it is highly probable that the claimant would be unable to enforce a judgment against any manufacturer; or
(c) The product seller is a controlled subsidiary of a manufacturer, or the manufacturer is a controlled subsidiary of the product seller; or
(d) The product seller provided the plans or specifications for the manufacture or preparation of the product and such [*10] plans or specifications were a proximate cause of the defect in the product; or
(e) The product was marketed under a trade name or brand name of the product seller.
[5-9] ¶14 [HN7] The WPLA explicitly provides that “[a] product seller, other than a manufacturer, [has] the liability of a manufacturer” where “[t]he product was marketed under a trade name or brand name of the product seller.” RCW 7.72.040(2), (2)(e). Although, absent this provision, only a manufacturer could be held liable for a manufacturing defect, RCW 7.72.030(2), our legislature has chosen to hold particular product sellers liable for such acts–despite the fact that the manufacturer of the product is necessarily the entity that actually caused the defect where a product is defectively manufactured.
¶15 Thus, [HN8] by imposing liability on sellers of branded products for manufacturing defects–which, inevitably, are caused by acts of the manufacturer–our legislature created a statutory form of vicarious liability that enables the claimant injured by a defectively manufactured product to recover fully from the product seller where the seller branded the product as its own. See 16 David K. DeWolf & Keller W. Allen, Washington Practice: Tort Law & [*11] Practice, § 3.1, at 116 (3d ed. 2006) (“In contrast to direct liability, which is liability for breach of one’s own duty of care, vicarious liability is liability for the breach of someone else’s duty of care.”). Because a seller of a branded product is vicariously liable for manufacturing defects, permitting REI–the product seller liable as the manufacturer pursuant to RCW 7.72.040(2)(e)–to seek to allocate fault to Aprebic–the actual manufacturer of the defective product–would undermine the statutory scheme of the WPLA.
¶16 REI incorrectly contends that RCW 7.72.040(2)(e), rather than creating a statutory form of vicarious liability, instead merely imposes on sellers of branded products the liability standard to which manufacturers are held. Thus, according to REI, although product sellers are ordinarily liable only for negligence, breach of an express warranty, or intentional misrepresentation, pursuant to RCW 7.72.040(1), sellers of branded products may also be found liable, pursuant to RCW 7.72.040(2)(e), for design and construction defects, inadequate warnings, or breach of an implied warranty–acts for which generally only manufacturers are held liable. See RCW 7.72.030(1), (2). For [*12] this reason, REI argues that it should be permitted to attribute fault to Aprebic. This contention fails for two reasons.
¶17 First, [HN9] had our legislature merely imposed on sellers of branded products the liability standard of manufacturers, as REI contends that it did, the legislature would have engaged in a meaningless act. RCW 7.72.030(2) provides that “[a] product manufacturer is subject to strict liability to a claimant if the claimant’s harm was proximately caused by the fact that the product was not reasonably safe in construction.” The statute defines a manufacturer as “a product seller who designs, produces, makes, fabricates, constructs, or remanufactures the relevant product … before its sale to a user or consumer.” RCW 7.72.010(2). Here, REI, because it does not design, make, fabricate, construct, or remanufacture bicycle forks, could never be found by a trier of fact to have acted as an actual manufacturer. Thus, it could never be proved to have acted in such a way so as to expose it to direct liability as a manufacturer. Indeed, were it otherwise, the legislature would not have needed to enact RCW 7.72.040(2)(e)–by acting as a manufacturer, REI would be subject to direct [*13] manufacturer liability pursuant to RCW 7.72.030(2), rendering RCW 7.72.040(2)(e) superfluous. We will not assume that the legislature, by enacting RCW 7.72.040(2)(e), engaged in a meaningless act. See JJR Inc. v. City of Seattle, 126 Wn.2d 1, 10, 891 P.2d 720 (1995) (“When interpreting statutes, the court must assume that the Legislature does not engage in meaningless acts.”).
¶18 Similarly, [HN10] construing RCW 7.72.040(2)(e) such that a product seller could seek to allocate fault to a manufacturer would render the provision itself meaningless, as the product seller could always avoid the allocation of any fault to it simply by attributing fault to the actual manufacturer. See Whatcom County, 128 Wn.2d. at 546 (noting that statutes must be construed such that all language is given effect and no provision in rendered meaningless or superfluous). Certainly, as a factual matter, where a manufacturing defect is at issue, the manufacturer–not the product seller–actually caused the defect. Thus, were allocation of fault principles to apply, the manufacturer would necessarily be 100 percent responsible for the defectively manufactured product. Also necessarily, the product seller would avoid all such [*14] liability. Such a result would contravene our legislature’s clear intent that a product seller that brands a product as its own assumes the liability of the manufacturer. 4
4 The legislative history of the WPLA includes a statement that [HN11] where the nonmanufacturing product seller “adopts the product as its own, [it] has, in a sense, waived [its] right to immunity and should be subject[ed] to a manufacturer’s liability.” Senate Journal, 47th Leg., Reg. Sess., at 625 (Wash. 1981).
¶19 [HN12] Although RCW 7.72.040(2)(e) does not permit the product seller to seek to allocate fault to the manufacturer, this provision is not inconsistent with Washington’s comparative fault system, set forth in chapter 4.22 RCW. REI argues to the contrary, contending that our legislature, by adopting comparative fault as the general rule for tort liability, endorsed the principle that “every entity responsible for committing a tort should be liable to the plaintiff based on its own individual share of the total fault, no more and no less.” Br. of Pet’r at 16. This overly broad assertion assumes that, by enacting RCW 4.22.070, our legislature eliminated vicarious liability, which it expressly did not do. Indeed, this specific [*15] statute itself explicitly retains principles of common law vicarious liability, in that it provides that “[a] party shall be responsible for the fault of another … where both were acting in concert or when a person was acting as an agent or servant of the party.” RCW 4.22.070(1)(a). Similarly, the WPLA provision at issue here is a statutory imposition of vicarious liability wherein the seller of a branded product is held liable for the actions of the manufacturer, notwithstanding that the product seller did not actually manufacture the defective product.
¶20 Permitting REI to attribute fault to Aprebic would effectively abrogate RCW 7.72.040(2)(e), as the product seller would never assume the liability that the legislature intended the seller to bear where the seller brands the product as its own. [HN13] “Authority is legion that implied repeals of statutes are disfavored and courts have a duty to interpret statutes so as to give them effect.” Bellevue Sch. Dist. No. 405 v. Brazier Constr. Co., 103 Wn.2d 111, 122, 691 P.2d 178 (1984). Because the WPLA and our state’s statutory comparative fault system can be reconciled, we will not hold that our legislature intended, by passing the tort reform [*16] act of 1986, to impliedly repeal RCW 7.72.040(2)(e). See Bellevue Sch. Dist., 103 Wn.2d at 123 (“Repeals by implication are not favored and will not be found to exist where earlier and later statutes may logically stand side by side and be held valid.”). We are loathe to find a silent repeal, and we decline to do so here.
¶21 Moreover, [HN14] the fact that a product seller such as REI is not permitted to seek to allocate fault to the product manufacturer does not suggest an oversight by the legislature. Rather, it suggests a legislative intent to leave to the marketplace the means of allocating risk between commercial entities. The WPLA presupposes a contractual relationship between the product seller and the manufacturer, with or without an intermediary supplier, and, rather than legislatively imposing a means of risk allocation, assumes that sophisticated commercial parties will contract to allocate risk between themselves. Were we to hold that the WPLA permits REI to attribute fault to Aprebic, we would not only be acting in contradiction to the legislature’s clear intent–we would also be upsetting three decades of reliance on a statute that allows product sellers and manufacturers to themselves [*17] determine how best to allocate risk.
¶22 REI incorrectly asserts that Washington case law requires that it be permitted to attribute fault to Aprebic. REI cites Hiner v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 138 Wn.2d 248, 978 P.2d 505 (1999), for the proposition that comparative fault principles apply in all product liability cases. The plaintiff therein, a motorist injured in a collision, brought a product liability suit against the manufacturer of the snow tires that had been installed only on the vehicle’s front wheels. Hiner, 138 Wn.2d at 251. The snow tire manufacturer raised the affirmative defense of entity liability, “arguing that liability should be shared by the installer of the studded snow tires, the manufacturer of the Goodyear tires on the rear wheels, and the manufacturer of the Hyundai automobile.” Hiner, 138 Wn.2d at 259.
¶23 The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the affirmative defense, reasoning that the comparative fault statute permitted a defendant manufacturer to apportion fault only to those entities liable to the plaintiff pursuant to the WPLA. Hiner v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 91 Wn. App. 722, 736, 959 P.2d 1158 (1998). Our Supreme Court reversed, [*18] holding that “[t]he plain language of the contributory fault statute does not limit apportioning fault only to other manufacturers and product sellers in a product liability case.” Hiner, 138 Wn.2d at 264. The court based its reasoning on the broad definition of “fault” set forth in Washington’s comparative fault statute, which states that “fault” includes “acts or omissions … that subject a person to strict tort liability or liability on a product liability claim.” RCW 4.22.015.
¶24 The Hiner decision is inapposite. In Hiner, the manufacturer of the snow tires sought to attribute fault to other entities that, if found to be at fault, would be liable pursuant to theories of liability different than the theory of liability pursuant to which the manufacturer was liable. Here, REI contends that it should be permitted to attribute fault to another entity that, if found to be at fault, would be liable pursuant to precisely the same theory of liability–“the liability of a manufacturer”–as that of REI. REI, which pursuant to the WPLA has the liability of the manufacturer, seeks to attribute fault to Aprebic based on the theory that Aprebic is the actual manufacturer. Because REI is vicariously [*19] liable for Aprebic’s acts, the basis of both entities’ alleged liability is the same. Put another way, in Hiner the fault sought to be allocated was not the same fault. In Hiner, the fault sought to be allocated resulted from different acts; here, the fault sought to be allocated arises from the same acts. Hiner is not inconsistent with the decision we reach today. 5
5 Similarly, the decision in Lundberg v. All-Pure Chemical Co., 55 Wn. App. 181, 777 P.2d 15 (1989), does not apply here. The court therein determined that the jury could be instructed on the plaintiff’s alleged comparative negligence in a product liability action, notwithstanding that the plaintiff’s claim alleged strict liability. Lundberg, 55 Wn. App. at 186-87. Finding that the legislature intended the comparative fault doctrine to apply to all actions based on fault, including strict liability and product liability claims, the court held that there is “no reason to distinguish between negligence and strict liability actions for purposes of instructing a jury on the plaintiff’s comparative fault.” Lundberg, 55 Wn. App. at 186. Johnson’s comparative fault is not at issue. Rather, the issue here is whether fault can be [*20] attributed to another entity where that entity is liable on the same basis and based on the same facts as is the defendant seeking to attribute fault and where permitting the defendant to attribute fault would contravene the purpose of the relevant statute.
¶25 Moreover, [HN15] the purpose of the comparative fault statute is “that fault be apportioned and … an entity be required to pay that entity’s proportionate share of damages only.” Washburn v. Beatt Equip. Co., 120 Wn.2d 246, 294, 840 P.2d 860 (1992). Pursuant to RCW 7.72.040(2)(e), REI’s proportionate share of damages is the full amount of damages. Thus, unlike in Hiner, no apportionment of fault is necessary to ensure that the defendant pays only its share of damages.
¶26 Applicable case law further undermines REI’s assertion that it should be permitted to attribute fault to Aprebic. In Farmers Insurance Co. of Washington v. Waxman Industries, Inc., 132 Wn. App. 142, 148, 130 P.3d 874 (2006), we reversed vacation of a default judgment holding Waxman strictly liable as the “manufacturer” of a defective water supply line that was sold under the Waxman trade name. Waxman’s motion to vacate stated that “defects in hoses ‘often’ can be attributed [*21] to component parts of the hose manufactured by some other entity.” Waxman, 132 Wn. App. at 146. Waxman further contended that it did not manufacture the allegedly defective water supply line. Waxman, 132 Wn. App. at 146.
¶27 We held that Waxman’s evidence was insufficient to support a meritorious defense as required for vacation of a default judgment. Waxman, 132 Wn. App. at 145. Given that [HN16] a product seller that brands a product under its trade name is subject to the liability of the manufacturer pursuant to RCW 7.72.040(2)(e), we concluded that “[t]he materials submitted by Waxman do not explain how Waxman could avoid a finding of liability simply by proving that some other entity actually manufactured the supply line.” Waxman, 132 Wn. App. at 147. Furthermore, we determined that “whatever right of indemnity and contribution Waxman may be able to establish against other entities is not a defense to Waxman’s own liability.” Waxman, 132 Wn. App. at 148. The principles we set forth in Waxman support the conclusion that REI may not seek to allocate fault to Aprebic, the manufacturer, where it assumed the liability of the manufacturer.
¶28 [HN17] RCW 7.72.040(2)(e) creates a statutory form of vicarious [*22] liability whereby the seller of a branded product assumes the liability of the manufacturer. Because permitting such a product seller to seek to allocate fault to the actual manufacturer pursuant to comparative fault principles would undermine our legislature’s intent in enacting this statutory provision, the trial court did not err by concluding that REI could not seek to allocate fault to Aprebic.
III
¶29 REI next contends that the trial court erred by concluding that REI is strictly liable for Johnson’s injuries. Specifically, REI asserts that the trial court erred by resolving issues of material fact in favor of Johnson and by finding that the alleged manufacturing defects were the cause of her injuries. We disagree.
[10, 11] ¶30 [HN18] “In reviewing a summary judgment order, the appellate court evaluates the matter de novo, performing the same inquiry as the trial court.” Snohomish County v. Rugg, 115 Wn. App. 218, 224, 61 P.3d 1184 (2002). Summary judgment is appropriate only where “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and … the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” CR 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine issue as to any [*23] material fact. Lamon v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 91 Wn.2d 345, 349, 588 P.2d 1346 (1979). All reasonable inferences must be considered in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and summary judgment may be granted only if a reasonable person could reach but one conclusion. Rugg, 115 Wn. App. at 224.
[12, 13] ¶31 [HN19] A material fact ” ‘is a fact upon which the outcome of the litigation depends, in whole or in part.’ ” Lamon, 91 Wn.2d at 349 (quoting Morris v. McNicol, 83 Wn.2d 491, 494-95, 519 P.2d 7 (1974)). An affidavit submitted in support of or in response to a motion for summary judgment “does not raise a genuine issue of fact unless it sets forth facts evidentiary in nature, i.e., information as to what took place, an act, an incident, a reality as distinguished from supposition or opinion.” Rugg, 115 Wn. App. at 224. “[U]ltimate facts, conclusions of fact, conclusory statements of fact or legal conclusions are insufficient to raise a question of fact.” Rugg, 115 Wn. App. at 224.
[14] ¶32 The WPLA provides that “[a] product manufacturer is subject to strict liability to a claimant if the claimant’s harm was proximately caused by the fact that the product was not reasonably safe in construction.” RCW 7.72.030(2).
A [*24] product is not reasonably safe in construction if, when the product left the control of the manufacturer, the product deviated in some material way from the design specifications or performance standards of the manufacturer, or deviated in some material way from otherwise identical units of the same product line.
RCW 7.72.030(2)(a).
¶33 REI first contends that, because the statutory definition of a manufacturing defect requires that the product deviate from the manufacturer’s design specifications or performance standards, Johnson cannot prove that the bicycle’s fork contained a manufacturing defect without submitting to the court direct evidence of Aprebic’s design specifications or performance standards. REI asserts that “there is no evidence in the record to establish that the fork at issue deviated from Aprebic’s design standards.” Br. of Pet’r at 34. To the contrary, Johnson submitted to the trial court evidence–in the form of Zaminski’s declaration–that the fork fractured due to insufficient carbon fiber layering. This evidence itself supports the conclusion that the fork “deviated in some material way from the design specifications or performance standards of the manufacturer,” RCW 7.72.030(2)(a), [*25] as no conceivable performance standard would call for the manufacture of a carbon fiber fork that fractures as Johnson’s did. Although [HN20] on summary judgment all reasonable inferences must be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party, Rugg, 115 Wn. App. at 224, no reasonable inference can be drawn that a carbon fiber fork that fractures in this way performed in accordance with any manufacturer’s performance standards. 6
6 Moreover, [HN21] the purpose of holding sellers of branded products vicariously liable for manufacturing defects would be undermined were we to require the claimant to conduct discovery from the manufacturer itself, particularly where the manufacturer is not a party to the action. Where such evidence is not necessary to demonstrate that the product was, indeed, defective, the trial court did not err by not requiring Johnson to produce direct evidence of Aprebic’s performance standards.
¶34 REI next contends that genuine issues of material fact regarding causation remain, thus precluding summary judgment. However, despite REI’s assertion that the bicycle displayed “substantial wear and tear,” REI does not establish how the fact that the bicycle was a “high mileage vehicle” explains the [*26] fracture of the carbon fiber fork. See CP at 176. Thus, the alleged “wear and tear” on the bicycle is not a ” ‘fact upon which the outcome of the litigation depends.’ ” See Lamon, 91 Wn.2d at 349 (quoting Morris, 83 Wn.2d at 494-95).
[15] ¶35 REI further speculates that the 2006 collision, which resulted in damage to the back tire of the bicycle, may have been a contributing cause of the fracture of the fork. However, REI’s evidence does not explain how that collision could have contributed to the fracture. Moreover, REI’s evidence refutes neither Johnson’s expert’s assertion that the insufficient carbon fiber layering is a defect that can occur only during manufacture nor the same expert’s conclusion that this particular defect caused the fork to fracture. Rather, REI conjectures that “[i]f an element of that crash involved the front fork without creating visible damage, then it could be considered an initiating event for the fracture that serves as the basis for this law suit.” CP at 178. REI cannot rely on speculation and conjecture to raise a genuine issue of material fact. See Rugg, 115 Wn. App. at 224.
¶36 The trial court did not erroneously resolve issues of material fact in favor of Johnson. [*27] To the contrary, its grant of summary judgment was appropriate because REI failed to raise any genuine issue of material fact as to its liability for Johnson’s injuries.
IV
¶37 Finally, REI contends that the trial court erred by ruling that any claim brought by REI against Aprebic would be bifurcated for trial from Johnson’s claim. We disagree.
[16, 17] ¶38 [HN22] A trial court’s decision to order separate trials is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Maki v. Aluminum Bldg. Prods., 73 Wn.2d 23, 25, 436 P.2d 186 (1968) (“The right to order separate trials is a matter of discretion vested in the trial court by the rules.”). Civil Rule 20(b) permits the trial court to order separate trials to prevent delay or prejudice where a party would be delayed or “put to expense by the inclusion of a party against whom he asserts no claim and who asserts no claim against him.” Here, the trial court acted well within its discretion in finding that permitting REI to join Aprebic as a third party defendant would delay and prejudice the adjudication of Johnson’s claim and, thus, ruling that any claim brought by REI against Aprebic should be bifurcated for trial.
¶39 Notwithstanding that the trial court acted within its discretion [*28] pursuant to CR 20(b), REI contends that the trial court’s bifurcation ruling was erroneous because the court “appeared to be unaware of the impact such bifurcation would have on the viability of REI’s contribution claim.” Br. of Pet’r at 41-42. REI and Aprebic cannot be jointly and severally liable for Johnson’s injuries, as required to establish a statutory right to contribution, unless a judgment is entered against both parties in Johnson’s suit. See [HN23] RCW 4.22.040 (noting that a right to contribution exists where the parties are jointly and severally liable); RCW 4.22.070(1)(b) (providing that only those defendants against whom judgment is entered may be jointly and severally liable for the claimant’s injuries). Thus, REI contends that the trial court abused its discretion by misapplying the law in issuing a ruling that would compromise REI’s right to seek contribution from Aprebic.
¶40 However, notwithstanding that REI may be precluded from seeking statutory contribution from Aprebic, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by misapplying the law. Indeed, [HN24] this is not the first time that a court has upheld a proper application of the law despite negative consequences for a party’s [*29] contribution rights. In Kottler v. State, 136 Wn.2d 437, 439, 963 P.2d 834 (1998), our Supreme Court held that a settling party in a civil tort action is not entitled to seek contribution from another alleged tortfeasor where joint and several liability did not arise pursuant to the exceptions set forth in RCW 4.22.070. Because no judgment had been entered against the settling defendant, and, thus, joint and several liability did not arise, RCW 4.22.040 precluded the settling party from seeking contribution. See Kottler, 136 Wn.2d at 439; RCW 4.22.040 (“A right of contribution exists between or among two or more persons who are jointly and severally liable upon the same indivisible claim for the same injury.”).
¶41 Justice Talmadge wrote separately “to urge legislative attention toward the anomalous result this case requires.” Kottler, 136 Wn.2d at 450 (Talmadge, J., concurring). Although he “agree[d] with the majority’s resolution because the statutory language and our case law compel its result,” Kottler, 136 Wn.2d at 450, Justice Talmadge remarked that it appeared that proper application of the 1981 and 1986 tort reform acts effected a result that contradicted the legislature’s intent [*30] in enacting those very statutes. Kottler, 136 Wn.2d at 450. Thus, “[t]o more effectively execute [the legislature’s] intent,” Justice Talmadge implored the legislature to “address[ ] and correct[ ] this unfortunate situation in the tort law.” Kottler, 136 Wn.2d at 453. Notwithstanding Justice Talmadge’s appeal to the legislature, it has amended neither the 1981 nor the 1986 act to address this “anomalous result.”
¶42 Here, as in Kottler, a result dictated by proper application of the law leads to an “anomalous result” in that REI’s contribution rights are compromised. Here, also as in Kottler, the existence of such an anomaly suggests neither a misunderstanding nor a misapplication of the law. Rather, the trial court here properly understood and applied the law, notwithstanding that REI’s right to seek contribution may have been thereby compromised.
¶43 The trial court did not abuse its discretion by ruling that any claim by REI against Aprebic would be bifurcated for trial from Johnson’s claim. 7
7 REI additionally contends that the trial court erred by denying REI’s request to conduct additional discovery prior to the summary judgment ruling. Because discretionary review was not granted on this [*31] issue, we will not reach it. City of Bothell v. Barnhart, 156 Wn. App. 531, 538 n.2, 234 P.3d 264 (2010) (noting that, [HN25] pursuant to RAP 2.3(e), the appellate court may specify the issue or issues as to which discretionary review is granted), review granted, No. 84907-2 (Wash. Nov. 3, 2010).
¶44 Affirmed.
Grosse and Spearman, JJ., cncur.


Georgia Recreational Use Statutes

Georgia Recreational Use Statutes

§ 51-3-20. Purpose of article    1

51-3-21. Definitions    1

51-3-22. Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally    1

51-3-23. Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation    1

51-3-24. Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation    2

51-3-25. Certain liability not limited    2

51-3-26. Construction of article    2

§ 51-3-20. Purpose of article

The purpose of this article is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability toward persons entering thereon for recreational purposes.” GA. Code 51-3-20 Purpose of article (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-21. Definitions

As used in this article, the term:

(1) “Charge” means the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land.

(2) “Land” means land, roads, water, watercourses, private ways and buildings, structures, and machinery or equipment when attached to the realty.

(3) “Owner” means the possessor of a fee interest, a tenant, a lessee, an occupant, or a person in control of the premises.

(4) “Recreational purpose” includes, but is not limited to, any of the following or any combination thereof: hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, aviation activities, nature study, water skiing, winter sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archeological, scenic, or scientific sites.

History:

Amended by 2014 Ga. Laws 658, §2, eff. 10/1/2014.

GA. Code 51-3-21 Definitions (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-22. Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to persons entering for recreational purposes.

GA. Code 51-3-22 Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-23. Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes does not thereby:

(1) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose;

(2) Confer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; or

(3) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act of omission of such persons.

GA. Code 51-3-23 Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-24. Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation

Unless otherwise agreed in writing, Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 shall be deemed applicable to the duties and liability of an owner of land leased to the state or any subdivision thereof for recreational purposes.

GA. Code 51-3-24 Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-25. Certain liability not limited

Nothing in this article limits in any way any liability which otherwise exists:

(1) For willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity; or

(2) On a date when the owner of land charges any individual who lawfully enters such land for recreational use and any individual is injured in connection with the recreational use for which the charge was made, provided that, in the case of land leased to the state or a subdivision thereof, any consideration received by the owner for the lease shall not be deemed a charge within the meaning of this Code section.

History:

Amended by 2018 Ga. Laws 554, §1, eff. 7/1/2018.

GA. Code 51-3-25 Certain liability not limited (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-26. Construction of article

Nothing in this article shall be construed to:

(1) Create a duty of care or ground of liability for injury to persons or property; or

(2) Relieve any person using the land of another for recreational purposes from any obligation which he may have in the absence of this article to exercise care in his use of the land and in his activities thereon or from the legal consequences of failure to employ such care.

GA. Code 51-3-26 Construction of article (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

Creation Date 11/10/22 File Name Georgia Recreational Use Statutes.docx
Save Date 11/10/22 File Location D:\1. Legal\1.2.1 Laws\Recreational Use\Georgia Recreational Use Statutes.docx

Ski Area not liable when skiers leave the ski run and collide with snow making equipment in Michigan.

Litigation ensued because an important term in the Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act was not defined in the act. What is a ski run?

Round v. Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC (Mich. App. 2022)

State: Michigan; Court of Appeals of Michigan

Plaintiff: Cheryle A. Round, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Charles R. Round

Defendant: Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, Schuss Mountain

Plaintiff Claims: negligence action, alleging that defendant failed to comply with duties imposed under the SASA

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant ski area

Year: 2022

Summary

Lawsuit against a ski area was based on a term in the statute that was not defined, forcing the court to define the term. What is a ski run? The decedent skied into snow making equipment and died. If on the ski run, the equipment must be marked. The equipment was not marked. The court also ruled over and embankment, not on snow and 15-25 feet from the edge of the run, the snow making equipment was not on the ski run.

Facts

On December 21, 2019, plaintiff’s decedent, Charles R. Round, died after allegedly sustaining fatal injuries when he collided with snow-making equipment at Schuss Mountain, a ski area owned and operated by defendant. At the time, Round was participating in an event called the Tannenbaum Blitzen parade whereby volunteer skiers ski down an unlit hill-known as Kingdom Come-at night while carrying lighted torches, eventually getting to the bottom of the hill to light the ski resort’s Christmas tree. Round was leading the parade of skiers-as he had for several years-when he suddenly veered to his left and skied beyond the edge of the ski run. A ski lift was located on the edge of the ski run and, underneath the ski lift, were four permanent snow-making machines installed at various points up the hill. At about the half-way point of the ski hill, Round crossed into this area, collided with a snow-making machine, and sustained severe injuries that proved fatal.

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

Pursuant to Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act, a ski area is not liable for injuries to its patrons for collisions with snow making equipment if the snow making equipment is “properly marked or plainly visible.”

§ 408.342. Duties of skier in ski area; acceptance of dangers.

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.

The plaintiff argued the snow making equipment was not marked and had to be marked because it was located on the ski run. The defendant argued that the snow making equipment was not on the ski run. Ski run is not defined by the Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act. The Michigan Appellate Court then had to use the plain meeting of the terms to derive a definition.

At minimum, the plain meaning of the phrase “ski run” for purposes of the SASA must include a path or route expected to be used for skiing down a hill. Indeed, ski runs are named, designed, constructed, groomed, and designated as the route skiers are to use for skiing down a particular hill. As this Court similarly noted in Rhoda v O’Dovero, Inc, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals: “Although the SASA does not define the terms ‘run,’ ‘slope’ or ‘trail,’ the plain, ordinary and common meanings of these terms encompass the paths a skier or snowboarder takes to get down a hill, including those paths designed and constructed by the ski operator for precisely that purpose.”

The court then went into the depositions presented by the defendant, witnesses who described the location of the snow making equipment when the deceased hit it.

The decedent was found 22′ off the run, over an embankment under the snow gun. It took several repetitions to move the deceased in a toboggan from where he was back up to the ski run.

The court reasoned if the snow gun which the deceased collided with was located on the trail, the other skiers following him would have hit the snow gun also.

The Appellate court sent the case back to the trail court with an order to grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case.

So Now What?

Short and sweet, but educational because of the issues the statute left out. Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act is a combination of a skier safety act and a tramway act. Consequently, it is quite long with little have much to do with how the ski area is to operate. The act has definitions but most deal with the structure of the tramway issues.

When one term, as in this case ski run is used to defined part of a statute, that term needs to be defined, or we end up in a position like this, litigation to define what is a ski run.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

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

DAVID MARTIN and LUISA MARTIN, Plaintiffs,
v.
HUDSON FARM CLUB, INC.; LUKAS SPARLING; and GRIFFIN & HOWE, INC Defendants.

Civil Action No. 18-02511

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 31, 2021

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Stanley R. Chesler, United States District Judge

This matter comes before the Court on the motions for summary judgment filed by Defendants Hudson Farm Club (“HFC”) and Lukas Sparling (collectively, the “HFC Defendants”), and Defendant Griffin & Howe, Inc. (“G&H” and, collectively with the HFC Defendants, “Defendants”), respectively, as to certain affirmative defenses which Defendants have asserted, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and the motion filed by Plaintiffs David and Luisa Martin (“Plaintiffs”)[1] to strike those same affirmative defenses. As described, infra, the Court will convert Plaintiffs’ motion to strike into a competing motion for summary judgment concerning Defendants’ affirmative defenses. The Court has reviewed the papers submitted and proceeds to rule without oral argument, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment will be granted and Defendants’ motions for summary judgment will be denied.

I. Background[2]

On September 19, 2017, Martin participated in a charitable clay shooting event at HFC in Andover, New Jersey. (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶ 1, 22-23; HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 1; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 1.) Upon arriving at HFC, Martin signed a Release and Hold Harmless Agreement (the “Release”), which consists of three “Sections” on a single page. (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶ 2; HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 8; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 2.) Section I of the Release reads:

I HAVE BEEN ADVISED THAT THE RECREATIONAL USE OF FIREARMS IS AN INHERENTLY DANGEROUS ACTIVIT WHICH CAN AND DOES RESULT IN SERIOUS BODILY INJURY AND/OR DEATH ESPECIALLY IF SAFETY RULES ARE NOT OBEYED

In return for the use of the premises and equipment, I agree to indemnify, hold harmless and defend [G&H], [HFC] and [non-party] IAT Reinsurance Company Ltd. and its instructors, employees, directors, officers, agents, representatives, heirs, successors, and assigns from and against any and all claims, demands, causes of action, personal injury (including death), damages, costs, and expenses (including attorney’s fees), arising out of, related to, or connected with the rental of a firearm, instruction, use or discharge of firearms. I hereby further agree, on behalf of myself, executors and assigns, that I will not make any claim or institute any suit or action at law or in equity against [G&H], [HFC] and IAT Reinsurance Company Ltd. Related [sic] directly or indirectly to my use of the firearm referenced in this document or from my use or participation in any activity on this property. I expressly assume the risk of taking part in the activities on the premises, which include the discharge of firearms and firing of live ammunition.

Section II is entitled “FIREARM RENTAL USE” and requires that the signatory attest that they are “not subject to any of the disabilities set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3, ” concerning the purchase of firearms, and further requires that the signatory certify to other statements relevant to the individual’s rental of a firearm.[3] Section III is entitled “CONSENT FOR USE OF LIKENESS.” While Sections I and II bear Martin’s signature, Section III does not.

By his signature to Section I of the Release, Martin acknowledged that “[he] carefully read this agreement and fully underst[ood] its contents, ” (ii) that he was aware that the Release was an important legal document, and (iii) that he intended to be “fully bound by it.” (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶ 16; HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 9; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 4.) Notwithstanding this, Martin testified that he signed the Release without reading it.[4] (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 10-11; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 5; Martin Dep. Tr. at 44:3-25.)

The clay shooting event had multiple starting stations at which the charity participants would begin their shooting activities. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 2; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 6.) 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. (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 26; HFC 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 10-11; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 6.) Defendant Sparling drove the vehicle which pulled the wagon in which Martin rode. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 3; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 8.) In route to the station, the tractor ascended an incline and, during the ascent, the vehicle stalled. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 10-11; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 9.) While Sparling engaged the vehicles’ brakes, the vehicle and attached wagon began skidding backwards. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 4; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 9.) Martin at some point during the descent leapt from the wagon and suffered injuries as a result. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 5; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 10.)

II. Discussion

Defendants bring their motions pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 seeking summary judgment as to their respective affirmative defenses of release and waiver as a result of the Release, while Plaintiffs’ motion is styled as a motion to strike those affirmative defenses. Notwithstanding that the Parties have pursued motions under different rules, those motions concern solely the validity of the Release.[5]

Rule 12(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, concerning a motion to strike, allows this Court to strike “any insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter” in a pleading. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f). However, a motion to strike may be treated as a motion for partial summary judgment under Rule 56(d) when facts outside the pleadings are offered. See, e.g., United States v. Manzo, 182 F.Supp.2d 385, 395 n.6 (D.N.J. 2000) (“Because both parties refer to matters outside the pleadings and for the sake of consistency and clarity, the Court will generally treat the motion to strike as a motion for summary judgment.”); see also 5A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1380, at 647 (“[S]ome courts, when faced with affidavits on a Rule 12(f) motion to strike a defense, have treated the motion to strike as one for partial summary judgment.”).

In addition to the Parties’ initial submissions indicating their apparent understanding that they intended the Court to consider their motions on the evidentiary record established over the past three and a half years, the Court on October 1, 2021 ordered that the Parties comply with Rule 56(a) in setting forth that evidentiary record. In light of the facts presented in the various Rule 56.1 Statements and declarations and in consideration of the arguments set forth in the voluminous briefing before the Court, it makes little sense to treat Plaintiffs’ motion as a Rule 12(f) motion to strike a defense. Here, seeing no prejudice to Plaintiffs who have briefed the issue sufficiently and had the opportunity to proffer evidence in support of their arguments, the Court will exercise its discretion and consider Defendant’s Rule 12(f) motion to strike as a Rule 56(a) motion for partial summary judgment.

In evaluating the competing motions, the Court applies the well-established legal standard for summary judgment. Rule 56(a) provides that a “court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986) (construing the similarly worded Rule 56(c), predecessor to the current summary judgment standard set forth in Rule 56(a)). A factual dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant, and it is material if, under the substantive law, it would affect the outcome of the suit. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court “must view the evidence ‘in the light most favorable to the opposing party.'” Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (quoting Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). It may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; see also Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (holding same).

A. The Evidentiary Record Properly Before the Court.

Once the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the nonmoving party must establish the existence of a genuine issue as to a material fact to defeat the motion. Jersey Cent. Power & Light Co. v. Lacey Twp., 772 F.2d 1103, 1109 (3d Cir. 1985). To create a genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party must come forward with sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find in its favor at trial. Gleason v. Norwest Mortg., Inc., 243 F.3d 130, 138 (3d Cir. 2001), overruled on other grounds by Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Cent. Pension Fund of the Int’l Union of Operating Eng’rs and Participating Emp’rs, 134 S.Ct. 773 (2014). The party opposing a motion for summary judgment cannot rest on mere allegations; instead, it must present actual evidence that creates a genuine issue as to a material fact for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; see also Schoch v. First Fid. Bancorporation, 912 F.2d 654, 657 (3d Cir. 1990) (holding that “unsupported allegations in [a] memorandum and pleadings are insufficient to repel summary judgment”).

1. The Court Will Disregard Plaintiffs’ Responses to Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements in Support of Defendants’ Respective Motions for Summary Judgement.

Rule 56(c)(1) expressly requires a party who asserts that a fact is genuinely disputed to support that assertion by:

(A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1). If the non-movant fails to “properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party’s assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may . . . consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2). In the District of New Jersey, Local Civil Rule 56.1 imposes an additional requirement on both movants and non-movants related to summary judgment motions. The party moving for summary judgment must file a statement which lists, in separately numbered paragraphs, material facts the movant asserts are not in dispute, with citations to the specific portions of the record supporting those factual assertions. In turn, the party opposing summary judgment “shall furnish, with its opposition papers, a responsive statement of material facts, addressing each paragraph of the movant’s statement, indicating agreement or disagreement and, if not agreed, stating each material fact in dispute and citing to the affidavits and other documents submitted in connection with the motion.” L. Civ. R. 56.1(a). Indeed, the local rule warns that “any material fact not disputed [in such a responsive statement] shall be deemed undisputed for purposes of the summary judgment motion.” Id.

On August 23, 2021, in connection with Plaintiffs’ Motion (ECF No. 124), Plaintiffs submitted, among other things, the certification of their counsel, Howard R. Engle. (ECF Nos. 124-1; 124-3.) Mr. Engle’s certification, which purported to be factual in nature, consisted of (i) facts not within his personal knowledge, (ii) legal arguments, and (iii) conclusions of law. (ECF No. 124-1.) Furthermore, in connection with Plaintiffs’ September 15, 2021 opposition to Defendants’ respective motions, Plaintiffs submitted “Certification[s] and Statement[s] of Undisputed Facts” by Mr. Engle. (ECF Nos. 129-1; 130-1.) These documents were far from the “responsive statement[s] of material facts” required pursuant to Local Rule 56.1(a).[6] Rather than “indicating agreement or disagreement” with “each paragraph” of Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements as required by the Rules, Plaintiffs proceeded to set forth dozens of their own purportedly “undisputed material facts.”[7] In light of these procedural improprieties, on October 1, 2021, the Court struck certain certifications which Plaintiffs submitted in support of their Motion and in Opposition to Defendants Motions and, to establish an orderly recounting of the material facts, ordered that Plaintiffs file: (i) a statement of material facts not in dispute in support of their motion, pursuant to Local Rule 56.1(a) and (ii) proper statements of material facts not in dispute in response to those submitted by Defendants in support of their respective motions. (ECF No. 138).

While Plaintiffs complied with the command to submit a Rule 56.1 statement in support of their motion, they again failed to submit responses to Defendants’ respective Rule 56.1 statements in a manner which complied with the Rules. Instead of making a submission consistent with the Rules, Plaintiffs again submitted statements of purported facts that are unmoored from and unresponsive to those statements which Defendants submitted. Plaintiffs have now twice failed to comply with Rule of Federal Civil Procedure 56.1 and Local Rule 56.1-including after the Court’s express order that Plaintiffs do so-by failing to address, on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, the material facts as set forth in the Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements. Plaintiffs have provided no explanation for their repeated and continued violation of the Rules.

However, Plaintiffs’ Rule 56.1 Statement in support of their motion-which Plaintiffs submitted pursuant to the Court’s October 1 Order-is sufficiently in conformance with Rule 56.1 to allow the Court to consider it in the evidentiary record. Accordingly, the Court will disregard their responses and will consider Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements in support of their respective motions as undisputed, except to the extent which Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements may be tension with Plaintiffs’ Rule 56.1 Statement.

2. Martin’s September 16, 2021 Affidavit Will Be Set Aside Under the Sham Affidavit Doctrine.

In connection with the instant motions, Martin submits an affidavit (ECF Nos. 129-4; 130-4; 133-1; 134-1, the “Martin Affidavit”)[8] which Defendants ask the Court to set aside as a “sham affidavit” designed to defeat their motions for summary judgment. “[I]f it is clear that an affidavit is offered solely for the purpose of defeating summary judgment, it is proper for the trial judge to conclude that no reasonable jury could accord that affidavit evidentiary weight . . . .” Jiminez v. All Am. Rathskeller, Inc., 503 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (2007) (internal citations omitted). The timing of the affidavit, whether there is a plausible explanation for the contradictory statements, and whether there is independent evidence in the record supporting the affidavit, may be considered when determining whether an affidavit is a sham. See EBC, Inc. v. Clark Bldg. Sys., Inc., 618 F.3d 253, 268-69 (3d Cir. 2010).

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 evidences that he did not read the Release prior to signing the document:

[PLAINTIFFS’ COUNSEL]: Did you read it before you signed it?

[MARTIN]: No, I did not.

Q. [Counsel for HFC] Why didn’t you read it before you signed it?

A. There was about twenty people in line behind me and we were in a press for time to get the events started.

Q. So you didn’t know what you were signing? –

A. At the time I did not know what I was signing and until I just read it just now, I didn’t know what I signed.

Q. You always sign things without knowing what you signed?

A. From time to time apparently, yes.

Q. Well in this – –

A. In this instance, yes, I did not read it.

(Martin Dep. Tr. at 44:3-25.) Martin now certifies that “he did not read the release entirely before [he signed] it” and that he “tried to read [the Release]” prior to signing the document (Martin Aff. ¶¶ 16-17). Acknowledging that this recounting of the facts is at odds with his prior testimony, Martin goes so far as to assert that “[w]hile [during the deposition] I said I did not read it, what I meant was that I couldn’t read the whole thing carefully.” (Martin Aff. ¶ 19.) He further asserts that he “was able to skim it and did read what was big enough and what I could understand.” (Martin Aff. ¶ 20.) Counsels’ questions-including that which Martin’s own counsel posed-during Martin’s deposition were perfectly clear, as were his responses. He did not equivocate in his recollection of the facts and repeated it on multiple occasions during the deposition. This is not a discrepancy which merely relates to the weight of the evidence at issue, and instead is a direct contradiction of his prior testimony. Cf. Jiminez 503 F.3d at 254 (“[C]orroborating evidence may establish that the affidavit was ‘understandably’ mistaken, confused, or not in possession of all the facts during the previous deposition.”). 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.[9]

3. Plaintiffs’ Submission of an Affidavit by a Forensic Document Examiner is Improper and Will Be Set Aside.

In a similar vein, Plaintiffs submit the affidavit of John Paul Osborn, a forensic document examiner, and accompanying exhibits demonstrating Osborn’s credentials in connection with the motions. (ECF Nos. 129-3; 130-3; 133-2; 134-2, the “Osborn Affidavit”.) This too will be excluded from the Court’s consideration in resolving these motions.

Pursuant to Rule 26(a)(2), “a party must make [expert] disclosures at the times . . . that the court orders.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(a)(2)(D). The disclosures must contain: (i) a complete statement of all opinions the witness will express and the basis and reasons for them; (ii) the facts or data considered by the witness in forming them; (iii) any exhibits that will be used to summarize or support them; (iv) the witness’s qualifications, including a list of all publications authored in the previous 10 years; (v) a list of all other cases in which, during the previous 4 years, the witness testified as an expert at trial or by deposition; and (vi) a statement of the compensation to be paid for the study and testimony in the case. Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(a)(2)(B). “Expert disclosure requirements are meant to ensure the playing field remains level, to afford the opposing party an opportunity to challenge the expert’s qualifications and opinions, and to avoid undue prejudice and surprise.” Bouder v. Prudential Fin., Inc., No. CIV.A.06-4359(DMC), 2010 WL 2026707, at *2 (D.N.J. May 21, 2010). Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure further provides that “[i]f a party fails to provide information or identify a witness as required by Rule 26(a) or (e), the party is not allowed to use that information or witness to supply evidence on a motion, at a hearing, or at a trial, unless the failure was substantially justified or is harmless.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(c)(1).

In evaluating whether a non-disclosure warrants exclusion, the Third Circuit has identified four factors to consider: “(1) the prejudice or surprise of the party against whom the excluded evidence would have been admitted; (2) the ability of the party to cure the prejudice; (3) the extent to which allowing the evidence would disrupt the orderly and efficient trial of the case or other cases in the court; and (4) bad faith or willfulness in failing to comply with a court order or discovery obligation.” Nicholas v. Pa. State Univ., 227 F.3d 133, 148 (3d Cir.2000). The party who has failed to disclose information bears the burden to show that the non-disclosure was substantially justified or is harmless. See D&D Assocs., Inc. v. Bd. of Educ. of N. Plainfield, 2006 WL 1644742, at *4 (D.N.J. June 8, 2006). Ultimately, whether to exclude evidence is left to the trial court’s discretion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(c)(1)(A)-(C); Newman v. GHS Osteopathic, Inc., 60 F.3d 153, 156 (3d Cir.1995) (“[T]he imposition of sanctions under Rule 37 is a matter within the discretion of the trial court.”).

On June 25, 2020, Magistrate Judge Waldor entered an Order which granted Defendants’ Motion to Amend/Correct the Answer to the Amended Complaint regarding Defendants’ affirmative defenses relating to the Release. (ECF No. 82.) The Order further “permit any discovery necessary to explore” the defenses. (Id. at 7.) Plaintiffs subsequently retained Osborn on February 26, 2021. (Osborn Aff. at 24.) On June 21, 2021, the Parties reported in a letter to the Court that discovery concerning the Release had been completed. (ECF No. 118.)

Plaintiffs evidently contemplated prior to the June 21 submission that Osborn may proffer a report in connection with this action, yet openly represented to the Court in the June 21 Letter that discovery was complete. Plaintiffs offer no explanation as to why the Court should entertain this untimely submission, let alone do they demonstrate why this delinquency is substantially justified or harmless.

Upon consideration of the factors which the Third Circuit outlined in Nicholas, the Court finds that exclusion of the Osborn Affidavit is warranted. This last-minute disclosure is both prejudicial and a surprise. The Osborn Affidavit was not provided until Defendants were under a deadline to prepare and file their reply brief, and Defendants have had no opportunity to cross-examine the proffered expert’s credentials and statements. Furthermore, allowing Plaintiffs to rely upon the Osborn Affidavit would interfere with the pending motions, and Defendants would be unable to cure such prejudice without the reopening of expert discovery, thus expending additional time, resources and money and further delaying resolution of the motions. See, e.g., Brooks v. Price, 121 Fed.Appx. 961, 965 (3d Cir. 2005). Whether or not Plaintiffs acted in bad faith, these factors are sufficient to warrant the exclusion of the Osborn Affidavit.[10]

B. The Release Does Not Violate the New Jersey Plain Language Review Act

New Jersey sets forth certain guidelines regarding consumer contracts-such as the Release-under the Plain Language Review Act (“PLRA”), N.J.S.A. 56:12. Section 2 of the PLRA requires that a consumer contract “shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J.S.A. 56:12-2. The PLRA is designed so that consumer contracts “use plain language that is commonly understood by the wide swath of people who comprise the consuming public.” Kernahan v. Home Warranty Adm’r of Florida, Inc., 236 N.J. 301, 321 (2019). “With such protections in place . . . ‘[a] party who enters into a contract in writing, without any fraud or imposition being practiced upon him, is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect.'” Id. (citing Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353 (1992) (internal citation omitted)).

According to the PLRA, “[a] creditor, seller, insurer or lessor who fails to comply with section 2 of this act shall be liable to a consumer who is a party to the consumer contract for actual damages sustained, if the violation caused the consumer to be substantially confused about the rights, obligations or remedies of the contract . . .” N.J.S.A. 56:12-3. 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.

N.J.S.A. 56:12-10. Furthermore, the PLRA provides that “[c]onditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.” Id. The Court maintains broad discretion in its determination of how much consideration should be given to the factors individually and collectively. Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Plaintiffs contend that the Release runs afoul of the PLRA in numerous ways and, accordingly, that the Release must be set aside on statutory grounds. Primary among these arguments is Plaintiffs’ contention that the font size in the Release does not meet the requirement that it be “in at least 10 point type.” (Pls.’ Mot at 16.)[11] Plaintiffs further allege that the Release is in violation of the PLRA because it contains: (i) confusing cross references; (ii) sentences of greater length than necessary; (iii) sentences with double negatives and exceptions to exceptions; (iv) sentences and sections that are in confusing or illogical order; (v) the use of words with obsolete meaning or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning; (vi) sections that are not logically divided and captioned; and (vii) conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement do not have equal prominence. (Pls.’ Mot. at 17.)

Apart from Plaintiffs’ challenge to the font size found within the relevant language of the Release, Plaintiffs’ complaints amount to a mere recitation of the PLRA factors and Plaintiffs fail to establish how these other factors weigh in their favor. Indeed, upon the Court’s review of the Release, it finds that none of these elements exist within the Release.[12]

Even accepting that the font size may be smaller than the 10-point font guideline outlined in the PLRA, the waiver provision in this case is no less prominent than the remainder of the agreement: The document itself is entitled “SHOOTING SCHOOL AT HUDSON FARM – RELEASE & HOLD HARMLESS AGREEMENT, ” the waiver provision constitutes Section I of the Release, critical elements of the waiver provision are bolded and capitalized, and the font size of the waiver provision is similar to the font used throughout the one-page document. The fact that the font size of the relevant language may be marginally smaller than the statutory guidelines does not violate the mandate that the Release be “simple, clear, understandable and easily readable.” See, e.g., Kang v. La Fitness, 2016 WL 7476354, at *10 (D.N.J. Dec. 29, 2016) (finding the waiver provision in the relevant exculpatory clause was no less prominent than the remainder of the agreement where the font throughout the document was “about size 8”).[13]

In any event, all of Plaintiffs’ complaints are academic: Martin could not have been confused by the Release because he never read it. Inherent in any violation of the PLRA is that a contract that is not “clear, understandable and easily readable” must “cause[]” a consumer’s “substantial confusion” regarding the contents of the contract. N.J.S.A. 56:12-3 (emphasis added); see, e.g., Sauro v. L.A. Fitness Int’l, LLC, No. 12-3682, 2013 WL 97880, at *12 (D.N.J. Feb. 13, 2013) (citing Bosland v. Warnock Dodge. Inc., 396 N.J.Super. 267, 279 (App. Div. 2007), aff’d on other grounds, 197 N.J. 543 (2009)) (“New Jersey courts have held that a . . . plaintiff must allege that she was ‘substantially confused’ about the contract’s terms, as ‘substantial confusion’ is ‘a requirement of the Plain Language Act.'”). Accordingly, the Release could not have served to “substantially confuse” Plaintiff, and his challenge under the PLRA must fail as a matter of law.

C. The Release is Unenforceable Against Plaintiffs.

As a general and long-standing matter, contracting parties are afforded the liberty to bind themselves as they see fit. See Twin City Pipe Line Co. v. Harding Glass Co., 283 U.S. 353, 356 (1931); Walters v. YMCA, 437 N.J.Super. 111, 117-18 (App. Div. 2014) (“The Court must give ‘due deference to the freedom to contract and the right of competent adults to bind themselves as they see fit.'”). However, certain categories of substantive contracts, including those that contain exculpatory clauses, are disfavored and thus have been subjected to close judicial scrutiny. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 303 (2010) (citing 11 Williston on Contracts, § 30:9, at 103-04). New Jersey courts have identified four considerations pertinent to the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement, advising that such an agreement:

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.

Id. at 304 (quoting Gershon, Adm’x Ad Prosequendum for Est. of Pietroluongo v. Regency Diving Ctr., Inc., 368 N.J.Super. 237, 248 (App. Div. 2004)).[14]

1. The Release is Inimical to the Public Interest as Applied to Plaintiffs’ Claims

The common law imposes a duty of care on business owners to maintain a safe premises for their business invitees because the law recognizes that an owner is in the best position to prevent harm. Id. at 306 (“[B]usiness establishments in New Jersey have well-established duties of care to patrons that come upon their premises.”). In light of this duty, “[t]he law does not favor exculpatory agreements because they encourage a lack of care.” Gershon, 368 N.J.Super. At 247. But “public policy does not demand a per se ban against enforcement of an exculpatory agreement based on the mere existence of a duty recognized in the common law in respect of premises liability.” Stelluti, 203 N.J. at 306. “[T]he law recognizes that for certain activities conducted by operation of some types of business, particularly those that pose inherent risks to the participant, the business entity will not be held liable for injuries sustained so long as [the business] has acted in accordance with ‘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.'” Id. at 307 (quoting Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 340-41 (2006)). For example, “[w]hen it comes to physical activities in the nature of sports-physical exertion associated with physical training, exercise, and the like-injuries are not an unexpected, unforeseeable result of such strenuous activity.” Id.

Defendants cite Justice LaVecchia’s dissent in Hojnowski to argue that “recreational activities such as skateboarding do not implicate the public interest” and therefore clay shooting- itself a recreational activity-cannot implicate the public interest. (HFC Opp. at 14-15.) Defendants’ position would result in a per se enforcement of unbounded waivers of liability in the context of recreational activities, which is plainly contrary to New Jersey jurisprudence. As the Stelluti court acknowledged, there remains a standard for liability even in contact recreational sports. Id. at 311 (“[T]here is also a limit to the protections that a private fitness center reasonably may exact from its patrons through the mechanism of an exculpatory agreement.”). In particular, Stelluti requires that business owners be held “to a standard of care congruent with the nature of their business.” Id. at 312.

The scope of the liability that may be waived in connection with recreational activities was explored in Walters. 437 N.J.Super. 111. There, the Appellate Division considered the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement where a patron at a fitness club sued the club for personal injuries he sustained when he slipped and fell on an allegedly negligently maintained stair tread leading to club’s pool. Id. at 118-19. The hold harmless provision within the patron’s membership agreement released the club for injuries sustained by the patron “WHILE ON ANY YMWCA PREMISES OR AS A RESULT OF A YMWCA SPONSORED ACTIVITIES [SIC].” Id. at 116 (emphasis in original). In refusing to enforce the broader clause of the exculpatory agreement-concerning injuries sustained “while on any YMWCA premises”-the Appellate Division found that “if applied literally, [the clause] would eviscerate the common law duty of care owed by defendant to its invitees, regardless of the nature of the business activity involved.” Id. at 118-19. This, the Walters panel continued, “would be inimical to the public interest because it would transfer the redress of civil wrongs from the responsible tortfeasor to either the innocent injured party or to society at large, in the form of taxpayer-supported institutions.” Id. at 119. While the court refused to enforce this broader reading of the exculpatory agreement, it still proceeded to consider whether the patron’s injury fell within the ambit of the narrower exculpatory clause. Id. at 120 (finding that an accident resulting from slipping on the steps leading into the pool did not occur while the plaintiff was “using the pool” and thus was not a “sponsored activit[y]” covered by the exculpatory agreement.).

Similar to the waiver at issue in Walters, if the terms of the Release are applied literally- to “any activity” on the property-Defendants would be released from any claim arising while an invitee was on the property “regardless of the nature of the business activity involved.” Id. at 118- 19.[15] Such a broad waiver of liability then constitutes an exculpatory agreement that is “inimical to the public interest.” Id. at 119.

While the literal reading of the Release cannot be sustained, Defendants are free to craft a release with regard “to a standard of care congruent with the nature of their business.” Stelluti, 203 N.J. at 312. To that end, other exculpatory clauses within the Release are tailored to the nature of Defendants’ business insofar as they limit the release to firearm-related activities. (See Release (“In return for the use of the premises and equipment, I agree to indemnify [Defendants] from and against any and all claims . . . arising out of, related to, or connected with the rental of a firearm, instruction, use or discharge of firearms;” “I hereby further agree . . . that I will not make any claim or institute any suit . . . directly or indirectly to my use of the firearm referenced in this document . . .;” or “I expressly assume the risk of taking part in the activities on the premises, which include the discharge of firearms and firing of live ammunition.”).) The question thus becomes whether Martin’s injury occurred in connection with a firearm-related activity.[16]

New Jersey courts narrowly construe exculpatory waivers in light of Stelluti‘s admonition that they are disfavored. Walters, 437 N.J.Super. at 328 (“Any ambiguities in language about the scope of an exculpatory agreement’s coverage, or doubts about its enforceability, should be resolved in favor of holding a tortfeasor accountable.”). Courts will enforce an exculpatory clause where a claim is “not an unexpected, unforeseeable result of” the risky activity offered by a facility. Stelluti, 203 N.J. at 307; see, e.g., Pulice v. Green Brook Sports, 2017 WL 3013086 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. July 17, 2017) (finding a fitness club’s release enforceable as to plaintiff when a ten-pound dumbbell fell on her face as her trainer handed it to her to perform an exercise); Skarbnik v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2021 WL 3923270, at *4 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Sept. 2, 2021) (upholding fitness club’s release where plaintiff slipped on sweat immediately following a hot yoga class, because sweat on the floor “was a natural consequence” of the activity); Kyung Pak v. N.J. Fitness Factory, Inc., No. A-5084-16T2, 2018 WL 1865462, at *1 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Apr. 19, 2018) (release enforced when a fitness club employee directed plaintiff to step onto a running treadmill during an exercise class); Kang, 2016 WL 7476354, at *10 (release enforced where plaintiff injured while using a fitness machine). 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. See, e.g., Walters, 437 N.J.Super. at 111 (accident resulting from slipping on the steps leading into the facility’s pool not considered a “sponsored activity” subject to the release); Crossing-Lyons v. Towns Sports Int’l, Inc., 2017 WL 2953388, at *1 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. July 11, 2017) (release inapplicable where plaintiff tripped over a weight belt left on the floor, an “incident[] that could have occurred in any business setting”); see also Martinez-Santiago v. Public Storage, 38 F.Supp.3d 500 (D.N.J. 2014) (refusing to enforce exculpatory agreement where patron sustained slip-and-fall injuries on ice on a walkway at a self-storage facility).

Defendants contend that “transportation while at HFC” constitutes an activity associated with sporting clay shooting, and the injury occurred within the scope of the Release. (E.g. HFC Mot. at 14.) In making this argument, Defendants analogize sporting clay shooting to golf, with G&H contending that transportation by way of a tractor and wagon is “similar to a golf event” insofar as it was “necessary so that the participants could stagger their starting locations. ((G&H Mot. at 6.) (“To find that attending a sporting clay event does not include transportation from one station to the next is like finding that playing golf does not start until golfers tee off, ends as soon as they retrieve their balls from the cup, and does not begin again until they tee off, and so on. Sporting clay shooting, like playing golf, includes all of the activities associated with attendance at the event, including transportation throughout the course.”).) These arguments “ignore[] the cause of the accident.” Walters, 437 N.J.Super. at 120. 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.[17] Much like the Appellate Division’s refusal to consider “an accident resulting from slipping on the steps leading into the pool . . . covered under the ‘activities’ part of” the release clause in Walters, Plaintiffs claims do not arise in connection with the activities involved with using a firearm. 437 N.J.Super. at 111. Instead, Plaintiffs’ claims are more akin to a “garden variety” personal injury action. Id. Accordingly, the exculpatory clause of the Release is void and unenforceable as to Plaintiffs’ claims.[18]

2. Even if the Release Applied to the Wagon Ride, Disputes Over Material Facts Would Preclude Summary Judgment.

Even if the Court accepted that transportation to the shooting range is covered under the Release, the application of the final factor relevant to the enforcement of an exculpatory clause under New Jersey law-that the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable-gives rise to a dispute of material facts. Gershon, 368 N.J.Super. at 248. “Procedural unconscionability requires examination of ‘unfairness in the formation of the contract’ while substantive unconscionability considers whether the contract’s terms are ‘excessively disproportionate.” Marcinczyk v. State of New Jersey Police Training Com’n, 406 N.J.Super. 608 (2009). In ascertaining whether a contract is unconscionable, these substantive and procedural aspects are subjected to a sliding-scale analysis. Delta Funding Corp. v. Harris, 189 N.J. 28, 40 (2006).

Plaintiffs assert that the Release is substantively unconscionable insofar as it should “shock the Court’s conscience” that “Defendants sought to release themselves from all responsibility to paying guests at their business.” (Mot. at 31.) Courts routinely uphold exculpatory releases, particularly concerning recreational activities, and Plaintiffs offer no meaningful argument as to how the Release departs from other exculpatory releases in such a manner as to shock the conscience.

Similarly, many of Plaintiffs’ arguments underlying their claim of procedural unconscionability fall flat. As previously noted, the purpose of the PLRA is to enable the courts to “confidently state that, even in the consumer context, ‘[a] party who enters into a contract in writing, without any fraud or imposition being practiced upon him, is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect.'” Kernahan v. Home Warranty Adm’r of Florida, Inc., 236 N.J. 301, 321, 199 A.3d 766 (2019). Among other things, Plaintiffs argue that (i) Martin’s “lack of education and sophistication rendered him unable” to enter into the release; (ii) the Release was not negotiated personally by Martin; and (iii) he lacked representation by counsel.[19] Setting aside the impracticalities that would result if the Court accepted Plaintiffs’ arguments, Plaintiffs’ primary authority in support of these arguments, O’Brien v. Star Gas Propane, L.P., 2006 WL 2008716 (App. Div. 2006), concerning whether a union-represented employee knowingly released certain discrimination claims against his employer, does not translate to the consumer contract context.[20]

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 n a press for time to get the events started.” (Martin Dep. Tr. 44:6-10.) And, when asked whether he saw any other individual sign the Release, Martin testified that “it was very, very rushed . . . [s]o there was no time, they was like — they were like ‘we need to get to the shooting location’ . . . .” (Martin Dep. Tr. 172:14-173:2.) At this juncture, even if the Release was enforceable as to Plaintiffs’ claims, there remains a question of material fact regarding whether Martin had a meaningful opportunity to review the agreement. See Delta Funding Corp., 189 N.J. at 40 (acknowledging that plaintiff alleged facts which suggested “a high level of procedural unconscionability” where signatory was “rushed” into signing the papers); Miller v. Miller, 160 N.J. 408, 419 (1999) (considering whether plaintiff was “rushed into signing” an agreement in determining that the agreement was unconscionable).

III. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are entitled to summary judgment regarding Defendants’ affirmative defenses of release and waiver, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a). Defendants’ motions for summary judgment regarding those same affirmative defenses are denied. An appropriate Order will issue.

———

Notes:

[1] Unless otherwise specified, references to “Martin” in this Opinion concern David Martin.

[2] As relevant to the instant motions, and as discussed further infra at Section II.A, the following papers and their attendant exhibits establish the evidentiary record:

• In connection with Plaintiffs’ Motion (“Pls.’ Mot.”) (ECF No. 124), Plaintiffs submitted a Rule 56.1 Statement (“Pls.’ 56.1 Statement”) (ECF No. 139), the HFC Defendants submitted a Response to Plaintiffs’ Rule 56.1 Statement (“HFC’s 56.1 Response In Opp.”) (ECF No. 143), and the G&H Defendants submitted a Response to Plaintiffs’ Rule 56.1 Statement (“G&H’s 56.1 Response In Opp.”) (ECF No. 144).

• In connection with the HFC Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (“HFC Mot.”) (ECF No. 122), the HFC Defendants submitted a Rule 56.1 Statement (“HFC’s 56.1 Statement”) (ECF No. 122-2).

• In connection with the G&H Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (“G&H Mot.”) (ECF No. 123), the G&H Defendants submitted a Rule 56.1 Statement (“G&H’s 56.1 Statement”) (ECF No. 123-2).

[3] These include, among other things, that a signatory certify that he or she (1) has “never been convicted of a crime, ” (2) has “not consumed alcohol in the last 12 hours and [is] not under the influence of any prescription or other drug or substance that would affect my ability to safely handle a firearm, ” and (3) “know[s] of no reason(s) why [their] possession of a firearm would not be in the interest of public health, safety, or welfare.”

[4] In connection with the instant motions, Martin submits an affidavit attesting that he did in fact read the release. (See Affidavit of David Martin (ECF No. 129-4) ¶¶ 16-20). For the reasons discussed, infra at II.A.2, the affidavit and all attendant facts will be set aside as a sham affidavit.

[5] On July 1, 2021, Magistrate Judge Waldor adopted a briefing schedule proposed by the Parties and ordered that the Parties file “any motions regarding the Release and Hold Harmless Agreement” pursuant to that schedule. (ECF No. 124.)

[6] Indeed, the Rules do not contemplate that a nonmovant will submit a statement of “undisputed” material facts. Instead, the nonmovant may furnish a “supplemental statement of disputed material facts, ” to which the movant shall reply. L. R. 56.1(a)

[7] As just one example, Mr. Engle attests: “Certainly we know from Mr. Martin’s affidavit that he did not read Section 1 and instead skimmed over it precisely because it was ‘too small and dense.’ Whether this was a reasonable thing to do, given the fact that it was in 9-point font, is a jury question.” (ECF No. 129 ¶ 10.) Such a statement is far from an “undisputed fact, ” nor does it follow the plain requirements of Local Rule 56.1(a).

[8] While the Martin Affidavit was submitted on multiple occasions in connection with the various motions, each submission is identical and the Court will refer to it as a single document.

[9] Counsel for the HFC Defendants assert that Plaintiffs should be sanctioned for submitting this sham affidavit. (HFC Opp. at 7.) To the extent that this request is more than mere bluster, it must be made as its own motion and pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

[10] As the Court has concluded exclusion is proper, there is no need to reach Defendants’ substantive objections to the Osborn Report. In any event, for reasons discussed infra, the Court’s consideration of the Report’s contents would not change the conclusion that the Release did not violate the PLRA.

[11] Relying on the deposition testimony of Laurel Auriemma, G&H’s Compliance Officer, Plaintiffs contend that most of the text in Section 1 of the Release is 9-point Times New Roman, the sole exception being the statement “I HAVE CAREFULLY READ THIS AGREEMENT AND FULLY UNDERSTAND THE CONTENTS, ” found at the bottom of Section 1 of the Release, which Plaintiffs claim is in 8-point Times New Roman. (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 12, 13, 15, 16.) Defendants object to these statements as mischaracterizations of Ms. Auriemma’s testimony, and instead (correctly) claim that Ms. Auriemma’s testimony concerned the font size of a Microsoft Word version of the Release she had in her possession- rather than the signed Release. (HFC’s 56.1 Response In Opp ¶¶ 12, 13, 15, 16; G&H 56.1 Response In Opp ¶¶ 12, 13, 15, 16.) While the record does not establish an undisputed determination of the relevant language’s font size, even when the Court credits Plaintiffs’ accounting of the facts, their challenge to the language under the PLRA fails for the reasons that follow.

[12] Plaintiffs also contend that “Mr. Martin’s affidavit alone creates several N.J.S.A. 56:12(1-6) issues of fact.” (Pls.’ Mot at 14.) For reasons previously discussed, the Court will not credit the Martin Affidavit. See supra at II.A.2.

[13] Plaintiffs’ reliance on Kernahan and Rockel v. Cherry Hill Dodge, 368 N.J.Super. 577 (App. Div. 2004), is misplaced. To the extent the court in Kernahan considered the 6.5-point font size of the relevant language in the 5-page contract, it was one of several factors-also including a “confusing sentence order” and “misleading caption”-weighing in favor of finding it unenforceable. 236 N.J. at 326. Furthermore, the Kernahan decision focused predominantly on the heightened requirements underlying the enforcement of arbitration provisions, an issue not present here. Id. at 301-326 (citing Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp., L.P., 219 N.J. 430 (2014)).

Meanwhile, while the court in Rockel acknowledged that “[t]he size of the print and the location of the arbitration provision in a contract has great relevance to any determination to compel arbitration, ” its decision relied largely on the presence of two conflicting arbitration provisions. 368 N.J.Super. at 585. Indeed, the court in Rockel did not consider any challenge to the language under the PLRA.

[14] The third factor is inapplicable here because Defendants are neither public utilities nor common carriers.

[15] To underscore this point, John Ursin, G&H’s attorney and a principal drafter of the Release, during his deposition was asked whether the language was meant to “include every possible accident on the activity.” (Ursin Dep. Tr. 27:15-23.) While he declared that this would be an “overstatement, ” he only offered the hypothetical the Release was not intended to disclaim liability “if . . . there was a plane crash on the property.” (Id.) To limit Defendants’ liabilities under the exculpatory to acts of god would “eviscerate” the duty of care they have to their patrons. Cf. Walters, 437 N.J.Super. at 118-19.

[16] Plaintiffs argue unconvincingly that, because the Release does not contain a severability clause, the Release must be voided as a whole. Here, striking the unenforceable portions of the Release still “leaves behind a clear residue that is manifestly consistent with the ‘central purpose’ of the contracting parties, and that is capable of enforcement.” Jacob v. Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus, 128 N.J. 10, 33 (1992).

[17] Further to their proposed analogy between transportation during sporting clay shooting to the rental of golf carts in connection with a golf tournament, Defendants offer Post v. Belmont Country Club, Inc., 60 Mass.App.Ct. 645 (2004) as support for their argument that injuries during transportation should be covered within the Release. However, in Post, the relevant exculpatory clause in the golf membership handbook expressly included transportation on the golf court, id. at 646, and applied Massachusetts’ more permissive rules with respect to exculpatory agreements, id. at 651 (refusing to require “strict construction” of the relevant exculpatory clause when asked to apply other states’ rules of construction).

[18] Plaintiffs also argue, unpersuasively, that the Release violates Defendants’ statutory duties imposed upon them under New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, Title 2C Section 2C:58-3.1. Under 2C:58-3.1, a legal owner of a handgun, rifle or shotgun may temporarily transfer the firearm to a person who is 18 years of age or older, if the transfer is made upon a firing range “for the sole purpose of target practice, trap or skeet shooting, or competition upon that firing range.” Upon the transfer, “[t]he firearm shall be handled and used by the person to whom it is temporarily transferred only in the actual presence or under the direct supervision of the legal owner of the firearm.” Id. Plaintiffs make no claim that any injury was the result of a failure to supervise him upon the transfer of a firearm, and Martin has acknowledged that he was not in possession of a firearm during the wagon ride at issue. (Martin Dep. Tr. 51 5-12.)

[19] The Release, which Defendants presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, in a standardized printed form, and without opportunity for the Martin to negotiate, is a contract of adhesion. Gamble v. Connolly, 399 N.J.Super. 130, 142 (2007) (A contract of adhesion means “‘a contract where one party must accept or reject the contract.'”). However, “‘the determination that a contract is one of adhesion is the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry into whether a contract…should be deemed unenforceable based on policy considerations.'” Id. “When making the determination that a contract of adhesion is unconscionable and unenforceable, [the court] consider[s], using a sliding scale analysis, the way in which the contract was formed and, further, whether enforcement of the contract implicates matters of public interest.” Stelluti, 203 N.J. at 301 (citing Delta Funding, 189 NJ. at 39-40).

[20] Plaintiffs also argue that the “language of the release was technical and cumbersome” and “[i]ts sentences were overly long and difficult to understand.” (Pls.’ Opp, to HFC Mot. at 24; Pls.’ Opp to G&H Mot. at 27.) These arguments fail for reasons already discussed. See supra at II.B.

———


Vladichak v. Mountain Creek Ski Resort, Inc. (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2022)

ANDREA VLADICHAK, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
MOUNTAIN CREEK SKI RESORT, INC., Defendant-Appellant,

and MICHAEL LAVIN, Defendant-Respondent.

No. A-1367-20

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

April 13, 2022

This opinion shall not “constitute precedent or be binding upon any court .” Although it is posted on the internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.

Argued April 4, 2022

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-0590-18.

Samuel J. McNulty argued the cause for appellant (Hueston McNulty, PC, attorneys; Samuel J. McNulty, of counsel and on the briefs; Edward J. Turro, on the briefs).

Matthew E. Kennedy argued the cause for respondent Michael Lavin (Leary Bride Mergner & Bongiovanni, PA, attorneys; Matthew E. Kennedy, of counsel and on the brief).

Before Judges Fasciale and Sumners.

PER CURIAM

Defendant Snow Creek, LLC d/b/a Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. (Mountain Creek) appeals from a November 9, 2020 order denying its motion for summary judgment and granting summary judgment to defendant Michael Lavin (Lavin) dismissing Mountain Creek’s cross-claims for defense costs and contractual indemnification. Judge David J. Weaver (motion judge) concluded in a thorough opinion that the contractual language was ambiguous and therefore Mountain Creek was not entitled to indemnification from Lavin or defense costs incurred to defend plaintiff’s allegations that Mountain Creek itself was negligent. We affirm.

On December 21, 2017, plaintiff sustained personal injuries while skiing at a ski area owned and operated by Mountain Creek in Vernon Township, New Jersey. Plaintiff was struck from behind by Lavin, another skier. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging Mountain Creek and Lavin were negligent. Plaintiff’s complaint alleged Mountain Creek was independently negligent for failing to provide appropriate warnings to skiers, failing to appropriately designate the difficulty of ski trails, failing to provide skiers with appropriate information about trail conditions, failing to timely remove obvious manmade hazards, and/or otherwise failing to establish adequate procedures to provide a safe skiing environment. The complaint alleged Lavin was negligent for breaching his duty to others to ski in a reasonably safe manner by skiing in a reckless manner and/or intentionally colliding into plaintiff and causing her injuries.

Prior to the incident, Lavin signed an equipment rental agreement (Rental Agreement) and lift ticket agreement (Release Agreement) in which he agreed to defend and indemnify Mountain Creek from any claims related to his own conduct and use of the property’s equipment facilities. On August 7, 2019, Mountain Creek filed an answer and cross-claims seeking defense and indemnification from Lavin based on the executed Rental and Release Agreements. Mountain Creek previously tendered the defense to Lavin on July 16, 2019.

Plaintiff’s counsel served a report from plaintiff’s liability expert, who concluded that Lavin violated the New Jersey Ski Statute, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -12, and the Skier’s Responsibility Code by failing to control his speed and course and by failing to yield to the skiers ahead of him. The expert opined that Lavin’s reckless conduct caused the accident. On March 27, 2020, Judge Stephan C. Hansbury entered an order granting Mountain Creek’s motion for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s claims that Mountain Creek was negligent. Lavin and plaintiff settled and filed a stipulation of dismissal with prejudice dated May 29, 2020.

After plaintiff’s settlement with Lavin, Mountain Creek filed its motion seeking reimbursement from Lavin for defending plaintiff’s allegations and indemnification from Lavin.[1] Lavin filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on September 1. That led to the order under review.

The judge concluded that, as a matter of law, the indemnification provisions were ambiguous and thus unenforceable to compel indemnification in favor of Mountain Creek for claims of its own negligence. The motion judge denied Lavin’s cross-motion for summary judgment in part and granted it in part. The motion judge requested the parties submit the detail and extent of defense costs incurred by Mountain Creek for costs incurred for which liability was only vicarious.

Mountain Creek’s attorneys stipulated that there were no fees or costs incurred from defending vicarious liability claims. On December 14, 2020, Judge Robert J. Brennan entered a consent order resolving all remaining issues as to all parties.

Mountain Creek raises the following arguments on appeal:

POINT I

STANDARD OF REVIEW-DE NOVO[.]

POINT II

THE [MOTION JUDGE] CORRECTLY RULED THAT THE TWO AGREEMENTS WERE NOT CONTRACTS OF ADHESION NOR WERE THEY CONTRARY TO PUBLIC POLICY.

POINT III

THE [MOTION JUDGE] ERRED IN FINDING THAT THE LANGUAGE IN THE AGREEMENTS SIGNED BY . . . LAVIN IS AMBIGUOUS AND INSUFFICIENT TO COMPEL . . . LAVIN TO INDEMNIFY AND DEFEND MOUNTAIN CREEK FOR CLAIMS OF ITS OWN NEGLIGENCE.

A. Special Status Of A Ski Operator.

B. The Two Agreements Were Unambiguous And Should Be Enforced.[2]

Mountain Creek raises the following points in reply, which we have renumbered:

POINT IV

. . . LAVIN’S REQUEST THAT THE APPELLATE DIVISION REVERSE THE [MOTION JUDGE]’S JUDGMENT THAT THE CONTRACTS WERE NOT UNCONSCIONABLE SHOULD BE REJECTED AS NO CROSS-APPEAL WAS FILED.

POINT V

THE AGREEMENTS IN QUESTION ARE ENFORCEABLE AND NOT UNCONSCIONABLE CONTRACTS OF ADHESION.

POINT VI

THE INDEMNIFICATION LANGUAGE IS SUFFICIENT AND EXPRESSLY PROVIDES FOR INDEMNIFICATION FOR CLAIMS ASSERTING MOUNTAIN CREEK’S OWN NEGLIGENCE.

We review the motion judge’s grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo. Branch v. Cream-O-Land Dairy, 244 N.J. 567, 582 (2021). We apply the same standard as the motion judge and consider “whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party.” Brill v. Guardian Life
Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995).

I.

Mountain Creek contends the motion judge erred in ruling the indemnification provisions in the Release and Rental Agreements were ambiguous and unenforceable to compel Lavin to indemnify Mountain Creek for Mountain Creek’s own negligence. Mountain Creek also contends that it should be permitted to obtain indemnification from Lavin based on its special status as a ski area operator under the Ski Statute.

The judge’s role “in construing a contractual indemnity provision is the same as in construing any other part of a contract-it is to determine the intent of the parties.” Kieffer v. Best Buy, 205 N.J. 213, 223 (2011). Generally, courts give contractual provisions “their plain and ordinary meaning.” Ibid. (quoting M.J. Paquet, Inc. v. N.J. Dep’t of Transp., 171 N.J. 378, 396 (2002)). “However, indemnity provisions differ from provisions in a typical contract in one important aspect. If the meaning of an indemnity provision is ambiguous, the provision is ‘strictly construed against the indemnitee.'” Ibid. (quoting Mantilla v. NC Mall Assocs., 167 N.J. 262, 272 (2001)).

We have characterized this approach as a “bright line” rule requiring “explicit language” when “indemnification includes the negligence of the indemnitee.” Azurak v. Corp. Prop. Invs., 347 N.J.Super. 516, 523 (App. Div. 2002). Azurak involved a contract between a janitorial company (PBS) and a shopping mall owner (the Mall) that contained the following provision:

Contractor [PBS] shall indemnify, defend and hold harmless each Indemnitee [the Mall] from and against any claim (including any claim brought by employees of Contractor), liability, damage or expense (including attorneys’ fees) that such Indemnitee may incur relating to, arising out of or existing by reason of (i) Contractor’s performance of this Agreement or the conditions created thereby (including the use, misuse or failure of any equipment used by Contractor or its subcontractors, servants or employees) or (ii) Contractor’s breach of this Agreement or the inadequate or improper performance of this Agreement by Contractor or its subcontractors, servants or employees.

[Azurak v. Corp. Prop. Invs., 175 N.J. 110, 111 (2003) (alterations in original).]

The plaintiff sued the Mall and PBS for injuries she sustained when she slipped on the Mall’s floor. Ibid. The trial judge granted the Mall’s summary judgment motion on the issue of indemnification based on the contract provision. Ibid. At trial, the jury determined “that plaintiff was 30% negligent; the Mall, 30%; and PBS, 40%.” Ibid. This court disagreed with the trial judge, finding that the indemnification provision did not encompass the Mall’s negligence because the provision’s language was neither explicit nor unequivocal as to claims of the Mall’s own negligence. Id. at 111-12. Our Court affirmed and held that “in order to allay even the slightest doubt on the issue of what is required to bring a negligent indemnitee within an indemnification agreement, we reiterate that the agreement must specifically reference the negligence or fault of the indemnitee.” Id. at 112-13.

Mountain Creek’s Release Agreement contained a provision that states:

INDEMNIFICATION. To the fullest extent permitted by law, I agree to DEFEND, INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS Mountain Creek from any and all claims, suits, costs and expenses including attorneys’ fees asserted against Mountain Creek by me or third parties arising or allegedly arising out of or resulting from my conduct while utilizing Mountain Creek’s facilities WHETHER OR NOT MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part.

One provision of the Rental Agreement states:

To the fullest extent permitted by law, I also agree to DEFEND, INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS Mountain Creek from any and all claims, suits, costs and expenses including attorneys’ fees for personal injury, death or property damage against it by me or third parties arising or allegedly arising out of or resulting from my conduct while utilizing Mountain Creek’s facilities or the use of this equipment whether or not MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part.

We agree with the motion judge that the indemnity provisions in the agreements are ambiguous as to claims of Mountain Creek’s independent negligence. Although the provisions reference Mountain Creek’s negligence in bold and capitalized letters, the language “arising out of or resulting from my conduct . . . whether or not MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part” is insufficient to meet the Azurak standard. One could reasonably interpret the provisions to require indemnification and defense of Mountain Creek for any claims of negligence against it caused by Lavin’s conduct even when Mountain Creek is partially at fault or to require Lavin to indemnify and defend Mountain Creek for separate claims of its own negligence. See Nester v. O’Donnell, 301 N.J.Super. 198, 210 (App. Div. 1997) (noting that a contract is ambiguous if it is “susceptible to at least two reasonable alternative interpretations” (quoting Kaufman v. Provident Life & Cas. Ins. Co., 828 F.Supp. 275, 283 (D.N.J. 1992), aff’d, 993 F.2d 877 (3d Cir. 1993))).

An indemnitor may expect to indemnify and defend an indemnitee for claims caused by its negligent conduct when the indemnitee may also be at fault but may not expect to be solely responsible to indemnify and defend the indemnitee when the indemnitee has committed separate acts of negligence. That is the case here, as plaintiff’s complaint alleged Mountain Creek was separately negligent for failing to provide adequate instructions to skiers and a safe ski environment. A better-and likely enforceable-provision would explicitly state that the indemnitor indemnifies Mountain Creek for claims arising out of indemnitor’s conduct and for claims of Mountain Creek’s independent negligence.

The provisions at issue do not meet the bright line rule requiring “unequivocal terms” that the duty to indemnify extends to the indemnitee’s own negligence. Thus, the provisions are ambiguous and must be strictly construed against Mountain Creek. The same reasoning and standards apply with equal force to Mountain Creek’s defense costs. The provisions’ ambiguity precludes their enforcement against Lavin for recovery of the costs incurred by Mountain Creek for defending its own negligence claims.

We also conclude Mountain Creek’s argument that the Ski Statute supports enforcement of the indemnification provisions is without merit. While the Ski Act may emphasize the inherent risk that skiers assume when skiing, the Act provides separate duties to the ski operator, which include establishing and posting a system for identifying slopes and their difficulty, ensuring the availability of information to skiers, and removing hazards as soon as practicable. N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a). The allegations in plaintiff’s complaint, which include failing to provide adequate signage and failing to instruct skiers properly, do not fall under the risks that “are essentially impractical or impossible for the ski area operator to eliminate” defined in the statute. N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(b). In fact, plaintiff’s complaint addressed the responsibilities of a ski area operator as prescribed by the Act. Requiring indemnification in favor of a ski resort for claims of its own independent negligence does not further the Ski Act’s purpose of allocating the inherent risk of skiing between the skier and ski resort. Moreover, the public policy of the Ski Act has no bearing on our interpretation of the indemnity provisions and our conclusion that the provisions are ambiguous.

II.

Lavin argues, on an alternative basis, that the Rental and Release Agreements are unconscionable contracts of adhesion. Lavin was not required to file a Notice of Cross-Appeal to preserve this argument for appeal because “appeals are taken from judgments, not opinions, and, without having filed a cross-appeal, a respondent can argue any point on the appeal to sustain the trial [judge’s] judgment.” Chimes v. Oritani Motor Hotel, Inc., 195 N.J.Super. 435, 443 (App. Div. 1984). Even if Lavin were required to file a cross-appeal, we will address the merits of his argument.

As a threshold issue, we determine that the Release and Rental Agreements were contracts of adhesion. If a contract is characterized as a contract of adhesion, “nonenforcement of its terms may be justified on other than such traditional grounds as fraud, duress, mistake, or illegality.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353 (1992). An adhesion contract is one that “is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Vitale v. Schering-Plough Corp., 231 N.J. 234, 246 (2017) (quoting Rudbart, 127 N.J. at 355). “Although a contract of adhesion is not per se unenforceable, a [judge] may decline to enforce it if it is found to be unconscionable.” Ibid.

We agree with the motion judge that “the Agreements at issue evidence characteristics of contracts of adhesion.” The Release and Rental Agreements were standardized form contracts that fit our Court’s definition as “take-it-or-leave-it” adhesion contracts. See ibid. All potential skiers at Mountain Creek’s resort are obligated to sign the Release Agreement, and there is little to no negotiating done before the agreements’ execution. However, an agreement found to be an adhesion contract may nevertheless be enforced if it is not unconscionable. See ibid.

When determining whether an adhesion contract is unconscionable, we evaluate four factors that “focus on procedural and substantive aspects of the contract to determine whether the contract is so oppressive, or inconsistent with the vindication of public policy, that it would be unconscionable to permit its enforcement.” Id. at 247 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Rodriguez v. Raymours Furniture Co., Inc., 225 N.J. 343, 367 (2016)). Those factors include “the subject matter of the contract, the parties’ relative bargaining positions, the degree of economic compulsion motivating the ‘adhering’ party, and the public interests affected by the contract.” Rudbart, 127 N.J. at 356. The first three factors speak to procedural unconscionability, and the last factor speaks to substantive unconscionability. See Rodriguez, 225 N.J. at 367. We consider these factors using a “sliding scale analysis.” Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301 (2010).

The motion judge correctly relied on Stelluti in determining the agreements are not procedurally unconscionable. In Stelluti, the plaintiff was injured in a spinning class at a private fitness center and argued that the pre-injury waiver of liability she signed was unenforceable on unconscionability grounds. Id. at 291, 300. The Court found that although the pre-printed form was an adhesion contract, it was not procedurally unconscionable. Id. at 301-02. The Court reasoned the plaintiff was not in a position of unequal bargaining power, despite being a layperson and not being fully informed of the legal effect of an adhesion contract, when she had the ability to take “her business to another fitness club,” to find a form of exercise different than joining a private gym, or to contemplate the agreement for some time before joining the gym and using its equipment. Id. at 302.

Under the Court’s reasoning in Stelluti and applying the four-factor test, the Release and Rental Agreements are not procedurally unconscionable. At the time of the incident, Lavin was twenty years old and a layperson without specialized knowledge of the law. He maintains he did not read the agreements before signing them despite having the opportunity to do so. Lavin also stated that he did not have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the agreement. However, Lavin was engaging in a recreational activity like the adhering party in Stelluti, and he was under no economic duress or obligation to consent to the agreements. Lavin could have chosen to take his business to another ski resort, rented skis from a different facility, or could have simply read the agreements or contemplated them before signing.

As for the remaining factor-the impact on public interest-Mountain Creek points to the “strong public policy of protecting ski operators and allocating the risks and costs of inherently dangerous recreational activities” under the Ski Statute. The Act’s purpose is to make explicit a policy of this State which clearly defines the responsibility of ski area operators and skiers, recognizing that the sport of skiing and other ski area activities involve risks which must be borne by those who engage in such activities and which are essentially impractical or impossible for the ski area operator to eliminate. It is, therefore, the purpose of this act to state those risks which the skier voluntarily assumes for which there can be no recovery.

[N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(b).]

We agree that the Agreements are not substantively unconscionable. The agreements do not contain terms that are so “harsh” or “one-sided” to render them unconscionable and unenforceable. See Muhammad v. Cnty. Bank of
Rehoboth Beach, Del., 189 N.J. 1, 15 (2006). Construing the indemnity provision against Mountain Creek due to its ambiguity, the provision requires that Lavin indemnify and defend Mountain Creek for claims arising out of Lavin’s conduct while using Mountain Creek’s equipment and facilities, even when Mountain Creek is partially at fault. This indemnification scheme is consistent with the Ski Act’s purpose to promote “the allocation of the risks and costs of skiing” as “an important matter of public policy.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(a). Moreover, in Stelluti, the Court considered that “some activities involve a risk of injury and thus require risk sharing between the participants and operators” and that our Legislature has enacted statutes to address the allocation of risk in those circumstances. 203 N.J. at 308. It would not be against public policy to require indemnification of Mountain Creek by Lavin for claims of vicarious liability due to Lavin’s reckless conduct; however, Mountain Creek stipulated that it did not incur any costs in defending claims of vicarious liability.

Affirmed.

———

Notes:

[1] Mountain Creek did not contribute towards plaintiff’s settlement with Lavin.

[2] To comport with our style conventions, we altered the capitalization of Mountain Creek’s Points A and B but omitted the alterations for readability.

———


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

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

Douglas E. Ferbet, Appellant,

v.

Hidden Valley Golf and Ski, Inc. and Peak Resorts, Inc., Respondents.

No. ED108495

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

December 15, 2020

Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Louis County 18SL-CC00050 Honorable Mary Elizabeth Ott.

James M. Dowd, P.J., Gary M. Gaertner, Jr., J., and Robin Ransom, J.

James M. Dowd, Presiding Judge.

Introduction

Appellant Douglas Ferbet’s recreational outing with his family on January 25, 2013 to Respondents’ snow tubing hill in Eureka, Missouri ended abruptly when as he slid down the hill seated on a large rubber inner tube, his dangling right foot engaged with a crevice in the sliding surface of the slippery slope breaking his leg in two places. Now, Ferbet appeals the trial court’s summary judgment entered in favor of Respondents Hidden Valley and Peak Resorts (Hidden Valley) on Ferbet’s negligence claim in which he alleged that his injuries were caused by Hidden Valley’s negligent maintenance of the tubing hill. Hidden Valley sought summary judgment based on release-of-liability language in an agreement Hidden Valley required Ferbet to sign before selling snow tubing tickets to him and his family just before they headed to the hill.

The trial court found the agreement enforceable and therefore that Ferbet had released Hidden Valley from his negligence claim based on the document’s references both to specific risks involved in snow tubing and that Ferbet was releasing Hidden Valley from liability for injuries including those caused by Hidden Valley’s own negligence.

We affirm the judgment, but our legal rationale is somewhat different than the trial court’s. We agree with the trial court that while exculpatory clauses like the one here that purport to release a party from its own future negligence are disfavored, they are not prohibited by Missouri public policy, and to the extent Ferbet has adequately pled a negligence claim, the language of this agreement is sufficiently specific to encompass Ferbet’s claim and, importantly, it also clearly and conspicuously states that even claims resulting from Hidden Valley’s negligence are released. We also affirm because to the extent that the risk Ferbet claims caused his injury was a known and understandable inherent risk of snow tubing for which Hidden Valley owed Ferbet no duty, his claim is without merit under the doctrine of assumption of the risk.

Background

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.

At all relevant times, customers, in order to be permitted to buy tickets, were required to read and sign the following document, which we reproduce verbatim here, purporting to identify certain general and specific injury risks posed by snow tubing. The document also contains language that purports to release Hidden Valley from liability for injuries sustained while snow tubing including for claims arising from Hidden Valley’s own negligence: POLAR PLUNGE SNOW TUBING HIDDEN VALLEY SKI-TUBE-RIDE AREA, WILDWOOD, MISSOURI ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RISK AND AGREEMENT NOT TO SUE THIS IS A CONTRACT! * * * * * * * * * * PLEASE READ! 1. I understand and acknowledge that snow tubing is a dangerous, risky sport and that there are inherent and other risks associated with the sport and that all of these risks can cause serious and even fatal injuries. 2. I understand that part of the thrill, excitement and risks of snow tubing is that the snow tubes all end up in a common, run-out area at various times and speeds and that [sic] is my responsibility to try to avoid hitting another snow tuber, and it is also my responsibility to try to avoid being hit by another snow tuber, but that notwithstanding these efforts by myself and other snow tubers, there is a risk of collisions. 3. I acknowledge that the risks of snow tubing include, but are not limited to, the following: • Variations in the steepness and configuration of the snow tubing chutes and run-out area; • Variations in the surface upon which snow tubing is conducted, which can vary from wet, slushy conditions to hard packed, icy conditions and everything in between; • Fence and/or barriers at or along portions of the snow tubing area, the absence of such fence and/or barriers and the inability of fences and/or barriers to prevent or reduce injury; • Changes in the speed at which snow tubers travel depending on surface conditions, the weight of snow tubers and the inter-linking of snow tubers together to go down the snow tubes runs; • The chance that a patron can fall out, be thrown out or otherwise leave the snow tube; • The chance that a snow tube can go from one run to another run, regardless of whether or not there is a barrier between runs, and the chance that a snow tube can go beyond the run-out area; • The chance that a snow tube can go up the run-out hill and then slide in the general run-out area; • Collisions in the run-out area and other locations of the snow tubing facility, with collisions happening between snow tubes, between a snow tube and another patron, between a snow tube and a snow tubing facility attendant, between a snow tubing patron who may or may not be in or on a snow tube at the time of the collision and other sorts of collisions; collisions with fixed objects, obstacles or structures located within or outside of the snow tube facility; • The use of the snow tubing carpet lift or tow, including falling out of a tube, slipping backwards, becoming entangled with equipment, railing and fencing, slipping and falling on the carpet lift and/or the adjacent deck and other risks. 4. I also acknowledge and understand that I am accepting AS IS the snow tube and any other equipment involved with the snow tubing activity, including lifts and tows, and further acknowledge and understand that NO WARRANTIES are being extended to me with respect to any aspect of the snow tubing facility. 5. I agree and understand that snow tubing is a purely voluntary, recreational activity and that if I am not willing to acknowledge the risk and agree not to sue, I should not go snow tubing. 6. I agree to allow the use of my image or likeness incidental in any photograph, live recorded video display or other transmission or reproduction of the event in any form to which this agreement admits me. 7. IN CONSIDERATION OF THE ABOVE AND BEING ALLOWED TO PARTICIPATE IN THE SPORT OF SNOWTUBING, I AGREE THAT I WILL NOT SUE AND WILL RELEASE FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY, HIDDEN VALLEY GOLF AND SKI, INC. OR PEAK RESORTS, INC., THEIR OWNERS, OPERATIONS, LESSORS, LESSEES, OFFICERS, AGENTS, AND EMPLOYEES IF I OR ANY MEMBER OF MY FAMILY IS INJURED WHILE USING ANY OF THE SNOWTUBING FACILITIES OR WHILE BEING PRESENT AT THE FACILITIES, EVEN IF I CONTEND THAT SUCH INJURIES ARE THE RESULT OF NEGLIGENCE ON THE PART OF THE SNOWTUBING FACILITY. 8. I further agree that I WILL INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS HIDDEN VALLEY GOLF AND SKI, INC. AND PEAK RESORTS, INC. THEIR OWNERS, OPERATORS, LESSORS, LESSEES, OFFICERS, AGENTS, AND EMPLOYEES from any loss, liability, damages or cost of any kind that it may incur as the result of any injury to myself or to any member of my family or to any person for whom I am explaining that meaning of this agreement, even if it is contended that any such injury was caused by the negligence on the part of the snow tubing facility. 9. I understand and agree that this Agreement is governed by the laws of the State of Missouri. I further agree that if any part of this Agreement is determined to be unenforceable, all other parts shall be given full force and effect. 10. I have read and understand the foregoing Acknowledgement of Risks and Agreement Not to Sue. I understand by reading this that I may be giving up the rights of my child and spouse to sue as well as giving up my own right to sue.

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.

On December 27, 2018, Ferbet filed suit alleging that his injuries and damages were caused by Hidden Valley’s negligent maintenance and operation of the tubing hill, specifically with respect to the dangerous condition of the sliding surface that he claims caused his injuries. After some discovery took place, Respondents filed their motion for summary judgment on the sole basis that Ferbet had released his claim against them by signing the above agreement.

In his response, Ferbet asserted that the release was unenforceable as against public policy. He also alleged that amusement park and recreational area operators such as Hidden Valley should be considered common carriers and therefore held to the highest degree of care, as opposed to ordinary care, and that an exculpatory clause should be unenforceable when the highest degree of care is owed.

After a June 7, 2019 hearing on the motion, the trial court granted summary judgment based on its findings that the facts were undisputed that Ferbet had signed the agreement; that the agreement was enforceable and not against public policy; that its operative release language clearly and explicitly exonerated Hidden Valley for its negligence in causing Ferbet’s injuries; and that Hidden Valley is not a common carrier subject to the highest degree of care. This appeal follows.

Standard of Review

On appeals from summary judgment, our review is essentially de novo and we review the record in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was entered. ITT Commercial Fin. Corp. v. Mid-Am. Marine Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993). Missouri Supreme Court Rule 74.04 governs summary judgment procedures. The trial court shall grant summary judgment “[i]f the motion, the response, the reply and the sur-reply show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Rule 74.04(c)(6); See also, Id. at 378. The trial court and this Court look to the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file together with any affidavits to determine whether the undisputed facts demonstrate that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Miller v. River Hills Development, 831 S.W.2d 756, 757 (Mo. App. E.D. 1992). But “[t]he key to a summary judgment is the undisputed right to a judgment as a matter of law; not simply the absence of a fact question.” Birdsong v. Christians, 6 S.W.3d 218, 223 (Mo. App. S.D. 1999) (quoting Southard v. Buccaneer Homes Corp., 904 S.W.2d 525, 530 (Mo. App. S.D. 1995)).

Where the defending party is the movant, it may establish a right to judgment by showing: (1) facts negating any one of the non-movant’s elements; (2) that the non-movant, after an adequate period of discovery, has not been able and will not be able to produce evidence sufficient to allow the trier of fact to find the existence of any one of the non-movant’s elements; or (3) that there is no genuine dispute as to the existence of each of the facts necessary to support the movant’s properly-pleaded affirmative defense. ITT, 854 S.W.2d at 381.

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. Alack v. Vic Tanny Intern. of Missouri, Inc., 923 S.W.2d 330, 337 (Mo. banc 1996); see also Abbott v. Epic Landscape Prods., L.C., 361 S.W.3d 13, 19 (Mo. App. W.D. 2011), as modified (Jan. 31, 2012).

Hidden Valley also asserted assumption of the risk as an affirmative defense. Although it did not seek summary judgment on that basis nor did the trial court rely on assumption of the risk in its grant of summary judgment here, our review is de novo and we may do so. See ITT Commercial, 854 S.W.2d at 387-88 (summary judgment may be “affirmed in this Court on an entirely different basis than that posited at trial”). In fact, for the reasons we provide below, we find it necessary to employ Hidden Valley’s assumption of the risk affirmative defense in addition to the release in order to resolve this case.

Discussion

1. In Missouri, exculpatory clauses are disfavored but not void as against public policy.

In his first point, Ferbet alleges the trial court failed to address his affirmative avoidance that the exculpatory clause before us violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable. While we may agree and acknowledge that there continue to be strong policy arguments why these anticipatory releases are problematic, e.g., the party best positioned to prevent the harm is relieved of liability and instead the burden of loss is placed upon the party least able to prevent it, the public policy implications of such releases have been litigated, analyzed, and largely decided by our Supreme Court. See Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 334 (“Although exculpatory clauses in contracts releasing an individual from his or her own future negligence are disfavored, they are not prohibited as against public policy.”) In short, that public policy ship has sailed aboard the S.S. Alack.

Thus, our initial analysis is whether the release here complies with the dictates of Alack and its progeny to which we now turn. 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.” Id. (citing Poslosky v. Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., 349 S.W.2d 847, 850 (Mo. 1961)). 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. Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337.[ 1]

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. Id. at 646. 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.

i. Paragraph 7’s release language satisfies Alack’s bright-line test.

Nevertheless, we abide by our previous holding in Guthrie that the release language here satisfies Alack’s conspicuity requirement. Paragraph 7, located three quarters down the one-page agreement, provides in all capital letters that snow tubing participants agree to release Hidden Valley for claims if injured while using or being present at the snow tubing facility “even if … such injuries are the result of negligence on the part of” Hidden Valley.

ii. The word “negligence” is necessary, but we still construe the whole contract.

But our inquiry does not end with the mere inclusion of the word “negligence.” If that was the case, Hidden Valley could have simply presented its customers with a 9-word declaration to sign: “I release Hidden Valley for all claims including negligence.” 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. Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337.

Hidden Valley seems to concede this by virtue of its 850-word agreement here in which it endeavors to comprehensively identify the risks associated with, inherent to, or that may arise during snow tubing. And while paragraph 7 sets forth the release language on which Hidden Valley relies, paragraph 7 does not stand alone in this contract. In fact, with its opening phrase “[i]n consideration of the above…,” paragraph 7 incorporates the preceding six numbered paragraphs, the first four of which specifically address the types and nature of the risks involved in snow tubing.[ 2] In this way, Hidden Valley has sought to define and identify the risks of injury from snow tubing for which it not only seeks to obtain a release from its customers but also requests its customers to assume those risks.

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.” Id. at 337-38. “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.” Woods v. QC Fin. Servs., Inc., 280 S.W.3d 90, 95 n.1 (Mo. App. E.D. 2008) (citations and quotations omitted).

The cardinal principle of contract interpretation is to ascertain the intention of the parties and to give effect to that intent. Dunn Indus. Group, Inc. v. City of Sugar Creek, 112 S.W.3d 421, 428 (Mo. banc 2003). The terms of a contract are read as a whole and are given their plain, ordinary, and usual meaning. Id.; Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337-38. 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. Storey v. RGIS Inventory Specialists, LLC, 466 S.W.3d 650, 655 (Mo. App. E.D. 2015). Under the doctrine of contra proferentem, the language of the contract is construed against the drafting party. Burns v. Smith, 303 S.W.3d 505, 509 (Mo. banc 2010). 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. Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 334.

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.

The first three numbered paragraphs are the focus of our attention. In paragraph 1, Hidden Valley very broadly and generally puts customers on notice that snow tubing is dangerous and risky and that there are inherent and other risks associated with the activity that can cause injury or death. Paragraph 2 explains in detail the risk of collisions during snow tubing. And in paragraph 3 with its nine subparts, Hidden Valley identifies and notifies customers of a myriad of the risks they might face.

iii. Assumption of the risk – the nature of the risk determines whether a duty exists.

Hidden Valley’s reference to “inherent risks” of the sport of snow tubing[ 3] presents an important legal concept that requires our attention because the extent to which the risk that caused Ferbet’s injuries is an inherent risk to snow tubing will determine whether the release here even applies. 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.”

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. Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp., 437 S.W.3d 184, 202 (Mo. banc 2014). 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. Id. at 197.

In the Coomer opinion, which doubles as an ode to the national pastime, Judge Wilson expounded on the history and current state of Missouri law regarding assumption of the risk. Coomer 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.” Id. at 192. 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. Id. at 192. 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. Id. at 191. 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. Id. at 193.

The rule that a defendant is not liable because it owes no duty for the known and understandable inherent risks of an activity “extends only to those risks” that the defendant “is powerless to alleviate without fundamentally altering” the activity. Id. But the defendant “still owes a duty of reasonable care not to alter or increase such inherent risks.” Id. at 197-198. Coomer illustrates this point with two examples. The first is the baseball spectator injured by a foul ball which he claimed he was prevented from seeing because he was being repeatedly jostled and distracted by the team’s dinosaur mascot. Id. at 198 (citing Lowe v. California League of Professional Baseball, 56 Cal.App.4th 112, 65 Cal.Rptr.2nd 105 (1997)). While getting hit by a foul ball is an inherent risk to attending a baseball game for which implied primary assumption of the risk precludes recovery because the team owes no duty of care, the jury may hold the team liable if the negligence of the mascot altered or increased that otherwise inherent risk and that negligence causes the plaintiff’s injuries. Coomer, at 198.

The second example Coomer cites is from Sheppard v. Midway R-1 Sch. Dist., 904 S.W.2d 257 (Mo. App. W.D. 1995), which involved a high school long-jumper injured during a competition by a bad landing in the landing pit. Id. at 259. The court held that even though the student cannot sue the school district for a bad landing because that is an inherent risk to long-jumping, the jury may hold the school district liable when that inherent risk is altered or increased by the defendant’s negligence in preparing the landing pit. Id. at 264.

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.

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. 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.

iv. The risks created by an uneven sliding surface on Hidden Valley’s snow tubing hill are inherent to the activity of snow tubing.

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. Coomer, 437 S.W.3d at 202. The packed snow and ice surface is outdoors at the mercy of both the changing meteorological conditions and the continual battering from plunging snow tubes and tubers. As with traditional snow sledding, an uneven surface and its impact on the participant’s experience and enjoyment seems to be part of the “essential character” of snow tubing.

But how uneven can the surface be and still be considered an inherent risk? Unfortunately, the record below is largely silent. We know little about the size or configuration of the spot on the surface in which Ferbet’s foot became lodged. Ferbet described it as an area of riprap which seemed to be along the raised rows of packed snow and ice that separated the individual lanes. The agreement, for its part, not only identified these rows but mentioned that snow tubers may slide up and over these rows into the next lane. We also know little about Hidden Valley’s care and maintenance of the surface and whether Hidden Valley was aware of the danger of body parts becoming lodged in crevices in the surface or whether there had been any, and if so, how many prior similar instances like Ferbet’s.

As the Supreme Court in Coomer recognized, a risk that is deemed inherent may become actionable if the risk is altered or enhanced by the negligence of the activity operator. Id. at 198. So, an uneven area that simply adds to snow tubers’ thrill by pitching them up, and perhaps occasionally out, of the tube is one thing. But a divot that repeatedly and unexpectedly catches and fractures customers’ limbs may go beyond being an inherent risk and become actionable because it is no longer a known and understandable risk that is part of the structure and essence of the activity.

While the paucity of this record certainly limits the concreteness of our factual findings, it does not prevent us from reaching the following legal conclusions and holdings, each of which ends in the demise of Ferbet’s appeal: First, to the extent the crevice was merely a known and understandable risk inherent to snow tubing, then Hidden Valley owed Ferbet no duty and the release is inapplicable and irrelevant because there is no claim to release; Second, if the record had demonstrated that the crevice was so big and dangerous that it went beyond what would be deemed an inherent risk to snow tubing and instead would constitute a negligently maintained surface, then Hidden Valley would owe Ferbet a duty and in that circumstance, the release would be triggered. Looking to the contract, specifically, paragraph 3, we find it adequately notified Ferbet that there could be “[v]ariations in the surface upon which snow tubing is conducted, which can vary from wet, slushy conditions to hard packed, icy conditions and everything in between.” 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.

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. Davis Indus. Sales, Inc. v. Workman Const. Co., Inc., 856 S.W.2d 355, 359 (Mo. App. S.D. 1993); Harper v. Calvert, 687 S.W.2d 227, 230 (Mo. App. W.D. 1984). 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.

In light of the above, we deny Ferbet’s first point.

2. Hidden Valley was not a common carrier in that its tubing hill was not a commercial ride for hire.

Ferbet asserts that because they operate rides and slides, recreation area operators such as Hidden Valley should be considered common carriers and should therefore be held to the highest degree of care. Ferbet then alleges without citation to any authority that such a degree of care is inconsistent with the enforcement of an exculpatory clause. We disagree.

Missouri law applies a heightened degree of care only to a very small number of well-defined activities including common carriers, such as railroads, buses, commercial airlines, streetcars, and elevator operators; electric companies; users of explosives; users of firearms; and motor vehicle operators. Chavez v. Cedar Fair, LP, 450 S.W.3d 291, 296 (Mo. banc 2014). Otherwise, the applicable standard is the ordinary degree of care. Id. (citing Lopez v. Three Rivers Elec. Co-op., Inc., 26 S.W.3d 151, 158 (Mo. banc 2000)) (“The common law ordinary negligence rule requires a defendant to exercise the degree of care of a reasonable person of ordinary prudence under similar circumstances, now commonly referred to as the ‘ordinary degree of care.'”).

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. Id. at 296; see also McCollum v. Winnwood Amusement Co., 332 Mo. 779, 59 S.W.2d 693, 697 (1933) (holding the operator of a place of public amusement operating has a duty of ordinary care to its patrons); Lewis v. Snow Creek, Inc., 6 S.W.3d 388, 392 (Mo. App. W.D. 1999) (applying a duty of ordinary care when skiers were injured due to icy conditions). And, since this activity resembles both skiing and an amusement park ride, we decline Ferbet’s invitation to do so. Hidden Valley owed Ferbet a duty of ordinary care in connection with its operation and maintenance of its snow tubing hill.

Point two is denied.

3. The summary judgment entered in this case fully disposed of Ferbet’s affirmative avoidances and did not violate Ferbet’s due process rights.

Ferbet claims the trial court’s grant of summary judgment violated his due process rights because the court failed to address his numerous affirmative avoidances. We have reviewed Ferbet’s affirmative avoidances and find they fall into two groups. The first group attacks the formation of the agreement here by raising such issues as duress and that Ferbet had not actually read or understood the document before signing it. The second group of affirmative avoidances broadly attacks the exculpatory clause on public policy grounds. And we conclude from our review of the record and in our opinion here that Ferbet’s affirmative avoidances have been fully considered and resolved.

With respect to Ferbet’s attacks on the contract’s formation, the trial court’s enforcement of the agreement necessarily signifies that the trial court found as a matter of law that this was a properly formed agreement when Ferbet signed it and dated it. Austin v. Brooklyn Cooperage Co., 285 S.W. 1015, 1017 (Mo. App. 1926) (“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.

As for Ferbet’s affirmative avoidances regarding the public policy considerations relevant to exculpatory clauses, we discussed at length above that Missouri case law is settled that though disfavored, exculpatory clauses are not prohibited as against public policy. Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 334. In effect, Ferbet’s public policy arguments have been baked into the controlling precedent by Alack and its progeny. We decline Ferbet’s invitation to ignore that precedent.

Point three is denied.

Conclusion

The trial court’s grant of summary judgment is affirmed.

Gary M. Gaertner, Jr., J. and Robin Ransom, J. concur.

———

Notes:

[ 1] We also note that Alack sought to distinguish between ordinary negligence and gross negligence in the context of exculpatory clauses with the former being disfavored but enforceable and the latter void as against public policy. Id. at 337 (“there is no question that one may never exonerate oneself from future liability for intentional torts or for gross negligence[.]” (emphasis added)). However, in Decormier v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, Inc., the Supreme Court erased this distinction because “Missouri courts do not recognize degrees of negligence at common law.” 446 S.W.3d 668, 671 (Mo. banc 2014). Decormier permits exculpatory clauses to shield parties from negligence but holds exculpatory clauses provide no protection for reckless conduct or for intentional torts. Id. Here Ferbet’s claims against Hidden Valley were for ordinary negligence.

[ 2] But even if paragraph 7 had not included the phrase “[i]n consideration of the above…”, our rule of contract interpretation require us to consider paragraph 7 in conjunction with the remaining portions of the contract including the paragraphs that seek to identify the risks involved in snow tubing.

[ 3] Hidden Valley refers to snow tubing as a sport. We need not decide whether this is the case, or whether riding a roller coaster is a sport, whether descending the log flume at Six Flags is a sport or, for that matter, whether golf is a sport.

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Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

184 A.3d 974

Patrick Kibler and Kathryn Kibler, Husband and Wife, Appellants

v.

Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., a Pennsylvania Corporation, t/d/b/a Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, and Blue Knob Resort, Inc., a Pennsylvania Corporation

No. 903 WDA 2017

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 19, 2018

Argued November 29, 2017

[184 A.3d 975] [Copyrighted Material Omitted]

[184 A.3d 976]

Appeal from the Order, May 24, 2017, in the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County, Civil Division at No. 2015-183. TRAVIS W. LIVENGOOD, J.

Douglas V. Stoehr, Altoona, for appellants.

Anthony W. Hinkle, Blue Bell, for appellees.

BEFORE: BOWES, J., STABILE, J., AND FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

OPINION

FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

Patrick and Kathryn Kibler (collectively “appellants”[1] ) appeal from the May 24, 2017 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County granting Blue Knob Recreation, Inc. and Blue Knob Resort, Inc.’s (hereinafter, collectively “defendants”) motion for summary judgment. After careful review, we affirm.

The trial court provided the following synopsis of the facts:

On March 21, 2014, [appellant] applied for a season ski pass for the 2014-2015 ski season at Blue Knob Ski Resort. [Appellant] signed and dated the season pass/application agreement, which contained [184 A.3d 977] information and guidelines about the Blue Knob season pass. The bottom half of said document contains the following exculpatory language:

PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING

BEFORE SIGNING!!

Snowboarding, skiing and other snow related activities, like many other sports, contain inherent risks including, but not limited to, the risk of personal injury, death or property damage, which may be caused by: variation in terrain or weather conditions, surface or subsurface, snow, ice, bare spots, thin cover, moguls, ruts, bumps, forest growth, debris, other persons using the facilities, branches, trees, roots, stumps, rocks, and other natural or man made objects that are incidental to the provision or maintenance of the facility. For the use of Blue Knob Ski Area, the holder assumes all risks of injury and releases Blue Knob Recreation from all liability THEREFORE: Not withstanding the foregoing, if I sue Blue Knob Recreation ET AL I agree that I will only sue it, whether on my own behalf or on behalf of a family member, in the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County or in the United States District Court for the District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and further agree that any and all disputes which might arise between Blue Knob Recreation ET AL and myself shall be litigated exclusively in one of said courts.

See Blue Knob All Seasons Resort Information/Guidelines.

On December 21, 2014 at 9:00 a.m., [appellant] arrived at Blue Knob to ski with friends. Prior to arriving at the resort, [appellant] learned that five slopes were open to ski. [Appellant] eventually would ski on two of these five open slopes. After skiing down a slope identified as “Lower Mambo,” [appellant] stopped to look for his skiing companions, who were snowboarding on another slope. In an attempt to rejoin them without walking back up the slope, [appellant] intended to ski toward the middle of “Lower Mambo Valley” in order to reach a ski lift. While traversing this area, [appellant] ran over “trenches” he avers were four-to-six inches deep and six-to-eight inches wide, which extended halfway across the ski slope. Defendants’ employees identified the trenches as being caused by an all-terrain-vehicle operated by a resort employee. [Appellant] fell when encountering these trenches, causing him to fracture his left tibia and fibula.

Trial court opinion, 5/23/17 at 2-3.

On February 15, 2015, appellants filed a civil complaint with the trial court sounding in negligence. Following discovery, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment with an accompanying memorandum of law on January 23, 2017. Appellants filed a motion for summary judgment on March 17, 2017. Oral arguments were held before the trial court on April 18, 2017. On May 24, 2017, the trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, dismissing appellants’ complaint with prejudice, and denied appellants’ motion for summary judgment.

On June 16, 2017, appellants filed a timely notice of appeal with this court. The trial court ordered appellants to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b), and appellants complied on July 18, 2017. The trial court filed an opinion on August 10, 2017, pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) in which it incorporated the content of its May 24, 2017 order and opinion granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Appellants raise the following issues for our review: [184 A.3d 978] A. Was the hazard encountered by [appellant] inherent to the dangers of downhill skiing, when [defendants’] Director of Maintenance testified that the hazard was out of the ordinary, not common, and [appellant] should not have expected to encounter the hazard?

B. Is the Blue Knob All Seasons Resort 2014-2015 Season Pass Holder Information/Guidelines document a valid exculpatory release, where the top half of the document only discusses the requirements to be a season pass holder, and the lower half is ambiguous, the word “releases” is located 75% down the page, lacks conspicuity, without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person, and where no evidence exists that [appellant] read this document?

C. Is a claim for injuries caused by the grossly negligent and/or reckless acts of a ski resort barred by an alleged exculpatory sentence in Blue Knob’s season pass?

D. Did [appellant] voluntarily assume the risk of injury when he encountered a hazard at [defendants’] resort for which he was unaware, and for which [defendants’] Director of Maintenance testified that [appellant] had no reason to anticipate or know of the hazard’s existence? Appellant’s brief at 4-5.[2]

In reviewing an appeal from the trial court’s granting of a motion for summary judgment, we are governed by the following standard of review:

[O]ur standard of review of an order granting summary judgment requires us to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law. Our scope of review is plenary. In reviewing a trial court’s grant of summary judgment, we apply the same standard as the trial court, reviewing all the evidence of record to determine whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact. We view the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party. Only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and it is clear that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law will summary judgment be entered. All doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of a material fact must be resolved against the moving party.

* * *

Upon appellate review, we are not bound by the trial court’s conclusions of law, but may reach our own conclusions.

Petrina v. Allied Glove Corp., 46 A.3d 795, 797-798 (Pa.Super. 2012) (internal citations omitted).

Rule of Civil Procedure 1035 governs motions for summary judgment and provides, in relevant part, as follows:

After the relevant pleadings are closed, but within such time as not to unreasonably delay trial, any party may move for summary judgment in whole or in part as a matter of law

(1) Whenever there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary element of the cause of [184 A.3d 979] action or defense which could be established by additional discovery or expert report, or (2) If, after the completion of discovery relevant to the motion, including the production of expert reports, an adverse party who will bear the burden of proof at trial has failed to produce evidence of facts essential to the cause of action or defense which in a jury trial would require the issues to be submitted to a jury.

Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2. This Court has explained the application of this rule as follows:

Motions for summary judgment necessarily and directly implicate the plaintiff’s proof of the elements of a cause of action. Summary judgment is proper if, after the completion of discovery relevant to the motion, including the production of expert reports, an adverse party who will bear the burden of proof at trial has failed to produce evidence of facts essential to the cause of action or defense which in a jury trial would require the issues to be submitted to a jury. In other words, whenever there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary element of the cause of action or defense, which could be established by additional discovery or expert report and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment is appropriate. Thus, a record that supports summary judgment either (1) shows the material facts are undisputed or (2) contains insufficient evidence of facts to make out a prima facie cause of action or defense. Petrina, 46 A.3d at 798. Criswell v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 115 A.3d 906, 909-910 (Pa.Super. 2015).

Voluntary Assumption of the Risk

Appellants’ first and fourth issues on appeal address the voluntary assumption of the risk associated with downhill skiing. The General Assembly directly addressed this issue when it passed the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act (hereinafter, “the Act”). The Act provides, in relevant part,

(c) Downhill skiing—

(1) The General Assembly finds that the sport of downhill skiing is practiced by a large number of citizens of this Commonwealth and also attracts to this Commonwealth large numbers of nonresidents significantly contributing to the economy of this Commonwealth. It is recognized that as in some other sports, there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.

(2) The doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk as it applies to downhill skiing injuries and damages is not modified by subsections (a) and (a.1).[3]

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(c).

In light of the Act, our supreme court established the following standard when reviewing grants of summary judgment in cases involving downhill skiing:

First, this Court must determine whether [appellant] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of [his] injury. If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk [encountered] is one of the “inherent risks” of downhill skiing, which [appellant] must be deemed to have assumed under the Act. If so, then summary [184 A.3d 980] judgment was appropriate because, as a matter of law, [appellant] cannot recover for [his] injuries.

Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 344 (2000). In the context of downhill skiing, our supreme court stated that both common law assumption of the risk doctrine and the court’s decision in Hughes “direct that inherent risks are those that are ‘common, frequent, or expected’ when one is engaged in a dangerous activity, and against which the defendant owes no duty to protect.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1187 n.14 (2010).

In the instant appeal, it is beyond dispute that appellant was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of his injury. Indeed, as noted by the Hughes court,

Obviously, the sport of downhill skiing encompasses more than merely skiing down a hill. It includes those other activities directly and necessarily incident to the act of downhill skiing. Such activities include boarding the ski lift, riding the lift up the mountain, alighting from the lift, skiing from the lift to the trail and, after a run is completed, skiing towards the ski lift to start another run or skiing toward the base lodge or other facility at the end of the day.

Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344. Therefore, our paramount inquiry is whether encountering wheel ruts on a ski slope created by an ATV operated by an employee of defendants is an inherent risk to downhill skiing.

Appellants make the argument that operating an ATV up the middle of a ski slope is not an inherent aspect of the sport, and should therefore not be considered an inherent risk as contemplated by the Act. (See appellants’ brief at 32.) Appellants specifically cite the deposition testimony of Craig Taylor, defendants’ director of maintenance, in which Mr. Taylor stated that it would not be common or expected by a skier to encounter wheel ruts made by an ATV on the ski slope. (See notes of testimony, 10/21/15 at 28.) Defendants aver that the cause of the alleged condition is not relevant to whether the condition itself, in this case wheel ruts left by operating an ATV up the middle of a ski slope, constitutes an inherent risk associated with downhill skiing.

As noted by the Chepkevich court, “Pennsylvania’s Act is unusual in its brevity and failure to give any definition of an ‘inherent’ risk of skiing,” especially when compared to other states in which skiing constitutes a “significant industry.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1188 n.15. Of the states referenced by the Chepkevich court, the most instructive is New York.

In Schorpp v. Oak Mountain, LLC, 143 A.D.3d 1136, 39 N.Y.S.3d 296 (N.Y.App.Div. 2016), the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division[4] reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment in a negligence cause of action. Id. at 1137, 39 N.Y.S.3d 296. The plaintiff in this case “skied into a ‘depression’ that was filled with snow. The skis got caught in the depression causing [the plaintiff] to flip over and fall out of his skis.” Id. The appellate court held that under New York’s assumption of the risk doctrine as it pertains to downhill skiing, “an individual ‘assumes the inherent risk of personal injury caused by ruts, bumps or variations in the conditions of the skiing terrain.’ ” Id. , quoting Ruepp v. West Experience, 272 A.D.2d 673, 674, 706 N.Y.S.2d 787 (N.Y.App.Div. 2000) (emphasis added). Unlike its Pennsylvania counterpart, the [184 A.3d 981] New York State Legislature specifically identified ruts as an inherent risk of downhill skiing. N.Y. General Obligations Law § 18-101.

Given that our cases do not directly address an injury incurred while engaged in downhill skiing caused by wheel ruts in the terrain on the slope, we find the New York statute and case law to be the most instructive in the instant appeal. Moreover, the language of the release signed by appellant, which we further discuss infra , is nearly identical to the language of the New York statute.[5] We agree with the holding of the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and find that wheel ruts in the terrain are an inherent risk to the sport of downhill skiing. Accordingly, we hold that appellants cannot recover damages as a matter of law, and that the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Validity of Release[6]

Appellants’ second issue pertains to the release appellant signed when he purchased his season pass. Specifically, appellant avers that the release in question is “not a valid exculpatory release” due to the fact that the release is ambiguous, the release is “without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person,” and there is no evidence that appellant actually read the release. (Appellants’ brief at 33.)

When considering the validity of exculpatory releases, we are governed by the following standard:

It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. Princeton Sportswear Corp. v. H & M Associates, 510 Pa. 189, 507 A.2d 339 (1986); Employers Liability Assurance Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Association, 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620 (1966). In Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682 (1963), [our supreme court] noted that once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract [184 A.3d 982] language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause. Dilks, 192 A.2d at 687.

Topp Copy Products, Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (1993), cited by Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189.

In the context of exculpatory releases used for downhill skiing, we find the rationale behind the Chepkevich court’s decision to be highly instructive to the instant appeal.[7]

As we have stated, downhill skiing … is a voluntary and hazardous activity, and that fact is acknowledged in the Act as discussed above. Moreover, an exculpatory agreement conditioning the use of a commercial facility for such activities has not been construed as a typical contract of adhesion. The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity. The signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable. Moreover, the absence of a definition or illustration of negligence does not render this Release an invalid contract of adhesion; that factor simply does not relate to the concerns implicated by adhesion contracts.

Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (internal citations omitted).

Facial Validity

Similar to the Chepkevich court, we must first look to the facial validity of the release. In Chepkevich, our supreme court found that the release signed by the plaintiff did not “contravene any policy of the law. Indeed, the clear policy of this Commonwealth, as articulated by the Act, is to encourage the sport [of downhill skiing] and place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier.” Id. , citing 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(c)(2). The court also stated that, “Pennsylvania courts have upheld similar releases respecting skiing and other inherently dangerous sporting activities.” Id. (collecting cases). Finally, our supreme court held that the release the plaintiff signed was a contract between Hidden Valley and the plaintiff, “relating to their private affairs, specifically [the plaintiff’s] voluntary use of the resort’s facilities.” Id.

[184 A.3d 983] Our discussion in the instant appeal is comparable to the analysis employed by the Chepkevich court. Here, the release signed by appellant does not contravene any policy of the law. Similar to the release used by defendant Hidden Valley in Chepkevich , the release before us relates to the private affairs of appellant and defendants— namely, appellant’s voluntary use of defendants’ facilities. Accordingly, we find that the release signed by appellant is facially valid.

Enforceability

Similar to the Chepkevich court, we must now look to the release’s enforceability. “[T]he Topp Copy/Employers Liability standard requires us to construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.” Id. , citing Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

In the instant appeal, appellants aver that the release was ambiguous, lacked conspicuity, and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” (Appellant’s brief at 33.) Appellants further aver that there is no evidence that appellant read the release before signing it. (Id. ) We shall address each of these claims individually.

Appellants first aver that the language of the release was ambiguous. Specifically, appellants allege that the release failed to “clearly and unequivocally intend for the defendant[s] to be relieved from liability, using language understandable to an ordinary and knowledgeable person so participants know what they have contracted away.” (Id. at 39.) Appellants then allege that the release failed include any reference to the risk encountered by appellant. (Id. at 43.) Appellants specifically argue that “the risk [appellant] encountered, i.e. , deep and wide frozen trenches in the middle of a beginner’s slope, are not stated because it is nonsensical to contend such a serious hazard is inherent to the sport.” (Id. ) This argument misses the mark. To the contrary, as noted supra , one of the inherent risks explicitly referenced in the release is the presence of ruts on the ski slope. Merriam-Webster defines “rut” as “a track worn by a wheel or by habitual passage.” Merriam-Webster.com.Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2018. Roget’s Thesaurus identifies “trench” as a synonym of “rut.” Thesaurus.com.Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2018. We therefore find that defendants’ release was not ambiguous, and that it explicitly referenced the risk encountered by appellant.

We now turn to appellants’ claim that the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” (Appellants’ brief at 33.) As noted above, the release appellant signed contained information regarding his season ski pass. Following the ski pass information, in a paragraph labeled “PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING BEFORE SIGNING!![,]” defendants’ release contained the exculpatory language before us for review. (Id. at 34.)

The Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code[8] defines “conspicuous” as “so written, [184 A.3d 984] displayed, or presented that a reasonable person against which it is to operate ought to have noticed it.” 13 Pa.C.S.A. § 1201(b)(10). The Code specifically states that a conspicuous term includes the following:

(i) A heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size.

(ii) Language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.

Id. at § 1201(b)(10)(i-ii) (emphasis added).

Here, the release issued by defendants and signed by appellant meets the definition of conspicuous as set forth by the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code. The exculpatory language of the release is preceded by a heading that is written in all capital letters in a size of text equal to the exculpatory language of the release. The heading also contains two exclamation points that call attention to the language of the heading, pursuant to the Code. Accordingly, we find that appellants’ argument that the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person” is without merit, as defendants’ release is conspicuous under the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code.

Finally, we address appellants’ averment that that there is no evidence that appellant read the release before signing it. Our cases provide that “failure to read an agreement before signing it does not render the agreement either invalid or unenforceable.” Toro v. Fitness International LLC, 150 A.3d 968, 975 (Pa.Super. 2016), citing Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d 738, 743 (Pa.Super. 2016), appeal denied , 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016). See alsoSchillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D. Pa. 1990) (“The law in Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract first”). In the instant appeal, appellant was not excused of his duty to read the Release before signing it. Therefore, appellant’s argument that there is no evidence that he read the release before signing is without merit.

Gross Negligence and Reckless Conduct

Finally, appellant avers that the release does not protect defendants from liability for acts of gross negligence and/or reckless conduct. Our supreme court has held that exculpatory releases of reckless behavior are contrary to public policy, “as such releases would jeopardize the health, safety, and welfare of the people by removing any incentive for parties to adhere to minimal standards of safe conduct.” Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1203 (2012), citing Hall v. Amica Mut. Ins. Co., 538 Pa. 337, 648 A.2d 755, 760 (1994). Therefore, our inquiry centers on whether the conduct alleged by appellants— operating an ATV on a ski slope and creating wheel ruts on the slope— constituted gross negligence and/or reckless conduct.

This court has observed the following pertaining to gross negligence:

In Ratti v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 758 A.2d 695 (Pa.Super. 2000), appeal denied, 567 Pa. 715, 785 A.2d 90 (Pa. 2001), we indicated that when courts have considered the concept of “gross negligence” in various civil contexts, [184 A.3d 985] they have concluded uniformly that there is a substantive difference between “ordinary negligence” and “gross negligence.” Id. at 703. “The general consensus finds [that] gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” Id. at 704 (relying in part on bailment cases and in part on the definition of “gross negligence” as applied to the [Mental Health Procedures Act[9] ] ). Gross negligence may be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care compromising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in “reckless disregard” of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. Id. at 704-705 (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 1057 (7th ed. 1999) ). In re Scheidmantel, 868 A.2d 464, 485-486 (Pa.Super. 2005). While it is generally true that the issue of whether a given set of facts satisfies the definition of gross negligence is a question of fact to be determined by a jury, a court may take the issue from a jury, and decide the issue as a matter of law, if the conduct in question falls short of gross negligence, the case is entirely free from doubt, and no reasonable jury could find gross negligence.

Downey v. Crozer-Chester Medical Center, 817 A.2d 517, 525-526 (Pa.Super. 2003) (en banc ), quoting Albright v. Abington Memorial Hospital, 548 Pa. 268, 696 A.2d 1159, 1164-1165 (1997).

The Tayar court provided the following comparison of recklessness with ordinary negligence:

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence. In Fitsko v. Gaughenbaugh, 363 Pa. 132, 69 A.2d 76 (1949), [our supreme court] cited with approval the Restatement ( [First] ) of Torts[10] definition of “reckless disregard” and its explanation of the distinction between ordinary negligence and recklessness. Specifically, the Restatement (Second) of Torts defines “reckless disregard” as follows:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965). The Commentary to this Section emphasizes that “[recklessness] must not only be unreasonable, but it must involve a risk of harm to others substantially in excess of that necessary to make the conduct negligent.” Id. , cmt. a. Further, as relied on in Fitsko, the Commentary contrasts negligence and recklessness:

Reckless misconduct differs from negligence in several important particulars. If differs from that form of negligence which consists in mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions to enable the actor adequately to cope with a possible or probable future emergency, in that reckless misconduct [184 A.3d 986] requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man…. The difference between reckless misconduct and conduct involving only such a quantum of risk as is necessary to make it negligent is a difference in the degree of risk, but this difference of degree is so marked as to amount substantially to a difference in kind.

Id. , cmt. g; see also AMJUR Negligence § 274 (“Recklessness is more than ordinary negligence and more than want of ordinary care; it is an extreme departure from ordinary care, a wanton or heedless indifference to consequences, and indifference whether or not wrong is done, and an indifference to the rights of others”). Our criminal laws similarly distinguish recklessness and negligence on the basis of the consciousness of the action or inaction. See 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 302(b)(3), (4) (providing that a person acts recklessly when he “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk,” while a person acts negligently when he “should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk”).

This conceptualization of recklessness as requiring conscious action or inaction not only distinguishes recklessness from ordinary negligence, but aligns it more closely with intentional conduct. Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200-1201. ` Here, we find as a matter of law, that the record does not reflect gross negligence or reckless conduct on the part of defendants. Specifically, we agree with the trial court’s following conclusion:

[Appellants] aver that Defendants’ snow-making crew created the “trenches” by operating an all-terrain-vehicle across part of the ski-slope, rather than entirely along the sides of the slopes.[Footnote 7] While apparently against normal maintenance policy and procedures and arguably negligent, we do not believe these actions amount to gross negligence or recklessness. Defendants’ employees were engaged in the normal and expected process of maintaining the ski slopes and did so in a careless fashion, producing a condition that— although possibly dangerous— was not inherently unexpected upon a ski slope. We view such conduct to be a matter of “… mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions” rather than recklessness.

[Footnote 7] Defendants seemingly concede the cause of the “trenches” and Defendants’ employees conceded that such actions were improper in normal slope maintenance process.

Trial court opinion, 5/24/17 at 8-9.

Accordingly, we find that defendants did not engage in grossly negligent or reckless conduct, and that the Release provided by defendants and signed by appellant is enforceable.

Order affirmed.

Bowes, J. joins this Opinion.

Stabile, J. concurs in the result.

———

Notes:

[1] For clarity, we will refer to Mr. Kibler as “appellant” throughout this memorandum.

[2] Appellants’ four issues address two overarching issues: voluntary assumption of risk and the validity of the release attached to the season pass provided by defendants. Accordingly, for the purposes of our review, we shall address issues A and D together and issues B and C together.

[3] Subsections (a) and (a.1) address contributory negligence and joint and several liability.

[4] This court is the intermediate court of appeals in New York.

[5] The New York statute provides, in relevant part:

§ 18-101. Legislative purpose

The legislature hereby finds that alpine or downhill skiing is both a major recreational sport and a major industry within the state of New York. The legislature further finds: (1) that downhill skiing, like many other sports, contains inherent risks including, but not limited to, the risks of personal injury or death or property damage, which may be caused by variations in terrain or weather conditions; surface or subsurface snow, ice, bare spots or areas of thin cover, moguls, ruts, bumps; other persons using the facilities; and rocks, forest growth, debris, branches, trees, roots, stumps or other natural objects or man-made objects that are incidental to the provision or maintenance of a ski facility in New York state ….

N.Y. General Obligations Law § 18-101.

[6] As noted by Justice Baer in his concurring opinion in Chepkevich , a review of the release issued by defendants and signed by appellant is not wholly necessary. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1198 (Baer, J., concurring). The majority stated that, “consideration of alternative holdings is subject to prudential concerns, and we believe there are prudential concerns to consider the Release here.” Id. at 1188 n.16. We will follow the lead of the majority and analyze both issues as they have both been briefed and argued before this court.

[7] The release before the Chepkevich court was printed on an 8½ by 11-inch sheet of paper entitled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY” and contained the following language:

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowblading, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks which include but are not limited to variations in snow and terrain, ice and icy conditions, moguls, rocks, debris (above and below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, poles, snowmaking equipment (including pipes, hydrants, and component parts), fences and the absence of fences and other natural and manmade objects, visible or hidden, as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other skiers …. All the risks of skiing and boarding present the risk of serious or fatal injury. By accepting this Season Pass I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1176.

[8] As in prior cases, we note that the Uniform Commercial Code is applicable to the sale of goods, while this case pertains to the sale of services; “nevertheless, we find the UCC’s warrant disclaimer provision in Article 2, and its interpreting caselaw, provides guidance in the instant case.” Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 902 A.2d 1266, 1274 n.12 (Pa.Super. 2006).

[9] 50 P.S. § § 7101-7503.

[10] The Restatement (Second) of Torts was published in 1965.

———


Backing of a lift ticket peeled off by Plaintiff to attach lift ticket to his jacket held by Federal District court to be a release and prevents plaintiffs’ claims for skiing into hidden snow making equipment.

Five Federal District Courts have ruled that the information on the back of a lift ticket is a release. No state Courts have ruled this way.

Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

State: New Hampshire, United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Thomas Jackson Miller

Defendant: The Sunapee Difference, LLC d/b/a Mount Sunapee Resort

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The plaintiff in this case, a skier at New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee resort, was injured when he struck a support post for snow making equipment. At issue in this case is whether a release attached to his lift ticket excuses the ski area for liability in connection with its alleged negligence in failing to mark the post, warn skiers about it, or otherwise make it visible.

Facts

Following a large 2015 snowfall, Miller visited Mount Sunapee with his brother and father for a day of skiing. Miller was skiing ahead of his companions through fresh powder on the left side of the Beck Brook trail4 when he struck an unmarked “snow gun holder” that was concealed by snow. The “holder” — essentially a steel pipe protruding from the ground — is a mounting post for snow-making guns. The post remains embedded in the ground after the guns are removed. There was no snow-making gun in the holder at the time of this accident. Miller suffered serious leg injuries in the collision.

The major difference in this case was the lift ticket identified itself as a release. The back of the lift ticket, on the part that peeled away to reveal the sticky section where the lift ticket attached to itself to create a two-sided lift ticket stated:

In order to ski at Mount Sunapee, Miller first purchased a lift ticket. The ticket has a self-adhesive backing, which the skier affixes to his zipper tab or similar visible location. In order to attach it, the skier must first remove it from a peel-off backing. Printed on the back of the peel-off backing of the Mount Sunapee lift ticket was the following:

STOP

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

By removing this peel-off backing and using this ticket, you agree to be legally bound by the LIABILITY RELEASE printed on the other side of this ticket. If you are not willing to be bound by this LIABILITY RELEASE, please return this ticket with the peel-off backing intact to the ticket counter for a full refund.

The Lift Ticket itself stated:

LIABILITY RELEASE

Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous and risky with many hazards that can cause injury or death. As purchaser or user of this ticket, I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the facilities of the Mount Sunapee resort, to freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of property damage, personal injury, or death resulting from their inherent or any other risks or dangers. I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE which may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause. Further I agree that any claim which I bring against Mount Sunapee Resort, its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be brought only in Federal or State courts in the State of New Hampshire. I agree my likeness may be used for promotional purposes.

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

NON-TRANSFERABLE: Use by a non-purchaser constitutes theft of services.

NON-REFUNDABLE. LOST TICKETS WILL NOT BE REPLACED Mount Sunapee Resort, P.O. Box 2021, Newbury, NH 03255

The language on this lift ticket specifically stated that it was a release, not just a lift ticket and not just a warning.

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

The court first looked at New Hampshire law on releases.

Such an exculpatory contract is enforceable if: 1) it does not violate public policy; 2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and 3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.

The plaintiff argued that the release was void because it violated public policy, and a reasonable person would only understand that the release applied to the inherent risks of skiing.

New Hampshire public policy requires a showing that no special relationship exists between the parties to the agreement and there is no disparity in the bargaining power between the parties. The New Hampshire Supreme Court found that an agreement would violate public policy if “it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.”

The plaintiff admitted that there was no special relationship between the parties nor was there a disparity of bargaining power. He centered his public policy argument on the theory that the release violated New Hampshire statutory law and that the release was injurious so the public interest. The statutory law argument was based on the New Hampshire Ski Area Act. The Act requires ski area operators to mark visible man-made objects. This object was not visible so therefor the plaintiff argued it should be marked and therefore, was negligence not to pad or mark it. However, the court would not buy into adding language to the statute where none existed. On top of that another section of the statute specially stated a ski assumes the risks of hitting snow making equipment.

The next argument advanced to argue the release violated public policy was based on several prior court decisions that held there was a duty on the state to do things. However, here again, the court found the was no duty in the New Hampshire Ski Area Act other than found in the plain language of the act. The duty the plaintiff was attempting to create was based on tying different sections of the act together that were not related.

The final public policy argument was because the ski area, Mount Sunapee was located on state-owned land and developed with federal funding, that created a greater duty to the public. However, the plaintiff could not provide any support for this theory, other than arguing sections of the lease between the ski area, and the state required it. The court found there was no language in the lease that created supported a public policy argument.

In most states, to create a contract, there are several requirements. One of those is there must be a meeting of the minds. A meeting of the minds requires the parties to know they are entering into a contract and the general terms of the agreement. This was clearly not the case in this situation (and in most lift ticket cases); however, New Hampshire does not require a meeting of the minds to enforce a contract.

The plaintiff then argued that without a signature, there could be a release. However, New Hampshire had a lot of case law where unsigned contracts were enforced.

The plaintiff argued he did not have an opportunity to read the release. However, that does not matter in New Hampshire and in most states when you sign it. However, here there was no signature.

A plaintiff’s failure to read a release “does not preclude enforcement of the release.” As long as the plaintiff had an opportunity to read the release, even if he chooses not to take it, a release can be enforced.

Here the court sort of worked its way around that issue because it found the plaintiff was a personal injury attorney. The plaintiff had submitted affidavits on the issue, which the court found lacking in the information needed to support the plaintiff’s arguments. The court did hammer plaintiff’s counsel at oral argument until plaintiff’s counsel admitted he had the opportunity to read it if he wanted.

Another issue is what the parties were contemplating when they made the agreement. A requirement for a contract under New Hampshire law. The court found the language of the release, which it had earlier found valid, contained the necessary information to define what the intention of the release was.

If “the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. The court gives the language of the release “its common meaning and give[s] the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” Id. “All that is required” is for the language to “clearly and specifically indicate[] the intent to release the defendants from liability for personal injury caused by the defendants’ negligence . . . .”

The court then went into the Reckless, Wanton or positive misconduct claims of the plaintiff. New Hampshire has adopted the Restatement of Torts definition of Reckless.

Under the Restatement [(Second) of Torts], § 500, at 587 (1965), conduct is “reckless” if it “would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such a risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” Id. The conduct “must involve an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm, and the probability that it will so result must be substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence.”

The court further defined reckless under New Hampshire law as:

…at a minimum, is conduct “where the known danger ceases to be only a foreseeable risk which a reasonable person would avoid, and becomes in the mind of the actor a substantial certainty.

However, the court found that the pleadings of the plaintiff pled no more than simple negligence. Meaning the facts argued by the plaintiff did not rise to the level needed to create a recklessness claim.

The court summed up its analogy as:

The undisputed factual record shows that plaintiff purchased and affixed to his clothing a lift ticket at Mount Sunapee that unambiguously released the ski area from liability from its own negligence, that such a release does not violate public policy, and that plaintiff’s signature was not required to effectuate its terms. Furthermore, there is no material factual dispute that plaintiff had the opportunity to read both the cautionary language on the ticket’s peel-off backing and the release language itself, that he would have understood that language to constitute a release and that a reasonable person in his position would have understood that the release exculpated Mount Sunapee from its own negligence.

So Now What?

It seemed obvious that this court was going to hold for the ski area. The decision explored all the arguments and possible arguments the plaintiff’s made and then ruled for the defendants.

The back of the pass had more than normal warning language as required by most statutes. This peel away release stated it was a release. There is also an issue that the purchaser of the lift ticket had already paid for the ticket before they found out there was a release giving rise to misrepresentation and fraud claim may be.

What is interesting is the change in the past five year, only in Federal District Courts holding that a lift ticket is a valid release at least mentioning the lift ticket as more than a receipt or a pass to access the lifts.

For more articles about Lift Tickets being used to stop lawsuits at ski areas see:

Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states    http://rec-law.us/1bO85eU

Colorado Federal District Court judge references a ski area lift ticket in support of decision granting the ski area’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit.    http://rec-law.us/2vHUXf1

#BoycottNH New Hampshire charges for Search & Rescue. Do not recreate in New Hampshire

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Courbat v. Dahana Ranch, Inc., 141 P.3d 427 (Hawai’i 2006)

Courbat v. Dahana Ranch, Inc., 141 P.3d 427 (Hawai’i 2006)

141 P.3d 427 (Hawai’i 2006)

111 Hawai’i 254

Lisa COURBAT and Steven Courbat, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

DAHANA RANCH, INC., Defendant-Appellee,

and

John Does 1-10, Jane Does 1-10, Doe Associations 1-10, Doe Partnerships 1-10, Doe Corporations 1-10, Doe Entities 1-10, and Doe Governmental Units 1-5, Defendants.

No. 25151.

Supreme Court of Hawai’i

July 10, 2006

As Amended on Grant of Reconsideration in Part Aug. 3, 2006. [*]

APPEAL FROM THE THIRD CIRCUIT COURT (CIV. NO. 01-1-0049).

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Andrew S. Iwashita, Hilo, on the briefs, for the plaintiffs-appellants Lisa Courbat and Steven Courbat.

Zale T. Okazaki, of Ayabe, Chong, Nishimoto, Sia and Nakamura, Honolulu, on the briefs, for the defendant-appellee Dahana Ranch, Inc.

MOON, C.J., LEVINSON AND NAKAYAMA, JJ., AND DUFFY, J., DISSENTING, WITH WHOM ACOBA, J. JOINS.

OPINION

LEVINSON, J.

[111 Hawai’i 256] The plaintiffs-appellants Lisa Courbat and Steven Courbat [hereinafter, collectively, “the Courbats”] appeal from the May 13, 2002 judgment of the circuit court of the third circuit, the Honorable Riki May Amano presiding, entered pursuant to the circuit court’s April 26, 2002 grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant-appellee Dahana Ranch, Inc. (the Ranch).

On appeal, the Courbats contend that the circuit court erred: (1) in concluding that Hawai’i Revised Statutes (HRS) § 480-2 et seq. (Supp. 1998) [1] do not apply to the Ranch’s business practices of booking prepaid tours and subsequently requiring liability waivers upon check-in; (2) by applying the rebuttable presumption set forth in HRS § 663B-2(a) (Supp. 1994) [2] in finding that Lisa’s injuries were not due to the negligence of the tour operator; (3) in finding that the Courbats sufficiently read over the waiver before signing it; and (4) in concluding that the waiver was valid as to their negligence claims.

For the reasons discussed infra in section III. A, we vacate the circuit court’s May 13, 2002 judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

The present matter arises out of personal injuries sustained by Lisa on February 1, 1999, while she and Steven were on a horseback riding tour on the Dahana Ranch on the Big Island of Hawai’i. The Courbats had booked the tour and prepaid the fee several months earlier through Island Incentives, Inc., an internet-based tour organizer. When they checked in at the Ranch, the Courbats were presented with a document to review and to sign which laid out the rules for the horseback tour and included a waiver “releas[ing] and hold[ing] harmless . . . [the] Ranch . . . from . . . injury to myself . . . resulting from my . . . being a spectator or participant or while engaged in any such activity in the event[-]related facilities” and stating that the undersigned “acknowledge[s] that there are significant elements of risk in any adventure, sport, or activity associated with horses.” [3] According to admissions by the Courbats in subsequent depositions, Lisa read over the waiver and, having no questions regarding the rules and regulations it contained, signed it before passing it to her husband to sign. Steven evidently did not read it, but recognized that it was “some kind of release of some sort” and signed it. In fact, no guest of the Ranch had ever refused to sign a waiver. Steven was familiar with the concept of such waivers, having participated with his wife in a snorkeling activity earlier during the vacation, at which time they both signed similar forms.

The Ranch’s guide, Daniel Nakoa, briefed the Courbats on how to handle a horse and general rules of the trail, including the importance of not riding single-file or allowing the horses to bunch up end to end. Out on the ride, Lisa was injured when she rode up behind Nakoa’s horse while Nakoa was speaking with another guest who had approached Nakoa with a question. According to later statements by both Nakoa and Lisa, Lisa approached Nakoa’s horse from the rear while the three horses were in motion, and, when her horse neared Nakoa’s horse, Nakoa’s horse struck out at her horse, hitting Lisa in the left shin. Lisa described the incident in a deposition taken on November 3, 2001:

Q: At what point did you believe that you needed to pull the reins back as you were approaching the guide . . . ? . . .

[Lisa]: When I felt that the horse[] was getting too close to the horses above me.

Q: So it appeared to you that the nose end of the horse was getting too close to the butt end of the horse in front?

[Lisa]: To the horse in general. We were coming in. I was just trying to keep a certain space between myself and the horse.

Q: [T]hose two horses, the guide’s horse and the guest’s horse, they were to the left of your horse, is that correct, to the front left of you?

[Lisa]: Yes.

Q: You recall which hind leg of the horse kicked you? Was it the right or the left?

[Lisa]: It would be the right one.

Q: And that was a horse which was ridden by the guide or the guest?

[Lisa]: The guide.

Q: Just before the horse in front of you kicked you, were all of the horses still in motion? When I say “all the horses,” yours, the guide’s, and the guest that was riding parallel to the guide?

[Lisa]: Just before?

Q: Yes.

[Lisa]: Yes.

Q: Was there any conversation between you and the guide or the guest just before this kicking incident occurred?

[Lisa]: No.

Q: At the time this kicking incident occurred, w[ere] the guide and the guest still talking to each other?

[Lisa]: Yes.

Nakoa described the same incident in a January 9, 2002 deposition:

[Nakoa]: . . . Everybody was facing the gate, the second gate…. And I was in the back. And because I lots of times don’t want to be a part of the ride, I started riding to the right. And then a man came to talk to me and ask me about the horse.

Q: On which side of your horse was he at the time?

[Nakoa]: He was on the left side of me.

Q: And were you still moving or were you stopped?

[Nakoa]: We were walking.

….

Q: . . .[H]ad you passed Lisa along the way? ….

[Nakoa]: Because of the angle, she was off to my left.

Q: Still in front of you?

[Nakoa]: No. About the same.

….

Q: And when is the next time you notice[] Lisa’s horse before the injury takes place?

….

[Nakoa]: She was still on the left side of me.

Q: . . . [A]bout how far away do you estimate she was from your horse?

[Nakoa]: You know, 30 feet maybe….

Q: And from that point on, . . . were you able to continually observe Lisa riding her horse until the time the injury occurred?

[Nakoa]: Yes. The man was on my left and I was talking to him.

….

Q: . . . [W]hile [the guest is] asking you this question and you can see [Lisa], what is her horse doing as it’s approaching your horse?

[Nakoa]: No, I didn’t see her approaching my horse. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. She was on the left side of this man and me and we’re all going in that direction (indicating). She was trotting, and I was walking with this man. And I saw her. And then this man asked me something. And the next thing I knew, she was right in back of my horse telling me that my horse kicked her.

Nakoa later acknowledged in the deposition that, if he or his horse had been aware that Lisa’s horse was approaching from behind, his horse would not have been surprised and would not have struck out at her horse. As a result of the impact, Lisa suffered severe pain and swelling, but no broken bones, and since the incident has complained of ongoing pain and injury to her leg.

The Courbats filed suit on January 31, 2001, asserting claims of negligence and gross negligence that resulted in physical injury to Lisa and loss of consortium injuries to Steven. On November 21, 2001, they filed a first amended complaint, adding a claim of unfair and deceptive trade practices regarding the waiver they had signed the day of the ride.

On January 16, 2002, the Ranch filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds: (1) that the Courbats had assumed the risk of the activity; (2) that the Courbats had waived their rights to sue the Ranch for negligence; and (3) that the Ranch had not committed any acts that brought it under the purview of HRS §§ 480-2 and 480-13, see supra note 1.

The Courbats filed a memorandum in opposition to the Ranch’s motion and a motion for partial summary judgment, urging the circuit court to rule, inter alia : (1) that the Ranch owed Lisa a duty to protect her from injury by Nakoa’s horse; and (2) that the rebuttable presumption of no negligence on a defendant’s part set forth in HRS § 663B-2, see supra note 2, was inapplicable.

The circuit court conducted a hearing on both motions on February 13, 2002 and, on April 26, 2002, entered an order granting the Ranch’s motion and denying the Courbats’ motion. On May 13, 2002, the circuit court entered a final judgment in favor of the Ranch and against the Courbats. On August 8, 2002, the Courbats filed a timely notice of appeal. [4]

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

A. Summary Judgment

We review the circuit court’s grant or denial of summary judgment de novo….

[S]ummary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A fact is material if proof of that fact would have the effect of establishing or refuting one of the essential elements of a cause of action or defense asserted by the parties. The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. In other words, we must view all of the evidence and the inferences drawn there from in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. [Hawai’i Cmty. Fed. Credit Union v. Keka, 94 Hawai’i 213, 221, 11 P.3d 1, 9 (2000)] (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Querubin v. Thronas, 107 Hawai’i48, 56, 107 Hawai’i 48, 56, 109 P.3d 689, 697 (2005) (quoting Durette v. Aloha Plastic Recycling, Inc., 105 Hawai’i 490, 501, 100 P.3d 60, 71 (2004)) (internal citation omitted) (some brackets in original).

B. Interpretation Of Statutes

The interpretation of a statute is a question of law reviewable de novo. State v. Arceo, 84 Hawai’i 1, 10, 928 P.2d 843, 852 (1996).

Furthermore, our statutory construction is guided by established rules:

When construing a statute, our foremost obligation is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the legislature, which is to be obtained primarily from the language contained in the statute itself. And we must read statutory language in the context of the entire statute and construe it in a manner consistent with its purpose.

When there is doubt, doubleness of meaning, or indistinctiveness or uncertainty of an expression used in a statute, an ambiguity exists….

In construing an ambiguous statute, “[t]he meaning of the ambiguous words may be sought by examining the context, with which the ambiguous words, phrases, and sentences may be compared, in order to ascertain their true meaning.” HRS § 1-15(1) [(1993)]. Moreover, the courts may resort to extrinsic aids in determining legislative intent. One avenue is the use of legislative history as an interpretive tool. Gray [v. Admin. Dir. of the Court], 84 Hawai’i [138,] 148, 931 P.2d [580,] 590 [(1997)] (footnote omitted). State v. Koch, 107 Hawai’i 215, 220, 112 P.3d 69, 74 (2005) (quoting State v. Kaua, 102 Hawai’i 1, 7-8, 72 P.3d 473, 479-480 (2003)). Absent an absurd or unjust result, see State v. Haugen, 104 Hawai’i 71, 77, 85 P.3d 178, 184 (2004), this court is bound to give effect to the plain meaning of unambiguous statutory language; we may only resort to the use of legislative history when interpreting an ambiguous statute. State v. Valdivia, 95 Hawai’i 465, 472, 24 P.3d 661, 668 (2001).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Inasmuch As The Presence Or Absence Of An Unfair Or Deceptive Trade Practice Is For The Trier Of Fact To Determine, The Circuit Court Erroneously Granted Summary Judgment In Favor Of The Ranch And Against The Courbats.

The Courbats do not dispute that they both signed the Ranch’s waiver form, see supra note 3, prior to their ride. Nor do they dispute that waivers are an accepted method by which businesses may limit their liability. Rather, they assert that the Ranch’s practice of booking ride reservations through an activity company, receiving payment prior to the arrival of the guest, and then, upon the guest’s arrival at the Ranch, requiring the guest to sign a liability waiver as a precondition to horseback riding is an unfair and deceptive business practice to which the remedies of HRS ch. 480 apply. The Courbats maintain that the practice of withholding the waiver had “the capacity or tendency to mislead” customers, thereby satisfying this court’s test for a deceptive trade practice as articulated in State ex rel. Bronster v. United States Steel Corp., 82 Hawai’i 32, 50, 919 P.2d 294, 312 (1996).

The Intermediate Court of Appeals held in Beerman v. Toro, 1 Hawai’i App. 111, 118, 615 P.2d 749, 754-55 (1980), that the remedies afforded by HRS ch. 480 are not available for personal injury claims. See also Blowers v. Eli Lilly & Co., 100 F.Supp.2d 1265, 1269-70 (D. Hawai’i 2000). The Courbats, however, assert that they are not invoking HRS ch. 480 for the purpose of establishing personal injury damages, but rather because the lack of notice as to the waiver requirement injured them economically, by way of the $116 cost of the tour, giving rise to a valid claim under HRS § 480-13, see supra note 1.As a deceptive trade practice, the Courbats maintain, the waiver is void under HRS § 480-12, see supra note 1.

1. The elements of a deceptive trade practice claim for recision of a contract

To render the waiver void, the Courbats must establish that it is an unseverable part of a “contract or agreement in violation of [HRS ch. 480].” See HRS § 480-12, supra note 1. Furthermore, any “unfair or deceptive act[] or practice[] in the conduct of any trade or commerce” violates HRS § 480-2.

“Deceptive” acts or practices violate HRS § 480-2, but HRS ch. 480 contains no statutory definition of “deceptive.” This court has described a deceptive practice as having “the capacity or tendency to mislead or deceive,” United States Steel Corp., 82 Hawaii at 50, 919 P.2d at 312, 313, but, beyond noting that federal cases have also defined deception “as an act causing, as a natural and probable result, a person to do that which he [or she] would not do otherwise,” Keka, 94 Hawai’i at 228, 11 P.3d at 16 (brackets in original) (quoting United States Steel Corp., 82 Hawaii at 51, 919 P.2d at 313 (citing Bockenstette v. Federal Trade Comm’n, 134 F.2d 369 (10th Cir. 1943))), we have not articulated a more refined test.

HRS § 480-3, see supra note 1, provides that HRS ch. 480 “shall be construed in accordance with judicial interpretations of similar federal antitrust statutes,” and HRS § 480-2(b) provides that “[i]n construing this section, the courts . . . shall give due consideration to the . . . decisions of . . . the federal courts interpreting . . . 15 U.S.C. [§] 45(a)(1)[(2000)],” [5] in recognition of the fact that HRS § 480-2 is “a virtual counterpart.” [6] Keka, 94 Hawai’i at 228, 11 P.3d at 16. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in In re Cliffdale Assocs., Inc., 103 F.T.C. 110 (1984), developed a three-part analytical test for “deception,” [7] which the federal courts have thereafter extensively adopted, see FTC v. Verity Int’l, Ltd., 443 F.3d 48, 63 (2d. Cir. 2006); FTC v. Tashman, 318 F.3d 1273, 1277 (11th Cir. 2003); FTC v. Pantron I Corp., 33 F.3d 1088, 1095 (9th Cir. 1994); FTC v. World Travel Vacation Brokers, Inc., 861 F.2d 1020, 1029 (7th Cir. 1988). Under the Cliffdale Assocs. test, a deceptive act or practice is “(1) a representation, omission, or practice[] that (2) is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances [where] (3)[] the representation, omission, or practice is material.” Verity Int’l, 443 F.3d at 63. A representation, omission, or practice is considered “material” if it involves ” ‘information that is important to consumers and, hence, likely to affect their choice of, or conduct regarding, a product.’ ” Novartis Corp. v. FTC, 223 F.3d 783, 786 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Cliffdale Assocs., 103 F.T.C. at 165); see also Kraft, Inc. v. FTC, 970 F.2d 311, 322 (7th Cir. 1992); FTC v. Crescent Publ’g Group, Inc., 129 F.Supp.2d 311, 321 (S.D.N.Y. 2001); FTC v. Five-Star Auto Club, Inc., 97 F.Supp.2d 502, 529 (S.D.N.Y. 2000); FTC v. Sabal, 32 F.Supp.2d 1004, 1007 (N.D. Ill. 1998). Moreover, the Cliffdale Assocs. test is an objective one, turning on whether the act or omission “is likely to mislead consumers,” Verity Int’l, 443 F.3d at 63, as to information “important to consumers,” Novartis Corp., 223 F.3d at 786, in making a decision regarding the product or service. [8]

Given our obligation under HRS §§ 480-3 and 480-2(b) to apply federal authority as a guide in interpreting HRS ch. 480, we hereby adopt the three-prong Cliffdale Assocs. test in determining when a trade practice is deceptive. [9]

2. Under The Cliffdale Assocs. Objective Consumer Test, The Determination Of A Deceptive Omission Is One For The Trier Of Fact, Thereby Rendering Summary Judgment Inappropriate.

The Courbats do not allege that the waiver itself is deceptive; rather, they urge that the deceptive practice at issue was the booking agent’s failure to inform them of the waiver requirement during the negotiation and execution of the underlying contract. [10] Nevertheless, if any deceptive omission occurred with respect to the negotiation and execution of the original contract, the operation of HRS § 480-12, see supra note 1, would render both the original contract and the waiver, signed afterward, void. [11] Thus, the waiver’s survival depends on the trier of fact’s determination as to whether the omission of the waiver requirement during Island Incentives, Inc.’s booking process was deceptive and therefore in violation of HRS § 480-2.

The application of an objective “reasonable person” standard, of which the Cliffdale Assocs. test is an example, is ordinarily for the trier of fact, rendering summary judgment “often inappropriate.” Amfac, Inc. v. Waikiki Beachcomber Inv. Co., 74 Hawai’i 85, 107, 839 P.2d 10, 24 (1992), cited in Casumpang v. ILWU Local 142, 108 Hawai’i 411, 425, 121 P.3d 391, 405 (2005); Arquero v. Hilton Hawaiian Village LLC, 104 Hawai’i 423, 433, 91 P.3d 505, 515 (2004). “Inasmuch as the term ‘reasonableness’ is subject to differing interpretations . . ., it is inherently ambiguous. Where ambiguity exists, summary judgment is usually inappropriate because ‘the determination of someone’s state of mind usually entails the drawing of factual inferences as to which reasonable [minds] might differ.’ ” Amfac, Inc., 74 Hawai’i at 107, 839 P.2d at 24 (quoting Bishop Trust Co. v. Cent. Union Church, 3 Hawai’i App. 624, 628-29, 656 P.2d 1353, 1356 (1983)). Reasonableness can only constitute a question of law suitable for summary judgment ” ‘when the facts are undisputed and not fairly susceptible of divergent inferences’ because ‘[w]here, upon all the evidence, but one inference may reasonably be drawn, there is no issue for the jury.’ ” Id. at 108, 839 P.2d at 24 (quoting Broad & Branford Place Corp. v. J.J. Hockenjos Co., 132 N.J.L. 229, 39 A.2d 80, 82 (N.J. 1944) (brackets in original)). ” ‘[A] question of interpretation is not left to the trier of fact where evidence is so clear that no reasonable person would determine the issue in any way but one.’ ” Id. (quoting Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 212 cmt. e (1981) (brackets in original)). See also Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 212(2) (1981 and Supp. 2005) (“A question of interpretation of an integrated agreement is to be determined by the trier of fact if it depends on the credibility of extrinsic evidence or on a choice among reasonable inferences to be drawn from extrinsic evidence.“) (Emphasis added). There is no genuine issue of material fact regarding the failure to disclose the waiver requirement during negotiation of the original tour contract, but we cannot say that, applying the Cliffdale Assocs. test, reasonable minds could draw only one inference as to the materiality of that omission to reasonable consumers contemplating the transaction. Therefore, the question whether a waiver requirement would be materially important in booking a horseback tour remains one for the trier of fact.

Because a genuine issue of material fact, resolvable only by the trier of fact, remains in dispute, the grant of summary judgment on the HRS ch. 480 claim was erroneous. We therefore vacate the circuit court’s May 13, 2002 judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

B. The Consequences,On Remand, Of The Determination By The Trier Of Fact As To Whether Nondisclosure Of The Waiver Requirement Was A Deceptive Trade Practice

If, on remand, the trier of fact determines that the nondisclosure of the waiver was a deceptive trade practice, rendering the waiver void, then the Courbats’ negligence claims proceed free of the waiver defense. Nevertheless, for the reasons set forth below and for purposes of any subsequent trial on the Courbats’ negligence claims, we hold that HRS ch. 663B, entitled “Equine activities,” see supra note 2, setting forth a rebuttable presumption of non-negligence on the part of the tour operator, does not apply to the present matter.

Conversely, if, on remand, the trier of fact determines that the nondisclosure of the waiver was not deceptive, then the Courbats validly waived their negligence claims.

1. The Statutory Presumption Of Non-Negligence For Equine-Related Injuries Set Forth In HRS Ch. 663B Does Not Apply To The Courbats’ Claims.

If the trier of fact determines that the failure to inform the Courbats of the waiver requirement was a deceptive trade practice, then the negligence waiver, along with the underlying contract, will be rendered void, and the Courbats’ negligence claims will be revived. In order to provide guidance on remand, therefore, we hold that it was error for the circuit court in the present matter to apply HRS § 663B-2(a), see supra note 2, which establishes a rebuttable presumption in favor of horseback tour operators that any injury “caused solely by the inherent risk and unpredictable nature of the equine” is not due to the negligence of the tour operator.

HRS § 663B-2(b) provides in relevant part that “[n]othing in this section shall prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor . . . if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or person: . . . (2) [p]rovided the equine and . . . failed to reasonably supervise the equine activities and such failure is a proximate cause of the injury.” The substance of Lisa’s claim revolves around her assertion that Nakoa failed to monitor her approach toward his horse while he was engaged in conversation with another guest; in other words, Lisa claims that Nakoa “failed to reasonably supervise the equine activities” that were the “proximate cause of [her] injury.” Therefore, we hold that, if Lisa is correct, the presumption of non-negligence set forth in HRS § 663B-2(a) would not apply to the Courbats’ claims.

2. If The Trier Of Fact Determines That The Nondisclosure Of The Waiver Was Not A Deceptive Trade Practice, Then The Courbats Validly Waived Their Negligence Claims.

a. The waiver was validly executed.

Citing Krohnert v. Yacht Sys. of Hawai’i, 4 Hawai’i App. 190, 201, 664 P.2d 738, 745 (1983), the Courbats assert that, because they manifested no clear and unequivocal acceptance of the terms of the waiver, the waiver cannot be enforced against them. However, pursuant to the following analysis, we hold that, if the trier of fact finds that the failure to inform the Courbats of the waiver requirement was not a deceptive trade practice, then the waiver, in all other respects, was valid.

“The general rule of contract law is that one who assents to a contract is bound by it and cannot complain that he has not read it or did not know what it contained.” Leong v. Kaiser Found. Hosps., 71 Hawai’i 240, 245, 788 P.2d 164, 168 (1990); see also Joaquin v. Joaquin, 5 Hawai’i App. 435, 443, 698 P.2d 298, 304 (1985); In re Chung, 43 B.R. 368, 369 (Bankr. D. Hawai’i 1984); In re Kealoha, 2 B.R. 201, 209 (Bankr. D. Hawai’i 1980). Furthermore, ” ‘[p]arties are permitted to make exculpatory contracts so long as they are knowingly and willingly made and free from fraud. No public policy exists to prevent such contracts.’ ” Fujimoto v. Au, 95 Hawai’i 116, 156, 19 P.3d 699, 739 (2001) (some brackets omitted) (quoting Gen. Bargain Ctr. v. Am. Alarm Co., Inc., 430 N.E.2d 407, 411-12 (Ind.Ct.App. 1982)).

“[S]uch bargains are not favored, however, and, if possible, bargains are construed not to confer this immunity.” Fujimoto, 95 Hawai’i at 155, 19 P.3d at 738. Therefore, as a general rule, ” ‘[e]xculpatory clauses will be held void if the agreement is (1) violative of a statute, (2) contrary to a substantial public interest, or (3) gained through inequality of bargaining power.’ ” 95 Hawaii at 156, 19 P.3d at 739 (quoting Andrews v. Fitzgerald, 823 F.Supp. 356, 378 (M.D.N.C. 1993)).

The Courbats have not alleged that any of the terms of the waiver, or the use of a waiver by the Ranch, violates a statute; on the contrary, the Courbats concede that waivers are an acceptable method by which tour operators may seek to limit their liability in response to rising insurance and litigation costs.

In Krohnert, the ICA defined the public interest

as involving some or all of the following characteristics:

[1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.

[2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.

[3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards.

[4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.

[5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence.

[6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller of the service, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents. 4 Hawai’i App. at 199, 664 P.2d at 744 (finding under this test that the exculpatory clause contained in a contract for marine surveying was permissible) (brackets omitted) (quoting Lynch v. Santa Fe Nat’l Bank, 97 N.M. 554, 627 P.2d 1247, 1251-52 (N.M.Ct.App.1981) (holding that services of escrow agents in New Mexico were not in the nature of a public service so as to render an exculpatory clause unenforceable) (quoting Tunkl v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 60 Cal.2d 92, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46 (1963) (declaring invalid as against the public interest an exculpatory clause for future negligence required for admission to a public research hospital))); see also 15 Corbin on Contracts § 85.18 (2003 & Supp.2005) (summarizing a similar test commonly used by courts and noting that courts tend to enforce exculpatory clauses for recreational activities under the test). (FN12) Entities that have been found to fall under the public interest doctrine, rendering exculpatory clauses void, include common carriers, see Adams Express Co. v. Croninger, 226 U.S. 491, 509, 33 S.Ct. 148, 57 L.Ed. 314 (1913); Shippers Nat’l Freight Claim Council, Inc. v. Interstate Commerce Comm’n, 712 F.2d 740, 746 (2d Cir.1983); Clairol, Inc. v. Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc., 79 A.D.2d 297, 309-10, 436 N.Y.S.2d 279 (N.Y.App.Div.1981), and hospitals, see Tunkl, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d at 447; Smith v. Hosp. Auth. of Walker, Dade & Catoosa Counties, 160 Ga.App. 387, 287 S.E.2d 99, 101 (1981) Belshaw v. Feinstein, 258 Cal.App.2d 711, 65 Cal.Rptr. 788, 798 (1968).

Applying these factors to the present matter, we determine that the public interest here is not at stake: recreational activity tours are not generally suitable to public regulation, in the manner of common carriers, nor of great importance to the public, nor of an essential nature, in the manner of medical care, such that the provider’s bargaining power is greatly enhanced over any member of the public seeking their services.

Finally, as the United States District Court for the District of Hawai’i noted, in considering negligence waivers in the context of recreational activity, while such waivers may be contracts of adhesion, in that they are presented on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, they are not unconscionable, but “are of a sort commonly used in recreational settings” and “are generally held to be valid.” Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc., 839 F.Supp. 730, 736 (D. Hawai’i 1993). “[C]ontracts [of adhesion] are ‘unenforceable if two conditions are present: (1) the contract is the result of coercive bargaining between parties of unequal bargaining strength; and (2) the contract unfairly limits the obligations and liabilities of, or otherwise unfairly advantages, the stronger party.’ ” Fujimoto, 95 Hawai’i at 156, 19 P.3d at 739 (quoting Brown v. KFC Nat’l Mgmt. Co., 82 Hawai’i 226, 247, 921 P.2d 146, 167 (1996)); see also Wheelock, 839 F.Supp. at 735 (“[A]dhesion contracts are fully enforceable provided that they are not unconscionable and do not fall outside the reasonable expectations of the weaker or adhering party.”). Unequal bargaining strength “involves the absence of alternatives; specifically whether the plaintiffs were ‘free to use or not to use’ [the] defendant’s . . . services.” Krohnert, 4 Hawai’i App at 199, 664 P.2d at 744 (quoting Lynch, 627 P.2d at 1250). These conditions are generally not germane in the recreational waiver context. In the context of a recreational sport or adventure activity, freely undertaken for pleasure, “coercive bargaining” and “an absence of alternatives” are terms that hold little meaning.

In the present matter, Lisa read through and responded to queries contained in the waiver form and had no further questions or concerns regarding the contents before she signed it. Steven conceded that he routinely relied on his wife to review documents before signing them and that he knew he was waiving rights when he signed the form. The record demonstrates that the Courbats were given adequate time and opportunity to fully review the waiver presented to them before they signed it and that both knew that by signing it they were waiving legal rights in return for being allowed to participate in the ride. In short, there is no evidence of coercion. By signing the waiver form, they demonstrated that they agreed to its terms, and by reading it, or, in Steven’s case, in relying on the advice of his wife, demonstrated knowledge of its contents. Moreover, they had signed similar waivers that week for another activity and were familiar with what they represented. Accordingly, we hold that, if the trier of fact determines that the nondisclosure of the waiver was not a deceptive trade practice, the Courbats’ waiver was valid.

b. The scope of the Courbats’ waiver does not extend beyond negligence claims.

The language of the waiver, see supra note 3, releases the Ranch and its agents and holds it harmless “from loss or damage to property or injury to [the undersigned] . . . resulting from [the undersigned] . . . being a spectator or participant or while engaged in any such activity in the event[-]related facilities.” However, because ” ‘[e]xculpatory provisions are not favored by the law and are strictly construed against parties relying on them,’ ” the effect of the broad exculpatory language contained in the Ranch’s waiver should be construed to limit the waiver’s scope to simple negligence claims; it does not protect the Ranch against its own gross negligence or willful misconduct. Fujimoto, 95 Hawai’i at 156, 19 P.3d at 739 (quoting Andrews, 823 F.Supp. at 378); see also Wheelock, 839 F.Supp. at 736 (interpreting the reasoning in Krohnert to conclude that to allow an exculpatory clause to extend to gross negligence would violate the public interest, rendering the clause void).

IV. CONCLUSION

In light of the foregoing analysis, we vacate the circuit court’s May 13, 2002 judgment in favor of the Ranch and against the Courbats and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

DISSENTING OPINION BY DUFFY, J., IN WHICH ACOBA, J., JOINS.

DUFFY, J.

I respectfully dissent. In my view, no reasonable person would find that the recreational tour operator’s failure to disclose the waiver requirement of Dahana Ranch, Inc. during negotiation of the horseback riding activity was a deceptive trade practice under HRS § 480-2. The Courbats concede that waivers are an acceptable method by which recreational tour operators and sponsors may seek to limit their liability in response to rising insurance and litigation costs, and admit that they were required to sign such a waiver before participating in a snorkeling activity earlier during the same Hawai’i vacation. Applying the Cliffdale Assoc. test to the undisputed facts in this case involving the inherently dangerous activity of horseback riding, I respectfully submit that the tour operator’s failure to disclose the waiver requirement of Dahana Ranch, Inc. during negotiation of the horseback riding activity with the Courbats was not a material omission implicating a deceptive trade practice under HRS § 480-2. I would thus affirm the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Dahana Ranch, Inc.

———

Notes:

[1] HRS ch. 480 provided in relevant part:

§ 480-2 …. (a) Unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are unlawful.

(b) In construing this section, the courts and the office of consumer protection shall give due consideration to the rules, regulations, and decisions of the Federal Trade Commission and the federal courts interpreting section 5(a)(1) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (15 U.S.C. 45(a)(1)), as from time to time amended.

….

§ 480-3 …. This chapter shall be construed in accordance with judicial interpretations of similar federal antitrust statutes ….

….

§ 480-12 …. Any contract or agreement in violation of this chapter is void and is not enforceable at law or in equity.

§ 480-13 …. (b) Any consumer who is injured by any unfair or deceptive act or practice forbidden or declared unlawful by section 480-2:

(1) May sue for damages sustained by the consumer, and, if the judgment is for the plaintiff, the plaintiff shall be awarded a sum not less than $1,000 or threefold damages by the plaintiff sustained, whichever sum is the greater, and reasonable attorneys’ fees together with the costs of suit; . . . and

(2) May bring proceedings to enjoin the unlawful practices, and if the decree is for the plaintiff, the plaintiff shall be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees together with the cost of suit. Effective June 28, 2002, HRS § 480-2 was amended in respects immaterial to the present matter. See 2002 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 229, §§ 2 and 6 at 916-18. Effective May 2, 2001, June 28, 2002, and June 7, 2005, HRS § 480-13 was amended in respects immaterial to the present matter. See 2005 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 108, §§ 3 and 5 at 265-66, 267; 2002 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 229, §§ 3 and 6 at 917-18; 2001 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 79, §§ 1 and 5 at 127-28.

[2] HRS ch. 663B, entitled “Equine activities” and enacted in 1994, see 1994 Hawai’i Sess. L. Act 229, §§ 1 and 2 at 591-92, provides in relevant part:

§ 663B-1 …. As used in this [chapter], unless the context otherwise requires:

“Engages in an equine activity” means riding . . . or being a passenger upon an equine ….

….

“Equine activity” means:

….

(5) Rides, trips, hunts, or other equine activities of any type however informal or impromptu that are sponsored by an equine activity sponsor; and

….

“Equine activity sponsor” means an individual, group, club, partnership, or corporation . . . which sponsors, organizes, or provides the facilities for, an equine activity….

“Equine professional” means a person engaged for compensation in instructing a participant or renting to a participant an equine for the purpose of riding, driving, or being a passenger upon the equine, or in renting equipment or tack to a participant.

“Inherent risks of equine activities” means those dangers or conditions which are an integral part of equine activities, including, but not limited to:

(1) The propensity of an equine to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around them;

(2) The unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to such things as sounds, sudden movement, and unfamiliar objects, persons, or other animals;

(3) Certain hazards such as surface and subsurface conditions;

(4) Collisions with other equines or objects; and

(5) The potential of a participant to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to injury to the participant or others, such as failing to maintain control over the animal or not acting within the participant’s ability.

“Participant” means any person, whether amateur or professional, who engages in an equine activity, whether or not a fee is paid to participate in the equine activity.

§ 663B-2 …. (a) In any civil action for injury, loss, damage, or death of a participant, there shall be a presumption that the injury, loss, damage, or death was not caused by the negligence of an equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or their employees or agents, if the injury, loss, damage, or death was caused solely by the inherent risk and unpredictable nature of the equine. An injured person or their legal representative may rebut the presumption of no negligence by a preponderance of the evidence.

(b) Nothing in this section shall prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or their employees or agents if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or person:

….

(2) Provided the equine and . . . failed to reasonably supervise the equine activities and such failure is a proximate cause of the injury ….

(Some brackets in original and some omitted.)

[3] The rules and waiver stated in pertinent part:

In order for us to keep our ride from being a “Nose To Tail Trail Ride[,”] there are certain rules which must be followed for your safety and the horses’ mental well being. FAILURE TO FOLLOW THESE RULES WILL RESULT IN FORFEITURE OF YOUR RIDE WITH NO REFUND.

RULES AND REGULATIONS

FOLLOW RIDING INSTRUCTIONS & DIRECTIONS THROUGHOUT THE RIDE

….

PLEASE DO NOT RIDE AHEAD OF YOUR GUIDE UNLESS TOLD TO DO SO

….

DO NOT FOLLOW ONE ANOTHER

….

WAIVER

I/We, the undersigned, hereby release and hold harmless the land owners, managers, operators (William P. Kalawaianui, Daniel H. Nakoa, Dahana Ranch and Nakoa Ranch), [t]he State of Hawai[]i and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and all other persons directly related to those listed above for the event listed herein[,] their successors, assigns and affiliates from loss or damage to property or injury to myself or any person . . . resulting from my . . . being a spectator or participant or while engaged in any such activity in the event[-] related facilities. I/We acknowledge that there are significant elements of risk in any adventure, sport or activity associated with horses.

I/WE HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD THE FOREGOING RULES, REGULATIONS AND WAIVER.

(Emphasis in original.)

[4] On May 10, 2002, the Ranch filed a notice of taxation of costs which, pursuant to Hawai’i Rules of Appellate Procedure (HRAP) Rule 4(a)(3), tolled the time for filing an appeal. An order as to taxation of costs was never entered, and so, pursuant to HRAP Rule 4(a)(3), the request was deemed denied 90 days later, on August 8, 2002. The Courbats’ appeal, filed prematurely on June 7, 2002, was therefore timely filed as of August 8, 2002, pursuant to HRAP Rule 4(a)(2) and (3).

[5] 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(1) provides that “[u]nfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, are hereby declared unlawful.”

[6] Hawai’i courts have long recognized, therefore, that federal interpretations of 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(1) guide us in construing HRS § 480-2 “in light of conditions in Hawai’i.” Ai v. Frank Huff Agency, 61 Hawai’i 607, 613 n.11, 607 P.2d 1304, 1309 n.11 (1980); see also Island Tobacco Co. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 63 Hawai’i 289, 299, 627 P.2d 260, 268 (1981) overruled on other grounds by Robert’s Hawaii School Bus, Inc. v. Laupahoehoe Transp. Co., Inc., 91 Hawai’i 224, 982 P.2d 853 (1999); Rosa v. Johnston, 3 Hawai’i App. 420, 426, 651 P.2d 1228, 1233-34 (1982).

[7] See Cliffdale Assocs., 103 F.T.C. at 164-65 (characterizing the new standard as a refinement of the “tendency or capacity to deceive” test used by the FTC to that point and pronouncing the old test “circular and therefore inadequate to provide guidance”).

[8] While federal courts have not expressly categorized the test as objective, the FTC, in Cliffdale Assocs., commented that “[t]he requirement that an act or practice be considered from the perspective of a consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances is not new…. [The FTC] has long recognized that the law should not be applied in such a way as to find that honest representations are deceptive simply because they are misunderstood by a few…. [A]n advertisement would not be considered deceptive merely because it could be unreasonably misunderstood by an insignificant and unrepresentative segment of the class of persons [to] whom the representation is addressed.” 103 F.T.C. at 165 (footnotes and internal quotation signals omitted).

[9] Other states have already adopted the Cliffdale Assocs. test. See, e.g., Luskin’s, Inc. v. Consumer Prot. Div., 726 A.2d 702, 713 (Md. 1999); Carter v. Gugliuzzi, 716 A.2d 17, 23 (Vt. 1998). Our adoption of the Cliffdale Assocs. test does not change the existing rule that, in order to establish a violation of HRS § 480-2, the plaintiff need not establish an intent to deceive on the part of the defendant, World Travel Vacation Brokers, 861 F.2d at 1029; Five-Star Auto Club, 97 F.Supp. at 526, nor any actual deceit, United States Steel Corp., 82 Hawai’i at 51, 919 P.2d at 313.

[10] It is undisputed that Island Incentives, Inc. was acting as the Ranch’s agent in this matter, and “we note that an owner is responsible for the representations of his agent made within the scope of his agent’s selling authority.” Au v. Au, 63 Hawai’i 210, 215, 626 P.2d 173, 178 (1981) (citing Negyessy v. Strong, 136 Vt. 193, 388 A.2d 383, 385 (Vt. 1978)).

[11] If the waiver were severable from the underlying contract, it could survive despite a determination that the original contract was void. See Ai v. Frank Huff Agency, 61 Hawai’i 607, 619, 607 P.2d 1304, 1312 (1980) (“The wording on HRS § 480-12 might . . . appear to suggest that any contract containing an illegal provision . . . should be held unenforceable in its entirety…. [U]nder ordinary contract law, however, . . . a partially legal contract may be upheld if the illegal portion is severable from the part which is legal.”). However, “the general rule is that severance of an illegal provision is warranted and the lawful portion . . . enforceable when the illegal provision is not central to the parties’ agreement.” Beneficial Hawaii, Inc. v. Kida, 96 Hawai’i 289, 311, 30 P.3d 895, 917 (2001). The underlying contract at issue is the sum of the parties’ agreement; the waiver would be considered an addendum to it. Therefore, the waiver is not severable and must stand or fall with the underlying contract.

[12] Courts have upheld exculpatory clauses relating to car racing, see Cadek v. Great Lakes Dragaway, Inc., 843 F.Supp. 420 (N.D. Ill. 1994); Barbazza v. Int’l Motor Sports Ass’n, 245 Ga.App. 790, 538 S.E.2d 859 (Ga. Ct. App. 2000), snow skiing, see Chauvlier v. Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., 109 Wash.App. 334, 35 P.3d 383 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001), skydiving, see Scrivener v. Sky’s The Limit, Inc., 68 F.Supp.2d 277 (S.D.N.Y. 1999), and horseback riding, see Street v. Darwin Ranch, Inc., 75 F.Supp.2d 1296, 1299 (D. Wyo. 1999) (finding that “recreational trail rides are neither of great importance to the public, nor a practical necessity to any member of the public”).

———


Addis v. Snowshoe Mountain, Inc., a West Virginia corporation, 2013 W. Va. LEXIS 1353 (W. Va. 2013)

Addis v. Snowshoe Mountain, Inc., a West Virginia corporation, 2013 W. Va. LEXIS 1353 (W. Va. 2013)

Glen Addis and Pamela Addis, Plaintiffs Below, Petitioners

v.

Snowshoe Mountain, Inc., a West Virginia corporation, Defendant Below, Respondent

No. 12-1537

Supreme Court of West Virginia

November 22, 2013

(Pocahontas County 10-C-69)

MEMORANDUM DECISION

Petitioners Glen and Pamela Addis, by counsel John F. McCuskey, Roberta F. Green, and Heather B. Osborn, appeal the order of the Circuit Court of Pocahontas County, entered November 28, 2012, granting summary judgment in favor of Respondent Snowshoe Mountain, Inc. Respondent appears by counsel Robert M. Steptoe, Amy M. Smith, and Matthew B. Hansberry.

This Court has considered the parties’ briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

Petitioners filed a complaint and amended complaint in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County based on injuries Petitioner Glen Addis received after skiing over and slipping on ice on a double black diamond trail called Lower Shay’s Revenge at respondent’s ski resort.[1] The civil action was transferred to the Circuit Court of Pocahontas County upon the court’s grant of respondent’s motion to dismiss for improper venue, or in the alternative, transfer. Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment after the close of discovery, and the circuit court granted the motion by order entered November 28, 2012, on the grounds that petitioners’ claims are barred by the West Virginia Skiing Responsibility Act and by release and waiver language contained in an agreement signed by petitioner.[2] Petitioners appealed the grant of summary judgment to this Court.

The material facts are not in dispute. Petitioner Glen Addis entered respondent’s resort the day of his accident using a season pass. In obtaining that pass, petitioner signed the following agreement:

I understand and accept the fact that skiing, snowboarding, bicycling, and golf in their various forms are INHERENTLY DANGEROUS AND HAZARDOUS sports that have many dangers and risks. I realize that injuries are a common and ordinary occurrence of these sports. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the resort’s facilities and premises, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury or death or property damage, and release Snowshoe Mountain, Inc. and its agents, employees, directors, officers, and shareholders from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises and facilities, the operations of the resort including, but not limited to, grooming, snowmaking, ski lift operations, trail maintenance, golf operations, the actions or omissions of employees or agents of Snowshoe or my participation in skiing or other activities in the area, accepting myself the full responsibility for any and all such damage or injury of any kind which may result.

I further understand and accept that there may be exposure to other dangers or hazards including, but not limited to, the following: riding and disembarking the ski lifts, changing weather conditions, loss of balance or control, rocks, roots, stumps, trees, forest debris, creeks and streams, natural and manmade objects, bare spots, blind spots, reduced visibility (for any reason), and the actions of other guests or employees.

I, the undersigned, have read, understood, and agree to accept the terms of this RELEASE AND AGREEMENT NOT TO SUE. I am signing it freely and of my own accord realizing it is binding upon my heirs, my assigns, and myself. . . .

I shall support the Responsibility Code and understand that skiing, snowboarding, bicycling and golf are inherently dangerous sports and I freely and voluntarily accept all of the inherent risks and responsibilities associated with these sports.

Petitioner is an experienced skier and former ski instructor, and he had skied Lower Shay’s Revenge many times prior to the accident that is the subject of this claim. His fall occurred on his second run on that trail on the morning of January 24, 2009. On his earlier run, petitioner observed that the trail was not well-groomed, was icy, and had large mounds of snow.[3]He did not, however, report the condition of the trail to ski patrol. Petitioner approached an icy mound on his second run, and his right ski became dislodged. He then stopped on a “very steep slope” and, while attempting to put his ski back on, he slipped on ice, over a drop-off, and into the nearby wooded area. Petitioner struck a tree, fracturing both femurs and his pelvis.

On appeal, petitioners assert two assignments of error. First, they argue that the circuit court improperly construed the West Virginia Skiing Responsibility Act. Second, they argue that the circuit court misapplied West Virginia law on pre-injury exculpatory clauses and thereby violated their constitutional rights in granting summary judgment. “A circuit court’s entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo.” Syl. Pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192, W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994). The non-moving party may only defeat a motion for summary judgment by offering some concrete evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could return a verdict in his favor. See Williams v. Precision Coil, Inc., 194 W.Va. 52, 459 S.E.2d 329 (1995). Mindful of this standard, we consider petitioners’ arguments.

The West Virginia Skiing Responsibility Act provides in part:

§20-3 A-3. Duties of ski area operators with respect to ski areas. Every ski area operator shall:

(8) Maintain the ski areas in a reasonably safe condition, except that such operator shall not be responsible for any injury, loss or damage caused by the following: variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots, rocks, trees, other forms of forest growth or debris; collisions with pole lines, lift towers or any components thereof; or, collisions with snowmaking equipment which is marked by a visible sign or other warning implement in compliance with subdivision (2) of this section.

§20-3 A-5. Duties of skiers.

(a) It is recognized that skiing as a recreational sport is hazardous to skiers, regardless of all feasible safety measures which can be taken. Each skier expressly assumes the risk of and legal responsibility for any injury, loss or damage to person or property which results from participation in the sport of skiing including, but not limited to, any injury, loss or damage caused by the following: Variations in terrain including freestyle terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots, rocks, trees, other forms of forest growth or debris; collisions with pole lines, lift towers or any component thereof; or, collisions with snowmaking equipment which is marked by a visible sign or other warning implement in compliance with section three of this article. Each skier shall have the sole individual responsibility for knowing the range of his or her own ability to negotiate any ski slope or trail, and it shall be the duty of each skier to ski within the limits of the skier’s own ability, to maintain reasonable control of speed and course at all times while skiing, to heed all posted warnings, to ski only on a skiing area designated by the ski area operator and to refrain from acting in a manner which may cause or contribute to the injury of anyone. If while actually skiing, any skier collides with any object or person, except an obviously intoxicated person of whom the ski area operator is aware, the responsibility for such collision shall be solely that of the skier or skiers involved and not that of the ski area operator.

Petitioners argue that respondent lost the protection of the Act by failing to monitor weather information, failing to stop malfunctioning snowmaking equipment, failing to train ski patrol, and failing to mark hazards. We find no evidence in the record to support any such asserted failure, and petitioners direct our attention to none.[4] Central to each of petitioners’ assertions is their supposition that the air temperature was warmer than 32 degrees Fahrenheit at key times on the days around petitioner’s accident, causing respondent’s snowmaking equipment to blow water, rather than snow, which created ice on the trail. The only evidence of the temperature, however, is a three-page climate data report of the National Weather Service setting out the minimum and maximum daily area temperatures for the month of January of 2009. While that report shows that the maximum temperature reached 42 degrees Fahrenheit on the day of petitioner’s accident, there is no evidence that respondent’s equipment malfunctioned as a result of that temperature, or that the equipment was improvidently used.

Petitioners liken their situation to Hardin v. Ski Venture, Inc., 848 F.Supp. 58 (N.D. W.Va. 1994), a case in which a defendant ski resort was denied summary judgment because there was evidence that defendant’s malfunctioning snowmaking equipment blew “excessively wet snow” into plaintiff’s goggles, obstructing his vision and ultimately causing the collision that rendered him quadriplegic.[5] But here, where petitioners have made only broad accusations of “failure, ” and offered unsupported conjecture, petitioners have presented no facts to significantly distinguish this case from Pinson v. Canaan Valley Resorts, Inc., 196 W.Va. 436, 473 S.E.2d 151 (1996), wherein a plaintiff sued a ski resort for injuries she received while skiing on ungroomed, natural snow. In that case, we ultimately determined that “skiers, rather than ski area operators, are responsible for injuries caused by ‘variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions’ and that such variations or conditions . . . caused the injury to” that plaintiff. Similarly, we find that petitioner is responsible for his injury, inasmuch as the evidence shows only that it was caused by conditions of the terrain.

Petitioners’ second assignment of error is that the circuit court misapplied our law on pre-injury exculpatory clauses. Their sole argument before this Court is that the circuit court failed to recognize, based on Murphy v. North American River Runners, Inc., 186 W.Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504 (1991), that exculpatory clauses do not provide immunity to operators who violate a statutory safety standard. Inasmuch as we have determined herein that there is no evidence of respondent’s acting contrary to its duty set forth in the West Virginia Skiing Responsibility Act, petitioners cannot prevail on this ground.

For the foregoing reasons, we affirm.

Affirmed.

CONCURRED IN BY:

Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin Justice Robin Jean Davis Justice Margaret L. Workman Justice Menis E. Ketchum Justice Allen H. Loughry II

Notes:

[1]The “double black diamond” designation indicates that the trail is “extremely difficult” and is intended for “advanced” skiers.

[2]The sole claim of Petitioner Pamela Addis was loss of consortium. The circuit court correctly noted that it was entirely derivative of her husband’s claims.

[3]Petitioner was also aware, however, that other nearby trails were groomed, inasmuch as he had skied several earlier that morning.

[4]Petitioners’ citations to their own pleadings or arguments below, rather than specific testimony or evidence, to establish the events giving rise to this action is insufficient.

[5]In their reply brief, petitioners state that they, like the Hardin plaintiffs, “had retained an expert who was prepared to identify the operator’s failures that led to the injuries alleged.” They further explain that it was that expert testimony in Hardin that created a factual dispute concerning the cause of the accident. The Court has been unable to find such expert testimony in the appendix record for this case.


Morgan, et al., v. Water Toy Shop, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61546

Morgan, et al., v. Water Toy Shop, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61546

Jasmine Nicole Morgan, et al., Plaintiffs,

v.

Water Toy Shop, Inc., et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 16-2540 (PAD)

United States District Court, D. Puerto Rico

March 30, 2018

OPINION AND ORDER

PEDRO A. DELGADO HERNÁNDEZ, United States District Judge

This case arises out of a tragic accident, a collision between two jet skis -one ridden by plaintiffs Jasmin Nicole Morgan and Jarita Kennedy, and the other by Mark A. Castro- in the territorial waters of Puerto Rico (Docket No. 1).[1] In essence, the complaint alleges that: (1) Castro was grossly negligent in operating the jet ski, seriously injuring plaintiffs (id. at ¶ 51); and (2) Water Toy Shop, Inc., Acosta Water Sports, Inc., and Axel Acosta, who rented the jet skis, did not adequately train Castro to operate the jet ski, and as owners of the jet ski that Castro was riding are liable for the damages claimed. Id.

Before the court is defendants Water Toy Shop’s, Axel Acosta’s and Ironshore Indemnity, Inc.’s “Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum of Law in Support Thereof” (Docket No. 52), which plaintiffs opposed (Docket No. 61). Defendants replied (Docket Nos. 69), and plaintiffs surreplied (Docket No. 73). For the reasons explained below, the motion is GRANTED and plaintiffs’ claims against the appearing defendants DISMISSED.[2]

I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A dispute is genuine if the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party. A fact is material if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation. Farmers Ins. Exchange v. RNK, Inc., 632 F.3d 777, 782 (1st Cir. 2011)(quoting Rodríguez-Rivera v. Federico Trilla Regional Hosp. of Carolina, 532 F.3d 28, 30 (1st Cir. 2008)).

In assessing a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the entire record in the light most hospitable to the party opposing summary judgment, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor. Griggs-Ryan, 904 F.2d at 115 (citations omitted). There is no room for credibility determinations, no room for the measured weighing of conflicting evidence such as the trial process entails, and no room for the judge to superimpose his own ideas of probability and likelihood . Greenburg v. Puerto Rico Maritime Shipping Authority, 835 F.2d 932, 936 (1st Cir. 1987). The court may, however, safely ignore conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation. Medina-Muñoz v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir. 1990) (citations omitted).

II. UNCONTESTED FACTS[3]

Plaintiffs are residents of Washington, D.C. See, Docket No. 52-1, “Statement of Uncontested Material Facts in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment” (“SUMF” at ¶ 1). While vacationing in Puerto Rico, they rented a jet ski from Archie Jet Ski Rental (SUMF ¶ 4), the name used to advertise Water Toy Shop and Acosta Water Sports, two separate corporations that operate different jet ski rental stands in the Isla Verde beach area in Carolina, Puerto Rico. See, PSUMF at ¶ 6 and defendants’ response at Docket No. 69-1 pp. 26-27.[4] Water Toy owned the jet skis involved in the accident, and operated the stand where the jet skis were rented. SUMF ¶ 5; PSUMF ¶¶ 14, 6, 36.

In order to rent the jet ski, both plaintiffs signed a “Personal Watercraft Rental Operations Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Express Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement” (“Rental Agreement”) and a “Declaration of Fitness to Operate Personal Watercraft” (“Declaration of Fitness”). SUMF ¶ 7, ¶10.[5] The Rental Agreements read as follows:

PERSONAL WATERCRAFT RENTAL OPERATIONS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF CLAIMS, EXPRESS ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT

Please and be certain you understand the implications of signing. Express Assumption of Risk Associated with use of rental of Personal Watercraft and Related Activities I,, do hereby affirm and acknowledge that I have been fully informed of the inherent hazards and risks associated with motorized (e.g., jet ski) or non-motorized (e.g., kayak) and related water sport activities to which I am about to engage, including but not limited to:

1) changing water flow, tides, currents, wave action, and ship’s wakes;

2) collision with any of the following:

a) other participants,

b) the watercraft,

c) other watercraft,

d) man made or natural objects,

e) shuttle boat;

3) wind shear, inclement weather, lightning, variances and extremes of wind, weather and temperature;

4) my sense of balance, physical condition, ability to operate equipment, swim and/or follow directions;

5) collision, capsizing, sinking, or other hazard that may result in wetness, injury, exposure to the elements, hypothermia, impact of the body upon the water, injection of water into my body orifices, and/or drowning;

6) the presence of insects and marine life forms;

7) equipment failure or operator error;

8) heat or sun related injuries or illnesses, including sunburn, sun stroke or dehydration;

9) fatigue, chill and/or reaction time and increased risk of accident.

I specifically acknowledge that I read, understand and agree to abide by the Personal Watercraft Operational instructions at all times and that I have been trained in the safe use of watersport equipment to my complete satisfaction, and I am physically/mentally able to participate in the water sport activities to which I am about to engage.

I specifically waive any defense insofar as this contract is concerned that may arise as a result of any state or local law and/or regulation or policy that may impact its enforceability.

RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF CLAIMS AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.

In consideration of being allowed to participate in the above-described activities, as well as the use of any of the facilities and the use of the equipment of the below listed releases, I hereby agree as follows:

1) To waive and release any and all claims based upon negligence, active or passive, with the exception of intentional, wanton, or willful misconduct that I may have in the future against all of the following named persons or entities herein referred to as releasees.

Water Toy Shop, Inc. Owner (Company and/ or Individual)

___ (Scheduled Personal Watercraft)

___ (Scheduled Shuttle Boat (if applicable)

2) To release the releasees, their officers, directors, employees, representatives, agents, and volunteers, and vessels from any liability and responsibility whatsoever and for any claims or causes of action that I, my estate, heirs, executors, or assigns may have for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death arising from the above activities, whether caused by active or passive negligence of the releassees or otherwise, with the exception of gross negligence. By executing this document, I agree to hold the releases harmless and indemnify them in conjunction with any injury or loss of life that may occur as a result of engaging in the above activities.

3) By entering into this agreement, I am not relying on any oral or written representation or statements made by the releasees, other than what is set forth in this Agreement.

I hereby declare that I am of legal age and am competent to sign this Agreement or, if not, that my parent or legal guardian shall sign on my behalf and that my parent or legal guardian is in complete understanding and concurrence with this Agreement.

I have read this Agreement, understand it, and I agree to be bound by it. SUMF at ¶¶ 8, 20 (bold emphasis in the original, underlined emphasis added).[6] The Declarations of Fitness state: “by signing this form I still choose to participate in the activity with the rental property and agree to waive all responsibilities to all the above mentioned parties concerning any consequences that would result from my actions.” SUMF at ¶ 9.[7] Morgan did not read the contents of the Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness before signing them, or at any time before boarding the rented jet ski, despite having around one hour to spare between the time she signed the documents and when she boarded the jet ski.[8] Neither did she ask Water Toy personnel anything about the document. SUMF at ¶ 11.

Before Castro was allowed to rent the jet ski, he was asked for his I.D. in order to verify that he was old enough to rent a jet ski, which he was; he signed a Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness; and was informed of the boundaries within which he could ride, the applicable speed limit and to stay clear of other people. SUMF at ¶ 13, 15.[9] To that end, Mr. Héctor Peralta informed Castro the price for the jet ski ride; explained that he could only ride between the ESJ Tower and the Water Club Hotel; warned him stay away from the swimming area; told him to go slow until he passed the buoys; cautioned him not to get close to a nearby natural reserve and to stay away from other objects or persons because jet skis don’t have breaks; described how the jet skis worked; let him know that when his time was up an employee would let him know; and provided him copy of a Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness, explaining their contents and having him sign them. SUMF at ¶ 16.[10]

Additionally, Mr. Jonathan Pérez informed Castro of the boundaries he had to observe whilst riding, by pointing out the ESJ Tower, the Water Club Hotel and the buoys; told him not to ride too far away so that help could get to him straight away in case something happened; warned him not to go over five miles per hour as he left the buoys area in front of the Water Toy stand and when he rode back to it to return his jet ski; and asked him to stay far away from people to avoid any accident. SUMF at ¶ 17.[11] Plaintiffs were taking a break in their jet ski, drifting next to the buoys in front of the Water Toy stand, when Castro’s jet ski collided with theirs at high speed, without warning. SUMF at ¶ 19.

III. DISCUSSION

A. General Principles

Plaintiffs claim defendants are liable to them under Puerto Rico law (Docket No. 61, pp. 2-3), which defendants deny (Docket No. 51, p. 1), stating that general principles of maritime law rather than local law apply in this case, and under those principles they are not liable. Id. at p. 2. Because this case “involves a watercraft collision on navigable waters, it falls within admiralty’s domain.” Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206 (1996). With admiralty jurisdiction comes the application of substantive admiralty law. Id. Federal maritime law may be supplemented by state law to the extent that it “would not disturb the uniformity of maritime law.” Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731, 738 (1961).

In maritime law, “the owner of a ship in navigable waters owes to all who are on board for purposes not inimical to his legitimate interests [e.g., passengers] the duty of exercising reasonable care under the circumstances of each case.” Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 632 (1959); Muratore v. M/S Scotia Prince, 845 F.2d 347, 353 (1st Cir. 1988)(under maritime law, “a carrier owes a duty of exercising reasonable care towards its passengers under the circumstances”). The degree of required care must be in proportion to the apparent risk. See, Muratone, 845 F.3d at 353 (discussing concept)(citing Prosser, Law of Torts, Section 34, at 180 (4th ed. 1971)).

Plaintiffs contend that defendants are directly and vicariously liable under Puerto Rico law because Congress allowed Puerto Rico to adopt liability standards inconsistent with maritime law (Docket No. 61 at pp. 12-20). Congress can alter, qualify, or supplement admiralty law as it sees fit, provided it neither excludes a thing that falls clearly within the admiralty and maritime law nor includes a thing that clearly falls without, as long as the statute is coextensive with and operates uniformly in the whole of the United States. See, Zych v. Unidentified Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel, Believed to be the Seabird, 19 F.3d 1136, 1140 (7th Cir. 1994)(examining congressional power to revise and supplement maritime law).

However, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. See, Maysonet-Robles v. Cabrero, 323 F.3d 43, 53 (1st Cir. 2003)(so describing Puerto Rico). It belongs to, but is not part of the United States, a category considered “foreign … in a domestic sense.” See, United States v. Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.3d 80, 88 & n.11 (D.P.R. 2016)(discussing Puerto Rico’s territorial status)(quoting Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 287, 341-342, 346-347 (1901)). Accordingly, “… Congress can, pursuant to the plenary powers conferred by the Territorial Clause [U.S. Const. art. IV, § 3, cl. 2], legislate as to Puerto Rico in a manner different from the rest of the United States.” U.S. v. Rivera-Torres, 826 F.2d 151, 154 (1st Cir. 1987).[12]

In 1917, Congress enacted Puerto Rico’s second organic act, commonly known as the Jones Act, 39 Stat. 951, Act of March 2, 1919.[13] Under Section 37 of the Jones Act, the legislative authority of Puerto Rico extended “to all matters of a legislative character not locally inapplicable.” In turn, Section Eight read:

The harbor areas and navigable streams and bodies of water and submerged lands underlying the same in and around the island of Puerto Rico and the adjacent islands and waters, owned by the United States on March 2, 1917, and not reserved by the United States for public purposes, are placed under the control of the government of Puerto Rico … All laws of the United States for the protection and improvement of the navigable waters of the united States and the preservation of the interests of navigation and commerce, except so far as the same may be locally inapplicable, shall apply to said island and waters to its adjacent islands and waters.

Both provisions were reenacted as part of the Federal Relations Act. See, 48 U.S.C. §§ 749 and 821.[14] Interpreting and applying them in the context of admiralty and maritime law, the First Circuit held in Guerrido v. Alcoa Steamship Co., 234 F.2d 349 (1956), that the rules of admiralty and maritime law of the United States “are presently in force in the navigable waters of the United States in and around the island of Puerto Rico to the extent that they are not locally inapplicable either because they were not designed to apply to Puerto Rican waters or because they have been rendered inapplicable to these waters by inconsistent Puerto Rican legislation, ” provided that legislation does not “supplant a rule of maritime law which Congress in the exercise of its constitutional power has made applicable to Puerto Rican waters.” Id. at p. 355 (Emphasis added).[15] In line with Garrido, plaintiffs argue that defendants authorized Castro to operate the jet ski, and as a result, are liable for the resulting damages under Articles 1802 and 1803 of the Puerto Rico Civil Code, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 §§ 5141-5142, and Puerto Rico Law 430 of December 21, 2000, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 12 §§ 1401-1411 (Docket No. 61, pp. 4-7, 15-20). Because it is undisputed that Water Toy owned and rented the jet skis, unless otherwise stated the court circumscribes the discussion of potential liability to that entity.

B. Puerto Rico Law

Article 1802 imposes liability for personal acts, not for acts of others, providing in part that “a person who by an act or omission causes damage to another through fault or negligence shall be obliged to repair the damage so done.” P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 § 5141. See, Burgos-Oquendo v. Caribbean Gulf Refining Corp., 741 F.Supp. 330, 332 (D.P.R. 1990)(discussing concept). To establish liability, the plaintiff must show: (i) a duty of care requiring defendant to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (ii) breach of that duty; (iii) damages; and (iv) a causal connection between the breach and the damages. See, De-Jesús-Adorno v. Browning Ferris Industries of Puerto Rico, Inc., 160 F.3d 839, 842 (1st Cir. 1995)(so explaining).

In general, the duty of care is defined by the tenet that one must act as would a prudent and reasonable person under the same circumstances. See, Vázquez-Filippetti v. Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, 504 F.3d 43, 49 (1st Cir. 2007)(so observing). This includes complying with statutes, regulations, and ordinances relevant to the action. See, Sánchez v. Seguros Triple S, Inc., 687 F.Supp.2d 6, 9 (D.P.R. 2010)(setting forth and applying formulation). The standard applies to those who operate businesses for profit, commanding them to exercise reasonable care toward business invitees. See, Calderón-Ortega v. U.S., 753 F.3d 250, 252 (2014)(recognizing obligation).

In turn, Article 1803 codifies a special type of vicarious liability, a type of liability based in part on the acts or omissions of others. See, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 § 5142. To that end, it states that the obligation imposed by Article 1802 “is demandable not only for personal acts and omissions, but also for those of the persons for whom …[the defendant is] responsible, ” including under that rubric the liability of the father or mother for damages caused by minor children; of guardians for the damage cause by the person under their authority who live with them; of employers for the damage caused by an employee acting in the course of his employment; of masters or directors of arts and trades for damage caused by their pupils or apprentices; and of the Government of Puerto Rico under certain pre-established circumstances. Id. The enumeration is taxative, not of an exemplary nature. See, Burgos-Oquendo, 741 F.Supp. at 333 (so acknowledging). Imposition of vicarious liability in other instances must be anchored in alternate precepts or legislation, like Law 430. See, id. (dismissing complaint brought against lessor under Article 1803 in absence of provision establishing responsibility in the lessor for actions of the lessee).

At common law, vicarious liability implies that by reason of some preexisting relation between two parties, one of them may be held automatically liable to a third party for the negligence of the other even if he is free from fault. See, Prosser and Keeton, The Law of Torts, West Publishing Co., 1984, p. 499 (explaining concept). The doctrine applies in admiralty unless excluded by statute. See, Thomas J. Schoenbaum, supra at p. 188 (so noting). In that context, the negligence of employees is imputed to the owner of the vessel upon a finding of master-servant relationship, but in absence of that relationship, the shipowner is not liable in personam for the negligence of persons to whom the vessel is entrusted. Id. Under Article 1803, however, liability does not attach if the defendant shows that he employed the diligence expected of a good father of family, the bonus pater familias, to prevent the damage. Id. Diligence is predicated on how a prudent and reasonable man would have acted in connection with the obligations arising from the situations enumerated in Article 1803. See, Pueblo v. Rivera Rivera, 23 P.R. Offic. Trans. 641, 1989 WK 607294, *§ V (Rebollo López, J., concurring)(analyzing standard).

By contrast, Law 430 operates much like vicarious liability does at common law, providing in part that “[t]he owner of any ship or navigation vessel shall be responsible for damages caused when operating any of these, with fault or negligence, and when it is operated or under control of any person who, with the main purpose of operating or allowing it to be operated by a third party, obtains possession of it through express or tacit authorization of the owner.” P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 12 § 1406(6)(h). By extension, it imposes liability on the principal -the vessel’s owner- for the damages caused by the wrongful operation of the vessel when that vessel has been operated with the owner’s express or tacit authorization, irrespective of whether the owner has acted -in the words of Article 1803 of the Civil Code- with the diligence of a good father of family to avoid the damage.

As enacted, the provision is preempted by the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, as amended, 46 U.S.C. § 30501 et seq., because it conflicts with the negligence standard set in the federal statute. See, In the Matter of Rockaway Jet Ski, LLC, 2016 WL 8861617, *603-*604, (holding New York’s Navigation Act § 48 preempted by Limitation Act, as it imposes vicarious liability on the owners of personal watercrafts if the watercraft is operated by a person who used it with the owner’s permission, irrespective of the owner’s wrongdoing)(quoting In re Hartman, 2020 WL 1529488, *4 n.10 (D.N.J. Apr. 15, 2010)(to the extent the claimant argues that the jet ski owner is strictly liable under state law, the claim is preempted because the state’s strict liability standard directly conflicts with the negligence standard of the Limitation Act)). For the same reason, so too here. And given that the Limitation Act applies in Puerto Rico, [16] its preemptive effect comports with Garrido, banning reliance on Law 430 to impose vicarious liability on the vessel owner in the absence of the owner’s negligence.

Against this background, plaintiffs argue that Water Toy Shop violated Law 430 in: (1) operating an illegal additional kiosk a quarter of a mile east of the area specified in the permit issued by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”); (2) renting a jet ski that was not expressly identified in the permit; (3) using a rental ski as a patrol boat operated by a licensed individual who nevertheless had not received the required first aid training; (4) operating a rental stand without a valid navigation license; (5) keeping defective records lacking customers’ identification, addresses, tag of the jet ski used and date and time it was returned; and (6) renting skis without informing customers of navigation rules, safety briefing and prohibited activities (Docket No. 61 at pp. 5-7), making it liable for the collision and resulting damages. But merely violating a statute or regulation is not a synonym for liability in Puerto Rico, since in order for liability to attach, there must be a causal relationship – adequate cause – between the violation and the damages. See, González v. Puerto Rico Elec. Power Authority, 1993 WL 525644, *8 (D.P.R. Nov. 23, 1993)(so holding)(citing Pacheco v. A.F.F., 12 P.R. Offic. Trans. 367 (1982)).[17]

Adequate cause is not an event in the absence of which the damage would not have occurred, but that which in general experience causes it. See, Cárdenas Mazán v. Rodríguez Rodríguez, 125 D.P.R. 702, 710 (1990) (so stating); Ganapolsky v. Boston Mut. Life Ins. Co., 138 F.3d 446, 447-448 (1st Cir. 1998)(accidental injury to plaintiff’s left foot resulting from tripping on a two-inch step at entrance to men’s room in a theater not adequate cause of gangrene requiring foot’s amputation, as the infection that lead to the gangrene normally does not arise from tripping on a step). As such, causation is a function of foreseeability, requiring plaintiff to show that the injury was reasonably foreseeable. See, Marshall v. Pérez Arzuaga, 828 F.2d 845, 847 (1st Cir. 1987)(discussing foreseeability as part of the “causal nexus” element of tort action); Vázquez-Filipetti, 504 F.3d at 49 (highlighting centrality of foreseeability to a successful tort claim).[18]

Within this framework, that violations may have occurred in connection with items (1) to (5)-an unsubstantiated assumption at best- is not causally linked to Castro’s crashing of his jet ski onto plaintiffs’, for there is no evidence in the record showing it was foreseeable for a reasonable person to anticipate that a jet-ski collision would result from those violations.[19] Foreseeability cannot be established through the simple fact that an accident occurred. Id. (so recognizing).[20]The situation is no different in admiralty. See, Poulis-Minott v. Smith, 388 F.3d 354, 363 (1st Cir. 2004)(dismissing claim in admiralty for lack of proof that under the circumstances, there was a reasonable possibility that compliance with the regulatory standard would have prevented the accident).[21]

Water Toy’s obligation to provide Castro with an oral or written orientation on the navigation rules the Commissioner of Navigation of Puerto Rico prepared in accordance with Law 430 stands on a different footing, as it directly implicates the provision of information necessary to safely operate the jet ski. See, Wills v. Amerada Hess Corp., 379 F.3d 32, 42-45 (2d Cir. 2004)(distinguishing between statutory or regulatory provisions naturally and logically linked to maritime safety and those not so linked). The uncontested facts, however, show that Water Toy did provide adequate training to Castro in connection with the operation of the jet ski as well as of the applicable navigation rules. See, SUMF at ¶ 15-17. And the Rental Agreement Castro executed additionally confirms that he: (1) was fully informed of the inherent risks associated with jet skis; (2) understood and agreed to abide by the personal watercraft operational instructions he was given; and (3) was trained in the safe use of water sport equipment to his complete satisfaction. All in all, the record does not sustain a finding of liability against Water Toy deriving from a negligent act causally connected to the damages claimed.

C. Waivers

Beyond the issue of liability, plaintiffs executed a waiver precluding liability as to Water Toy and Axel Acosta – Water Toy’s sole owner and president, representative and agent – except for gross negligence, which the complaint only imputed to Castro. Plaintiffs attack the waiver, essentially characterizing it as unenforceable (Docket No. 61, at pp. 20-31). Voluntary waivers of liability for negligence in maritime activities are enforceable provided they: (1) are consistent with public policy; (2) do not configure a contract of adhesion; and (3) are drafted in clear and unambiguous language. See, Olmo v. Atlantic City Parasail, 2016 WL 1704365, *9 (D.N.J. April 28, 2016)(articulating and applying test)(citing Olivelli v. Sappo Corp., Inc., 225 F.Supp.2d 109, 116 (D.P.R. 2002)). By these standards, the waivers that plaintiffs signed are valid and enforceable.

First, exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence in maritime recreational activities are consistent with public policy. See, Cobb v. Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 933 F.Supp.2d 1295, 1299 (D. Nevada 2013)(so acknowledging); Olmo, 2016 WL 1704365, at *10 (same).[22] Thus, parties may enter into agreements to allocate risks inherent in those activities, allowing operators to contractually disclaim liability for their own negligence. See, Brozyna v. Niagara Gorge Jetboarding, Ltd., 2011 WL 4553100, *4-*5 (W.D. N.Y. Sept. 29, 2011)(explaining exculpatory waivers).[23] Relying on In the Matter of Rockaway Jet Ski LLC, 2016 WL 8861617, however, plaintiffs argue the waiver violates public policy because it has been invoked to prevent them from asserting negligence claims based on the violation of Law 430, a safety statute which, at bottom, does not contain a waiver authorization clause (Docket No. 61, at pp. 23, 27).

In Rockaway, the court evaluated whether an exculpatory clause can release negligence claims premised on the violation of a state safety statute, New York Navigation Law 73(a)(2), which (1) required businesses renting personal watercraft to provide a video or in-water demonstration of how to safely operate watercraft; and (2) prohibited those businesses from renting a personal watercraft to an individual unless that individual demonstrated ability to (i) operate the personal watercraft, and (ii) use applicable safety equipment. Id. at *595-*596. The court surveyed relevant caselaw, finding that some jurisdictions considering the same question did not permit parties to waive negligence claims premised on the violation of safety statutes, whereas other jurisdictions permitted the waivers. Id. at *598-*599. It sided with the former, noting “the apparent absence of an established admiralty rule on this question, ” (id. at *601); that statutory violations amount to negligence per se; and that waivers of a negligence per se claim violate public policy. Id. at *602.

Applying the reasoning to Law 430, the only statutory item involving safety is the one requiring information to safely operate the jet ski. But renting out a jet ski without taking steps to provide for its safety operation falls within the realm of negligence regardless of whether it is statutorily required. See, In re Hartman, 2010 WL 1529488, *4 (D.N.J. Apr. 15, 2010)(no need to resort to state safety statute to establish negligence in case originating in jet ski accident, because irrespective of statute, ski owner owed plaintiff a duty of care). And as pointed out above, those actions may be waived. See, Waggoner, 141 F.3d at *8-*9 (rejecting argument that exculpatory clause in recreational boat rental contract violated public policy based in part on Restatement (Second) of Contracts’ explanation that “a party to a contract can ordinarily exempt himself from liability for harm caused by his failure to observe the standards of reasonable care imposed by the law of negligence”). Moreover, although Law 430 imposes vicarious liability, that type of liability is less about boat safety and more about ensuring compensation for injured parties. See, Rockaway, 2016 WL 8861617 at *604 (so observing in validating waiver to protect vessel owner from vicarious liability imposed by state navigation law). In the end, Law 430 does not prohibit waivers, and neither does public policy.

Second, adhesion contracts are “take it or leave it” contracts with no opportunity for negotiation between parties with unequal bargaining power. Id. at *6 (delineating elements of adhesion). The definition does not fit waivers used in connection with voluntary recreational pursuits rather than rendition of essential services such as medical care, where courts would be more likely to find that a contract of adhesion exists. See, Olmo, 2016 WL 1704365 at *10 (so recognizing). For the same reason, liability waivers for voluntary recreational activities in navigable waters are not considered adhesion contracts, as the plaintiff has the option of signing or turning around and declining to do business with the defendant. Id. (waiver in case involving parasailing and related activities). So too here, for plaintiffs were free to choose another jet ski rental company or leave the beach without ridding a jet ski at all. See Olivelli, 225 F.Supp.2d at 110-11, 118-120 (waiver of liability not considered adhesion contract in part because scuba diving is a strictly voluntary recreational pursuit and deceased was free to decline defendant’s services if she did not wish to assent to the terms of the waiver); Brozyna, 2011 WL 4553100 at *6 (same with respect to jetboating excursion, as plaintiff had to option to decline to participate in the excursion); Murley ex rel. Estate of Murley v. Deep Explorers, Inc., 281 F.Supp.2d 580, 589-590 (E.D.N.Y. 2003)(if scuba diver did not agree to or understand any of the clauses of the release, he was free to write “VOID” or decline defendant’s services).[24]

Third, the waivers are clear and unambiguous. Their language (1) identified the specific risks inherent to and associated with riding a jet ski;[25] (2) explained and highlighted the fact that, by executing the Agreement, plaintiffs waived and released any and all claims based upon negligence against Water Toy, its officers, directors, employees, representatives, agents, and volunteers and vessels; and (3) stated that plaintiffs accepted responsibility for the consequences of riding the rented jet skis. The language should have put plaintiffs on notice of its legal significance and effect. Murley, 281 F.Supp.2d at 580-581, 591 (validating liability release with similar characteristics in dismissing action arising out of scuba diving accident that resulted in diver’s death). Even more, both plaintiffs and Castro signed the Agreements before boarding their respective jet skis, acknowledging that they (1) were fully informed of the hazards and risks associated with the jet ski and related water sports activities, including collision with other participants or watercrafts; (2) read, understood, and agreed to abide by the “Personal Watercraft Operational” instructions at all times; (3) were trained in the safe use of watersports equipment to their complete satisfaction; and (4) were physically and mentally able to participate in the water sports activities.

Fourth, plaintiffs are college-educated U.S. citizens, who were interested in participating in a recreational, hazardous maritime activity, one conditioned upon the jet ski’s owner and renter being released from liability as set forth in the waivers, a condition plaintiffs voluntarily agreed to.[26] Plaintiffs state that Ms. Morgan signed the documents without reading them (Docket No. 61-1 at ¶ 11). Nonetheless, the defendant is entitled to rely in good faith upon the reasonable appearance of consent that plaintiff created. See, Chieco v. Paramarketing, Inc., 228 A.D.2d 462, 643 N.Y.S.2d 668 (2d Dept. 1996)(holding release and waiver for paragliding lesson valid despite plaintiff’s allegation that he did not read or understand the document), cited in Murley, 281 F.Supp.2d at 591; Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of Torts, 217-218 (West 2000) (discussing defendant’s reasonable reliance on plaintiff’s acts and words to infer binding consent). Private and uncommunicated reservations to a waiver does not subject defendant to liability. See, Dan B. Dobbs, supra (so noting). Therefore, plaintiffs cannot escape the consequences of their voluntary decisions, bypassing the contracts they signed to avoid the legal consequences of their free choice, for there is no evidence of deceit, violence or intimidation exerted on plaintiffs to coerce or wrongfully induce them to sign the waivers, or that they did so by mistake, thinking they were signing something else. See, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 § 3404 (codifying elements voiding consent under Puerto Rico law, to include violence, intimidation, deceit and error); Cutchin v. Habitat Curacao-Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas, Inc., 1999 WL 33232277, *3 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 8, 1999)(applying pre-accident waiver to dismiss action arising from diving accident, as there was no evidence showing that plaintiff was coerced to sign the document); Murley, 281 F.Supp.2d at 590 (dismissing suit based on scuba diver’s death in part because there was no evidence that defendants procured release by fraud or that deceased signed release under duress); .

Plaintiffs posit the waivers mention negligence but not fault, and cannot bar their action because the complaint alleges that their damages result from defendants’ “fault” or “negligence” (Docket No. 61 at p. 25). These terms have specific meanings in the civil code context of Puerto Rico law. See, CMI Capital Market Investment, LLC v. González-Toro, 520 F.3d 58, 64 (1st Cir. 2008)(so recognizing). Fault consists in the failure to exercise due diligence, the use of which would have prevented the wrongful result, and requires the execution of a positive act causing a damage to another person different from the one who executed it. Id. Negligence supposes an omission producing the same effect as fault (id.), predicated as with fault, on the failure to exercise due diligence. See, Sánchez v. Esso Standard Oil de Puerto Rico, Inc., 2010 WL 3069551, *4 (D.P.R. Aug. 2, 2010)(discussing terms). Both concepts “have in common that the act be executed or the omission incurred without an injurious intent, ” González-Toro, 520 F.3d at 64, and for the same reason, have been described as “faces of the same coin.” Sánchez, 2010 WL 3069551 a *4 (quoting Gierbolini v. Employers Fire Ins. Co., 4 P.R. Offic. Trans. 1197, 1201 (1976).

On this reading, it is apparent that to the extent the waiver mentions negligence it necessarily contemplates the failure to exercise due diligence, the same operative feature underlying fault, reflecting the waiver’s reference to both active and passive negligence. See, Malave-Felix v. Volvo Car Corp., 946 F.2d 967, 971 (1st Cir. 1991)(“An actor is at fault, or negligent, when he fails to exercise due diligence to prevent foreseeable injury”)(emphasis added). Even more, plaintiffs’ factual allegations are couched in negligence, not fault. See, Complaint, ¶ 30 (“As a consequence of the accident caused by the negligence of all defendants, … [Ms. Morgan] has suffered mental anguish, physical injuries and scars;” ¶ 43 (“As a consequence of the accident caused by the negligence of all defendants,, , [Ms. Kennedy] has suffered mental anguish, and physical injuries”).

Plaintiffs allege the waiver does not mention Axel Acosta, the insurance company, or Acosta Water Sports (Docket No. 61, pp. 27-28). Nonetheless, the waiver expressly releases Water Toy Shop’s officers, directors, and agents, and Axel Acosta is Water Sports’ president and resident agent (Docket No. 61-1 at ¶ 23). In addition, the insurance company’s exposure is linked to that of its insured. If the action fails as to Water Toy Shop and Axel Acosta, there is no viable claim against their insurer. Acosta Water Sports would not benefit from the waiver, though, as it is not one of the releases. Only one conclusion follows: the waivers and releases are valid, and must be enforced except as to Acosta Water Sports.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated, the motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 52) is GRANTED and the claims against Water Toy, Axel Acosta and Ironshore Indemnity DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Since it is uncontested that Acosta Water Sports is not the owner of the jet skis at issue, and did not seem to have incurred in any wrongdoing related to the accident, plaintiffs shall show cause, by April 20, 2018 as to why their claims against Acosta Water Sports should not be dismissed as well. In their motion, plaintiffs shall include relevant caselaw arising out of analogous facts and procedural settings in support of their position.

SO ORDERED.

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Notes:

[1] Collisions have been described as “the most feared catastrophe of every mariner.” Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law, Vol. 2, 103 (West 5th ed. 2011).

[2] Castro was sued and served with process, but failed to appear and the Clerk entered default against him (Docket No. 77).

[3] Except otherwise noted, the facts included in this section are drawn from the parties’ Local Rule 56 submissions (Docket No. 52-1, Docket No. 61-1, Docket No. 69-1). Local Rule 56 is designed to “relieve the district court of any responsibility to ferret through the record to discern whether any material fact is genuinely in dispute.” CMI Capital Market Investment, LLC v. Gonzalez-Toro, 520 F.3d 58, 62 (1st Cir. 2008). It requires a party moving for summary judgment to accompany its motion with a brief statement of facts, set forth in numbered paragraphs and supported by citations to the record, that the movant contends are uncontested and material. Local Rule 56(b) and (e). The opposing party must admit, deny, or qualify those facts, with record support, paragraph by paragraph. Id. 56(c), (e). The opposing party may also present, in a separate section, additional facts, set forth in separate numbered paragraphs. Id. 56(c). While the district court may “forgive” a violation of Local Rule 56, litigants who ignore the rule do it “at their peril.” Mariani-Colón v. Department of Homeland Sec. ex rel. Chertoff, 511 F.3d 216, 219 (1st Cir. 2007).

[4] At his deposition, Axel Acosta explained that these corporations operate separately, with their own permit and insurance. Their personnel, however, is interchangeably used. See, Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 3 at p. 84, lines: 6-20. Water Toy Shop owns the stand adjacent to the San Juan Hotel, whereas Acosta Water Sports owns the stand adjacent to the Intercontinental Hotel. See, PSUMF ¶¶ 6, 36.

[5] Plaintiffs stated they were rushed into signing the documents. However, that do not contest the fact that both of them signed the documents. Moreover, the deposition testimony submitted in support of their contention does not prove that they were rushed to sign documents, but that they “were rushing” (Defendants’ Exh. 2 at p. 94). At any rate, in their opposition to the motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs seem to have abandoned the “rushing” characterization of the events, focusing instead on the alleged invalidity of the releases (Docket No. 61 at pp. 20-29).

[6] Plaintiffs’ explanation as to who gave them the documents does not controvert the language of the Rental Agreements that each plaintiff signed. Their undeveloped and unsupported contention as to the “content and admissibility of the documents” – without any analysis, case law or support whatsoever – does not contest the statement either.

[7] The “disputed” and generalized statement made by plaintiffs “as to the content and admissibility of the documents” does not contest the language of the Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness.

[8] Plaintiff testified during her deposition that “thirty to forty five maybe an hour” elapsed (Docket No. 52-3 at p. 100, lines 14-17).

[9] Plaintiffs “disputed” this statement as follows: “Disputed as to hearsay and admissibility of the documents. With the exception of the witness testimonies, Defendants have not yet produced a single piece of evidence that can confirm the identity, address or telephone number of the person who caused the collision, someone allegedly named Mark Castro.” See, Docket No. 61-1. But in addition to the general language disputing this statement, plaintiffs provided no discussion or authority in support of the argument. As such, the statement is deemed admitted. See, U.S. v. Zannino, 895 F.2d 1, 17 (1st Cir. 1990)(“It is not enough merely to mention a possible argument in the most skeletal way, leaving the court to do counsel’s work, create the ossature for the argument, and put flesh on its bones”). Moreover, their “dispute” language does not comply with Local Rule 56 either. See also, Natal-Pérez v. Oriental Bank & Trust, —F.3d.—-, 2018 WL 618598, *1-*2 (D.P.R. January 30, 2018)(explaining what constitutes a proper denial or qualification under Local Rule 56).

[10] Plaintiffs’ denial does not comply with Local Rule 56. This time, they refer the court’s attention to certain portions of plaintiffs’ Exhibit 6. But nothing in those pages serve to properly controvert defendants’ SUMF ¶ 16. Therefore, the statement is deemed admitted.

[11] Plaintiffs did not admit, deny or qualify this statement as required by Local Rule 56. Moreover, their explanation does not contest this statement.

[12] The Territorial Clause gives Congress authority to “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” As a territorial entity subject to congressional authority under the Territorial Clause, Puerto Rico nevertheless boasts “a relationship to the United States that has no parallel in … [United States’] history.” Puerto Rico v. Sánchez-Valle, —U.S.—-, 136 S.Ct. 1863, 1876 (2016). In a well-documented and comprehensive commentary, “Why Puerto Rico Does Not Need Further Experimentation With Its Future: A Reply To The Notion of ‘Territorial Federalism’, ” 131-3 Harvard Law Review Forum (January 2018), Juan R. Torruella examines the different phases of Puerto Rico’s territorial relationship with the United States, divided into what the author has labeled “the four ‘experiments’ in the colonial governance of Puerto Rico by the United States.” Id. at pp. 65-66.

[13] For a description of the main features of the Jones Act, see, Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.3d at 92. Juan R. Torruella, supra, focuses on the historical context of the statutory enactment. The first organic act, known as the Foraker Act, 31 Stat. 77-86, had been enacted in 1900, two years after the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Hispanic American War. It established a civilian government in the territory, replacing the military government that had exerted control over Puerto Rico from October 1898. See, Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.3d at 91-92 & n.17 (sketching statute); Juan R. Torruella, supra (surveying historical setting).

[14] Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.2d at 92-93, 99-101, and Juan R. Torruella, supra, provide useful information about this statute.

[15] Gustavo A. Gelpí, “Maritime Law in Puerto Rico, An Anomaly in a Sea of Federal Uniformity, ” published as part of The Constitutional Evolution of Puerto Rico and Other U.S. Territories (1898-Present), Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, Metropolitan Campus (2017), p. 57, discusses Garrido and other judicial decisions in light of the interplay between Federal maritime law and Puerto Rico.

[16] See, Aponte v. Caribbean Petroleum, 141 F.Supp.3d 166, 171 (D.P.R. 2015)(applying Limitation Act in Puerto Rico).

[17] The term “adequate cause” is similar to “proximate cause.” See, Rodríguez v. Puerto Rico, 825 F.Supp.2d 341, 347 (D.P.R. 2011)(so noting)(citing Tokyo Marine and Fire Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Pérez &Cia. de Puerto Rico, Inc., 142 F.3d 1, 7 &n. 5 (1st Cir. 1998)(referring to Puerto Rico decisions explaining adequate cause)).

[18] Foreseeability allows courts to reconcile physical or natural cause and effect relationships with the causation necessary to establish civil liability. See, González, 1993 WL 525644 at *4 (so explaining). If that were not so, “damages following a breach … [would] be linked to each other in an endless chain of events.” Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation v. Arrillaga-Torrens, 212 F.Supp.3d 312, 353 (D.P.R. 2016).

[19] At the most, those alleged violations would warrant administrative sanctions under Section 1407 of Law 430. Yet there is no evidence that the DRN sanctioned, fined, suspended or revoked Water Toy’s permit for those reasons.

[20] See also, Marshall, 828 F.2d at 848 (comparing Negrón v. Orozco, 113 D.P.R. 921 (1983)(finding Puerto Rico Police liable for a shooting death in a police station because intervening act, though criminal and intentional, was reasonably foreseeable) with Rivera v. Cruz, 87 J.T.S. 51(1987)(no liability since defendant had no reason to anticipate the criminal act)).

[21] Poulis-Minott measured liability against the so-called Pennsylvania Rule, pursuant to which if a plaintiff in admiralty establishes both that the defendant breached a statutory duty and the breach is relevant to the causal question, the defendant assumes the burden of proving that its breach could not have caused plaintiff’s damages. See, Poulis-Minott, 388 F.3d at 363 (describing Pennsylvania Rule). The Rule aims to enforce strict compliance with maritime regulations pertaining to the safe operation of ships. Id. So to invoke it, the plaintiff must show a relationship between the regulatory violation and the injury. Id. Plaintiffs never invoked the Pennsylvania Rule, but assuming they had done so, there is no evidence linking a safety-related statutory violation with the accident.

[22] Public policy does prohibit a party to a maritime contract to shield itself contractually from liability for gross negligence. See, Royal Ins. Co. of America v. Southwest Marine, 194 F.3d 1009, 1016 (9th Cir. 1999)(discussing issue). The prohibition does not apply here, because as pointed out in the text, the complaint only raised gross negligence allegations as to Castro.

[23] Congress could block the enforceability of these waivers like it did in 46 U.S.C. § 183(c), which prohibits a vessel owner from limiting its liability for its own negligence when carrying passengers between ports of the United States or from a port of the United States to a foreign port. But that provision applies only to common carriers. See, Waggoner v. Nags Head Water Sports, Inc., 141 F.3d 1162, *5-*6 (4th Cir. 1998)(unpublished)(so holding). No common carrier was involved in the case sub judice.

[24] Still and all, “adhesion does not imply nullity of contract” in Puerto Rico. Nieves v. Intercontinental Life Ins. Co. of Puerto Rico, 964 F.2d 60, 63 (1st Cir. 1992). If the wording of the contract is explicit and its language clear, its terms and conditions are binding on the parties. Id. As will be discussed, the waivers here satisfy this requirement.

[25] Those risks included (1) changing water flow, tides, currents, wave action, and ship’s wakes; (2) collision with any of the following: a) other participants, b) the watercraft, c) other watercraft, d) man made or natural objects, e) shuttle boat; (3) wind shear, inclement weather, lightning, variances and extremes of wind, weather and temperature; (4) my sense of balance, physical condition, ability to operate equipment, swim and/or follow directions; (5) collision, capsizing, sinking, or other hazard that may result in wetness, injury, exposure to the elements, hypothermia, impact of the body upon the water, injection of water into my body orifices, and/or drowning; (6) the presence of insects and marine life forms; (7) equipment failure or operator error; (8) heat or sun related injuries or illnesses, including sunburn, sun stroke or dehydration; (9) fatigue, chill and/or reaction time and increased risk of accident.

[26] Morgan had signed similar documents in order to rent jet skis before the accident. At the time of the accident, she had a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, and Kennedy had a High School diploma with one year of nursing school. SUMF at ¶ 2.

———


§ 27-1-753. Limitation on liability in sport or recreational opportunity

Montana Statutes

Title 27. CIVIL LIABILITY, REMEDIES, AND LIMITATIONS

Chapter 1. AVAILABILITY OF REMEDIES – LIABILITY

Part 7. Liability

§ 28-2-702. Contracts that violate policy of law – exemption from responsibility – exception    1
§ 27-1-753. Limitation on liability in sport or recreational opportunity    1

§ 27-1-754. Recreational activity – applicability exceptions    2

§ 28-2-702. Contracts that violate policy of law – exemption from responsibility – exception

Except as provided in 27-1-753, all contracts that have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for the person’s own fraud, for willful injury to the person or property of another, or for violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.

Cite as § 28-2-702, MCA

History. Amended by Laws 2015, Ch. 410, Sec. 2, eff. 5/5/2015.

En. Sec. 2241, Civ. C. 1895; re-en. Sec. 5052, Rev. C. 1907; re-en. Sec. 7554, R.C.M. 1921; Cal. Civ. C. Sec. 1668; Field Civ. C. Sec. 828; re-en. Sec. 7554, R.C.M. 1935; R.C.M. 1947, 13-802; amd. Sec. 780, Ch. 56, L. 2009.

§ 27-1-753. Limitation on liability in sport or recreational opportunity

(1)    A person who participates in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for all injury or death to the person and for all damage to the person’s property that result from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.

(2)    A provider is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity that is provided.

(3)(a)    Sections 27-1-751 through 27-1-754 do not preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider if the injury, death, or damage is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.

(b)    This section does not prohibit a written waiver or release entered into prior to engaging in a sport or recreational opportunity for damages or injuries resulting from conduct that constitutes ordinary negligence or for risks that are inherent in the sport or recreational opportunity.

(c)    Any waiver or release for a sport or recreational opportunity must:

(i)    state known inherent risks of the sport or recreational opportunity; and

(ii)    contain the following statement in bold typeface: By signing this document you may be waiving your legal right to a jury trial to hold the provider legally responsible for any injuries or damages resulting from risks inherent in the sport or recreational opportunity or for any injuries or damages you may suffer due to the provider’s ordinary negligence that are the result of the provider’s failure to exercise reasonable care.

(d)    Any waiver or release for a sport or recreational opportunity may still be challenged on any legal grounds.

(e)    Any waiver or release for a sport or recreational opportunity executed in compliance with this section is not prohibited by or subject to the provisions of 28-2-702.

(4)    Sections 27-1-751 through 27-1-754 do not apply to a cause of action based on the design, manufacture, provision, or maintenance of sports or recreational equipment or products or safety equipment used incidental to or required by the sport or recreational activity.

Cite as § 27-1-753, MCA

History. Amended by Laws 2015, Ch. 410, Sec. 1, eff. 5/5/2015.

En. Sec. 3, Ch. 331, L. 2009.

§ 27-1-754. Recreational activity – applicability exceptions

Sections 27-1-751 through 27-1-753 do not apply to duties, responsibilities, liability, or immunity related to:

(1)    recreational use of waters or land, as provided in 23-2-321;

(2)    snowmobiling, as provided in 23-2-653 and 23-2-654;

(3)    skiing, as provided in Title 23, chapter 2, part 7;

(4)    off-highway vehicle operation, as provided in 23-2-822;

(5)    instruction in firearms and hunter safety or hunter education, as provided in 27-1-721;

(6)    equine activity, as provided in 27-1-727;

(7)    sponsored rodeo and similar events, as provided in 27-1-733;

(8)    amusement rides, as provided in 27-1-743 and 27-1-744;

(9)    recreational use of land, as provided in 23-2-907, 70-16-302, 77-1-805, 87-1-265, and 87-1-286;

(10)    wildcrafting, as provided in 76-10-106; and

(11)    placement of a sign or marker warning of a hazard in water legally accessible to the public, as provided in 87-1-287.

Cite as § 27-1-754, MCA

History. Amended by Laws 2019, Ch. 63, Sec. 1, eff. 3/19/2019.

En. Sec. 4, Ch. 331, L. 2009.


Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton, Appellant, v. Nova River Runners, Inc., Appellee.

Supreme Court No. S-16422, No. 1669

Supreme Court of Alaska

2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

March 21, 2018, Decided

NOTICE: MEMORANDUM DECISIONS OF THIS COURT DO NOT CREATE LEGAL PRECEDENT. SEE ALASKA APPELLATE GUIDELINES FOR PUBLICATION OF SUPREME COURT DECISIONS. ACCORDINGLY, THIS MEMORANDUM DECISION MAY NOT BE CITED FOR ANY PROPOSITION OF LAW, NOR AS AN EXAMPLE OF THE PROPER RESOLUTION OF ANY ISSUE.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Pamela Scott Washington, Judge pro tem. Superior Court No. 3AN-15-06866 CI.

CASE SUMMARY

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-A release entitled defendant rafting company to wrongful

COUNSEL: Mara E. Michaletz and David K. Gross, Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Howard A. Lazar, Scott J. Gerlach, and Luba K. Bartnitskaia, Delaney Wiles, Inc., Anchorage, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices. Winfree, Justice, with whom Carney, Justice, joins, dissenting.

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT*

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

* Entered under Alaska Appellate Rule 214.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I. INTRODUCTION

The estate of a man who drowned on a rafting trip challenged the validity of the pre-trip liability release. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the rafting company. Because there were no genuine issues of material fact and the release was effective under our precedent, we affirm.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

In May 2013 Stephen Morton took part in a whitewater rafting trip on Six Mile Creek near Hope. The trip was conducted by NOVA River Runners (NOVA). This case arises out of Morton’s tragic death by drowning after his raft capsized.

A. The Release

Before embarking on a rafting trip, participants typically receive and sign [*2] NOVA’s liability release (the Release). The Release is provided as a single two-sided document. One side is entitled “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” and begins with a definition of activities: “any adventure, sport or activity associated with the outdoors and/or wilderness and the use or presence of watercraft, including but not limited to kayaks, rafts, oar boats and glacier hiking and ice climbing equipment, including crampons, ski poles, climbing harnesses and associated ice climbing hardware.” The Release then states:

Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, we wish to remind you this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.

The Release then provides a list of “some, but not all” of the “inherent risks,” including “[m]y . . . ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” and “[l]oss of control of the craft, collision, capsizing, and sinking of the craft, which can result in wetness, injury, . . . and/or drowning.” The Release next asks participants to [*3] affirm that they possess certain qualifications, including physical capability and safety awareness. The last section of the first side purports to waive liability for the negligent acts of NOVA and its employees. There is no designated space for signatures or initials on this side.

At the top of the other side, participants are asked to acknowledge that “[They] have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein” and that the agreement “shall be binding upon [the participant] . . . and [their] estate.” No terms or conditions appear on this side. There are then three signature blocks where up to three participants can sign, with space to include an emergency contact, allergies, and medications.

Brad Cosgrove, NOVA’s “river manager” for this trip, did not recall whether Morton read the Release before signing it, but stated that “[n]obody was rushed into signing” and that he “physically showed each participant” both sides of the Release. Bernd Horsman, who rafted with Morton that day, stated that he recalled “sign[ing] a document that briefly stated that you waive any liability in case something happens” but thought the document only had one side. He did not recall [*4] “someone physically show[ing]” the Release to him, but he wasn’t rushed into signing it. Both Horsman’s and Morton’s signatures appear on the Release.

B. The Rafting Trip

The rafting trip consisted of three canyons. NOVA would routinely give participants the opportunity to disembark after the second canyon, because the third canyon is the most difficult. Morton did not choose to disembark after the second canyon, and his raft capsized in the third canyon. Cosgrove was able to pull him from the river and attempted to resuscitate him. NOVA contacted emergency services and delivered Morton for further care, but he died shortly thereafter.

C. Legal Proceedings

Morton’s widow, Vanessa Langlois, brought suit as the personal representative of Morton’s estate (the Estate) in May 2015 under AS 09.55.580 (wrongful death) and AS 09.55.570 (survival), requesting compensatory damages, plus costs, fees, and interest. The Estate alleged that NOVA was negligent and listed multiple theories primarily based on the employees’ actions or omissions.

NOVA moved for summary judgment in November 2015, arguing that the Release barred the Estate’s claims. NOVA supported its position with the signed Release and affidavits from NOVA’s owner [*5] and Cosgrove. The Estate opposed and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment to preclude NOVA from relying on the Release. The parties then stipulated to stay formal discovery until the court had ruled on these motions but agreed on procedures for conducting discovery in the interim if needed. Pursuant to the stipulation, the parties deposed Horsman and filed supplemental briefing.

In June 2016 the superior court granted NOVA’s motion for summary judgment and denied the Estate’s, reasoning that the Release was valid under our precedent. This appeal followed. The Estate argues that the superior court erred in granting summary judgment because the Release did not satisfy the six elements of our test for a valid waiver.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

“We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.”1 “If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.”2 “Questions of contract interpretation are questions of law that we review de novo . . . .”3

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1 Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 346 (Alaska 2014) (citing Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013)).2 Id. (citing Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012)).3 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011) (citing Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1000 n.1 (Alaska 2004)).

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IV. DISCUSSION

Alaska Statute 09.65.290 provides that “[a] person who [*6] participates in a sports or recreational activity assumes the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity and is legally responsible for . . . death to the person . . . that results from the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity.” The statute does not apply, however, to “a civil action based on the . . . negligence of a provider if the negligence was the proximate cause of the . . . death.”4 Thus, in order to avoid liability for negligence, recreational companies must supplement the statutory scheme by having participants release them from liability through waivers.

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4 AS 09.65.290(c).

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Extrapolating from principles articulated in three earlier cases,5 we recently adopted, in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., a six-element test for finding effective waiver:

(1) the risk being waived must be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language . . . ; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated [*7] to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.6

The Estate argues that NOVA’s release does not satisfy this test. We analyze these six elements in turn and conclude that NOVA’s Release is effective.7

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5 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 346-48 (discussing Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); and Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991)).6 Id. at 348. In Donahue, a woman sued a rock climbing gym after she broke her tibia by falling a few feet onto a mat at the instruction of an employee, and we concluded that the release barred her negligence claim. Id. at 344-45.7 Our review of the record reveals no genuine issues of material fact with respect to the existence and terms of the Release.

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A. The Release Specifically And Clearly Sets Forth The Risk Being Waived.

The Estate first argues that the Release was not a “conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived” because the Release was two-sided and the sides did not appear to incorporate each other.8 For support, the Estate cites an “analogous” Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) case from Florida for the proposition that “a disclaimer is likely inconspicuous where ‘there is nothing on the face of the writing to call attention to the back of the instrument.'”9 The Estate points out that the release in Donahue had two separate pages, and the participant initialed the first page and signed the second.10 The Estate also identifies Horsman’s confusion about whether the Release had one or two sides as evidence that the Release was not conspicuous, raising possible issues of material fact about whether Morton [*8] would have been aware of the other side or whether Cosgrove actually showed each participant both sides.11

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8 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.9 The Estate quotes Rudy’s Glass Constr. Co. v. E. F. Johnson Co., 404 So. 2d 1087, 1089 (Fla. Dist. App. 1981) (citing Massey-Ferguson, Inc. v. Utley, 439 S.W.2d 57 (Ky. 1969); Hunt v. Perkins Mach. Co., 352 Mass. 535, 226 N.E.2d 228 (Mass. 1967)).10 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.11 The Estate raises these arguments outside the context of Donahue, but we address them here.

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We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.12 We conclude that NOVA’s Release was sufficiently clear, even without an initial block on the first side. The signature page stated, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein,” but no terms and conditions appeared on this side. A reasonable person, after reading the word “herein,” would be on notice that the document had another side.

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12 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 349 (citing Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991)).

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The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.” But NOVA’s Release, like the release in Donahue, “clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue”13 — here, death by drowning. Like the plaintiff in Donahue, the Estate, “[r]ather than focusing on [the] injury[,] . . . focuses on its alleged cause,”14 i.e., negligent training or instruction. But the [*9] Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.” In Donahue, we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”15 Thus, the Estate’s argument that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised” is not persuasive.

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13 Id. at 348.14 Id. at 349.15 Id.

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B. The Release Uses The Word “Negligence.”

Donahue provides that “a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word ‘negligence.'”16 The Estate argues that the Release’s “references to negligence are inconsistent,” and therefore it does not fulfill our requirement that a release be “clear, explicit[,] and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”17 But we concluded in Donahue that similar language satisfied this element.

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16 Id. at 348.17 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991) (quoting Ferrell v. S. Nev. Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd., 147 Cal. App. 3d 309, 195 Cal. Rptr. 90, 95 (Cal. App. 1983)).

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The release in Donahue provided: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to [*10] indemnify and hold harmless the [defendant] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the defendant].”18 We emphasized that “[t]he phrase ‘any and all claims’ is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.”19

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18 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.19 Id. at 349.

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Here, the Release reads, in relevant part:

I . . . HEREBY RELEASE NOVA . . . WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss, or damage to persons or property incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, WHETHER ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.

I . . . HEREBY INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS all the above Releasees from any and all liabilities incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, EVEN IF ARISING FROM THEIR NEGLIGENCE to the fullest extent permitted by law.

NOVA’s Release uses the word “negligence” twice, and there is no material difference between the “any and all claims” language used in Donahue and the “any and all liabilities” language used here. We therefore conclude that the Release specifically set forth a waiver of negligence.

C. The Release Uses Simple Language And [*11] Emphasized Text.

Donahue provides that The intent of a release to waive liability for negligence “must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language.”20 The Estate argues that the Release fails to use clear language or adequately define the “activity” it covered and thus does not waive liability for negligence. This argument does not withstand the application of Donahue.

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20 Id. at 348.

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In Donahue, the clauses addressing negligence “[did] not appear to be ‘calculated to conceal'” and were “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release.”21 Here, the Release uses capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence. Though the clauses fall near the bottom of the page, they were certainly “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release” from start to finish, and thus under Donahue they were not “calculated to conceal.” And though these clauses contain some legalese, ” releases should be read ‘as a whole’ in order to decide whether they ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor . . . of the effect of signing the agreement.'”22 The list of inherent risks uses very simple language: “cold weather,” “[m]y sense of balance,” [*12] “drowning,” “[a]ccidents or illnesses,” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness.”

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21 Id. at 350.22 Id. at 351 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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The Release extends to other activities such as “glacier hiking and ice climbing,” but any ambiguity is cleared up by the explicit list of inherent risks relating to whitewater rafting. We therefore conclude that the Release brings home to the reader its intent to waive liability for negligence using simple language and emphasized text.

D. The Release Does Not Violate Public Policy.

Donahue requires that “the release must not violate public policy.”23 Citing no legal authority, the Estate asserts that NOVA’s waiver “unquestionably violates public policy due to its vast scope.”

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23 Id. at 348.

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“Alaska recognizes that recreational releases from liability for negligence are not void as a matter of public policy, because to hold otherwise would impose unreasonable burdens on businesses whose patrons want to engage in high-risk physical activities.”24 In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature [*13] of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.'”26 Using this analysis, we deemed an all-terrain vehicle safety course “not an essential service,” meaning that “the class providers did not have a ‘decisive advantage of bargaining strength’ in requiring the release for participation in the class.”27

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24 Id. at 348 n.34 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).25 Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 631 (Alaska 2001) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Locker, 723 P.2d 1261, 1265 (Alaska 1986)).26 Id. (quoting Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).27 Id. at 631-32 (citing Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).

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Similarly, here, whitewater rafting, far from being a matter of practical necessity, is an optional activity, meaning that under Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., NOVA did not have an advantage in bargaining strength. We therefore conclude that the Release does not violate public policy.

E. The Release Suggests An Intent To Exculpate NOVA From Liability For Employee Negligence.

Donahue provides that “if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so.”28 But regardless of whether acts of negligence are related to inherent risks, this requirement is met when “the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered [*14] in the release.”29 The Estate argues that the Release does not suggest an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for employee negligence. We disagree.

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28 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.29 Id. at 352.

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As we have explained, the Release specifically covered employee negligence by including “employees” in the clause releasing NOVA from liability for negligence. Because the injury — death by drowning — and its alleged cause — employee negligence — are expressly included in the Release, it satisfies this Donahue element.30

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30 We further observe that the Release’s list of inherent risks tracks some of the Estate’s allegations about employee negligence. For example, the Estate alleged that NOVA “fail[ed] to preclude those participants who were not qualified to handle the rafting trip,” but the Release discloses that a participant’s “ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” was an inherent risk of the trip.

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The Estate correctly notes that the Donahue release specifically covered the risk of “inadequate warnings or instructions” from employees, unlike the general reference to employee negligence here.31 Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.32

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31 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 352.32 We therefore do not reach the question whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting. See id. at 348.

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F. The Release Does Not Represent Or Insinuate Standards Of Safety Or Maintenance.

Donahue provides that “the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.”33 The [*15] Estate argues that the Release violates this element with the following statement: “the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.” But this statement is introduced by the word “[a]lthough” and falls within the same sentence as the disclosure that “this activity is not without risk.” This sentence is immediately followed by a sentence indicating that “[c]ertain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the Release goes on to list 11 risks inherent in whitewater rafting. Reading the Release as a whole, we cannot conclude that it represented or insinuated standards of safety or maintenance.

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33 Id.

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We noted that the release in Donahue “highlight[ed] the fallibility of [the defendant’s] employees, equipment, and facilities.”34 Here, though the Release does not — and was not required to under the Donahue elements — go that far, it does list as inherent risks “[l]oss of control of the craft” and “sinking of the craft,” raising the possibility of human error, fallible equipment, and adverse forces of nature. The Release also [*16] makes various references to the isolated, outdoor nature of the activity — listing “[c]hanging water flow,” “inclement weather,” and the “remote” location as inherent risks.

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34 Id. at 352.

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The Estate cites Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr35 in support of its argument that the Release impermissibly both represents a standard of maintenance and tries to disclaim liability for failing to adhere to it. In Kerr, we concluded that a release that contained statements such as “[w]hile we try to make the [premises] safe” and “[w]hile we strive to provide appropriate equipment for people of all abilities and to keep the equipment in good condition” was invalid because, read as a whole, it did “not conspicuously and unequivocally alert” participants of its scope.36 We went on to hold that “[t]he representations in the release regarding the [defendant]’s own efforts toward safety suggest that the release was predicated on a presumption that the [defendant] would strive to meet the standards of maintenance and safety mentioned in the release.”37

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35 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004). Like Donahue, Kerr also arose out of an injury at an indoor rock climbing gym. Id. at 961.36 Id. at 963-64.37 Id. at 963.

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But the Release in question here is dissimilar in key ways. Compared to the release in Kerr, which contained language representing safety standards throughout,38 NOVA’s Release [*17] contains only a single half-sentence to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

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38 Id. at 963-64.

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Because it satisfies the six Donahue elements, the Release effectively waived NOVA’s liability for negligence.

V. CONCLUSION

For the reasons explained above, we AFFIRM the superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of NOVA.

DISSENT BY: WINFREE

DISSENT

WINFREE, Justice, with whom CARNEY, Justice, joins, dissenting.

I respectfully [*18] dissent from the court’s decision affirming summary judgment in this case. I cannot agree with the court’s conclusions that the self-titled “Participant’s Acknowledgement [sic] of Risks”1 form actually is something other than what it calls itself — i.e., a “Release” form — and that it constitutes a valid release barring the Morton estate’s claims against NOVA River Runners.2 I would reverse the superior court’s decision, hold that the purported release is not valid under our precedent, and remand for further proceedings.

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1 The document is referred to by its title throughout, but the spelling has been changed to conform to our preferred style.2 The Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks form signed by Stephen Morton is Appendix A to this dissent.

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The court’s application of the six factors we approved in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc.3 ignores our prior case law from which these factors derived. Most salient to the factual situation and document at issue here is Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, affirming a superior court decision denying summary judgment based on a release document — titled “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims” — that was far clearer, and certainly not less clear, than the purported release in this case.4 And although our prior cases about recreational releases have not focused on a document’s title, a title alerts a reader to the document’s purpose. In each case from which the Donahue factors derived, the [*19] document’s title clearly told the signer that the document was a release or that the signer was waiving legal claims. The release in Donahue was titled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.”5 In Kerr the form was a “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims.”6 The rider-safety school in Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc. presented the participant a form that instructed “You Must Read and Sign This Consent Form and Release.”7 Only in Kissick v. Schmierer did the title of the document not contain the word “release,” but that form, provided by the U.S. Air Force, was a “Covenant Not to Sue and Indemnity Agreement”8 — a title giving notice that the signer was surrendering legal rights before participating in the activity. In contrast, an “Acknowledgment of Risks” in no way alerts a reader of the possibility of waiving all negligence related to an activity. A title indicating that a document will release or waive legal liability surely is a useful starting point for evaluating the validity of a recreational release.

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3 331 P.3d 342, 348 (Alaska 2014).4 91 P.3d 960, 961 (Alaska 2004). The release language in Kerr was included as an appendix to our opinion. Id. at 963-64. The rejected release from Kerr is Appendix B to this dissent for ease of comparison with the purported release in this case.5 331 P.3d at 344.6 91 P.3d at 961.7 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001).8 816 P.2d 188, 190 (Alaska 1991).

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Consistent with the principle that the purpose of contract interpretation is to give effect to the [*20] parties’ reasonable expectations,9 our prior cases require us to consider the agreement as a whole10 and to resolve “any ambiguities in pre-recreational exculpatory clauses . . . against the party seeking exculpation.”11 The agreement as a whole “must ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.'”12 Applying these directives to the Acknowledgment of Risks form, I conclude the document does not clearly apprise participants that they are surrendering all claims for negligence by NOVA, particularly claims based on inadequate training.

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9 See Peterson v. Wirum, 625 P.2d 866, 872 n.10 (Alaska 1981). A release is a type of contract. See Moore, 36 P.3d at 630-31.10 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 962.11 Id. at 961 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).12 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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As can be seen in Appendix A, the Acknowledgment of Risks form’s first indication that it might be anything more than what its title suggests appears approximately three-fourths of the way down a densely printed page that, up to that point, has mentioned only “inherent risks.” There the form asks participants for a self-evaluation of their abilities. After a line break, the form asks participants to certify that they are “fully capable of participating in these activities” and will “assume full responsibility for [themselves].” Then, without another line break or any heading to signify that the form is transitioning [*21] into a liability release rather than an acknowledgment of risks, the document sets out “release” language. While parts of this section are in capital letters, they are not in bold or otherwise set off from the dense text surrounding them. In short, considering the document as a whole, the apparent intent is to hide the release language at the very bottom of a dense, one-page document with a title completely unrelated to release of liability.

Additionally, the signature page in no way alerts the reader that operative release language is contained on another page, presumably the back side of that page. The short paragraph at the top, which the court relies on to hold that the form gave participants adequate notice of the release language, says only, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein and acknowledge that this agreement shall be binding upon myself . . . .” While the court concludes that a reasonable person “would be on notice that the document had another side” solely because of the word “herein,” the court fails to explain its conclusion. In fact, Morton’s companion who was an experienced adventure traveler as well, Horsman, remembered the document [*22] consisting of only one page. As he put it, “[T]he way I read it is ‘conditions herein.’ Well, there’s not much herein . . . .”

In addition to the document’s overall structure, the Acknowledgment of Risks form fails to comply with several standards we previously have applied to recreational activity releases. Specifically, the mere inclusion of the word “negligence” in the release language is insufficient to make the Acknowledgment of Risks form a full release of all claims. The release we held invalid in Kerr also used the word “negligence,” but we agreed with the superior court that “[w]hen read as a whole” the purported release did “not clearly and unequivocally express an intent to release the Gym for liability for its own future negligence” with respect to all matters referenced in the release.13

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13 Id. at 963.

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The superior court’s Kerr decision, which we adopted and published as expressing our own view, highlighted the ineffectiveness of a release that did not “clearly alert climbers that they [were] giving up any claims that the Gym failed to meet the standards of maintenance and safety that the Gym specifically indicate[d] in the release that it [would] strive to achieve and upon which the release [*23] [might] have been predicated.”14 This is precisely what the Morton estate agues here: the Acknowledgment of Risks form promised participants that NOVA would provide adequately skilled guides but did not alert participants that they were giving up claims based on NOVA’s negligent failure to provide adequately skilled guides.

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14 Id.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

NOVA indicated in its Acknowledgment of Risks form that it had “taken reasonable steps to provide [a participant] with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so [the participant] can enjoy an activity for which [he] may not be skilled.” This is a representation that NOVA’s guides were adequately skilled to provide participants an enjoyable trip — not one fraught with danger.15 The Morton estate alleged in its complaint that NOVA’s guides were inadequately trained and did not properly screen participants to preclude those who were unable “to handle the rafting trip” from participating. Both specific allegations related to negligent training or failure to provide guides who were adequately skilled to assist unskilled participants to safely complete the trip. The Acknowledgment of Risks form, like the defective release in Kerr, can hardly be said to give a participants [*24] notice that the participants were surrendering claims related to negligent training or supervision.16

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

15 The release could be read as requiring NOVA to provide either “appropriate equipment” or “skilled guides” but not both. But a reasonable person with no skill in rafting would almost certainly infer that NOVA intended to provide both appropriate equipment and skilled guides on a trip with Class V rapids.16 See Kerr, 91 P.3d at 963 (holding that release did not bar negligent maintenance claim because release promised to “strive to achieve” safety standards).

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The court concludes otherwise because the express statement that NOVA would provide skilled guides is in a sentence that also says rafting “is not without risk” and the Acknowledgment of Risks form then lists several inherent risks of rafting. But none of the listed risks is in any way related to unskilled guides or negligence in screening other participants.17 To the contrary, the enumerated risks focus on environmental and personal factors and include natural conditions, such as “[c]hanging water flow,” “presence of marine life,” and adverse weather; personal characteristics of the participant like “sense of balance, physical coordination, ability to swim, walk and/or follow instructions” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness, which may diminish [the participant’s] reaction time and increase the risk of accident”; and the risk of an accident “occurring in remote places where there are no available medical facilities.” The Acknowledgment of Risks form does not include — as the release in Donahue did — risks related to other participants’ “limits”18 or to employees’ “inadequate warnings [*25] or instructions” that might lead to injury.19 In other words, the Acknowledgment of Risks form did not meet the fourth characteristic of a valid release — it did not suggest an intent to release NOVA from liability for negligent acts unrelated to inherent risks.20

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

17 In contrast, the valid release we discussed in Donahue explicitly listed in the inherent risks of climbing several types of possible negligence: “improperly maintained equipment,” “displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure,” “the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present,” “participants giving or following inappropriate ‘Beta’ or climbing advice or move sequences,” and “others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym] . . . .” Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 350 n.46 (Alaska 2014) (alteration in original).18 Id.19 See id. at 352 (holding that release at issue “expressly covered” both the type of injury “and its alleged causes,” namely “‘inadequate warnings or instructions’ from Rock Gym instructors”).20 The court states that it “do[es] not reach the question of whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting.” It is hard to see how negligent training or providing inadequately skilled guides would ever be related to an inherent risk of guided whitewater rafting.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I also disagree with the court’s holding that a release is necessarily valid when it sets out the risk of a specific injury — death by drowning in this case — but not its specific cause — negligent training and the provision of unskilled guides. In Donahue we rejected the participant’s argument that the release did not specifically and clearly set out the risks being waived because the release not only warned of a risk of falling but also cautioned that instructors and other employees could, through their negligence, cause falls or other types of injury.21 Here the only mention of employee negligence, buried at the bottom of a densely written, single-spaced document, is a description only in the most general terms. This type of general waiver simply does not specifically and clearly set out a waiver of the risk on which the Morton estate’s claim is based. The Morton estate alleges that [*26] Morton’s death by drowning was not due solely to the inherent risks of whitewater rafting the release listed, but rather to the provision of unskilled guides who did not adequately screen other participants. The document’s general language fails to specifically and clearly set out the risk of negligence alleged here.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

21 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348-49.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Today’s decision allows intentionally disguised pre-recreational activity exculpatory releases and effectively lowers the bar for their validity. Because the release does not meet the standards adopted in the precedent Donahue relied on — and because if the “Release” in Kerr was an invalid release, the “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” Morton signed must be an invalid release — I respectfully dissent from the court’s opinion concluding otherwise.


Release for a health club which had a foam pit included language specific to the injury the plaintiff suffered, which the court used to deny the plaintiff’s claim.

Argument made that the word inherent limited the risks the release covered and as such did not cover the injury the plaintiff received.

Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Kamil Macias

Defendant: Naperville Gymnastics Club

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities and use of equipment in the open gym

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

Summary

Plaintiff was injured jumping headfirst into a foam pit at the defendant’s gym. The plaintiff had signed a release relieving the defendant of liability, which was upheld by the trial court and the appellate court.

For the first time, the plaintiff argued the release was limited by the language in the release because it used the term inherent in describing the risks. Inherent limits the risks, to those that are part and parcel of the activity and the injury that befell the plaintiff was a freak accident.

Facts

The plaintiff went to the defendant club during open hours when the public could attend with a friend. He paid an admission fee and signed a release. The club had a foam pit. The plaintiff watched other people jump into the pit then tried it himself. He jumped off the springboard and instead of landing feet first he landed head first in the pit.

The plaintiff broke his neck requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation.

The defendant club filed a motion to dismiss based upon the release signed by the plaintiff. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss because the release was ambiguous.

During discovery, the plaintiff admitted he did not see the rules of the gym but did understand the risks of landing in the pit head first.

Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant

After discovery, the defendant club filed a motion for summary judgment based on the additional information collected during discovery. The trial court granted that motion, and this appeal was dismissed.

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

The appellate court looked at contract law in Illinois.

The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly.

A release is a contract. For the release to be valid and enforceable, it should:

…contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution.

The court found the injury suffered by the plaintiff fell within the scope of the possible injuries of the release and contemplated by the plaintiff upon signing the release.

Two clauses in the release stated the plaintiff was in good physical health and had proper physical condition to participate. The plaintiff argued these clauses made the release ambiguous; however, the appellate court did not find that to be true.

Here is the interesting argument in the case.

I have repeatedly stated that releases that limit releases to the inherent risk are limited in their scope. The plaintiff made that argument here.

Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

The plaintiff also argued his injury was not foreseeable because:

… (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

The argument on whether the injury was foreseeable is not whether the plaintiff knew of the risk but:

The relevant inquiry is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.

The court found the injury the plaintiff received was on that was contemplated by the release.

Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

The plaintiff also argued the release violated public policy because the release was presented to “opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public” when it opened its gym to the public.

The court struck down this argument because the freedom to contract was greater than the limitation on damages issues.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s granting of the summary judgment for the defendant based on the release.

So Now What?

The inherent risk argument here was made but either not effectively argued by the plaintiff or ignored by the court. However, for the first time, the argument that the word inherent is a limiting word, not a word that expands the release was made in an argument.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Alaska Recreational Assumption of the Risk

ALASKA STATUTES

Title 9. Code of Civil Procedure.

Chapter 65. Actions, Immunities, Defenses, and Duties.

Go to the Alaska Code Archive Directory

Alaska Stat. § 09.65.290 (2017)

Sec. 09.65.290. Civil liability for sports or recreational activities.

(a) A person who participates in a sports or recreational activity assumes the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity and is legally responsible for all injuries or death to the person or other persons and for all damage to property that results from the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity.

(b) This section does not require a provider to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks within the particular sports or recreational activity that is provided.

(c) This section does not apply to a civil action based on the

(1) negligence of a provider if the negligence was the proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage; or

(2) design or manufacture of sports or recreational equipment or products or safety equipment used incidental to or required by a sports or recreational activity.

(d) Nothing in this section shall be construed to conflict with or render as ineffectual a liability release agreement between a person who participates in a sports or recreational activity and a provider.

(e) In this section,

(1) “inherent risks” means those dangers or conditions that are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of a sports or recreational activity;

(2) “provider” means a person or a federal, state, or municipal agency that promotes, offers, or conducts a sports or recreational activity, whether for pay or otherwise;

(3) “sports or recreational activity”

(A) means a commonly understood sporting activity, whether undertaken with or without permission, including baseball, softball, football, soccer, basketball, hockey, bungee jumping, parasailing, bicycling, hiking, swimming, skateboarding, horseback riding and other equine activity, dude ranching, mountain climbing, river floating, whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, hunting, fishing, backcountry trips, mushing, backcountry or helicopter-assisted skiing, alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, snowboarding, telemarking, snow sliding, snowmobiling, off-road and all-terrain vehicle use;

(B) does not include

(i) boxing contests, sparring or wrestling matches, or exhibitions that are subject to the requirements of AS 05.10;

(ii) activities involving the use of devices that are subject to the requirements of AS 05.20; or

(iii) skiing or sliding activities at a ski area that are subject to the requirements of AS 05.45.


Cantu, et al, vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, 2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

Cantu, et al, vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, 2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

Michael A. Cantu, et al, Plaintiffs vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, Defendants.

CASE NO. CV-2014-01-0317

State of Ohio, Court OF Common Pleas, Summit County, Civil Division

2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

June 2, 2016, Filed

CORE TERMS: summary judgment, reckless, wanton, willful, gymnastics, waiver form, moving party, nonmoving party, pit, releasee, liability claim, recreational activities, issue of material fact, genuine, foam, claims of negligence, repose, sports, genuine issue, initial burden, punitive damages, recklessness, inducement, indemnity, matter of law, fact remains, loss of consortium, inherent risks, assumption of risk, proprietor’

JUDGES: [*1] TAMMY O’BRIEN, JUDGE

OPINION BY: TAMMY O’BRIEN

OPINION

ORDER

The matters before the Court are, Defendant, Flytz Gymnastics, Inc.’s Motion for Summary Judgment filed on January 29, 2016, and, Defendant, John King’s Motion for Summary Judgment filed on January 29, 2016., Plaintiffs filed Separate Briefs in Opposition to these motions on March 4, 2016. Both, Defendants, Flytz Gymnastics, Inc. (“Flytz”) and John King (“King”), filed Reply briefs on March 21, 2016. For the reasons which follow, the Court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment.

ANALYSIS

A. Facts:

The instant action arises out of an incident which occurred on August 22, 2011. On that day, Plaintiff Michael Cantu, sustained catastrophic personal injury when he attempted to use a spring board to go over a vault at Flytz Gymnastics and landed head first into a foam block pit. See, Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint., Plaintiff sustained a spinal cord injury which left him a quadriplegic. See, Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint.

Plaintiffs, Michael Cantu and his parents, have sued Flytz and its owner, King, alleging that they are liable for his injury., Plaintiffs have alleged that Flytz was negligent with respect to the “open [*2] gym night” attended by Michael Cantu and his friends and that this negligence resulted in Michael’s injury., Plaintiffs have further alleged that the conduct of Flytz and its employees, including King, was willful, wanton and reckless. In addition, Plaintiffs have brought a product liability claim against Flytz under R.C. 2307.71 et seq., Plaintiff’s parents, Aaron and Kristine Cantu, have also asserted a loss of consortium claim.

On the day in question, Michael was with a group of friends when one of them suggested that the group go to Flytz. Michael Cantu depo. at 57. This friend had been to Flytz before to practice his skiing flips. Id. at p. 43. Michael Cantu testified that the group intended to use the trampoline to practice ski tricks. Id. at 43, 63 and 93. Michael’s mother, Kristine Cantu, drove the group to Flytz.

Cantu and his friends were given Nonmember Release and Waiver Forms to read and sign. Because Michael was a minor, his mother signed the form on his behalf. Flytz Motion for Summary Judgment Exhibit B at pp. 32 and 33. Both Michael and his mother have acknowledged that neither of them read the entire form before Kristine signed it. Exhibit A at 69 and 103; Exhibit B at 34 and 35.

Subsequent [*3] to his injury, Kristine Cantu claimed that, had she read the release, she would never have allowed her son to participate in the activities. However, there is undisputed testimony from both Kristine and Michael Cantu that, throughout his life, Michael Cantu participated in many sports activities and many recreational activities, and that his mother signed release forms on his behalf in the past. Flytz Motion, Exhibit A at 18, 103; Flytz Motion, Exhibit Bat 15-16.

Plaintiff Michael Cantu, was involved in many sports and recreational activities and both he and his mother testified that they were aware that, inherent in those activities, there was always the risk of injury. Michael had previously participated in football, karate, volleyball and golf, and was interested in skiing, snowboarding and skateboarding. In fact, Plaintiff acknowledged he had sustained prior sports injuries. Flytz Motion, Exhibit B at 13-18.

Defendant Flytz moves for summary judgment on several bases which include the, Plaintiffs’ execution of a Release and Waiver form, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, lack of evidence of willful and wanton conduct by the, Defendants, and the statute of repose., Defendant [*4] King also moves for summary judgment.

B. Law and Analysis:

1. Standard.

In reviewing, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment, the Court must consider the following: (1) whether there is no genuine issue of material fact to be litigated; (2) whether in viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party it appears that reasonable minds could come to but one conclusion; and (3) whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Dresher v. Burt, 75 Ohio St.3d 280, 662 N.E.2d 264 (1996); Wing v. Anchor Media, L.T.D., 59 Ohio St.3d 108, 570 N.E.2d 1095 (1991). If the Court finds that the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of the case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L.E.2d 265 (1986).

Civ.R. 56(C) states the following, in part, in regards to summary judgment motions:

Summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, written admissions, affidavits, transcripts

of the evidence in the pending case, and written stipulations of fact, if any timely filed in the action, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Where a party seeks summary judgment on the ground that the nonmoving party cannot [*5] prove its case, the moving party bears the initial burden of informing the trial court of the basis for the motion, and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact on the essential element(s) of the nonmoving party’s claims. Dresner, 75 Ohio St.3d at 293. The Dresner court continued, the moving party cannot discharge its initial burden under Civ.R. 56 simply by making a conclusory assertion that the nonmoving party has no evidence to prove its case. Rather, the moving party must be able to specifically point to some evidence of the type listed in Civ.R. 56(C) which affirmatively demonstrates that the nonmoving party has no evidence to support the nonmoving party’s claims. If the moving party fails to satisfy its initial burden, the motion for summary judgment must be denied. However, if the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the nonmoving party then has a reciprocal burden outlined in Civ.R. 56(E) to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial and, if the nonmovant does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against the nonmoving party.

Banks v. Ross Incineration, 9th App. No. 98CA007132 (Dec. 15, 1999).

In this case, [*6] as demonstrated below, this Court finds that summary judgment is appropriate as to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence, but finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to, Plaintiffs’ claims of reckless and wanton conduct and punitive damages.

2. Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, and Indemnity Agreement (“Release and Waiver”).

The Release and Waiver Form signed by, Plaintiff Kristine Cantu, is entitled, “Nonmember/Special Event/Birthday Party Activity, Release and Waiver Form.” Flytz Motion, Exhibit C. After the name of the person and contact information, the verbiage of the release and waiver form warns that “this activity involves risks of serious bodily injury, including permanent disability, paralysis and death.” Id.

Kristine Cantu testified that, consistent with her practice related to any other sports release or waiver, she “never read them” because they were “usually lengthy.” Kristine Cantu depo. at 15-16. Although she indicated that the Flytz Release and Waiver Form was also lengthy, the Court notes that the form is one page long, as is shown in part below:

Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, and Indemnity Agreement

In consideration [*7] of participating in the activities and programs at FLYTZ GYMNASTICS, INC., I represent that I understand the nature of this activity and that I am qualified, in good health, and in proper physical condition to participate in such activity. I acknowledge that if I believe event conditions are unsafe, I will immediately discontinue participation in this activity. I fully understand that this activity involves risks of serious bodily injury, including permanent disability, paralysis and death, which may be caused by my own actions, or inactions, those of others participating in the event, the condition in which the event takes place, or the negligence of the “releasees” named below, and that there may be other risks either not known to me or not readily foreseeable at this time and I fully accept and assume all risks and all responsibility for losses, cost and damages I incur as a result of my participation in the activity.

I hereby release, discharge, and covenant not to sue FLYTZ GYNMASTICS, INC., its respective administrators, directors, agents, officers, volunteers, and employees, other participants, any sponsors, advertisers and if applicable, owners and lessors of premises on which [*8] the activity takes place (each considered one of the “RELEASEES” herein) from all liability, claims, damages, losses or damages, on my account caused, or alleged to be caused, in whole, or in part, by the negligence of the “releasees” or otherwise, including negligent rescue operations and further agree that if, despite this release, waiver of liability and assumption of risk, I, or anyone on my behalf makes a claim against any of the Releasees, I will indemnify, save and hold harmless each of the Releasees from any loss, liability, damage or cost which may incur as a result of such claim.

I have read the RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABIITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT, understand that I have given up substantial rights by signing it and have signed it freely and without any inducement or assurance of any nature and intend it to be a complete and unconditional release of all liability to the greatest extent allowed by law and agree that if any portion of this agreement is held to be invalid the balance, notwithstanding, shall continue in full force and effect.

The form specifically acknowledges that the activities and programs at Flytz involved “risks of serious bodily injury, [*9] including permanent disability, paralysis and death which may be caused” by the releasee’s actions or by the actions of others. It further identifies that “there may be risks either not known” or “not readily foreseeable” and that the releasee “accepts and assumes all risks for losses and damages.” Id. The form further releases claims of negligence by Flytz and includes a covenant not to sue, as well as indemnity and hold harmless provisions. The release was signed by Kristine Cantu on behalf of her son and indicated that she understood all the risks involved.

It is well established in Ohio that participants in recreational activities and the proprietor of a venue for such an activity are free to enter into contracts designed to relieve the proprietor from responsibility to the participant for the proprietor’s acts of negligence. See, Bowen v. Kil-Kare, Inc. (1992), 63 Ohio St.3d 84, 585 N.E.2d 384; Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc. 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 696 N.E.2d 201, 1998-Ohio-389. As noted by the Ninth District Court of Appeals, in order to be upheld, the contract must be clear, unequivocal and unambiguous and it must be specific enough to cover only those claims of which the participant would be aware. Levine v. Gross, 123 Ohio App.3d 326, 330, 704 N.E.2d 262 (9th Dist. 1997). In the instant action, the Release and Waiver Form signed by Kristine Cantu clearly meets these requirements.

Plaintiffs argue [*10] that the intake clerk, Stacey King, did not specifically advise Kristine that, by signing the forms, she would be absolving Flytz of liability for injuries sustained by her son, by his negligence or the negligence of others., Plaintiffs attempt to circumvent the Release and Waiver by alleging it is unenforceable because of fraud in the inducement. They argue that Kristine Cantu was induced to sign the form upon misrepresentations made by Stacey King.

The Court notes that, Plaintiffs have not pled fraud in their Amended Complaint. Even if, Plaintiffs can be found to have properly pled a claim of fraud in the inducement, a release obtained by fraudulent inducement is merely voidable upon proof of fraud. Holler v. horror Corp., (1990), 50 Ohio St.3d 10, 14 at ¶ 1 of the syllabus. “A person of ordinary mind cannot say that he was misled into signing a paper which was different from what he intended to sign when he could have known the truth by merely looking when he signed…. If a person can read and is not prevented from reading what he signs, he alone is responsible for his omission to read what he signs.” Haller, supra at 14. In the instant action, there is no evidence of fraud. The Court finds that, Plaintiffs were advised of [*11] serious inherent risks by virtue of the Release and Waiver Form. Accordingly, the Court GRANTS summary judgment on any claims of negligence.

3. Primary Assumption of Risk.

Even without the Release and Waiver, this Court would also find that the, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment related to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence under the doctrine of primary assumption the risk.

The Ohio Supreme Court has held that individuals engaged in recreational or sports activities “assume the ordinary risks of the activity and cannot recover for any injuries unless it can be shown that the other participant’s actions were either ‘reckless’ or ‘intentional’ as defined in Sections 500 and 8A of the Restatement of Torts 2d.” Marchetti v. Kalish (1990), 53 Ohio St.3d 95, 559 N.E.2d 699, syllabus. “The doctrine of primary assumption of risk prevents a, Plaintiff from setting forth a prima facie case of negligence.” Aber v. Zurz, 9th Dist No. 23876, 2008-Ohio-778, ¶9. “Primary assumption of the risk relieves a recreation provider from any duty to eliminate the risks that are inherent in the activity…because such risk cannot be eliminated.” (Citations omitted.) Bastian v. McGannon, 9th Dist. Lorain No. 07CA009213, 2008-Ohio – l149, ¶11.

As noted by the Ohio Supreme Court, the determining fact in such cases is the conduct of the defendant, “not the [*12] participant’s or spectator’s ability or inability to appreciate the inherent dangers of the activity.” Gentry v. Craycraft, 101 Ohio St.3d 141, 802 N.E.2d 1116, 2004-Ohio-

379, ¶9. To survive a primary assumption of risk claim, the, Plaintiff must prove the defendant’s conduct was reckless or intentional. Furthermore, “the reckless/intentional standard of liability applies regardless of whether the activity was engaged in by children or adults, or was unorganized, supervised, or unsupervised.” Gentry, supra at ¶8.

In the instant action, there can be no dispute that, Plaintiff Michael Cantu was engaged in a recreational activity at the time of his injury. Likewise, there can be no dispute that a fall, like that sustained by Michael, is an inherent risk in gymnastics, particularly when one is using a springboard to go over a piece of equipment. As such, there can be no recovery by, Plaintiffs unless it can be shown that Flytz’s actions were either “reckless” or “intentional.” Gentry, supra at ¶6 quoting Marchetti, supra at syllabus; see also, Mainv. Gym X-Treme, 10th Dist. No. 11A0-643, 2102-Ohio-1315 (Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a, Plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in the activity [*13] unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries. Id. at9.)

Accordingly, Defendants entitled to summary judgment related to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence under the doctrine of primary assumption the risk. However, because the, Plaintiffs also claim that, Defendants acted in a reckless, willful and wanton manner, this does not end the analysis.

3. Reckless or Intentional Conduct and Punitive Damages.

The Supreme Court of Ohio has held that there can be no liability for injuries arising out of sporting or recreational activities unless the defendant was reckless or intentionally injured the, Plaintiff. Marchetti v. Kalish, 53 Ohio St.3d 95, 96-98, 559 N.E.2d 699 (1990). In this case, the Court finds that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether or not, Defendants engaged in recklessness or willful or wanton conduct which resulted in injury to Michael Cantu.

All parties cite to testimony which appears to create genuine issues of material fact related to the instructions given by the, Defendants, Michael Cantu’s responding behavior, Defendant level of supervision and safety procedures, and whether, Defendants actions or inactions rose to the level of recklessness.

Plaintiffs have also cited the testimony [*14] of their expert, Gerald S. George, PhD. Dr. George reviewed industry rules and regulations and examined the facts and evidence in this case. Dr. George admitted that under “appropriate conditions, gymnastics is a reasonably safe and healthy activity for young people.” He, however, cautioned that “in the absence of appropriate safeguards, however, gymnastics becomes an unreasonably dangerous activity. Report at p. 2. Dr. George opines that, Defendants violated a number of safety regulations including “failing to ensure that Michael Cantu possessed an adequate level of performer readiness to safely participate in the intended activity,” “failing to provide adequate supervision of the open gym participants,” “failing to instruct Michael Cantu on how to land safely in a loose foam landing pit,” and “failing to provide a reasonably safe physical environment for the intended gymnastics activity,” specifically directing attention to the violative nature of the foam pit. Report at 3-6. Dr. George opines, among other things, that, given these violations and conduct, Defendants actions were “grossly inadequate” reckless and that, Defendants exhibited “willful and wanton” disregard for caution. [*15]

Upon this examination, the Court determines that genuine issues of material fact related to, Defendants’ alleged recklessness and/or willful and wanton conduct exist. Therefore, summary judgment is inappropriate on this issue. Because a question of fact remains on the issue of reckless and/or willful and wanton conduct, summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages is also denied.

4. Ohio’s Product Liability Statute, R.C. 2307.71et seq.

Defendants have also moved for summary judgment on the, Plaintiffs’ product liability claim related to the foam pit into which Michael Cantu fell., Defendants argue that this claim is barred by the statute of repose. This Court agrees.

The statute of repose applicable to claims of product liability, R.C. 2305.10 (C) (1) provides:

Except as provided in division (C)(2), (3), (4), (5), (6), and (7) of this section or in Section 2305.19 of the Revised Code, no cause of action based on a product liability claim shall accrue against the manufacturer or supplier of a product later than ten years from the date that the product was delivered to its first purchaser or first lessee who was not engaged in a business in which the product was used the component in the production, construction, creation, assembly, or rebuilding of another [*16] product.

The evidence demonstrated that the foam pit was constructed in 2000, and that there were no modifications to the pit at any time thereafter. John King depo. at 61, 67 and 85., Plaintiff’s accident occurred on August 22, 2011, 11 years after the installation of the foam pit. Pursuant to the specific language of R.C. 2305.10 (C) (1), Plaintiffs’ product liability claim is barred by the statute of repose.

From review of, Plaintiff’s brief, Plaintiffs appear to have abandoned this argument. Also, as discussed above, claims for negligence have been released by the, Plaintiffs. However, even barring that analysis, the statute of repose also applies to the, Plaintiffs’ product liability claim, and this claim is, therefore, barred.

5. Consortium.

The claims for loss of consortium by Michael Cantu’s parents, and punitive damages claim are directed at both, Defendants. A cause of action that is based upon loss of consortium is a derivative claim. Messmore v. Monarch Mach Tool Co., 11 Ohio App.3d 67 (9th Dist., 1983). As this Court has determined that, Plaintiff Michael Cantu is not entitled to recovery on negligence claims, the same applies to his parents. However, as genuine issues of material fact remain on the issues of reckless and/or willful and wanton conduct, as well [*17] as on punitive

damages, this Court denies summary judgment to both defendants on the loss of consortium and punitive damages claims.

CONCLUSION

Upon due consideration, after review of the briefs of the parties, the applicable law, exhibits, testimony and other evidence, the Court GRANTS, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment as a matter of law on, Plaintiffs’ negligence claims. However, the Court finds that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether, Defendants were reckless or acted in a willful or wanton manner. Accordingly the Court DENIES summary judgment as it pertains to, Plaintiffs’ claims of recklessness, and their claims for punitive damages.

The Final Pretrial previously schedule on July 22, 2016 at 8:30 AM, as well as the trial date of August 1, 2016, are confirmed.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

/s/ [Signature]

JUDGE TAMMY/O’BRIEN

Attorneys Terrance P. Gravens/Kimberly A. Brennan

Attorney Michael W. Czack


Ritari, JR v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., 2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

Ritari, JR v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., 2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

Ronald Ritari, JR. and Tama Ritari, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., doing business as Marquette Mountain, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 335870

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

October 24, 2017, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Motion granted by Ritari v. Peter E. O’Dovero, 2018 Mich. LEXIS 90 (Mich., Jan. 12, 2018)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Marquette Circuit Court. LC No. 16-054384-NO.

CORE TERMS: skiing, nastar, rope, training, ski, chair lift, racing, placement, sport, registration form, hazard, recreational, ski area, participating, skier, lift, competitive, competitor, hazardous, alpine, matter of law, clearance, snowboarding, season, risks associated, reverse side, unambiguous, susceptible, entangled, ambiguous

JUDGES: Before: K. F. KELLY, P.J., and BECKERING and RIORDAN, JJ.

OPINION

Per Curiam.

In this interlocutory appeal,1 defendant, Peter E. O’Dovero, Inc, d/b/a Marquette Mountain, challenges the trial court’s order denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) (release, immunity granted by law) and (C)(10) (no genuine issue of material fact, movant entitled to judgment as a matter of law). The case arises out of an incident at Marquette Mountain ski resort that occurred when plaintiff, Ronald Ritari, Jr., was riding up the ski hill on a chair lift and became entangled in a rope that had been installed underneath the lift, which pulled him off the lift and caused him to sustain serious injuries in the ensuing fall.2 Because material questions of fact remain, we agree with the trial court that summary disposition is inappropriate at this time.

1 Ronald Ritari Jr v Peter E O’Dovero, Inc, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered April 20, 2017 (Docket No. 335870).

2 Plaintiff Tama Ritari’s claim is derivative of her husband’s; therefore, “plaintiff” refers to Ronald Ritari, Jr.

I. PERTINENT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On the evening of January 29, 2015, plaintiff went to Marquette Mountain to ski. He was a season pass holder there and enjoyed NASTAR3 racing. According to plaintiff’s complaint and affidavit, at around 6:45 p.m. he and his son boarded [*2] a chair lift to reach the top of the hill for their first run of the evening. They planned to take a couple of pleasure runs down the hill before their Thursday night ski league began. When his chair was approximately 20 yards from the loading zone, a gust of wind pulled the chair down and the tips of plaintiff’s skis became entangled in a nylon rope attached to the ground by two poles directly below the chair lift. Plaintiff was able to free the tip of his left ski from the rope, but he was unable to free the tip of his right ski, and he felt his leg being pulled backward as his chair continued to move up the hill. Plaintiff grabbed the middle pole of the chair to keep from falling and screamed as loudly as he could for the chair lift operator to stop the lift. But the chair lift did not stop, and plaintiff was pulled out of his chair by the rope. He fell approximately 12 feet to the ground and sustained a fractured pelvis and fractured ribs.

3 According to its website, NASTAR is the “largest public grassroots ski racing program in the world” and “gives recreational racers an opportunity to compete and compare their scores to friends and family regardless of when and where they race using the NASTAR handicap system.” NASTAR competitions typically occur on grand slalom and slalom courses laid out by the host ski resorts in accordance with NASTAR’s instructions. http://www.nastar.com (accessed 9/15/17).

Plaintiff filed suit against defendant, alleging that the ski area was negligent by having ropes in the area of the chair lift, failing to post warnings of the danger, failing to take measures to prevent plaintiff from catching his skis on the [*3] rope, failing to employ the emergency stop when plaintiff yelled for help, and failing to adequately supervise and control the chair lift. Before any discovery began by way of interrogatories, depositions, or otherwise, defendant moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (C)(10), contending that plaintiff had signed releases broad enough to bar any claim for injuries arising out of the incident. Defendant relied on three forms signed by plaintiff.

Specifically, On December 13, 2014, in conjunction with purchasing an annual ski pass at Marquette Mountain for the 2014-2015 season, plaintiff signed a release wherein he agreed to assume “the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing/snowboarding . . . .” On December 16, 2014, he filled out a document in order to participate in NASTAR races. The document, a single sheet of paper, contains two forms, one on the front and one on the back. Hand-printed vertically in capital letters along the right side of both forms are the instructions, “FILL OUT BOTH SIDES.”

On the front side of the NASTAR document is a registration form. The form has headings entitled “Registration Form,” “Racer Information,” [*4] “Team Information,” and “Waiver and Release of Liability.” According to the release language on this form, plaintiff, “in exchange for being permitted to participate in NASTAR events (the “Event”),” assumes all risks associated with his involvement in the event and the “risk of injury caused by the condition of any property, facilities, or equipment used during the Event, whether foreseeable or unforeseeable.”

On the reverse side of the NASTAR document is a release entitled “Marquette Mountain Ski Area, and Competition Participant” (henceforth, the “Participant release”). According to the relevant terms of this release, “Participant, the undersigned, being at least 18 years old . . . agrees and understands that alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms (hereinafter the “Activity”) is HAZARDOUS4 and may involve the risk of physical injury or death.” The Participant also agrees that “training or racing competitively is more HAZARDOUS than recreational skiing,” that he or she is “a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition.” According to the release, the Participant assumes all risks associated with the Activity, including but not limited to [*5] the risk of all course conditions, course construction or layout and obstacles, risks associated with riding the lifts, and risks associated with ski lift operations and acts or omissions of employees. The Participant agrees to release defendant from “all liabilities” arising from engagement in “the Activity,” including any injuries caused by the actual negligence of defendant’s employees. In its motion for summary disposition, defendant contended that, by signing this release, plaintiff assumed “all” risks, argued that “all” left no room for exceptions, and stressed that the terms of this release barred plaintiff’s claim for negligence as a matter of law.

4 A fold or wrinkle in the copy of the release that is in the record obscures this word. However, defendant quotes the relevant section of the release in its motion for summary disposition as “I further agree and understand that training or racing competitively is more HAZARDOUS than recreational skiing.”

In support of its motion, defendant also argued that MCL 408.342(2), the assumption of risk provision in the Ski Area Safety Act of 1962 (SASA), MCL 408.321 et seq., operated to bar plaintiff’s claim because risks associated with fencing and falling from a chair lift inhere in the sport of skiing.

Plaintiff countered that neither the season-pass release nor the assumption of risk provision in SASA barred his claim because the inappropriate placement of a rope directly under the chair lift was not an inherent risk of skiing. Additionally, plaintiff argued that the [*6] rope was not necessary because its placement violated the standards governing minimum clearance between a chair lift and an obstacle below, and it was not obvious because he neither saw it nor expected it to be placed where it was. He further argued that neither side of the executed NASTAR document barred his claim because he was not engaged in a NASTAR event, nor was he training for such an event when he was injured. Finally, plaintiff contended that there remained genuine issues of material fact regarding whether defendant’s chair lift personnel were inattentive and failed to timely shut off the chair lift when the rope entangled him, and that this was not a risk assumed pursuant to the assumption of risk provision of SASA.

At the motion hearing, defendant argued that the Participant release on the back side of the NASTAR document applied not just to competitions and training for competitions, but to “skiing in all its forms.” Accordingly, the Participant release controlled resolution of the matter and insulated defendant from any alleged negligent placement of the nylon rope. At the same time, defendant insisted that it had not been negligent in placement of the rope at issue because [*7] the rope’s location complied with required clearance standards and was necessary to the safety of skiers.5 Plaintiff reiterated his argument that the forms on both sides of the NASTAR document pertained to participation in competition-related skiing, and that the rope at issue was neither necessary nor obvious with respect to any assumption of the risk plaintiff assumed when signing up for his season pass or through SASA.

5 Defendant acknowledged plaintiff’s argum
Accreditation is marketing. In fact, it may be why you are being sued.

Marketing is not a way to manage risks or stop lawsuits. Marketing Makes Promises that Risk Management Must Pay For.
Accreditation is marketing. In fact, it may be why you are being sued.

Marketing is not a way to manage risks or stop lawsuits. Marketing Makes Promises that Risk Management Must Pay For.ent about the front side of the NASTAR document focusing on event racing and the fact that the release language there and in the season pass document coincides with the language of SASA, which is commonly referred to as the assumption of the risk clause. As such, while arguing that the rope at issue was a necessary and obvious danger, defendant focused on the back side of the NASTAR document and its “sweeping” release of defendant’s own negligence for the purpose of his motion for summary disposition at such an early stage in the litigation.

Ruling from the bench, the trial court noted that construing the viability of plaintiff’s claim under SASA turned on necessary factual findings yet to be made, rendering summary disposition inappropriate at that point in the proceedings. With regard to the releases, the trial court observed that the parties’ arguments were geared toward the form on the reverse side of the NASTAR document. The trial court easily dispensed with the front page as being race-related. As for the back side, the Participant release, the trial court concluded that there were questions about the extent to which the release might apply to relieve defendant of liability outside the context of racing or training.

In addition to its location on the back of the NASTAR form, the trial court pointed [*8] to three phrases in the Participant release that seem to limit the scope of that release to training for or participating in a competition. The first is the phrase in which the participant agrees with the premise “that Participant is a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition.” The second is the provision, “Participant is always provided an opportunity to and will conduct a reasonable visual inspection of the training or racecourse.” The third phrase is, “I further agree and understand that training or racing competitively is more [hazardous] . . . than recreational skiing.” The trial court described the language of the release as “a little ambiguous” and concluded that in light of the questions about the extent to which the release might apply to relieve defendant of all liability at any time, even when the person who signed it is simply recreationally skiing, summary disposition was premature.

II. ANALYSIS

Defendant contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary disposition because the unambiguous language of the December 16, 2014 Participant release releases it from all liability regardless of whether plaintiff was injured [*9] while practicing for a competition, in competition, or simply skiing recreationally. It also claims that it is entitled to summary disposition under the assumption of the risk statute in SASA, MCL 408.343(2). We conclude that defendant is racing too quickly to the finish line in this case, to which it may or may not be entitled a victory.

We review de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition, Casey v Auto Owners Ins Co, 273 Mich App 388, 393; 729 NW2d 277 (2006), as well as issues involving contractual and statutory interpretation, Rodgers v JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, 315 Mich App 301, 307; 890 NW2d 381 (2016).

A. RELEASE

Summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) is appropriate where the terms of a release bar a claim. As this Court has explained,

The scope of a release is governed by the intent of the parties as it is expressed in the release. If the text in the release is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions must be ascertained from the plain, ordinary meaning of the language of the release. A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. The fact that the parties dispute the meaning of a release does not, in itself, establish an ambiguity. [Cole v Ladbroke Racing Michigan, Inc, 241 Mich App 1, 13-14; 614 NW2d 169 (2000).]

In addition, a contract must be read as a whole, Dobbelaere v Auto-Owners Ins Co, 275 Mich App 527, 529; 740 NW2d 503 (2007), and “construed so as to give effect to every word or phrase as far as practicable,” Klapp v United Ins Group Agency, Inc, 468 Mich 459, 467; 663 NW2d 447 (2003). See [*10] also Restatement Contracts, 2d, § 202, p 86 (“a writing is interpreted as a whole, and all writings that are part of the same transaction are interpreted together.”).6 The interpretation of an unambiguous contract is a matter of law. Mich Nat’l Bank, 228 Mich App 710, 714; 580 NW2d 8 (1998).

6 See also Restatement Contracts, 1st, § 235 (“A writing is interpreted as a whole and all writings forming part of the same transaction are interpreted together.”).

After our review of the language of the Participant release, we disagree with the trial court’s conclusion that the language of the release is ambiguous, or in other words, “reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 272 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (“A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation.”). However, we agree with plaintiff, not defendant, as to its meaning and scope. Several factors indicate that the NASTAR registration and Participant release were part of the same transaction–which is in fact undisputed–and therefore, should be read and interpreted together: the “Participant” release is on the reverse side of the NASTAR registration form, both forms bear the handwritten instruction to “fill out both sides,” and plaintiff executed both releases on the same date specifically in order to participate in NASTAR races. We conclude that, when read as a whole and interpreted in conjunction with the NASTAR registration form on its reverse side, [*11] the language of the Participant release is unambiguous and intended to relieve defendant of “all liability” for injuries suffered during training for or participating in a racing competition.

As noted above, the trial court identified three examples where the language of the release focuses specifically on competitive skiing. After identifying the “Activity” in which the Participant is participating as “alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms” and noting that it may involve physical injury or death, the release requires the participant to “agree and understand that training and racing competitively is more [hazardous] than recreational skiing” (emphasis added). In addition, the release requires the participant to “agree with the Premise that Participant is a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition” (emphasis added). Note that it does not also say when simply pleasure skiing or taking the children out for lessons on the bunny hill. Further, the Participant is required to “agree that Participant is always provided an opportunity to and will conduct a reasonable visual inspection of the training or racecourse” (emphasis added). This focuses [*12] on race-related activities. Even without consideration of the NASTAR release, the fact that the Participant release requires the participant to agree expressly to statements emphasizing the dangers of training for and participating in competitive racing specifically renders the release susceptible to the interpretation that its focus is on insulating defendant from liability for injuries sustained by participants when training for or competing in races.

Defendant contends that the Participant release’s acknowledgement that competitive racing is more hazardous than recreational skiing does not restrict the release’s scope to competitive skiing. However, the release does more than merely acknowledge the dangers of competitive skiing; it requires the Participant to expressly agree that competitive skiing is more hazardous than recreational skiing. Moreover, under the defendant’s alleged interpretation, the Participant’s acknowledgement that he or she is a competitor at all times renders it impossible for the person who signs the release as a “Participant” to ever ski recreationally. According to the logic of defendant’s argument, once a person fills out the NASTAR registration form and [*13] accompanying Participant release, he or she is a “competitor” indefinitely, regardless of whether he or she is actually competing or training for a competition.7

7 Under defendant’s proposed at-all-times interpretation, there is no time frame for how long someone is considered to be a Participant if that word is not tied to actual racing or training. Are they deemed to be a Participant for the rest of the season? Indefinitely? What if they only participated in one race? In doing so, have they given up all rights they might otherwise have had as a recreational skier? And where does it say that in the release? Defendant’s proposed interpretation creates an ambiguity that it cannot resolve within the confines of the agreement.

Other portions of the Participant release also support the conclusion that the unambiguous language limits its scope to liability for injuries suffered during or while training for a ski or snowboard competition. The heading contains what one might reasonably construe as an identification of the parties to the release, “Marquette Mountain Ski Area, and Competition Participant.” The comma inserted between “Marquette Mountain Ski Area” and “Competition Participant” suggests that the release involves Marquette Mountain Ski Area on one side, and a “competition participant” on the other. Defendant urges this Court to ignore the “competition participant” designation, arguing that it is not part of the four corners of the agreement and is neither used nor defined in the release. However, interpreting the NASTAR release and the Participant release together makes clear that “competition participant” refers to the person participating in the NASTAR competition that defendant is hosting.8 Further, if “competition” refers only to the NASTAR [*14] event, but “participant” can have more than one referent,9 it seems reasonable that the release would focus on defining “participant” to ensure inclusion of all the word’s possible meanings. Additionally, that the participant is “a competitor at all times” harkens back to “competition participant” in the heading, again allowing one to reasonably interpret the release to pertain only to the release of liability arising from injuries associated with training for or racing in a competition.

8 The mere fact that the release uses the word “Participant” conjures up images of participation in something; it would not lead the reader to conclude that one is a Participant whenever they are on the slopes, even when they are not actually participating in anything or training for anything.

9 E.g., “participant” includes a person at least 18-years old, a participating minor, and the parents or legal guardian of as well as his or her parent or legal guardian.

Moreover, the Participant warrants in the Participant release that he or she is in good health and has left no special instructions “that have not been listed on the registration form.” Although the Participant release makes no further mention of a registration form, the NASTAR document on the reverse side is both a registration form and a release, and it contains a ‘Physically Challenged” heading where competitors may identify their physical or intellectual challenges.

Finally, defendant asserts that “alpine skiing and snowboarding” is not limited to competitive racing. This is true; “alpine skiing” may refer to downhill skiing for sport or recreation. However, interpreting the Participant release with [*15] the NASTAR release renders the phrase “alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms” susceptible to the interpretation that it refers specifically to the three downhill disciplines from which participants may choose to compete at a NASTAR event: alpine skiing, snowboarding, and telemarker (which combines elements of Alpine and Nordic skiing).

Given the foregoing analysis, we conclude that the trial court correctly denied defendant’s motion for summary disposition associated with the Participant release, but it erred to the extent it deemed the release language ambiguous. Assuming factual development establishes that plaintiff was not engaged in training for or competing in racing activities at the time of his injury, as plaintiff contends it will, the Participant release does not apply. Moreover, for the reasons set forth below, determination of whether the release language in plaintiff’s season pass bars his claim–which entails an assumption of the risks inherent in skiing analysis–will depend on further factual development gleaned from discovery, which has not yet begun.

B. MCL 408.342(2)

A motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10) tests the factual sufficiency of a claim. Smith v Globe Life Ins Co, 460 Mich 446, 454; 597 NW2d 28 (1999). Summary disposition [*16] under (C)(10) is proper if the documentary evidence filed by the parties and viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion fails to show a genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Quinto v Cross & Peters Co, 451 Mich 358, 362; 547 NW2d 314 (1996).

The Legislature enacted SASA in 1962, and amended it in 1981. Kent v Alpine Valley Ski Area, Inc, 240 Mich App 731, 737; 613 NW2d 383 (2000) (quotation marks and citation omitted). One of the purposes of the Legislature’s amendment was “to make the skier, rather than the ski area operator, bear the burden of damages from injuries.” Id. Thus, among the provisions in the 1981 amendment was one for the acceptance of risk by skiers, MCL 408.342(2), which provides as follows:

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snowmaking or snow-grooming equipment.

Where, as here, an injury results [*17] from a hazard not listed in the statute, Michigan’s Supreme Court has established a test to determine whether a defendant ski resort is nevertheless immune on grounds that the hazard is of the same type as those listed in the statute. Anderson v Pine Knob Ski Resort, 469 Mich 20, 24-25; 664 NW2d 756 (2003).

At issue in Anderson was whether the assumption of risk provision barred the plaintiff’s suit for injuries suffered when he collided with a timing shack during a skiing race. The Supreme Court determined that the different types of hazards listed in MCL 408.342(2) had in common “that they all inhere in the sport of skiing and, as long as they are obvious and necessary to the sport, there is immunity from suit.” Id. at 25. Thus, once a hazard is determined to be inherent to the sport of skiing, “only if [it is] unnecessary or not obvious is the ski operator liable.” Id. at 26. Applying the facts of Anderson to its legal conclusion, the Supreme Court reasoned:

There is no disputed issue of fact in this matter that in ski racing, timing, as it determines who is the winner, is necessary. Moreover, there is no dispute that for the timing equipment to function, it is necessary that it be protected from the elements. This protection was afforded by the shack that all also agree was obvious [*18] in its placement at the end of the run. We have then a hazard of the same sort as the ski towers and snow-making and grooming machines to which the statute refers us. As with the towers and equipment, this hazard inheres in the sport of skiing. The placement of the timing shack is thus a danger that skiers such as Anderson are held to have accepted as a matter of law. [Id. at 25-26.]

Accordingly, the Supreme Court concluded that the ski operator was immune from suit because the timing shack was a hazard inherent to skiing, and it was necessary and obvious.

We conclude that the trial court did not err in finding that, at this early stage of the proceedings, the record facts are simply insufficient to determine whether SASA applies to bar plaintiff’s claim. There is no dispute that the nylon rope that entangled plaintiff is a hazard not listed in MCL 408.342(2). Thus, the question is whether the placement of a nylon rope under a chair lift is inherent to skiing and, if so, whether placement of the rope in this case was obvious and necessary. For defendant to be entitled to summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), these material facts must be undisputed and defendant must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Quinto, 451 Mich at 362.

However, [*19] the parties dispute the material facts. And the record evidence–given that discovery has not yet begun–is not sufficient to resolve their disputes. For example, although both parties agree that the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard B77.1-2006 governs the construction, installation, and operation of a ski lift, they dispute whether defendant’s positioning of the rope violated the clearance requirements set forth in ANSI, and whether such violation renders defendant liable for injuries attributable to the violation. In fact, there is no record evidence as to what the rope was even for, making impossible at this point a determination of whether it was a necessary part of skiing. Plaintiff asserts that defendant’s placement of the rope “in an area directly below the chair lift” violated the ANSI standards, and that the rope was neither obvious nor necessary. Defendant contends that plaintiff’s allegation that his fall to the ground was approximately 12 feet demonstrates that defendant complied with the requirement to have a clearance of at least 8 feet between the lowest point of the carrier and the terrain. In addition, defendant characterizes the rope as a “fence,” [*20] and asserts, “fencing and its risks are intrinsic in the sport of skiing,” and further asserts that the rope/fence was absolutely needed to prevent skiers from traveling under the chair lift and being injured.” However, because there is nothing in the record evidence indicating the rope’s purpose or its location relative to the chair lift and the terrain, it is impossible to determine where the rope was placed and whether it was necessary. Defendant contends that plaintiff’s description of his fall in his affidavit demonstrates that there was at least an 8-foot clearance between the carrier, but defendant has not eliminated the possibility that the rope was too close to the carrier when it caught plaintiff’s skis, and it begs the question of why there was a rope if the minimum clearance did not require one. In short, defendant has not met its burden to submit affirmative evidence indicating that it was entitled to summary disposition on grounds that the dangers posed by the nylon rope at issue were inherent to skiing, and that they were necessary and obvious.10
Quinto, 451 Mich at 362.

10 Because we conclude that defendant’s motion for summary disposition was properly denied at this stage of the case, we need not address plaintiff’s additional argument that SASA does not bar his claim arising from the chair lift operator’s alleged failure to stop the chair lift after plaintiff became entangled in the rope.

Affirmed.

/s/ Kirsten Frank Kelly

/s/ Jane M. Beckering

/s/ Michael J. Riordan


Plaintiff argues that release was limited to the risks that were inherent in climbing walls. Inherent is a limiting term and does not expand the scope of the risks a release is written to include.

In addition, incorrect name on the release gave plaintiff an additional argument. The LLC registered by the Indiana Secretary of State was named differently than the named party to be protected by the release.

Luck saved the defendant in this case.

Wiemer v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

State: Indiana: United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

Plaintiff: Alexis Wiemer

Defendant: Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC,

Plaintiff Claims: Negligent Hiring and Instruction

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

Release was written broadly enough it covered negligence claims outside the normal injuries or claims from using a climbing wall. On top of that the mistakes in the release were covered by the letterhead.

Injury occurred because belayer did not know how to use the braking device.

A lot of things could have gone wrong because the climbing wall was not paying attention, but got lucky.

Facts

The plaintiff was a beginner in climbing and using climbing walls. Before climbing he signed a release and attended a facility orientation which covered training “on how to boulder, belay, and top rope climb.” The training received by the plaintiff was taught by an employee with little experience and mostly went over the defendant’s instructional books on rock climbing.

On the day of the accident, the plaintiff went to climb with a co-worker. While climbing the co-worker failed to use the belay device properly.

Incident reports indicate that Wiemer fell approximately thirty-five feet to the ground in a sitting position due to Magnus releasing a gate lever while he was belaying for Wiemer, which caused Wiemer to accelerate to the floor very quickly. As a result of the fall, he sustained severe and permanent injuries to his back, as well as impaired bladder and bowel control. Wiemer filed this action alleging Hoosier Heights was negligent in its operations. [emphasize added]

The plaintiff sued for his injuries.

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

The plaintiff’s first argument was the name of the parties to be released was not the legal name of the facility where the accident occurred. The facility was owned by a Limited Liability Company (LLC) registered with the state of Indiana as “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.” On the release, the name of the party to be protected was “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility.” The release name had an extra word, “rock.”

The waiver signed by Wiemer incorrectly lists the business name as ‘Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C. Hoosier Heights acknowledges that its official name is Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC and that the word “Rock” does not appear in its corporate filings with the Indiana Secretary of State, although it appears on the Waiver at issue. Wiemer contends that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the validity of the Waiver, because the Waiver that he signed failed to name the correct entity and this inaccuracy created ambiguity as to who Wiemer contracted with.

However, the name and logo on the top of the release identified the company correctly, Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.

Since the release was a contract, the court was required to determine if the name issue made the contract ambiguous. Ambiguous means the language of the contract could be interpreted in more than one way. The name issue was not enough to find the contract was unambiguous so that the release was not void. The name issue was minor, and the correct name was at the top of the contract.

Under these circumstances, the misidentification of Hoosier Heights does not operate to void the Waiver. Because the Waiver is unambiguous, the Court need not examine extrinsic evidence to determine the proper parties to the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on this basis.

The second argument the plaintiff made was the release did not cover the claimed negligence of the defendant for negligent instruction, and negligent training. Those claims are generally not defined as an inherent risk of indoor rock climbing.

The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.

Inherent is a restrictive word. See 2015 SLRA – Inherent Risk: Should the Phrase be in your Release? and Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release, and is interpreted differently by various courts. Consequently, the use of the word inherent can be dangerous in that it limits the breadth of the release.

Under Indiana’s law a release must be “specific and explicitly refer to the waiving [of] that the party’s negligence.” However, that explicit reference is not necessary for a claim that is inherent in the activity.

Nevertheless, “an exculpatory clause’s lack of a specific reference to the negligence of a defendant will not always preclude the defendant from being released from liability–such as when a plaintiff has incurred damages that are inherent in the nature of the activity.”

The plaintiff’s argument was:

Wiemer contends that his fall was due to Mellencamp’s improper training and instruction and this was not a risk that he agreed to assume. Further, he argues that improper training and instruction are not risks that are inherent in the nature of rock climbing.

The court could work around this explicit necessity because it found within the release language that covered the negligent training and instruction.

…team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights[,]…injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facility…

It is the intention of the undersigned individually to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, … from liability for any personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death caused by negligence.

By reviewing the exact language of the release, the court was able to find language that warned of the specific issues the plaintiff claimed.

Similar to the result in Anderson, by signing the Waiver, Wiemer released Hoosier Heights from any liability resulting from its own negligence, including improper training and instruction. Further, Wiemer’s injury from falling was a risk that was inherent in the activity of rock climbing and explicitly noted in the Waiver.

The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.

As such the court found that both claims were prevented by the release the plaintiff had signed and dismissed the case.

So Now What?

This case was won by the defendant not because of proper legal planning but by luck.

If they had not used the correct letterhead for the release, the release might have been void because it named the wrong party to be protected by the release. When writing a release, you need to include the legal name of the party to be protected as well as any marketing or doing business as names.

Indiana’s requirement that the language of the release cover the exact injury the plaintiff is claiming is not new in most states. It is also a requirement that seems to be growing by the courts to favor a contract that covers the complaint.

In the past, judges would specifically point out when a claimed injury was covered in the release. Not so much as a legal requirement but to point out to the plaintiff the release covered their complaint. That prior identification seems to be growing among the states to a requirement.

In this case the release was written broadly so that the restrictions the term inherent placed in the release were covered. But for that broad language, the climbing gym might now have survived the claim.

More important writing the release wrong protecting the wrong party would have been fatal in most states.

Finally, this is another example of a belay system that is perfect, and the user failed. There are belay systems out there that don’t require user involvement, they work as long as they are corrected properly. This accident could have been avoided if the belay system worked.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Marcf v. Middle Country Center School District, LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. et. Al. 57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

Marcf v. Middle Country Center School District, LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. et. Al. 57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

Murat Marcf, Plaintiff(s), against Middle Country Center School District, LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. and LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL, INC., Defendant(s).

3015-2016

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, SUFFOLK COUNTY

57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

December 11, 2017, Decided

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: league, football, flag, void, documentary evidence, signing, public policy, establishment, unambiguous, supporting papers, recreational facilities, unenforceable, participating, conclusively, recreation, amusement, playing, binding, matter of law, causes of action, entitlement, enforceable, illegality, gymnasium, producing, dispose, duress, mutual, exempt, facie

HEADNOTES

Release–Scope of Release–General Obligations Law § 5-326 did not void unambiguous waiver and release of liability where plaintiff paid fee to league to play flag football on field on which he was injured since no part of fee went to field owner. General Obligations Law § 5-326 (Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable).

COUNSEL: [*1] For Plaintiff: Siben & Siben, LLP, Bay Shore, New York.

For Defendants: Havkins Rosenfeld Ritzert & Varriale, New York, New York.

JUDGES: PETER H. MAYER, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: PETER H. MAYER

OPINION

Peter H. Mayer, J.

Upon the reading and filing of the following papers in this matter: (1) Notice of Motion by the defendants, dated June 15, 2016, and supporting papers; (2) Affirmation in Opposition by the plaintiff, dated August 22, 2016, and supporting papers; (3) Reply Affirmation by the defendants, dated September 15, 2016, and supporting papers; (4) Sur Reply by the plaintiff, dated September 21, 2016, and supporting papers; and now

UPON DUE DELIBERATION AND CONSIDERATION BY THE COURT of the foregoing papers, the motion is decided as follows: it is

ORDERED that the motion (seq. # 001) by defendants, Middle Country Central School District (“School District”) and Long Island Flag Football, Inc., s/h/a Long Island Flag Football League, Inc. and Long Island Flag Football, Inc. (“the League”), which seeks an Order dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (5), is hereby granted; and it is further

ORDERED that counsel for defendants shall promptly serve a copy of this Order upon counsel for all parties by First Class [*2] Mail, and shall promptly thereafter file the affidavit(s) of such service with the Suffolk County Clerk.

In this action, plaintiff alleges that on October 4, 2015 he injured his left foot while playing in a League flag football game, when he jumped to catch a pass and landed on a concealed sprinkler head. The game was being played on a field located on the grounds of Newfield High School, which is operated by the defendant School District. Prior to playing in the football game, plaintiff and his teammates signed a Waiver and Release of Liability (“Release”), which states:

In return for my being allowed to participate in any way in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC., I release and agree not to sue the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC., its employees directors and non-employees such as referees, coaches, agents, sponsors, and owners of fields used, from all present and future claims made by me or my family, estate, heirs or assigns for property damage, personal injury, or wrongful death arising as a result of my participation in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. and caused by the ordinary negligence of the parties above, wherever, whenever, or however the same may [*3] occur. I understand and agree that those listed above are not responsible for any injury or property damage arising out of my participation out of my participation (sic) in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC., even if caused by their ordinary negligence. I understand that participation in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. involves certain risks including, but not limited to, serious injury, severe economic losses, permanent disability, and even death. I am voluntarily participating in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. with knowledge of the danger involved and agree to accept all risks of such participation. I certify that I am in excellent physical health, and may participate [**2] in strenuous and hazardous physical activities, including the flag football to be played in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. I agree that prior to participating, I will inspect the facilities and equipment to be used, and if I believe anything unsafe, I will immediately advise my coach of said condition(s) and refuse to participate. Permission is granted for me to receive medical treatment, if needed. I also agree to indemnify and hold harmless those listed above for all claims [*4] arising out of my participation in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. and all related activities. I understand that this document is intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by the State of New York and agree that if any portion of this agreement is invalid, the remainder will continue in full legal force and effect. I further agree that any legal proceedings related to this waiver will take place in Suffolk County, New York. I am of legal age and am freely signing this agreement.

We have read this agreement and understand that by signing this form, we are giving up legal rights and remedies and that the terms of this release are binding on each one of us.

The defendants contend in their dismissal motion that the plaintiff assumed the risk of injury while playing in the game, and that by signing the Release, the plaintiff effectively released the defendants from liability for any injuries plaintiff allegedly sustained during the game. Defendants conclude, therefore, that they are entitled to dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (5).

Generally, on a CPLR 3211 motion to dismiss, the court will accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true, accord plaintiffs the [*5] benefit of every possible favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory (see Walton v New York State Dept. of Corr. Services, 13 NY3d 475, 484, 921 N.E.2d 145, 893 NYS2d 453 [2009], quoting Nonnon v City of New York, 9 NY3d 825, 827, 874 N.E.2d 720, 842 NYS2d 756 [2007]). Pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1), a party may move for dismissal of one or more causes of action on the ground that “a defense is founded upon documentary evidence.” Likewise, a party may move for dismissal pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) on the ground that “the cause of action may not be maintained because of … [a] release” of liability.

A motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) on the ground that the action is barred by documentary evidence may be appropriately granted where the documentary evidence utterly refutes the plaintiff’s factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law (see AG Capital Funding Partners, L.P. v State Street Bank and Trust Co., 5 NY3d 582, 842 N.E.2d 471, 808 NYS2d 573 [2005]; Goshen v Mutual Life Ins. Co. of New York, 98 NY2d 314, 774 N.E.2d 1190, 746 NYS2d 858 [2002]; Leon v Martinez, 84 NY2d 83, 638 N.E.2d 511, 614 NYS2d 972 [1994]; Thompsen v Baier, 84 AD3d 1062, 923 NYS2d 607 [2d Dept 2011]; Rietschel v Maimonides Medical Center, 83 AD3d 810, 921 NYS2d 290 [2d Dept 2011]). In other words, the documentary evidence must resolve all factual issues as a matter of law and conclusively dispose of the plaintiff’s claim (see Palmetto Partners, L.P. v AJW Qualified Partners, LLC, 83 AD3d 804, 921 NYS2d 260 [2d Dept 2011]; Paramount Transp. Sys., Inc. v Lasertone Corp., 76 AD3d 519, 520, 907 NYS2d 498 [2d Dept 2010]).

When a defendant moves for CPLR 3211(a)(1) dismissal based on documentary evidence that the plaintiff signed a release of liability in favor of the defendant, dismissal may be granted where the terms of the release are clear, unambiguous and conclusively dispose of the matter (see Burgos v New York Presbyterian Hosp., 155 AD3d 598, 2017 NY Slip Op 07585 [2d Dept 2017]; Rudovic v Rudovic, 131 AD3d 1225, 16 NYS3d 856 [2d Dept 2015]). In effect, a release is a contract and its construction [*6] is governed by contract law (see Outdoors Clothing Corp. v Schneider, 153 AD3d 717, 60 NYS3d 302 [2d Dept 2017]; Kaminsky v Gamache, 298 AD2d 361, 751 NYS2d 254 [2d Dept 2002]). Absent a statute or public policy to the contrary, a contractual provision absolving a party from its own negligence will be enforced (see Sommer v Federal Signal Corp., 79 NY2d 540, 593 N.E.2d 1365, 583 NYS2d 957 [1992]; Deutsch v Woodridge Segway, LLC, 117 AD3d 776, 985 NYS2d 716 [2d Dept 2014]; Princetel, LLC v Buckley, 95 AD3d 855, 944 NYS2d 191 [2d Dept 2012]). A defendant establishes its prima facie entitlement to dismissal by producing the waiver and release signed by the plaintiff (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 A.D.2d 359, 707 N.Y.S.2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]).

If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the signing of a release is a “jural act” binding on the parties (see Booth v 3669 Delaware, Inc., 92 NY2d 934, 703 N.E.2d 757, 680 NYS2d 899 [2d Dept 1998]; Mangini v McClurg, 24 NY2d 556, 249 N.E.2d 386, 301 NYS2d 508 [1969]). The Court finds that the language of the subject Release is clear and unambiguous and is, therefore, valid, enforceable and binding on the parties (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]; Booth v 3669 Delaware, Inc., 92 NY2d 934, 703 N.E.2d 757, 680 NYS2d 899 [2d Dept 1998]). A release will not be treated lightly, and will not be set aside by a court without a showing of duress, illegality, fraud, or mutual mistake (see Liotti v Galasso, Langione and Botter, 128 AD3d 912, 8 NYS3d 578 [2d Dept 2015]; Seff v Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Schlissel, P.C., 55 AD3d 592, 865 NYS2d 323 [2d Dept 2008]; Shklovskiy v Khan, 273 AD2d 371, 709 NYS2d 208 [2d Dept 2000]; Delaney v County of Westchester, 90 AD2d 819, 455 NYS2d 839 [2d Dept 1982], appeal dismissed 59 NY2d 763 [1983]; Thives v Holmes Ambulance Service Corp., 78 AD2d 651, 432 NYS2d 235 [2d Dept 1980]). Plaintiff in this matter makes no claim of duress, illegality, fraud, or mutual mistake in the signing of the subject Release. Instead, plaintiff alleges in opposition to the motion that the Release is void as against pubic policy pursuant to GOL § 5-326, and that defendant is, therefore, barred from relying on the Release in seeking dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint. GOL § 5-326 renders void and unenforceable agreements that exempt certain [*7] places of public amusement, recreation and similar establishments from liability. In this regard GOL § 5-326 states:

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to [**3] be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

In general, when a participant pays a fee to use recreational facilities, or pays league fees and the league pays for use of those facilities, a waiver and release of liability signed by the participant is void pursuant to GOL § 5-326 (see Falzone v City of New York, 128 AD3d 889, 9 NYS3d 165 [2d Dept 2015]). To void a release of liability executed by a user of a recreational facility pursuant to GOL § 5-326, there must be an evidentiary showing that the [*8] individual paid a fee for use of the facility (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]; Stuhlweissenburg v Town of Orangetown, 223 AD2d 633, 636 NYS2d 853 [2d Dept 1996]; Stone v Bridgehampton Race Circuit, 217 AD2d 541, 629 NYS2d 80 [2d Dept 1995]; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 515 NYS2d 291 [2d Dept 1987]).

A plaintiff’s complaint will be properly dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) where the plaintiff claims that the Release is void pursuant to GOL §5-326, but fails to establish that he or she paid a fee directly to the owner or operator of the recreational facility for use of the facility where the alleged injury occurred (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 AD2d 359, 707 NYS2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]). When a plaintiff fails to produce any evidence that he or she paid a fee for admission to, or use of, a municipality’s field, GOL § 5-326 will not void a release of liability executed by the plaintiff prior to participating in a sporting event (see Stuhlweissenburg v Town of Orangetown, 223 AD2d 633, 636 NYS2d 853 [2d Dept 1996]). Under such circumstances, the plaintiff’s waiver of liability is enforceable and not void as against public policy in violation of GOL § 5-326 (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]; Lee v Boro Realty, LLC, 39 AD3d 715, 832 NYS2d 453 [2d Dept 2007]; Castellanos v Nassau/Suffolk Dek Hockey, 232 AD2d 354, 648 NYS2d 143 [2d Dept 1996]; Stuhlweissenburg v Town of Orangetown, 223 AD2d 633, 636 NYS2d 853 [2d Dept 1996]; Stone v Bridgehampton Race Circuit, 217 AD2d 541, 629 NYS2d 80 [2d Dept 1995]; Koster v Ketchum Communications, 204 AD2d 280, 611 NYS2d 298 [2d Dept 1994]).

Here, by producing the Waiver and Release signed by the plaintiff, the defendants established prima facie entitlement to dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 A.D.2d 359, 707 N.Y.S.2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]). In opposition, plaintiff has failed to show he paid to use the field where he was allegedly injured, or that any portion of his League fee was paid to the School District for the use of the field. In fact, the affidavit of the defendant League’s President, George Hignell, shows [*9] that the School District “did not require a fee for the use of its fields” and that “[n]either the plaintiff nor the [L]eague paid a fee for use of Newfield High School athletic field” where the plaintiff is alleged to have been injured. Therefore, the Release is not void as against public policy pursuant to GOL § 5-326.

Based upon the foregoing, the plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (a)(5) (see CPLR 3211[a][1]; CPLR 3211[a][5]; Burgos v New York Presbyterian Hosp., 155 AD3d 598, 2017 NY Slip Op 07585 [2d Dept 2017]; Rudovic v Rudovic, 131 A.D.3d 1225, 16 NYS3d 856 [2d Dept 2015] [**4] ; Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 AD2d 359, 707 NYS2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]).

This constitutes the Decision and Order of the Court.

Dated: December 11, 2017

PETER H. MAYER, J.S.C.


Brigance, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 397

Brigance, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 397

Teresa Brigance, Plaintiff – Appellant, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., Defendant – Appellee.

No. 17-1035

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 397

January 8, 2018, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. (D.C. No. 1:15-CV-01394-WJM-NYW).

Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447 (D. Colo., Jan. 13, 2017)

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-In an action brought by an injured skier, an examination of each of the Jones v. Dressel factors for determining the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement led to the conclusion that none of them precluded enforcement of a Ski School Waiver or Lift Ticket Waiver. The factors included the existence of a duty to the public, the nature of the service performed, whether the contract was fairly entered into, and whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language; [2]-The district court properly determined that the provisions of the Colorado Ski Safety Act of 1979 and the Passenger Tramway Safety Act had no effect on the enforceability of defendant ski resort’s waivers. Colorado law had long permitted parties to contract away negligence claims in the recreational context; [3]-The skier’s claims were barred by the waivers.

OUTCOME: The court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the ski resort and the partial grant of the resort’s motion to dismiss.

CORE TERMS: ski, exculpatory, skiing, lift ticket, recreational, lesson, lift, ski area, practical necessity, recreational activities, public policies, bargaining, skier, inherent dangers, unenforceable, service provided, essential service, inherent risks, discovery, holder, signer, summary judgment, riding, equine, common law, ski lifts, negligence per se, quotation marks omitted, practically, harmless

COUNSEL: Trenton J. Ongert (Joseph D. Bloch with him on the briefs), Bloch & Chapleau, LLC, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff – Appellant.

Michael J. Hofmann, Bryan Cave LLP, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant – Appellee.

JUDGES: Before PHILLIPS, KELLY, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION BY: McHUGH

OPINION

McHUGH, Circuit Judge.

During a ski lesson at Keystone Mountain Resort (“Keystone”), Doctor Teresa Brigance’s ski boot became wedged between the ground and the chairlift. She was unable to unload but the chairlift kept moving, which caused her femur to fracture. Dr. Brigance filed suit against Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (“VSRI”), raising claims of (1) negligence, (2) negligence per se, (3) negligent supervision and training, (4) negligence (respondeat superior), (5) negligent hiring, and (6) violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act (the “PLA”), Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-115. The district court dismissed Dr. Brigance’s negligence and negligence per se claims at the motion to dismiss stage. After discovery, the district court granted VSRI’s motion for summary judgment on the remaining claims, concluding the waiver Dr. Brigance signed before participating [*2] in her ski lesson, as well as the waiver contained on the back of her lift ticket, are enforceable and bar her claims against VSRI. Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

Keystone is a ski resort located in Colorado that is operated by VSRI. In March 2015, Dr. Brigance visited Keystone with her family and participated in a ski lesson. At the time, ski lesson participants, including Dr. Brigance, were required to sign a liability waiver (the “Ski School Waiver”) before beginning their lessons. The Ski School Waiver signed1 by Dr. Brigance contained, among other things, the following provisions:

RESORT ACTIVITY, SKI SCHOOL, & EQUIPMENT RENTAL WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY & INDEMNITY AGREEMENT

THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY & WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.

. . .

2. I understand the dangers and risks of the Activity and that the Participant ASSUMES ALL INHERENT DANGERS AND RISKS of the Activity, including those of a “skier” (as may be defined by statute or other applicable law).

3. I expressly acknowledge and assume all additional risks and dangers that may result in . . . physical injury and/or death above and beyond the inherent dangers [*3] and risks of the Activity, including but not limited to: Falling; free skiing; following the direction of an instructor or guide; . . . equipment malfunction, failure or damage; improper use or maintenance of equipment; . . . the negligence of Participant, Ski Area employees, an instructor . . . or others; . . . lift loading, unloading, and riding; . . . . I UNDERSTAND THAT THE DESCRIPTION OF THE RISKS IN THIS AGREEMENT IS NOT COMPLETE AND VOLUNTARILY CHOOSE FOR PARTICIPANT TO PARTICIPATE IN AND EXPRESSLY ASSUME ALL RISKS AND DANGERS OF THE ACTIVITY, WHETHER OR NOT DESCRIBED HERE, KNOWN OR UNKNOWN, INHERENT OR OTHERWISE.

4. Participant assumes the responsibility . . . for reading, understanding and complying with all signage, including instructions on the use of lifts. Participant must have the physical dexterity and knowledge to safely load, ride and unload the lifts. . . .

. . .

6. Additionally, in consideration for allowing the Participant to participate in the Activity, I AGREE TO HOLD HARMLESS, RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND NOT TO SUE [VSRI] FOR ANY . . . INJURY OR LOSS TO PARTICIPANT, INCLUDING DEATH, WHICH PARTICIPANT MAY SUFFER, ARISING IN WHOLE OR IN PART OUT OF PARTICIPANT’S PARTICIPATION [*4] IN THE ACTIVITY, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THOSE CLAIMS BASED ON [VSRI’s] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE . . . .

Aplt. App’x at 117 (emphasis in original).

1 Although VSRI did not produce an original or copy of the Ski School Waiver signed by Dr. Brigance, it provided evidence that all adults participating in ski lessons at Keystone are required to sign a waiver and that the Ski School Waiver was the only waiver form used by VSRI for adult ski lessons during the 2014-15 ski season. Before it was clear that VSRI could not locate its copy of the signed waiver, Dr. Brigance indicated in discovery responses and deposition testimony that she signed a waiver before beginning ski lessons. See Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (“Brigance II“), No. 15-cv-1394-WJM-NYW, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *3-4 (D. Colo. Jan. 13, 2017). Based on this evidence and Dr. Brigance’s failure to argue “that a genuine question remains for trial as to whether she did in fact sign the Ski School Waiver in the form produced or whether she agreed to its terms,” 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, [WL] at *4, the district court treated her assent to the Ski School Waiver as conceded and concluded that “there is no genuine dispute as to whether [Dr. Brigance] consented to the terms of the Ski School Waiver,” id.

On appeal, Dr. Brigance offers no argument and points to no evidence suggesting that the district court’s conclusion was erroneous in light of the evidence and arguments before it. Instead, she merely denies having signed the Ski School Waiver and reiterates that VSRI has yet to produce a signed copy of the waiver. But in response to questioning at oral argument, counsel for Dr. Brigance conceded that this court could proceed with the understanding that Dr. Brigance signed the Ski School Waiver. Oral Argument at 0:41-1:23, Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., No. 17-1035 (10th Cir. Nov. 13, 2017). Three days later, counsel for Dr. Brigance filed a notice with the court effectively revoking that concession.

Dr. Brigance’s assertion that she did not execute the Ski School Waiver is forfeited because she failed to adequately raise it as an issue below. Avenue Capital Mgmt. II, L.P. v. Schaden, 843 F.3d 876, 884 (10th Cir. 2016); see also Brigance II, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *4 (“[N]otwithstanding the absence of a signed copy of the [Ski School Waiver], [Dr. Brigance] does not argue that this issue presents a genuine dispute requiring trial.”). But even if we were to entertain the argument, it would fail to defeat summary judgment. Despite her obfuscation, VSRI’s inability to produce the signed Ski School Waiver and Dr. Brigance’s assertions that she did not sign the waiver–which contradict her discovery responses and deposition testimony–are insufficient to establish that the district court erred in concluding that no genuine dispute exists as to whether Dr. Brigance agreed to the terms of the waiver. [HN1] “Although the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact” rests with the movant at summary judgment, “the nonmovant must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Champagne Metals v. Ken-Mac Metals, Inc., 458 F.3d 1073, 1084 (10th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, the

party asserting that a fact . . . is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . ; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A)–(B). Dr. Brigance made no such showing below, nor does she attempt to do so on appeal.

In addition, Dr. Brigance’s husband purchased a lift ticket enabling her to ride the ski lifts at Keystone. Dr. Brigance received the ticket from her husband and used it to ride the Discovery Lift. The lift ticket contained a warning and liability waiver (the “Lift Ticket Waiver”) on its back side, which provides in pertinent part:

HOLDER AGREES AND UNDERSTANDS THAT SKIING . . . AND USING A SKI AREA, INCLUDING LIFTS, CAN BE HAZARDOUS.

WARNING

Under state law, the Holder of this pass assumes the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing and may not recover from the [*5] ski area operator for any injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing. Other risks include cliffs, extreme terrain, jumps, and freestyle terrain. Holder is responsible for having the physical dexterity to safely load, ride and unload the lifts and must control speed and course at all times. . . . Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS, inherent or otherwise. Holder agrees to hold the ski area harmless for claims to person or property. . . .

. . .

NO REFUNDS. NOT TRANSFERABLE. NO RESALE.

Id. at 121 (emphasis in original).

After receiving some instruction during her ski lesson on how to load and unload from a chairlift, Dr. Brigance boarded the Discovery Lift. As Dr. Brigance attempted to unload from the lift, her left ski boot became wedged between the ground and the lift. Although she was able to stand up, she could not disengage the lift because her boot remained squeezed between the ground and the lift. Eventually, the motion of the lift pushed Dr. Brigance forward, fracturing her femur.

B. Procedural Background

Dr. Brigance filed suit against VSRI in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado as a result of the injuries she sustained while attempting to unload [*6] from the Discovery Lift.2
In her amended complaint Dr. Brigance alleged that the short distance between the ground and the Discovery Lift at the unloading point–coupled with the inadequate instruction provided by her ski instructor, the chairlift operator’s failure to stop the lift, and VSRI’s deficient hiring, training, and supervision of employees–caused her injuries. She consequently asserted the following six claims against VSRI: (1) negligence; (2) negligence per se; (3) negligent supervision and training; (4) negligence (respondeat superior); (5) negligent hiring; and (6) liability under the PLA.

2 The district court properly invoked diversity jurisdiction because Dr. Brigance is a citizen of Florida and VSRI is a Colorado corporation with its principal place of business in Colorado, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(a), (c)(1)(B)–(C).

VSRI moved to dismiss all claims raised by Dr. Brigance with the exception of her respondeat superior and PLA claims. The district court granted in part and denied in part VSRI’s motion. Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (“Brigance I“), No. 15-cv-1394-WJM-NYM, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, 2016 WL 931261, at *1-5 (D. Colo. Mar. 11, 2016). It dismissed Dr. Brigance’s negligence claim as preempted by the PLA. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, [WL] at *3-4. It also dismissed her negligence per se claim, concluding that she “fail[ed] to identify any requirement” of the Colorado Ski Safety Act of 1979 (the “SSA”), Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 33-44-101 to -114, that VSRI had allegedly violated. Brigance I, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, 2016 WL 931261, at *2. In dismissing this claim, the district court also held that the [*7] provisions of the Passenger Tramway Safety Act (the “PTSA”), Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 25-5-701 to -721, relied upon by Dr. Brigance “do[ ] not provide a statutory standard of care which is adequate to support [a] claim for negligence per se.” Brigance I, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, 2016 WL 931261, at *2 (emphasis omitted). But the district court refused to dismiss Dr. Brigance’s claims regarding negligent supervision and training and negligent hiring. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, [WL] at *4-5.

Upon completion of discovery, VSRI moved for summary judgment on the basis that the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver completely bar Dr. Brigance’s remaining claims. In the alternative, VSRI argued that summary judgment was appropriate because (1) Dr. Brigance failed to satisfy the elements of her PLA claim and (2) her common-law negligence claims are preempted by the PLA and otherwise lack evidentiary support. Dr. Brigance opposed the motion, contending in part that the waivers are unenforceable under the SSA and the four-factor test established by the Colorado Supreme Court in Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981). Dr. Brigance also asserted that her common-law negligence claims are not preempted by the PLA and that she presented sufficient evidence to allow her claims to be heard by a jury.

The district court granted VSRI’s motion. Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (“Brigance II“), No. 15-cv-1394-WJM-NYW, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *10 (D. Colo. Jan. 13, 2017) [*8] . It determined that the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver are enforceable under the factors established by the Colorado Supreme Court in Jones and that the SSA and PTSA do not otherwise invalidate the waivers. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, [WL] at *5-9. It then determined that all of Dr. Brigance’s remaining claims fall within the broad scope of the waivers and are therefore barred. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, [WL] at *10. This appeal followed.

II. DISCUSSION

Dr. Brigance challenges the district court’s enforcement of both the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver, as well as the dismissal of her negligence and negligence per se claims. [HN2] “[B]ecause the district court’s jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship, [Colorado] substantive law governs” our analysis of the underlying claims and enforceability of the waivers. Sylvia v. Wisler, 875 F.3d 1307, 2017 WL 5622916, at *3 (10th Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted). We “must therefore ascertain and apply [Colorado] law with the objective that the result obtained in the federal court should be the result that would be reached in [a Colorado] court.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In doing so, “we must defer to the most recent decisions of the state’s highest court,” although “stare [*9] decisis requires that we be bound by our own interpretations of state law unless an intervening decision of the state’s highest court has resolved the issue.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

Although the substantive law of Colorado governs our analysis of the waivers and underlying claims, [HN3] federal law controls the appropriateness of a district court’s grant of summary judgment and dismissal of claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Stickley v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 505 F.3d 1070, 1076 (10th Cir. 2007). We therefore review the district court’s grant of summary judgment and dismissal of claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) de novo, applying the same standards as the district court. Id.; see also Sylvia, 875 F.3d 1307, 2017 WL 5622916, at *4, 16. “However, we may affirm [the] district court’s decision[s] on any grounds for which there is a record sufficient to permit conclusions of law, even grounds not relied upon by the district court.” Stickley, 505 F.3d at 1076 (internal quotation marks omitted).

“Summary judgment should be granted if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Sylvia, 875 F.3d 1307, 2017 WL 5622916, at *16 (internal quotation marks omitted). Because it is undisputed that all of Dr. Brigance’s claims–including those dismissed pursuant [*10] to Rule 12(b)(6)–fall within the broad scope of either waiver if they are deemed enforceable under Colorado law, the first, and ultimately only, question we must address is whether the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver are enforceable.

[HN4] Under Colorado law, “exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored,” B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 136 (Colo. 1998), and it is well-established that such agreements cannot “shield against a claim for willful and wanton conduct, regardless of the circumstances or intent of the parties,Boles v. Sun Ergoline, Inc., 223 P.3d 724, 726 (Colo. 2010). See also Espinoza v. Ark. Valley Adventures, LLC, 809 F.3d 1150, 1152 (10th Cir. 2016) (“Under Colorado common law, it’s long settled that courts will not give effect to contracts purporting to release claims for intentional, knowing, or reckless misconduct.”). “But claims of negligence are a different matter. Colorado common law does not categorically prohibit the enforcement of contracts seeking to release claims of negligence.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1152; accord Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004). Neither does it always preclude exculpatory agreements as to claims of negligence per se. Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1154-55.

Accordingly, [HN5] the Colorado Supreme Court has instructed courts to consider the following four factors when determining the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement: “(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the [*11] contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” J/ones, 623 P.2d at 376. It appears that if an exculpatory agreement satisfies any of the four factors, it must be deemed unenforceable. Although consideration of these factors is generally sufficient to determine the enforceability of exculpatory agreements, the Colorado Supreme Court has clarified that “other public policy considerations” not necessarily encompassed in the Jones factors may invalidate exculpatory agreements. See Boles, 223 P.3d at 726 (“[M]ore recently, we have identified other public policy considerations invalidating exculpatory agreements, without regard to the Jones factors.”); see, e.g., Cooper v. Aspen Skiing Co., 48 P.3d 1229, 1232-37 (Colo. 2002), superseded by statute, Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107.

The district court examined each of the Jones factors and concluded that none of them preclude enforcement of the Ski School Waiver or Lift Ticket Waiver. Brigance II, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *5-8. It also determined that the provisions of the SSA and PTSA “have no effect on the enforceability” of the waivers. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, [WL] at *9. We agree.

A. The Jones Factors

1. Existence of a Duty to the Public

[HN6] The first Jones factor requires us to examine whether there is an “existence of a duty to the public,” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376, or, described another way, “whether [*12] the service provided involves a duty to the public,” Mincin v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 308 F.3d 1105, 1109 (10th Cir. 2002). The Colorado Supreme Court has not specified the precise circumstances under which an exculpatory agreement will be barred under this factor, but it has explained that unenforceable exculpatory agreements

generally involve businesses suitable for public regulation; that are engaged in performing a public service of great importance, or even of practical necessity; that offer a service that is generally available to any members of the public who seek it; and that possess a decisive advantage of bargaining strength, enabling them to confront the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation.

Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. The Colorado Supreme Court has expressly “distinguished businesses engaged in recreational activities” from the foregoing class of businesses because recreational activities “are not practically necessary” and therefore “the provider[s of such activities] owe[ ] no special duty to the public.” Id.; see also Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153 (“Though some businesses perform essential public services and owe special duties to the public, the [Colorado Supreme] [C]ourt has held that ‘businesses engaged in recreational activities’ generally do not.” (quoting Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467)).

And, indeed, [*13] Colorado courts examining exculpatory agreements involving recreational activities under Colorado law have almost uniformly concluded that the first Jones factor does not invalidate or render unenforceable the relevant agreement. See, e.g., Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467-69; Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-78; Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., No. 15CA0598, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3 (Colo. App. Dec. 29, 2016) (unpublished) (“The supreme court has specified that no public duty is implicated if a business provides recreational services.”), cert. denied, No. 17SC82, 2017 Colo. LEXIS 572, 2017 WL 2772252 (Colo. Jun. 26, 2017); Hamill v. Cheley Colo. Camps, Inc., 262 P.3d 945, 949 (Colo. App. 2011) (“Our supreme court has held that businesses engaged in recreational activities that are not practically necessary, such as equine activities, do not perform services implicating a public duty.”); see also Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153-56; Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1110-11; Patterson v. Powdermonarch, L.L.C., No. 16-cv-00411-WYD-NYW, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151229, 2017 WL 4158487, at *5 (D. Colo. July 5, 2017) (“Businesses engaged in recreational activities like [defendant’s ski services] have been held not to owe special duties to the public or to perform essential public services.”); Brooks v. Timberline Tours, Inc., 941 F. Supp. 959, 962 (D. Colo. 1996) (“Providing snowmobile tours to the public does not fall within” the first Jones factor.); Lahey v. Covington, 964 F. Supp. 1440, 1445 (D. Colo. 1996) (holding white-water rafting is recreational in nature and is therefore “neither a matter of great public importance nor a matter of practical necessity” (internal quotation marks omitted)), aff’d sub nom., Lahey v. Twin Lakes Expeditions, Inc., 113 F.3d 1246 (10th Cir. 1997).

The relevant services provided by VSRI–skiing and ski lessons–are [*14] clearly recreational in nature. Like horseback riding and skydiving services, see Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467; Jones, 623 P.2d at 377, skiing and ski lessons are not of great public importance or “matter[s] of practical necessity for even some members of the public,” Jones, 623 P.2d at 377. They therefore do not implicate the type of duty to the public contemplated in the first Jones factor. Although it appears the Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado Court of Appeals have yet to address the first Jones factor within the context of skiing or ski lesson services, the few courts that have considered similar issues have reached the unsurprising conclusion that ski-related services are recreational activities and do not involve a duty to the public. See, e.g., Rumpf v. Sunlight, Inc., No. 14-cv-03328-WYD-KLM, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107946, 2016 WL 4275386, at *3 (D. Colo. Aug. 3, 2016); Potter v. Nat’l Handicapped Sports, 849 F. Supp. 1407, 1409 (D. Colo. 1994); Bauer v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 788 F. Supp. 472, 474 (D. Colo. 1992).

Dr. Brigance fails to address the principle “that businesses engaged in recreational activities that are not practically necessary . . . do not perform services implicating a public duty.” Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949. Instead, she contends VSRI owes a duty to the public because the ski and ski lesson services provided by VSRI implicate a number of additional factors the California Supreme Court relied upon in Tunkl v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 444-46 (Cal. 1963), to determine whether an exculpatory agreement should be deemed invalid as affecting [*15] public interest.3 Specifically, Dr. Brigance contends VSRI owes a duty to the public because the Colorado ski industry is subject to express regulation under the SSA and PTSA, VSRI is willing to perform its services for any member of the public who seeks them, VSRI maintains an advantage in bargaining strength, and skiers are placed under the complete control of VSRI when riding their lifts.

3 Dr. Brigance separately argues that the waivers are invalid under the provisions and public policies contained within the SSA, PTSA, and PLA. Although she incorporates these arguments in her analysis of the first Jones factor, we address them separately in Section II.B, infra.

The Colorado Supreme Court has cited Tunkl and noted its relevance in determining whether a business owes a duty to the public. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-77. But when analyzing the first Jones factor, particularly within the context of recreational services, courts applying Colorado law focus on and give greatest weight to whether the party seeking to enforce an exculpatory agreement is engaged in providing services that are of great public importance or practical necessity for at least some members of the public. See, e.g., Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153-54; Rowan v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 31 F. Supp. 2d 889, 896-97 (D. Colo. 1998); Potter, 849 F. Supp. at 1409; Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-77; Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949. And the additional factors listed by Dr. Brigance are insufficient to establish that the recreational services offered by VSRI are of great public importance or practically necessary. An activity does not satisfy the first Jones factor simply because it is subject to state regulation. [*16] As we have explained, the first Jones factor does not

ask whether the activity in question is the subject of some sort of state regulation. Instead, [it] ask[s] whether the service provided is of “great importance to the public,” a matter of “practical necessity” as opposed to (among other things) a “recreational one. [Jones,] 623 P.2d at 376-77. And the distinction the Jones factors draw between essential and recreational services would break down pretty quickly if the presence of some state regulation were enough to convert an otherwise obviously “recreational” service into a “practically necessary” one. After all, state law imposes various rules and regulations on service providers in most every field these days–including on service providers who operate in a variety of clearly recreational fields.

Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1154; see also Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467-68. Furthermore, Dr. Brigance’s argument regarding VSRI’s bargaining strength is more properly addressed under the third Jones factor, and her remaining arguments concerning VSRI’s willingness to provide services to the public and its control over skiers are not sufficiently compelling to sway us from departing from the principle “that [HN7] no public duty is implicated if a business provides recreational services.” [*17] Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3.

The district court therefore did not err in concluding that the first Jones factor does not render the Ski School Waiver and the Lift Ticket Waiver unenforceable.

2. Nature of the Service Performed

[HN8] Under the second Jones factor, we examine “the nature of the service performed.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. Analysis of this factor is linked to and in many respects overlaps the analysis conducted under the first Jones factor, as it calls for an examination of whether the service provided is an “essential service” or a “matter of practical necessity.” See Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153; Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949. As is evident from our discussion of the first Jones factor, Colorado “courts have consistently deemed recreational services to be neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity.” Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3; see also Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467 (noting “recreational activities . . . are not practically necessary”); Jones, 623 P.2d at 377-78 (holding the skydiving service provided by defendants “was not an essential service”); Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949 (acknowledging recreational camping and horseback riding services are not essential or matters of practical necessity). And as previously established, the ski and ski lesson services offered by VSRI are recreational in nature and therefore, like other recreational activities examined by this and other [*18] courts, cannot be deemed essential or of practical necessity. See, e.g., Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1111 (“[M]ountain biking is not an essential activity.”); Squires ex rel. Squires v. Goodwin, 829 F. Supp. 2d 1062, 1073 (D. Colo. 2011) (noting the parties did not dispute that skiing “is a recreational service, not an essential service”); Rowan, 31 F. Supp. 2d at 897 (“[S]kiing is not an essential service.”); Potter, 849 F. Supp. at 1410 (disagreeing with plaintiff’s argument that “ski racing for handicapped skiers rises to the level of an essential service [as] contemplated by Colorado law”); Bauer, 788 F. Supp. at 474 (noting “free skiing[, equipment rentals, and ski lessons] for travel agents do[ ] not rise to the level of essential service[s] contemplated by Colorado law.”).

Dr. Brigance raises no argument specific to this factor other than asserting that “the ski industry is a significant revenue generator for the State of Colorado” and the services provided by VSRI are “public [in] nature.” Aplt. Br. 47. Dr. Brigance cites no authority suggesting that either factor would render the recreational services provided by VSRI essential in nature. And given Colorado courts’ assertion that “recreational services [are] neither essential nor . . . matter[s] of practical necessity,” Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3, we conclude the district court did not err in determining that the second Jones factor also does not dictate that the waivers be [*19] deemed unenforceable.

3. Whether the Waivers Were Fairly Entered Into

[HN9] The third Jones factor requires us to examine “whether the contract was fairly entered into.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. “A contract is fairly entered into if one party is not so obviously disadvantaged with respect to bargaining power that the resulting contract essentially places him at the mercy of the other party’s negligence.” Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949 (citing Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784 (Colo. 1989)). When engaging in this analysis, we examine the nature of the service involved, Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1156, the circumstances surrounding the formation of the contract, id., and whether the services provided are available from a source other than the party with which the plaintiff contracted,
see Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 950.

The Colorado Court of Appeals has identified “[p]ossible examples of unfair disparity in bargaining power [as] includ[ing] agreements between employers and employees and between common carriers or public utilities and members of the public.” Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3. It has also expressly acknowledged an unfair disparity in bargaining power in residential landlord-tenant relationships, presumably based in part on its holding “that housing rental is a matter of practical necessity to the public.” Stanley v. Creighton Co., 911 P.2d 705, 708 (Colo. App. 1996). But the Colorado Court of Appeals has also held that “this type of unfair disparity [*20] is generally not implicated when a person contracts with a business providing recreational services.” Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3. This is because recreational activities are not essential services or practically necessary, and therefore a person is not “at the mercy” of a business’s negligence when entering an exculpatory agreement involving recreational activities. Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949-50. As we have previously explained, “Colorado courts have repeatedly emphasized that . . . because recreational businesses do not provide ‘essential’ services of ‘practical necessity[,]’ individuals are generally free to walk away if they do not wish to assume the risks described” in an exculpatory agreement. Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1157; see also Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1111 (noting that a disparity of bargaining power may be created by the “practical necessity” of a service, but that no such necessity existed because “mountain biking is not an essential activity” and therefore the plaintiff “did not enter into the contract from an inferior bargaining position”).

We reiterate, at the risk of redundancy, that the ski and ski lesson services offered by VSRI are recreational in nature and do not constitute essential services or matters of practical necessity. As a result, Dr. Brigance did not enter the Ski [*21] School Waiver or Lift Ticket Waiver from an unfair bargaining position because she was free to walk away if she did not wish to assume the risks or waive the right to bring certain claims as described in the waivers. This conclusion is supported by a number of cases involving similar recreational activities, including those we have previously addressed under the first two Jones factors. See, Jones, 623 P.2d at 377-78 (holding an exculpatory release related to skydiving services was not an unenforceable adhesion contract “because the service provided . . . was not an essential service” and therefore the defendant “did not possess a decisive advantage of bargaining strength over” the plaintiff); see also Squires, 829 F. Supp. 2d at 1071 (“Where, as here, the service provided is a recreational service and not an essential service, there is no unfair bargaining advantage.”); Day v. Snowmass Stables, Inc., 810 F. Supp. 289, 294 (D. Colo. 1993) (“[T]he recreational services offered by [defendant] were not essential and, therefore, [it] did not enjoy an unfair bargaining advantage.”); Bauer, 788 F. Supp. at 475 (“Here, defendants’ recreational services were not essential and, therefore, they did not enjoy an unfair bargaining advantage.”).

Moreover, the circumstances surrounding Dr. Brigance’s entry into the exculpatory agreements indicate she [*22] did so fairly. Dr. Brigance does not identify any evidence in the record calling into question her competency, ability to comprehend the terms of the agreements, or actual understanding of the agreements. Nor does she point to anything in the record reflecting an intent or attempt by VSRI to fraudulently induce her to enter the agreements or to conceal or misconstrue their contents. In addition, there is nothing in the record to suggest Dr. Brigance’s agreement to the terms of the Ski School Waiver was not voluntary. See Brigance II, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *3-4.

Notwithstanding the well-established law that exculpatory agreements involving businesses providing recreational services do not implicate the third Jones factor, Dr. Brigance argues her assent to the terms of the Lift Ticket Waiver was obtained unfairly and that VSRI had an advantage in bargaining strength. This is so, she contends, because she “did not have a chance to review the exculpatory language contained on the back of the non-refundable [lift] ticket before she purchased it” and that “[o]nce the ticket was purchased, she was forced to accept the exculpatory language or lose the money she invested.” Aplt. Br. 47. Dr. Brigance’s argument fails to account for her [*23] voluntary acceptance of the Ski School Waiver. And although Dr. Brigance asserts she “did not have a chance to review” the Lift Ticket Waiver before purchasing it, she does not identify any evidence that VSRI prevented her from reviewing the Lift Ticket Waiver before she used it to ride the Discovery Lift, and “Colorado courts have repeatedly emphasized that individuals engaged in recreational activities are generally expected to read materials like these.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1157. Most importantly, Dr. Brigance did not raise this argument below and does not provide a compelling reason for us to address it on appeal.4
See Crow v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 323, 324 (10th Cir. 1994) (“Absent compelling reasons, we do not consider arguments that were not presented to the district court.”).

4 In fact, the district court noted that Dr. Brigance “neither disputes the relevant facts nor counters VSRI’s argument that she accepted the contractual terms of the Lift Ticket Waiver by skiing and riding the lifts.” Brigance II, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *4. As a result, the district court concluded Dr. Brigance had agreed to the terms of the Lift Ticket Waiver and would be bound to its terms to the extent it was otherwise enforceable. Id.

For these reasons, the district court did not err in concluding that the third Jones factor does not render the Ski School Waiver or the Lift Ticket Waiver unenforceable.

4. Whether the Parties’ Intent Was Expressed Clearly and Unambiguously

[HN10] The fourth and final Jones factor is “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. The inquiry conducted under this factor “should be whether the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and [*24] whether this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785. The Colorado Supreme Court has explained that “[t]o determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, we [may] examine[ ] the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.”
Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. We may also take into account a party’s subsequent acknowledgement that it understood the provisions of the agreement. Id.
In addition, it is well-established that the term “negligence” is not invariably required for an exculpatory agreement to be deemed an unambiguous waiver or release of claims arising from negligent conduct. Id.

The Ski School Waiver contains approximately a page and a half of terms and conditions in small, but not unreadable, font.5 It prominently identifies itself as, among other things, a “RELEASE OF LIABILITY . . . AGREEMENT”–a fact that is reiterated in the subtitle of the agreement by inclusion of the statement “THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY & WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.” Aplt. App’x 117. The provisions of the waiver include the signer’s express acknowledgment [*25] and assumption of “ALL INHERENT DANGERS AND RISKS of the Activity, including those of a ‘skier’ (as may be identified by statute or other applicable law),” as well as “all additional risks and dangers that may result in . . . physical injury and/or death above and beyond the inherent dangers and risks of the Activity, including but not limited to” a lengthy list of specific events and circumstances that includes “lift loading, unloading, and riding.” Id. In addition to this assumption-of-the-risk language, the Ski School Waiver provides that the signer

AGREE[S] TO HOLD HARMLESS, RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND NOT TO SUE [VSRI] FOR ANY . . . INJURY OR LOSS TO PARTICIPANT, INCLUDING DEATH, WHICH PARTICIPANT MAY SUFFER, ARISING IN WHOLE OR IN PART OUT OF PARTICIPANT’S PARTICIPATION IN THE ACTIVITY, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THOSE CLAIMS BASED ON ANY RELEASED PARTY’S ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE OR BREACH OF ANY CONTRACT AND/OR EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTY.

Id.

5 Although Dr. Brigance denies that she signed the Ski School Waiver, see supra note 1, she has not made any arguments regarding the readability or font size of the terms and conditions.

The Lift Ticket Waiver–approximately two paragraphs in length–is not as detailed as the Ski School Waiver, but contains somewhat similar language regarding the ticket holder’s assumption of risk and waiver of claims. After detailing [*26] some of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing that the holder of the ticket assumes, as well as identifying other risks and responsibilities, the Lift Ticket Waiver provides that the “Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS, inherent or otherwise” and “to hold the ski area harmless for claims to person and property.” Id. at 121.

Neither waiver is unduly long nor complicated, unreadable, or overburdened with legal jargon. Most importantly, the intent of the waivers is clear and unambiguous. In addition to the language indicating Dr. Brigance’s assumption of all risks of skiing, inherent or otherwise, both waivers contain clear language stating that Dr. Brigance agreed to hold VSRI harmless for injuries to her person as a result of skiing at Keystone. Moreover, the Ski School Waiver clearly and unambiguously provides that Dr. Brigance agreed to “RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND NOT TO SUE” VSRI for personal injuries arising in whole or in part from her participation in ski lessons, including claims based on VSRI’s “ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE.” Id. at 117. Dr. Brigance does not argue that any of the language regarding her agreement to hold harmless, indemnify, release, or not to sue VSRI is ambiguous or confusing. [*27] And like this and other courts’ examination of similarly worded provisions, we conclude the relevant release language of the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver cannot be reasonably understood as expressing anything other than an intent to release or bar suit against VSRI from claims arising, in whole or in part, as a result of Dr. Brigance’s decision to ski and participate in ski lessons at Keystone, including claims based on VSRI’s negligence. See Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1157-58; Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1112-13; Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 468-69; B & B Livery, 960 P.2d at 137-38; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 950-51.

Dr. Brigance’s argument on appeal regarding the fourth Jones factor centers on the assumption-of-the-risk language contained in both waivers. Specifically, Dr. Brigance contends the intent of the waivers is ambiguous because the provisions providing that she assumes all risks of skiing, “inherent or otherwise,” conflict with the SSA because the statute’s provisions only bar a skier from recovering against a ski area operator “for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-112; see also id. at 33-44-103(3.5). Because of this alleged conflict, Dr. Brigance asserts that she could not know whether she was “releasing [VSRI] of all liability as indicated by the [waivers], or only for the inherent risks of skiing as [*28] mandated by the SSA.” Aplt. Br. 50-51.

Dr. Brigance’s argument is unavailing for a number of reasons. First, it only addresses the assumption-of-the-risk language contained in each waiver. But the more pertinent provisions of the waivers are those regarding Dr. Brigance’s agreement to hold harmless, release, indemnify, and not to sue VSRI. These provisions appear independent from the assumption-of-the-risk language and therefore their plain meaning is unaffected by any potential ambiguity in the “inherent or otherwise” clauses. Dr. Brigance does not contest the clarity of the release provisions and, as previously described, we believe those provisions unambiguously reflect the parties’ intent to release VSRI from claims arising from Dr. Brigance’s participation in ski lessons at Keystone.

Second, the Lift Ticket Waiver’s “assumes all risks, inherent or otherwise” phrase, as well as a similar phrase contained in the Ski School Waiver, are not ambiguous. Rather, their meanings are clear–the signer of the agreement or holder of the ticket is to assume all risks of skiing, whether inherent to skiing or not. The term “otherwise,” when “paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary”–as [*29] is done in both waivers–is best understood to mean “NOT.” Webster’s Third New Int’l Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing. Dr. Brigance offers no alternative reading of the phrases and does not specify how “inherent or otherwise” could be understood as only referring to the inherent risks identified in the SSA. And while the Ski School Waiver contains a provision in which the signer agrees to assume all inherent dangers and risks of skiing as may be defined by statute or other applicable law, the next provision of the agreement clearly expands that assumption of risk, stating that the signer “expressly acknowledge[s] and assume[s] all additional risks and dangers that may result in . . . physical injury and/or death above and beyond the inherent dangers and risks of the Activity, including but not limited to” a rather extensive list of circumstances or events that may occur while skiing, including “lift loading, unloading, and riding.” Aplt. App’x at 117. That same provision continues, indicating that the signer understands the description of risks in the agreement is “NOT COMPLETE,” but that the signer nevertheless [*30] voluntarily chooses to “EXPRESSLY ASSUME ALL RISKS AND DANGERS OF THE ACTIVITY, WHETHER OR NOT DESCRIBED HERE, KNOWN OR UNKNOWN, INHERENT OR OTHERWISE.” Id. Reading the “inherent or otherwise” phrase in context clearly indicates that, at a minimum, the Ski School Waiver includes an assumption of risk above and beyond the inherent risks and dangers of skiing as defined in the SSA. See Ringquist v. Wall Custom Homes, LLC, 176 P.3d 846, 849 (Colo. App. 2007) (“In determining whether a provision in a contract is ambiguous, the instrument’s language must be examined and construed in harmony with the plain and generally accepted meanings of the words used, and reference must be made to all the agreement’s provisions.”); Moland v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office of State, 111 P.3d 507, 510 (Colo. App. 2004) (“The meaning and effect of a contract is to be determined from a review of the entire instrument, not merely from isolated clauses or phrases.”).

Third, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected a similar argument in B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134 (Colo. 1998). There, the Colorado Supreme Court examined an exculpatory agreement that included a statutorily mandated warning that equine professionals are not liable to others for the inherent risks associated with participating in equine activities, “as well as a broader clause limiting liability from non-inherent risks.” Id. at 137-38. It concluded that “the [*31] insertion of a broader clause further limiting liability does not make the agreement ambiguous per se” and instead “merely evinces an intent to extinguish liability above and beyond that provided” in the statute. Id. at 137; see also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 951 (upholding enforcement of an exculpatory agreement that purported to cover “inherent and other risks,” as well as claims against “any legal liability,” and noting that “[t]o hold . . . that the release did not provide greater protection than the release from liability of inherent risks provided by the equine act . . . would render large portions of the agreement meaningless”). Furthermore, the waivers do not conflict with the SSA merely because they purport to cover a broader range of risks than those identified by the statute as inherent to skiing. See Fullick v. Breckenridge Ski Corp., No. 90-1377, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 9988, 1992 WL 95421, at *3 (10th Cir. Apr. 29, 1992) (unpublished) (“If one could never release liability to a greater degree than a release provided in a statute, then one would never need to draft a release, in any context.”); Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 468 (“[T]his court has made clear that parties may, consistent with the [equine] statute, contract separately to release sponsors even from negligent conduct, as long as the intent of the parties is clearly expressed in the contract.”).

Finally, the single [*32] case relied upon by Dr. Brigance that applies Colorado law is distinguishable. In Rowan v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 31 F. Supp. 2d 889, 899-900 (D. Colo. 1998), the district court determined an exculpatory agreement was ambiguous and therefore unenforceable in part because it first recited “the risks being assumed in the broadest possible language,” expressly including risks associated with the use of ski lifts, and then later addressed the assumption of risk in terms of the inherent risks and dangers of skiing as defined in the SSA, which indicates the use of ski lifts does not fall within its definition of inherent risks. The release therefore conflicted with itself and the relevant statutory language.
See Cunningham v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corp., 673 F. App’x 841, 847 (10th Cir. Dec. 20, 2016) (unpublished). But unlike the waiver at issue in Rowan, the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver do not define the inherent risks of skiing in a manner contrary to the SSA. Nor do they contain conflicting provisions. The non-exhaustive list of inherent risks identified in the Lift Ticket Waiver appears to be drawn directly from the SSA, while the Ski School Waiver indicates inherent risks include those “as may be defined by statute or other applicable law.” Aplt. App’x at 117, 121. In addition, after referencing the inherent risks of skiing and providing that the signer [*33] of the agreement assumes those risks, the Ski School Waiver goes on to identify other, non-inherent risks associated with skiing and ski lessons and expressly provides that the signer assumes those risks. Specifically, the waiver makes clear that the risks assumed by Dr. Brigance include “all additional risks and dangers . . . above and beyond the inherent dangers and risks” of skiing and ski lessons, whether described in the waiver or not, known or unknown, or inherent or otherwise. Id. at 117. Unlike the provisions at issue in Rowan that provided conflicting statements regarding the risks assumed, the waivers here unambiguously provide that Dr. Brigance agreed to not only assume risks and dangers inherent to skiing, but also those risks and dangers not inherent to skiing.

Accordingly, the district court did not err in concluding that the fourth Jones factor does not invalidate the waivers.

***

Based on the foregoing analysis, we agree with the district court that application of the Jones factors to the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver do not render them unenforceable.

B. The SSA and PTSA

Although analysis of the Jones factors is often sufficient to determine the validity of an exculpatory [*34] agreement, the Colorado Supreme Court has “identified other public policy considerations invalidating exculpatory agreements, without regard to the Jones factors.” Boles, 223 P.3d at 726. At various points on appeal, either as standalone arguments or embedded within her analysis of the Jones factors, Dr. Brigance contends the Ski School Waiver and the Lift Ticket Waiver are unenforceable as contrary to Colorado public policy because they conflict with the SSA, PTSA, and the public policies announced therein.6 The district court considered these arguments and determined that the statutes do not affect the enforceability of either waiver as to Dr. Brigance’s claims. We find no reason to disagree.

6 Dr. Brigance also argues that the PLA prohibits use of exculpatory agreements as a defense to claims raised under its provisions and that the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver conflict with the public policies set forth in its provisions. But Dr. Brigance forfeited these arguments by failing to raise them in the district court. Avenue Capital Mgmt. II, 843 F.3d at 884. Although we may consider forfeited arguments under a plain-error standard, we decline to do so when, as here, the appellant fails to argue plain error on appeal. Id. at 885; see also Richison v. Ernest Grp., Inc., 634 F.3d 1123, 1130-31 (10th Cir. 2011). We decline to address Dr. Brigance’s argument that the waivers are unenforceable because their language is broad enough to encompass willful and wanton behavior for the same reason.

In 1965, the Colorado General Assembly enacted the PTSA with the purpose of assisting “in safeguarding life, health, property, and the welfare of the state in the operation of passenger tramways.” Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70, 73 (Colo. 1998). [HN11] The PTSA provides that “it is the policy of the state of Colorado to establish a board empowered to prevent unnecessary mechanical hazards in the operation of passenger tramways” and to assure that reasonable design and construction, periodic inspections, and adequate devices and personnel are provided with respect to passenger [*35] tramways. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 25-5-701. The General Assembly empowered the board “with rulemaking and enforcement authority to carry out its functions,” including the authority to “conduct investigations and inspections” and “discipline ski area operators.” Bayer, 960 P.2d at 73-74; see also Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 25-5-703 to -704, -706 to -707. With its authority, the board adopted the standards, with some alterations, utilized by the American National Standards Institute for passenger tramways. Bayer, 960 P.2d at 73-74.

The General Assembly enacted the SSA fourteen years later. The SSA “supplements the [PTSA]’s focus on ski lifts, but its principal function is to define the duties of ski areas and skiers with regard to activities and features on the ski slopes.” Id. at 74. [HN12] The provisions of the SSA indicate that “it is in the interest of the state of Colorado to establish reasonable safety standards for the operation of ski areas and for the skiers using them” and that the SSA’s purpose is to supplement a portion of the PTSA by “further defin[ing] the legal responsibilities of ski area operators . . . and . . . the rights and liabilities existing between the skier and the ski area operator.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-102. [HN13] In addition to the SSA’s provisions defining various responsibilities and duties of skiers and ski area operators, [*36] the 1990 amendments to the SSA limited the liability of ski area operators by providing that “no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” Id. at 33-44-112. The SSA also provides that any violation of its provisions applicable to skiers constitutes negligence on the part of the skier, while “[a] violation by a ski area operator of any requirement of [the SSA] or any rule or regulation promulgated by the passenger tramway safety board . . . shall . . . constitute negligence on the part of such operator.” Id. at 33-44-104. “The effect of these statutory provisions is to make violations of the [SSA] and [the rules and regulations promulgated by passenger tramway safety board] negligence per se.Bayer, 960 P.2d at 74. [HN14] Ultimately, the SSA and PTSA together “provide a comprehensive . . . framework which preserves ski lift common law negligence actions, while at the same time limiting skier suits for inherent dangers on the slopes and defining per se negligence for violation of statutory and regulatory requirements.” Id. at 75.

Dr. Brigance contends the waivers conflict with the public policy objectives of the SSA and PTSA because enforcing [*37] either waiver would allow VSRI to disregard its statutorily defined responsibilities and duties. We find Dr. Brigance’s argument unpersuasive.

At the outset, it is worth reiterating that [HN15] under Colorado law exculpatory agreements are not invalid as contrary to public policy simply because they involve an activity subject to state regulation. Espinoza, 308 F.3d at 1154; see also id. at 1155 (acknowledging the Colorado Supreme Court has allowed enforcement of exculpatory agreements with respect to equine activities despite the existence of a statute limiting liability for equine professionals in certain circumstances, while still allowing for liability in other circumstances); Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1111 (“The fact that the Colorado legislature has limited landowner liability in the contexts of horseback riding and skiing is relevant to the question of whether landowner liability might be limited in other circumstances absent a contract.”). Similarly, exculpatory agreements do not conflict with Colorado public policy merely because they release liability to a greater extent than a release provided in a statute.
See Fullick, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 9988, 1992 WL 95421, at *3; Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 468; B & B Livery, 960 P.2d at 137-38.

[HN16] It is true that the SSA and PTSA identify various duties and responsibilities that, if violated, may subject a ski area operator to [*38] liability. But the acts establish a framework preserving common law negligence actions in the ski and ski lift context, Bayer, 960 P.2d at 75, and do nothing to expressly or implicitly preclude private parties from contractually releasing potential common law negligence claims through use of an exculpatory agreement. While “a statute . . . need not explicitly bar waiver by contract for the contract provision to be invalid because it is contrary to public policy,” Stanley v. Creighton Co., 911 P.2d 705, 707 (Colo. App. 1996), Dr. Brigance does not identify a single provision in either the SSA or PTSA suggesting the enforcement of exculpatory agreements in the ski and ski lift context is impermissible or contrary to public policy. Moreover, “Colorado law has long permitted parties to contract away negligence claims in the recreational context” and we “generally will not assume that the General Assembly mean[t] to displace background common law principles absent some clear legislative expression of that intent.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1154, 1155. This principle is particularly relevant in the context of exculpatory agreements because “[t]he General Assembly . . . has shown that–when it wishes–it well knows how to displace background common law norms and preclude the release of civil claims.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1154-55.

Our conclusion that [*39] the SSA and PTSA do not bar exculpatory agreements is supported by the Colorado Supreme Court’s regular enforcement of exculpatory agreements involving recreational activities, particularly in the context of equine activities, as well as the General Assembly’s relatively recent pronouncements regarding the public policy considerations involved in a parent’s ability to execute exculpatory agreements on behalf of its child with respect to prospective negligence claims. In 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court concluded that Colorado public policy prohibits a parent or guardian from releasing a minor’s prospective claims for negligence. See Cooper, 48 P.3d at 1237. The Colorado Supreme Court’s broad holding appeared to apply even within the context of recreational activities, as the relevant minor had injured himself while skiing. Id. at 1231-35. The following year, the General Assembly enacted Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107, which expressly declared that the General Assembly would not adopt the Colorado Supreme Court’s holding in Cooper. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107(1)(b). Instead, the General Assembly explained that, among other things, it is the public policy of Colorado that “[c]hildren . . . should have the maximum opportunity to participate in sporting, recreational, educational, and other activities [*40] where certain risks may exist” and that “[p]ublic, private, and non-profit entities providing these essential activities to children in Colorado need a measure of protection against lawsuits.” Id. at 13-22-107(1)(a)(I)-(II). Accordingly, the General Assembly established that “[a] parent of a child may, on behalf of the child, release or waive the child’s prospective claim for negligence.” Id. at 13-22-107(3). The General Assembly’s enactment of § 33-22-107 reaffirms Colorado’s permissive position on the use of exculpatory agreements in the recreational context, and its authorization of parental releases and waivers suggests it did not intend and would not interpret the SSA as barring such agreements for adults.

Notwithstanding the lack of any statutory suggestion that the SSA and PTSA prohibit the enforcement of exculpatory agreements as a matter of public policy, Dr. Brigance contends two Colorado Court of Appeals decisions support her assertion to the contrary. In Stanley v. Creighton, the Colorado Court of Appeals analyzed an exculpatory clause in a residential rental agreement under the Jones factors and concluded that the agreement involved a public interest sufficient to invalidate the exculpatory [*41] clause. 911 P.2d at 707-08. The Stanley court reached this conclusion because, among other things, Colorado has long regulated the relationship between landlords and tenants, the PLA “confirms that landowner negligence is an issue of public concern,” and “a landlord’s services are generally held out to the public and . . . housing rental is a matter of practical necessity to the public.” Id. Although the Stanley court’s partial reliance on the existence of state regulations tends to support Dr. Brigance’s assertion that the existence of the SSA and PTSA render the Ski School Wavier and Lift Ticket Waiver either contrary to public policy or sufficient to satisfy the first Jones factor, the circumstances here are readily distinguishable. Unlike residential housing, skiing is not essential nor a matter of practical necessity. Among other considerations not present here, the Stanley court “placed greater emphasis on the essential nature of residential housing” and “alluded to a distinction between residential and commercial leases, implying that an exculpatory clause might well be valid in the context of a commercial lease.” Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1110.

Similarly, Dr. Brigance’s reliance on Phillips v. Monarch Recreation Corp., 668 P.2d 982 (Colo. App. 1983), does not alter our conclusion. In Phillips [*42]
, the Colorado Court of Appeals stated that “[s]tatutory provisions may not be modified by private agreement if doing so would violate the public policy expressed in the statute.” Id. at 987. Applying this principle, the Phillips court concluded that because the SSA “allocate[s] the parties’ respective duties with regard to the safety of those around them, . . . the trial court correctly excluded a purported [exculpatory] agreement intended to alter those duties.” Id. But apparently unlike the agreement at issue in Phillips, the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver do not appear to alter the duties placed upon VSRI under the SSA. See, Fullick, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 9988, 1992 WL 95421, at *3. And the court’s application of this principle to the SSA appears to be inconsistent with the more recent pronouncements by the Colorado Supreme Court and General Assembly regarding Colorado policies toward the enforceability of exculpatory agreements in the context of recreational activities. Moreover, as detailed above, the SSA and PTSA do not express a policy against exculpatory agreements.

“Given all this,” particularly the SSA’s and PTSA’s silence with respect to exculpatory agreements, “we do not think it our place to adorn the General Assembly’s handiwork with revisions to [*43] the [SSA, PTSA, and] common law that it easily could have but declined to undertake for itself.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1155.

In summary, Colorado’s “relatively permissive public policy toward recreational releases” is one “that, no doubt, means some losses go uncompensated.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153. And the Colorado Supreme Court and General Assembly may someday “prefer a policy that shifts the burden of loss to the service provider, ensuring compensation in cases like this.” Id. But “that decision is their decision to make, not ours, and their current policy is clear.” Id. As a result, for the reasons stated above, we conclude the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver are enforceable and accordingly bar Dr. Brigance’s claims.

III. CONCLUSION

We AFFIRM the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of VSRI and, on this alternative basis, its partial grant of VSRI’s motion to dismiss.


No matter who created the activity or the risk on Town’s land, using the risk was an outdoor recreation activity and protected by the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute.

Besides if you stand in front of a rope swinging when someone is using it attempting to slap the swinger’s feet as he goes by, and you get flattened by the swinger you should not be able to recover. 

Kurowski v. Town of Chester, 2017 N.H. LEXIS 174

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Jay Kurowski F/N/F Christopher Kurowski

Defendant: Town of Chester

Plaintiff Claims: acted negligently and willfully or intentionally by failing to remove the rope swing or post warning signs.

Defendant Defenses: New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute 

Holding: For the Defendant Town 

Year: 2017 

Summary 

The Town had a park with a pond. Someone had put up a rope swing that allowed you to swing into the pond. The town knew about the rope swing and knew that it was possibly hazardous. However, the town never removed the rope swing or posted signs about the hazards it presented. 

The minor plaintiff was standing in front of someone using the rope swing attempting to hit the person’s feet when he was clobbered by the person on the swing suffering injuries. 

The father of the plaintiff sued. The trial court and the appellate court dismissed the case because the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute provided immunity to the Town for outdoor recreational activities such as this one.

Facts 

The defendant city had a park with a pond. Someone put up a rope swing to use to swing into the pond. The city did not create the rope swing. Several people complained to the city about the rope swing and asked for it to be taken down or signs put up warning against its use.

The Town owns and maintains the Wason Pond Conservation and Recreation Area, which includes walking paths and Wason Pond, and is open to the public free of charge. Since approximately 2012, a rope swing has been attached to a tree overhanging the pond. Neither the plaintiff nor the Town constructed or maintained the swing. People use the rope swing to fling themselves over and into the pond.

The plaintiff, a minor, was at the rope swing. Another person was using the swing to enter the water. The plaintiff was attempting to hit the person’s feet. The person on the swing and the plaintiff collided injuring the plaintiff.

On August 20, 2015, Christopher was at the pond, standing in the path of a person using the swing. While Christopher was attempting to touch the feet of the person swinging on the rope, the two collided, and Christopher was seriously injured.

The father of the minor filed this lawsuit. The city filed a motion for summary judgment asking the compliant be dismissed because the city as the landowner was protected by the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute

The trial court agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed. 

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

The plaintiff first argued that using a rope swing to swing into a pond was not an outdoor recreation activity as defined under the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute. The court quickly shot this down because the statute did not list everything that was to be protected by the statute it only listed a few things and started that list with the language “including, but not limited to….

The court had found other decisions it had made where it interpreted outdoor recreation activities as covered under the statute even though they were not identified in the statute. 

By its plain terms, the statute’s list of outdoor recreational activities is not exhaustive. Indeed, we have previously applied the principle of ejusdem generis to this provision and concluded that an activity not specifically enumerated — but similar in nature to the activities listed in the statute — may constitute an “outdoor recreational activity.” The principle of ejusdem generis provides that, when specific words in a statute follow general ones, the general words are construed to embrace only objects similar in nature to those enumerated by the specific words.

Looking at the statute and the activity the court found the activity was a water sport and thus covered under the statute. 

We hold that Christopher was actively engaged in an outdoor recreational pursuit sufficiently similar in nature to the enumerated activity of “water sports” to constitute an “outdoor recreational activity” under RSA 212:34, I(c). 

The next argument made by the plaintiff was because the town did not supply the swing, it was not covered under the New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute. The court quickly shot this down finding it does not matter what was used in an outdoor recreational activity or who supplied it.

However, the identity of the person or entity providing the equipment or structure used in an outdoor recreational activity is immaterial. See id. at 56 (finding immaterial the fact that playground equipment used in outdoor activity was provided by landowner rather than user). Indeed, many of the enumerated outdoor recreational activities, for example, hunting, camping, hiking, bicycling, and snowmobiling, see RSA 212:34, I(c),….

The plaintiff next argued the activity was not an outdoor recreational activity because the landowner did not authorize the activity and because the activity was hazardous. The court seemed a little irked when it shot this argument down.

In fact, the statute specifically contemplates that immunity will apply even if the activity at issue involves a known hazardous condition. See RSA 212:34, II (“A landowner owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for outdoor recreational activity or to give any warning of hazardous conditions, uses of, structures, or activities on such premises … . (emphasis added)).

The next argument made by the plaintiff centered around whether or not the actions of the town willful when it failed to post signs about hazards of the activity. The plaintiff argued one version of the definition of the term willful, and the town argued a second. The court found that under either definition, the town was still immune under the statute. Additionally, the court found the actions of the
town were not willful because the plaintiff could not establish the town knew or should have known that an injury would probably result from the activity. 

An allegation that a landowner knew about a particular hazard and did nothing is insufficient to establish that the landowner knew or should have known that injury would probably result from that hazard. At most, such allegations sound in negligence. Therefore, even assuming that the Spires definition applies, we conclude that the plaintiff’s allegations are insufficient as a matter of law to establish that the Town acted “willfully.”

The plaintiff then argued the acts of the town were intentional. That part of the case was dismissed by the trial court because the court found the plaintiff had not alleged enough facts to prove a case of intentional acts on the part of the town. The plaintiff’s argument was:

The plaintiff argues that the Town’s conduct constituted an intentional act for the same reasons he asserts the Town’s conduct was willful — because the Town acknowledged that the rope swing was a hazard, was warned about that hazard on three occasions between 2012 and 2015, did nothing to remove it, and did not post warning signs. 

The court did not agree. There was no proof or pleading that the town had actual or constructive knowledge that its conduct, in failing to post signs or take down the swing, was conduct that was a substantially certain to result in an injury.

At most, the plaintiff’s allegations — that the Town was aware of a hazardous condition or activity and failed to act — sound in negligence. (concluding that allegations that defendant disregarded a substantial risk and failed to act sound in negligence). Accordingly, we hold that the trial court did not err when it found that the plaintiff alleged
insufficient facts to show that the Town’s conduct was willful or intentional.

The decision of the trial court was upheld, and the complaint dismissed.

So Now What? 

This case shows two simple truths for the outdoor recreation industry today. The first, plaintiffs are going to greater lengths to create arguments to litigate over outdoor recreation injuries. The work the plaintiff put in, in order to redefine each word of the statute in a way that did not protect the Town was
substantial and lengthy. 

The second is the statutes have to be written in a way that broadens the protections the legislature intends to give the courts the leeway to dismiss frivolous claims like this. Frivolous because I believe assumption of the risk would be the next defense.

If you stand in front of someone who is holding on to a rope swinging in your direction, and you do so willingly, you assume the risk of getting flattened.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute

 New Hampshire Recreational Use Statute

Title XVIII  Fish and Game

Chapter 212  Propagation of Fish and Game

Liability of Landowners

RSA 212:34  (2017)

212:34.  Duty of Care.

I. In this section:

(a) “Charge” means a payment or fee paid by a person to the landowner for entry upon, or use of the premises, for outdoor recreational activity.

(b) “Landowner” means an owner, lessee, holder of an easement, occupant of the premises, or person managing, controlling, or overseeing the premises on behalf of such owner, lessee, holder of an easement, or occupant of the
premises.

(c) “Outdoor recreational activity” means outdoor recreational pursuits including, but not limited to, hunting, fishing, trapping, camping, horseback riding, bicycling, water sports, winter sports, snowmobiling as defined in RSA 215-C:1, XV, operating an OHRV as defined in RSA 215-A:1, V, hiking, ice and rock climbing or bouldering, or sightseeing upon or removing fuel wood from the premises. 

(d) “Premises” means the land owned, managed, controlled, or overseen by the landowner upon which the outdoor recreational activity subject to this section occurs.

(e) “Ancillary facilities” means facilities commonly associated with outdoor recreational activities, including but not limited to, parking lots, warming shelters, restrooms, outhouses, bridges, and culverts. 

II. A landowner owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for outdoor recreational activity or to give any warning of hazardous conditions, uses of, structures, or activities on such premises to persons entering for such purposes, except as provided in paragraph V. 

II-a. Except as provided in paragraph V, a landowner who permits the use of his or her land for outdoor recreational activity pursuant to this section and who does not charge a fee or seek any other consideration in exchange for allowing such use, owes no duty of care to persons on the premises who are engaged in the construction, maintenance, or expansion of trails or ancillary facilities for outdoor recreational activity.

III. A landowner who gives permission to another to enter or use the premises for outdoor recreational activity does not thereby:

(a) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for such purpose;

(b) Confer to the person to whom permission has been granted the legal status of an invitee to whom a duty of care is owed; or 

(c) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for an injury to person or property caused by any act of such person to whom permission has been granted, except as provided in paragraph V.

IV. Any warning given by a landowner, whether oral or by sign, guard, or issued by other means, shall not be the basis of liability for a claim that such warning was inadequate or insufficient unless otherwise required under subparagraph V(a).

V. This section does not limit the liability which otherwise exists:

(a) For willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity;

(b) For injury suffered in any case where permission to enter or use the premises for outdoor recreational activity was granted for a charge other than the consideration if any, paid to said landowner by the state;

(c) When the injury was caused by acts of persons to whom permission to enter or use the premises for outdoor recreational activity was granted, to third persons as to whom the landowner owed a duty to keep the premises safe or to warn of danger; or 

(d) When the injury suffered was caused by the intentional act of the landowner.

VI. Except as provided in paragraph V, no cause of action shall exist for a person injured using the premises as provided in paragraph II, engaged in the construction, maintenance, or expansion of trails or ancillary facilities as provided in paragraph II-a, or given permission as provided in paragraph III.

VII. If, as to any action against a landowner, the court finds against the claimant because of the application of this section, it shall determine whether the claimant had a reasonable basis for bringing the action, and if no reasonable basis is found, shall order the claimant to pay for the reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by the landowner in  defending against the action.

VIII. It is recognized that outdoor recreational activities may be hazardous. Therefore, each person who participates in outdoor recreational activities accepts, as a matter of law, the dangers inherent in such activities, and shall not maintain an action against an owner, occupant, or lessee of land for any injuries which result from such inherent risks, dangers, or hazards. The categories of such risks, hazards, or dangers which the outdoor recreational participant assumes as a matter of law include, but are not limited to, the following: variations in terrain, trails, paths, or roads, surface or subsurface
snow or ice conditions, bare spots, rocks, trees, stumps, and other forms of forest growth or debris, structures on the land, equipment not in use, pole lines, fences, and collisions with other objects or persons.


Georgia Recreational Use Statute

 OFFICIAL CODE OF GEORGIA
ANNOTATED

 TITLE 51.  TORTS

 CHAPTER 3.  LIABILITY OF OWNERS AND OCCUPIERS OF LAND

 ARTICLE 2.  OWNERS OF PROPERTY USED FOR RECREATIONAL
PURPOSES

 § 51-3-20.  Purpose of article

§ 51-3-21.  Definitions

§ 51-3-22.  Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally

§ 51-3-23.  Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation

§ 51-3-24.  Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation

§ 51-3-25.  Certain liability not limited

§ 51-3-26.  Construction of article

§ 51-3-20.  Purpose of article

The purpose of this article is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability toward persons entering thereon for recreational purposes.

§ 51-3-21.  Definitions

As used in this article, the term:

(1) “Charge” means the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land.

(2) “Land” means land, roads, water, watercourses, private ways and buildings, structures, and machinery or equipment when attached to the realty. 

(3) “Owner” means the possessor of a fee interest, a tenant, a lessee, an occupant, or a person in control of the premises.

(4) “Recreational purpose” includes, but is not limited to, any of the following or any combination thereof: hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, aviation activities, nature study, water skiing, winter sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archeological, scenic, or scientific sites. 

§ 51-3-22. Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally 

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to persons entering for recreational purposes.

§ 51-3-23.  Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation 

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes does not thereby:

(1) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose;

(2) Confer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; or

(3) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act of omission of such persons.

§ 51-3-24.  Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation 

Unless otherwise agreed in writing, Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 shall be deemed applicable to the duties and liability of an owner of land leased to the state or any subdivision thereof for recreational purposes.

§ 51-3-25.  Certain liability not limited 

Nothing in this article limits in any way any liability which otherwise exists:

(1) For willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity; or 

(2) For injury suffered in any case when the owner of land charges the person or persons who enter or go on the land for the recreational use thereof, except that, in the case of land leased to the state or a subdivision thereof, any consideration received by the owner for the lease shall not be deemed a charge within the meaning of this Code section. 

§ 51-3-26.  Construction of article 

Nothing in this article shall be construed to: 

(1) Create a duty of care or ground of liability for injury to persons or property; or

(2) Relieve any person using the land of another for recreational purposes from any obligation which he may have in the absence of this article to exercise care in his use of the land and in his activities thereon or from the legal consequences of failure to employ such
care.
 

 


Rhode Island Recreational Use Statute

 General Laws of Rhode Island

 TITLE 32.  PARKS AND RECREATIONAL AREAS

 CHAPTER 6.  PUBLIC USE OF PRIVATE LANDS — LIABILITY
LIMITATIONS

 R.I. Gen. Laws § 32-6-1  (2017)

 

§ 32-6-1. Purpose of chapter

§ 32-6-2. Definitions

§ 32-6-3. Liability of landowner

§ 32-6-4. Land leased to state

§ 32-6-5. Limitation on chapter

§ 32-6-6. Construction of chapter

§  32-6-1. Purpose of chapter

The purpose of this chapter is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability to persons entering thereon for those purposes.

§ 32-6-2. Definitions 

As used in this chapter:

(1) “Charge” means the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land;

(2) “Land” means land, roads, water, watercourses, private ways and buildings, structures, and machinery or equipment when attached to the realty;

(3) “Owner” means the private-owner possessor of a fee interest, or tenant, lessee, occupant, or person in control of the premises, including the state and municipalities;

(4) “Recreational purposes” includes, but is not limited to, any of the following, or any combination thereof: hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, pleasure driving, nature study, water skiing, water sports, viewing or enjoying historical, archaeological, scenic, or scientific sites, and all other recreational purposes contemplated by this chapter; and

(5) “User” means any person using land for recreational purposes. 

§ 32-6-3. Liability of landowner 

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in § 32-6-5, an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use that property for recreational purposes does not thereby: 

(1) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose; 

(2) Confer upon that person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; nor

(3) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to any person or property caused by an act of omission of that person.

§ 32-6-4. Land leased to state 

Unless otherwise agreed in writing, the provisions of § 32-6-3 and this section shall be deemed applicable to the duties and liability of an owner of land leased to the state or any subdivision or agency thereof or land that the state or any subdivision or agency thereof possesses an easement for recreational purposes.

§ 32-6-5. Limitation on chapter 

(a) Nothing in this chapter limits in any way any liability that, but for this chapter, otherwise exists: 

(1) For the willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity after discovering the user’s peril; or

(2) For any injury suffered in any case where the owner of land charges the person or persons who enter or go on the land for the recreational use thereof, except that in the case of land leased to the state or a subdivision thereof, any consideration received by the owner for that lease shall not be deemed a “charge” within the meaning of this section.

(b) When the coastal resources management council designates a right-of-way as part of its designation process as specified in § 46-23-6(5), or when the coastal resources management council stipulates public access as a condition of granting a permit, the landowner automatically will have “limited liability” as defined in this chapter, except as specifically recognized by or provided in this section.

 § 32-6-6. Construction of chapter 

Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to: 

(1) Create a duty of care or ground of liability for an injury to persons or property; 

(2) Relieve any person using the land of another for recreational purposes from any obligation that he or she may have in the absence of this chapter to exercise care in his or her use of that land and in his or her activities thereon, or from the legal consequences of the failure to employ that care; or

(3) Create a public or prescriptive right or easement running with the land.

 

 


Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., 14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764

Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., 14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764

Erika Grotheer, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., Defendants and Respondents.

E063449

Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two

14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764

August 31, 2017, Opinion Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] APPEAL from the Superior Court of Riverside County, No. RIC1216581, John W. Vineyard, Judge.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

COUNSEL: The Law Office of Robert J. Pecora and Robert J. Pecora for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Agajanian, McFall, Weiss, Tetreault & Crist and Paul L. Tetreault for Defendants and Respondents.

JUDGES: Opinion by Slough, J., with Ramirez, P. J., and Codrington, J., concurring.

OPINION BY: Slough, J.

OPINION

SLOUGH, J.–Plaintiff and appellant Erika Grotheer is a non-English speaking German citizen who took a hot air balloon ride in the Temecula [*1288] wine country and suffered a fractured leg when the basket carrying her and seven or eight others crash-landed into a fence. Grotheer sued three defendants for her injuries: the balloon tour company, Escape Adventures, Inc. (Escape), the pilot and Escape’s agent, Peter Gallagher (Gallagher), and Wilson Creek Vineyards, Inc. (Wilson Creek) (collectively, defendants or respondents). Grotheer alleged Escape and Gallagher negligently or recklessly operated the balloon by (1) failing to properly slow its descent during landing and (2) failing to give the passengers safe landing instructions before the launch. Grotheer alleged the hot air balloon company is a common carrier, and as such, owed [**2] its passengers a heightened duty of care. (Civ. Code, § 2100.) Grotheer also alleged Wilson Creek was vicariously liable for Escape and Gallagher’s conduct because the vineyard shared a special relationship with the balloon company.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer could not satisfy the elements of a negligence claim and, even if she could, she had waived the right to assert such a claim by signing Escape’s liability waiver before the flight. The trial court agreed Grotheer could not establish the element of duty, finding Grotheer had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine and, as a result, Escape and Gallagher owed her no duty of care whatsoever. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696] (Knight).) The trial court entered judgment in favor of defendants, and Grotheer appealed.

Grotheer contends the trial court erred in concluding her claim was barred by primary assumption of risk and reasserts on appeal that Escape is a common carrier. We affirm the judgment, but on a different ground than relied on by the trial court. We hold: (1) a balloon tour company like Escape is not a common carrier subject to a heightened duty of care; (2) the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars [**3] Grotheer’s claim that Gallagher negligently failed to slow the balloon’s descent to avoid a crash landing; and (3) Escape does have a duty to provide safe landing instructions to its passengers, but the undisputed evidence regarding the crash demonstrates that any failure on Escape’s part to provide such instructions was not the cause of Grotheer’s injury.

I

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Preflight

Grotheer’s son, Thorsten, purchased his mother a ticket for a hot air balloon tour with Escape during her visit to California, as a present for her [*1289] 78th birthday. On the morning of the tour, Grotheer and Thorsten met with the Escape crew and the other passengers in the parking lot of the vineyard owned by Wilson Creek, near the field where Escape launched its balloons. Thorsten later testified at his deposition that when they arrived to check in, he tried to explain his mother’s language barrier to the flight crew so Escape could ensure she understood any safety instructions. Thorsten said Gallagher, the pilot, responded by waving him away and saying, “Everything is going to be fine.” Thorsten tried telling two more Escape employees his mother could not understand English, but they appeared to be in [**4] a rush and told him he could not be in the immediate launch vicinity if he had not purchased a ticket. At some point during this check-in activity, Grotheer signed Escape’s liability waiver, which purported to release the company and its agents from claims based on “ordinary negligence.”

Gallagher then drove the passengers to the nearby launchsite. Grotheer drove over separately, with Thorsten. In his declaration, Gallagher said he gave the passengers safety instructions during the drive, as is his custom. He said the instructions covered what to do during landing: “I described to my passengers what to expect in terms of lifting off … and landing … I told them to bend their knees and hold on upon landing, and not to exit the basket until told to do so.”

According to passengers Boyd and Kristi Roberts, however, neither Escape nor Gallagher provided safety instructions. Boyd declared he sat in the front passenger seat next to Gallagher during the drive, which lasted a little over a minute and during which Gallagher described his credentials and years of experience. Boyd remembered receiving “a very general informational talk … about what to expect on [the] flight,” but said [**5] “[t]here was no mention of safety issues or proper techniques for take-off and landing.” Boyd’s wife, Kristi, also rode to the launchsite with Gallagher and said she never heard him give instructions, “other than to hold on as we took off.”

B. The Crash

The tour proceeded without incident until the landing. According to the four accounts in the record, as the balloon descended at a high rate of speed, the basket crashed into a fence then crashed into the ground and bounced and skidded for about 40 yards before finally coming to a stop, on its side. By all accounts, the event was forceful and caused the passengers to be tossed about the basket.

Boyd Roberts described the crash landing as follows: “The balloon was being pushed at a good clip by the wind and we were travelling in a horizontal direction as we were also descending. We were going sideways, [*1290] and … [b]efore we landed, we actually crashed into and took out several sections of [a] 3 rail fence.” After the basket collided with the fence, it hit the ground “with a hard bump and a bounce.” The passengers were “taken for a wild ride as [the basket] was getting dragged downwind [by the balloon].” The basket “became more and more horizontal” as [**6] it was being dragged. “We easily skipped 30 or 40 yards, with a couple of hard impacts along the way.” When the basket finally came to rest, it was “on its side, not its bottom,” with Grotheer’s section on the bottom and Boyd’s on top. He recalled that Grotheer was below him “lying on what was the side of the [basket] which was now the floor.”

Kristi Roberts’s account of the crash landing matches Boyd’s. She said, “we were going pretty fast towards the ground and it looked like we might hit the fence. We did hit the fence, as the [basket] crashed in the top of the three rails, and knocked it right apart.” After that, the basket “hit the ground hard.” Kristi recalled, “I was holding on as tight as I could to the [b]asket, but we were all standing up and it was hard to keep from falling over when we crashed into the ground.”

Gallagher described the landing similarly, though not in as much detail. He said the balloon had been “descending more quickly than anticipated” and the “passenger compartment of the balloon made a hard landing, first on a fence, then on the ground.” He believed the balloon’s descent had been hastened by a “false lift,” which he described as a condition where the wind travels [**7] faster over the top of the balloon than the rest of the balloon. The faster wind creates lift, but when the wind slows the aircraft can quickly lose altitude unless the pilot adds more heat to the balloon’s envelope. In his declaration, Gallagher said he “applied as much heat as possible to the envelope to add buoyancy,” but the additional heat was not sufficient to arrest the descent before the balloon hit the fence.

In her deposition, Grotheer said the balloon basket experienced two forceful impacts, first with the fence, then with the ground. She recalled she had been holding on to the metal rod in the basket when it hit the fence, but despite holding on, she was “still sliding.” She believed her leg broke upon the second impact–when the balloon hit the ground after the collision with the fence. She described her injury as follows: “The people in the balloon, they were all holding. It was hard. It hit the ground hard. And one woman just came like this (indicating).” Grotheer added, “[a]nd the lady is innocent because even her, she was pushed. She was pushed around by the other people in the basket.” Grotheer did not think anyone collided with her after that initial impact with the ground. [**8] She explained, “I just got myself real quick together. [The injury] was just at the beginning.” [*1291]

James Kitchel, Grotheer’s expert who has piloted balloons for over 25 years, concluded the cause of the crash landing was Gallagher’s “failure to maintain safe control over the ‘delta’ temperature[,] anticipate changing pressure differentials[,] and counterbalance the effects on the rate of descent.” He disagreed with Gallagher’s false lift theory, opining instead the balloon had likely simply experienced a wind shear. He believed all Gallagher had to do “to avoid this crash entirely” was add “sufficient heat” to the envelope “before the Balloon was already about to crash.”

Kitchel explained that many people perceive ballooning as a gentle, peaceful experience, but in reality, balloon rides “can be violent, high speed events with tragic results.” What makes a balloon a risky conveyance is the pilot’s inability to directly control the balloon’s movement. A pilot can directly control only the balloon’s altitude, which is done by managing the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. The direction and speed of the wind determines lateral movement. Kitchel stated, “There is no way of steering [**9] a Balloon, such as by having a rudder. … [A] Balloon pilot never truly knows where the Balloon is going to land. He is at the mercy of the wind speed and direction.”

Kitchel also opined that the industry standard of care requires a commercial balloon operator to give “at the very least, one detailed safety presentation.” According to Kitchel, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Balloon Flying Handbook (FAA Handbook) suggests the following safety instructions to prepare passengers for a “firm impact” upon landing: (1) “Stand in the appropriate area of the basket”; (2) “Face the direction of travel”; (3) “Place feet and knees together, with knees bent”; (4) “‘Hold on tight’ in two places”; and (5) “Stay in the basket.” Kitchel did not believe any one particular set of instructions was required and he described the FAA Handbook’s safe landing procedures as a “good minimum standard.”

C. The Complaint

Grotheer’s complaint against defendants alleged she was injured when the balloon “crash land[ed] into a fence located on WILSON CREEK property.” She alleged her injury was a result of negligent piloting and failure to provide safety instructions. She also alleged Escape is a common carrier and [**10] has a duty to ensure the safety of its passengers.

D. The Summary Judgment Motion

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer’s negligence claim failed as a matter of law because she had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine. Defendants also [*1292] sought summary judgment on their liability waiver affirmative defense, claiming Grotheer had expressly waived her right to assert a negligence claim. In opposition, Grotheer argued: (1) the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not apply to common carriers like Escape; (2) the doctrine did not relieve Escape and Gallagher of a duty to avoid the crash landing and to provide safety instructions; and (3) the liability waiver was invalid because Escape knew she did not speak English and could not understand it. Grotheer also argued Wilson Creek was vicariously liable for Escape’s breach because the two companies were in a “symbiotic business relationship.”

After a hearing, the court concluded it was undisputed hot air ballooning is a risky activity that can involve crash landings, Grotheer assumed the risk of injury from a crash landing by voluntarily riding in the balloon, and defendants [**11] owed no duty whatsoever to protect her from her injury. The court also concluded Wilson Creek was not vicariously liable for Escape and Gallagher’s conduct. However, the court denied the motion for summary judgment on the liability waiver defense, stating, “there is at least an arguable duress in being separated from her son who was her translator at the time and not understanding the circumstances based on the language. I think that’s a triable issue of fact.” Based on its finding of no duty, the court concluded Grotheer’s negligence claim failed as a matter of law, and it entered judgment in favor of defendants.

II

DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

[HN1] A trial court properly grants summary judgment when there are no triable issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) “The purpose of the law of summary judgment is to provide courts with a mechanism to cut through the parties’ pleadings in order to determine whether, despite their allegations, trial is in fact necessary to resolve their dispute.” (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 843 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493] (Aguilar).)

[HN2] A defendant who moves for summary judgment bears the initial burden to show the action has no merit–that is, “one or more elements of the [**12] cause of action, even if not separately pleaded, cannot be established, or that there is a complete defense to [that] cause of action.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subds. (a), (p)(2).) Once the defendant meets this initial burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of [*1293] material fact. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 850-851.) “From commencement to conclusion, the moving party defendant bears the burden of persuasion that there is no triable issue of material fact and that the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Laabs v. Southern California Edison Co. (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 1260, 1268-1269 [97 Cal. Rptr. 3d 241].) [HN3] We review the trial court’s ruling on a summary judgment motion de novo, liberally construing the evidence in favor of the party opposing the motion and resolving all doubts about the evidence in favor of the opponent. (Miller v. Department of Corrections (2005) 36 Cal.4th 446, 460 [30 Cal. Rptr. 3d 797, 115 P.3d 77].) We consider all of the evidence the parties offered in connection with the motion, except that which the court properly excluded.1 (Merrill v. Navegar, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 465, 476 [110 Cal. Rptr. 2d 370, 28 P.3d 116].)

1 Without supporting argument, Grotheer claims the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to consider her objections to defendants’ evidence, and her responses to defendants’ objections to her evidence, on the ground they were untimely filed on the day of the hearing. We will not consider this claim, however, because Grotheer has not explained why any of her objections or responses had merit, or how she was prejudiced by the court’s failure to consider them. (City of Santa Maria v. Adam (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 266, 287 [149 Cal. Rptr. 3d 491] [“we may disregard conclusory arguments that … fail to disclose [appellant’s] reasoning”].)

B. Escape Is Not a Common Carrier and Did Not Owe Grotheer a Heightened Duty To Ensure Her Safe Carriage

Grotheer claims Escape is a common carrier and therefore owed its passengers a heightened duty of care to ensure their safe carriage during the balloon tour. We conclude a hot air balloon operator like Escape is not a common [**13] carrier as a matter of law.

[HN4] (1) In general, every person owes a duty to exercise “reasonable care for the safety of others,” however, California law imposes a heightened duty of care on operators of transportation who qualify as “common carriers” to be as diligent as possible to protect the safety of their passengers. (See Civ. Code, §§ 1714, subd. (a), 2100, 2168.) “A carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.” (Civ. Code, § 2100.) Contrary to Escape’s contention, it is necessary to resolve whether Escape is a common carrier because the heightened duty of care in Civil Code section 2100 precludes the application of the primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148, 1161 [150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158] (Nalwa).) [*1294]

Whether a hot air balloon operator is a common carrier is an issue of first impression in California.2 It is also a question of law, as the material facts regarding Escape’s operations are not in dispute.3 (Huang v. The Bicycle Casino, Inc. (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 329, 339 [208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 591] (Huang).)

2 The only published case addressing the issue is Balloons Over the Rainbow, Inc. v. Director of Revenue (Mo. 2014) 427 S.W.3d 815, where a hot air balloon operator argued it was a common carrier under Missouri law for tax purposes. The Supreme Court of Missouri upheld the administrative hearing commissioner’s determination the operator was not a common carrier because it exercised discretion regarding which passengers to fly and therefore did not “carry all people indifferently,” as the statutory definition required. (Id. at pp. 825-827.)

3 Escape claims it stipulated to being a common carrier in its motion for summary judgment. Actually, Escape stated was it was not “controvert[ing] at [that] time the assertion that it is a common carrier.” But even if it had so stipulated, [HN5] we are not bound by agreements that amount to conclusions of law. (E.g., People v. Singh (1932) 121 Cal.App. 107, 111 [8 P.2d 898].)

[HN6] (2) A common carrier of persons is anyone “who offers to the public to carry persons.” (Civ. Code, § 2168.) The Civil Code treats common carriers differently depending on whether they act gratuitously or for reward. (Gomez v. Superior Court (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1125, 1130 [29 Cal. Rptr. 3d 352, 113 P.3d 41] (Gomez).) “A carrier of persons without [**14] reward must use ordinary care and diligence for their safe carriage.” (Civ. Code, § 2096.) But “[c]arriers of persons for reward have long been subject to a heightened duty of care.” (Gomez, at p. 1128.) Such carriers “must use the utmost care and diligence for [passengers’] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.” (Civ. Code, § 2100; accord, Gomez, at p. 1130.) While common carriers are not insurers of their passengers’ safety, they are required “‘to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.'” (Squaw Valley Ski Corp. v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1499, 1507 [3 Cal. Rptr. 2d 897].) This duty originated in English common law and is “based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care towards their customers.” (Ibid.)

Common carrier status emerged in California in the mid-19th century as a narrow concept involving stagecoaches hired purely for transportation. (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1131.) Over time, however, the concept expanded to include a wide array of recreational transport like scenic airplane and railway tours, ski lifts, and roller coasters. (Id. at pp. 1131-1136.) This expansion reflects the policy determination [**15] that a passenger’s purpose, be it recreation, thrill-seeking, or simply conveyance from point A to B, should not control whether the operator should bear a higher duty to protect the passenger. (Id. at p. 1136.)

In Gomez, the California Supreme Court concluded roller coasters are common carriers, despite their purely recreational purpose, because they are [*1295] “‘operated in the expectation that thousands of patrons, many of them children, will occupy their seats'” and are “held out to the public to be safe.” (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136.) As with other recreational transportation like ski lifts, airplanes, and trains, “‘the lives and safety of large numbers of human beings'” are entrusted to the roller coaster operator’s “‘diligence and fidelity.'” (Ibid., quoting Treadwell v. Whittier (1889) 80 Cal. 574, 591 [22 P. 266].)

Despite the consistent trend toward broadening the common carrier definition to include recreational vehicles, almost a decade after Gomez the California Supreme Court refused to apply the heightened duty of care to operators of bumper cars, finding them “dissimilar to roller coasters in ways that disqualify their operators as common carriers.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161.) Crucial to the analysis in Nalwa was that bumper car riders “‘exercise independent control over the steering and acceleration,'” [**16] whereas roller coaster riders “‘ha[ve] no control over the elements of thrill of the ride; the amusement park predetermines any ascents, drops, accelerations, decelerations, turns or twists of the ride.'” (Ibid.) This difference in control convinced the court that “[t]he rationale for holding the operator of a roller coaster to the duties of a common carrier for reward–that riders, having delivered themselves into the control of the operator, are owed the highest degree of care for their safety–simply does not apply to bumper car riders’ safety from the risks inherent in bumping.” (Ibid., italics added.)

(3) This precedent teaches that [HN7] the key inquiry in the common carrier analysis is whether passengers expect the transportation to be safe because the operator is reasonably capable of controlling the risk of injury. (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136; Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161.) While a bumper car rider maintains a large degree of control over the car’s speed and direction, a roller coaster rider recognizes the thrills and unpredictability of the ride are manufactured for his amusement by an operator who in reality maintains direct control over the coaster’s speed and direction at all times. (Gomez, at p. 1136.) As our high court explained, the roller coaster rider “expects [**17] to be surprised and perhaps even frightened, but not hurt.” (Ibid.)

It is in this critical regard we find a hot air balloon differs from those recreational vehicles held to a common carrier’s heightened duty of care. Unlike operators of roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains, balloon pilots do not maintain direct and precise control over the speed and direction of the balloon. A pilot directly controls only the balloon’s altitude, by monitoring the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. A pilot has no direct control over the balloon’s latitude, which is determined by the wind’s speed and direction. A balloon’s lack of power and steering poses risks of midair collisions and crash landings, making ballooning a risky activity. (See [*1296] Hulsey v. Elsinore Parachute Center (1985) 168 Cal.App.3d 333, 345-346 [214 Cal. Rptr. 194] [hot air ballooning “involve[s] a risk of harm to persons or property” because pilots cannot “direct their paths of travel … [or] land in small, targeted areas”]; Note, Negligence in the [Thin] Air: Understanding the Legal Relationship Between Outfitters and Participants in High Risk Expeditions Through Analysis of the 1996 Mount Everest Tragedy (2008) 40 Conn. L.Rev. 769, 772 [“hot air ballooning” is a “high-risk activity”].) As Kitchel, Grotheer’s expert, [**18] put it, a balloon pilot “is at the mercy of the wind speed and direction.” (See Note, On a Wind and a Prayer (1997) 83 A.B.A. J. 94, 95 [“winds … can transform a wondrous journey into a life-or-death struggle”].)

[HN8] (4) The mere existence of risk is not sufficient to disqualify a vehicle as a common carrier, however. Roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains all pose “‘inherent dangers owing to speed or mechanical complexities.'” (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136.) But there is a significant difference between the dangers of riding those conveyances and the dangers involved in ballooning. The former can be virtually eliminated through engineering design and operator skill, whereas the latter cannot be mitigated without altering the fundamental nature of a balloon.

Operators of roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains can take steps to make their conveyances safer for passengers without significantly altering the transportation experience. For example, roller coaster operators can invest in state-of-the-art construction materials and control devices or task engineers with designing a ride that provides optimal thrills without sacrificing passenger safety. With a balloon, on the other hand, safety measures and pilot training [**19] go only so far toward mitigating the risk of midair collisions and crash landings. The only way to truly eliminate those risks is by adding power and steering to the balloon, thereby rendering vestigial the very aspect of the aircraft that makes it unique and desirable to passengers.

(5) Because no amount of pilot skill can completely counterbalance a hot air balloon’s limited steerability, ratcheting up the degree of care a tour company must exercise to keep its passengers safe would require significant changes to the aircraft and have a severe negative impact on the ballooning industry. For that reason, we conclude [HN9] Escape is not a common carrier as a matter of law.

C. The Trial Court Incorrectly Determined Escape Owed Grotheer No Duty of Care

Having concluded a hot air balloon company does not owe its passengers a heightened duty of care, we must decide whether Escape owed Grotheer any [*1297] duty of care to protect her from her injury. Grotheer claims Escape and Gallagher had a duty to safely pilot the balloon and to provide safety instructions. Escape contends it owed neither duty under the primary assumption of risk doctrine. We analyze each separately.

1. Balloon piloting and primary assumption [**20] of risk

Grotheer alleges her injury was caused in part by Gallagher’s subpar piloting. Her expert opined the cause of the crash was Gallagher’s failure to control the speed and direction of the balloon’s descent by anticipating changing pressure differentials and maintaining the proper amount of heat in the balloon’s envelope. According to Kitchel, Gallagher could have avoided the crash entirely by “adding sufficient heat … in a timely manner.”

[HN10] (6) “‘Although persons generally owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others … , some activities … are inherently dangerous,'” such that “‘[i]mposing a duty to mitigate those inherent dangers could alter the nature of the activity or inhibit vigorous participation.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1154, citation omitted.) Primary assumption of risk is a doctrine of limited duty “developed to avoid such a chilling effect.” (Ibid.) If it applies, the operator is not obligated to protect its customers from the “inherent risks” of the activity. (Id. at p. 1162.)

“‘Primary assumption of risk is merely another way of saying no duty of care is owed as to risks inherent in a given sport or activity. The overriding consideration in the application of this principle is to avoid imposing a duty [**21] which might chill vigorous participation in the sport and thereby alter its fundamental nature.'” (Jimenez v. Roseville City School Dist. (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 594, 601 [202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 536].) “Although the doctrine is often applied as between sports coparticipants, it defines the duty owed as between persons engaged in any activity involving inherent risks.” (Ibid.) The doctrine applies to any activity “done for enjoyment or thrill … [that] involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.” (Record v. Reason (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 472, 482 [86 Cal. Rptr. 2d 547]; see Beninati v. Black Rock City, LLC (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 650, 658 [96 Cal. Rptr. 3d 105] [by attending Burning Man festival plaintiff assumed risk of being burned during ritual burning of eponymous effigy].)

The test is whether the activity “‘involv[es] an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants … where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1156.) As we concluded above in the section on common carriers, a balloon’s limited steerability creates risks of midair collisions and crash landings. Moreover, those risks cannot be mitigated except by adding power [*1298] and steering, which would fundamentally alter the free-floating nature of a balloon, turning it into a dirigible.4 “‘[T]he excitement of [ballooning] is that you never know exactly where you’re going to land. [¶] … [¶] … It’s taking something that is unsteerable [**22] and trying to steer it. That’s the challenge.'” (Note, On a Wind and a Prayer, supra, 83 A.B.A. J. at pp. 95, 94; cf. Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 1157-1158 [refusing to impose liability on bumper car operators for injuries caused in collisions as doing so would have the effect of “‘decreasing the speed'”–and ultimately the fun–of the ride].)

4 The term “dirigible” literally means “steerable.” It comes from the Latin verb dirigere, meaning “to direct,” and refers to lighter-than-air aircraft capable of being steered, like blimps and zeppelins. (Webster’s 3d New Internat. Dict. (1993) p. 642.)

(7) We therefore hold [HN11] the doctrine applies to crash landings caused by the failure to safely steer a hot air balloon. We further hold Grotheer’s claim of pilot error falls under the primary assumption of risk doctrine because the claim goes to the core of what makes balloon landings inherently risky–the challenge of adjusting the balloon’s vertical movement to compensate for the unexpected changes in horizontal movement. As a result, Escape had no legal duty to protect Grotheer from crash landings caused by its pilot’s failure to safely manage the balloon’s descent.

(8) To avoid this outcome, Grotheer alleged Gallagher’s piloting was not only negligent, but grossly negligent, thereby increasing the inherent risk of crash landing. Grotheer is correct [HN12] the primary assumption of risk does not eliminate an operator’s duty to refrain from engaging in reckless conduct that “unreasonably increase[s] the risks of injury beyond those inherent in the activity.” ( [**23] Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1162.) However, she has provided no evidence Gallagher’s piloting fell so outside the range of ordinary it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of crash landing.

Gross negligence is a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 754 [62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095].) In this context, such extreme conduct might be, for example, launching without sufficient fuel, in bad weather, or near electrical towers; using unsafe or broken equipment; or overloading the passenger basket. In the absence of evidence of such conduct, we hold the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars Grotheer’s piloting claim.

Grotheer compares Gallagher’s piloting to the conduct of the skier defendant in Mammoth Mountain Ski Area v. Graham (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1367 [38 Cal. Rptr. 3d 422] (Mammoth Mountain), but the analogy is inapt. In Mammoth Mountain, a snowboarding instructor was injured when he collided with a skier who had stopped midslope to throw snowballs at his brother. The [*1299] court reversed summary judgment granted on the basis of primary assumption of risk, concluding there was a factual issue as to whether the skier’s behavior was so “outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport of snowboarding” that it increased the inherent risk of colliding with others on the slope. [**24] (Id. at pp. 1373-1374.) Gallagher’s alleged failure to control the balloon’s descent is nothing like the skier’s conduct in Mammoth Mountain. Skiing does not entail throwing snowballs, whereas managing speed and direction in the face of changing wind conditions is the principal challenge in ballooning. As a result, the failure to surmount that challenge falls squarely within the range of ordinary activity for ballooning.

2. Safety instructions and the duty to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks

(9) Grotheer also claims her injury was caused, at least in part, by Escape’s failure to give safety instructions. The trial court rejected this theory of liability when it concluded ballooning was an inherently risky activity and, as a result, Escape owed Grotheer no duty at all to protect her from injury. We conclude that ruling was too broad. Under Knight, [HN13] even an operator of an inherently risky activity owes a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize those inherent risks, if doing so would not fundamentally alter the activity. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317.) As we explain, instructing passengers on safe landing procedures takes little time and effort, and can minimize the risk of passenger injury in the event of a rough landing. [**25]

The primary assumption of risk doctrine is limited to those steps or safety measures that would have a deleterious effect on recreational activities that are, by nature, inherently dangerous. (Record v. Reason, supra, 73 Cal.App.4th at pp. 484-485; Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1162 [“The primary assumption of risk doctrine helps ensure that the threat of litigation and liability does not cause such recreational activities to be abandoned or fundamentally altered in an effort to eliminate or minimize inherent risks of injury”].) For example, an obligation to reduce a bumper car’s speed or the rider’s steering autonomy would impede the most appealing aspect of the ride–the ability to collide with others. (Id. at pp. 1157-1158.) “‘Indeed, who would want to ride a tapper car at an amusement park?'” (Id. at p. 1158.) Similarly, in the context of white water rafting, an obligation to design the rafts to minimize the “risk of striking objects both inside and outside the raft,” would transform the activity into “a trip down the giant slide at Waterworld.” (Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 248, 256 [38 Cal. Rptr. 2d 65].) Safety is important, but so is the freedom to engage in recreation and challenge one’s limits. The primary assumption of risk doctrine balances these competing concerns by absolving operators of activities with inherent risks from an obligation to protect [**26] their customers from those risks. [*1300]

(10) What the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do, however, is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 317-318.) As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so. As the court explained in Knight, “in the sports setting, as elsewhere, the nature of the applicable duty or standard of care frequently varies with the role of the defendant whose conduct is at issue in a given case.” (Knight, at p. 318.) [HN14] When the defendant is the operator of an inherently risky sport or activity (as opposed to a coparticipant), there are “steps the sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport [or activity].” (Id. at p. 317.)

Even before Knight, tort law imposed on operators a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize the inherent risks of their activity. (See Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317, citing Quinn v. Recreation Park Assn. (1935) 3 Cal.2d 725, 728-729 [46 P.2d 144]; Shurman v. Fresno Ice Rink (1949) 91 Cal.App.2d 469, 474-477 [205 P.2d 77].) Within our own appellate district we find precedent for imposing on hot air balloon operators and their pilots a duty of care to instruct passengers [**27] on how to position themselves for landing.

In Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127 [40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 249] (Morgan), Division One of our appellate district held a golf course owner had a duty to design its course to minimize the risk of being hit by a golf ball, despite the fact such a risk is inherent to golfing, because doing so was possible “‘without altering the nature of [golf].'” (Id. at p. 134.) Our colleagues explained this duty stemmed from the fact the defendant was the golf course owner. If, on the other hand, the plaintiff had sued the golfer who had hit the errant ball, the action would have been barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Id. at pp. 133-134.)

Nearly a decade after Morgan, the same court held a race organizer had a duty to minimize the risks of dehydration and hyponatremia5–risks inherent to marathons–by “providing adequate water and electrolyte fluids along the 26-mile course” because “[s]uch steps are reasonable and do not alter the nature of the sport [of marathon running].” (Saffro v. Elite Racing, Inc. (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 173, 179 [119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 497].) Faced with a similar situation in Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072 [122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22], this court held an owner of a motocross track had a duty to provide a system for signaling when riders have fallen in order to minimize the risk of collisions. (Id. at p. 1084.) Track owners could satisfy this duty by employing “caution flaggers,” [**28] or some similar device, which [*1301] would be relatively easy to implement and would not alter the nature of motocross. (Ibid.) As these cases demonstrate, the primary assumption of risk doctrine has never relieved an operator of its duty to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks without altering the nature of the activity.

5 A condition which occurs as a result of decreased sodium concentration in the blood.

(11) Having determined the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not absolve Escape of a duty to exercise reasonable care in all aspects of its operations, we turn to the existence and scope of the duty at issue here–safety instructions. (Castaneda v. Olsher (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1205, 1213 [63 Cal. Rptr. 3d 99, 162 P.3d 610] [HN15] [the existence and scope of a duty of care are questions of law for the trial court to determine in the first instance and the appellate court to independently review].) [HN16] Courts consider several factors in determining the existence and scope of a duty of care, including the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the policy of preventing future harm, and the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing the duty. (See, e.g., Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993) 6 Cal.4th 666, 675, fn. 5 [25 Cal. Rptr. 2d 137, 863 P.2d 207].)

[HN17] (12) Foreseeability is the primary factor in the duty analysis. (Pedeferri v. Seidner Enterprises (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 359, 366 [163 Cal. Rptr. 3d 55].) Our task in evaluating foreseeability “‘is not to decide whether a particular plaintiff’s injury was reasonably foreseeable [**29] in light of a particular defendant’s conduct, but rather to evaluate more generally whether the category of negligent conduct at issue is sufficiently likely to result in the kind of harm experienced that liability may appropriately be imposed.'” (Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (2011) 51 Cal.4th 764, 772 [122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 313, 248 P.3d 1170].) The existence and scope of a duty of care “is to be made on a more general basis suitable to the formulation of a legal rule” to be applied in a broad category of cases. (Id. at p. 773; see Huang, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at pp. 342-343.)

In this case, the evidence is undisputed that giving passengers a brief presentation on safe landing procedures (such as the instructions Grotheer’s expert cites from the FAA Handbook) is a customary and standard practice in the ballooning industry. To paraphrase Grotheer’s expert, these safe landing procedures are: (1) stand in the appropriate area of the basket; (2) face toward or away from the direction of travel, but not sideways (to minimize the risk of a side-impact injury to the hips or knees); (3) place the feet and knees together, and bend the knees; (4) hold on tightly to the rope, handles, or other stabilizing device, and (5) stay inside the basket. Gallagher himself agreed safety instructions are crucial. He said he always explains what passengers can [**30] expect during launch and landing. In preparation for landing, he tells them to hold on to the handles, bend their knees, and not to exit the basket until told to do so. [*1302]

As to foreseeability, undisputed evidence in the record tells us that rough landings are a risk of ballooning and instructing passengers on proper landing positioning can reduce, though not eliminate, the likelihood of injury in the event the landing does not go smoothly. Additionally, we see no public policy reason why balloon operators should not be required to give safe landing instructions. (Huang, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 342.) As Kitchel, an experienced balloon pilot, owner, and operator, explained, “[a] detailed safety briefing takes no more than 5 minutes and is time well spent.” While “[m]any balloon landings are gentle, stand-up landings … the pilot should always prepare passengers for the possibility of a firm impact,” as rough landings can result in severe injuries.

(13) Escape contends the duty to provide safe landing instructions will be overly burdensome to balloon operators, citing the complexity of the preflight instructions operators of passenger-carrying airplanes are required to give under federal regulation. (See 14 C.F.R. § 121.571 (2017).) We find the concern misplaced. [**31] [HN18] The duty we recognize here does not compel anything so lengthy or complex as commercial airlines’ preflight instructions. It requires only that a commercial balloon operator provide a brief set of safe landing procedures, which Escape’s pilot said is already his custom. Safety instructions are a common practice among operators of recreational activities, and we do not believe requiring balloon operators to set aside a few moments before launch to advise passengers how to position themselves in the basket and what to do in the event of a rough landing will have a negative impact on the ballooning industry. (Cf. Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161 [noting bumper car operator “enforce[d] various riding instructions and safety rules” before giving control of the car’s speed and steering to riders]; Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories, supra, 32 Cal.App.4th at p. 251 [operator of white water rafting tour gave plaintiff “safety instructions,” such as “where to sit, that it was necessary to hold onto the raft while navigating rapids and where to hold on, and how to react if thrown out of the raft into the water”].) Because the evidence supports Grotheer’s allegation Escape failed to give safety instructions of any kind to any of its passengers, we need not go into precisely what warnings are required, [**32] including whether a commercial balloon operator must ensure passengers with known language barriers understand the safety instructions.

We therefore conclude the court incorrectly applied the primary assumption of risk doctrine to absolve Escape of a duty to provide safe landing procedures. However, this conclusion does not end our analysis. We must also consider whether Grotheer’s negligence claim fails as a matter of law because she has not demonstrated the existence of a triable issue of fact on causation. (Coral Construction, Inc. v. City and County of San Francisco (2010) 50 Cal.4th 315, 336 [113 Cal. Rptr. 3d 279, 235 P.3d 947] [“‘[i]t is axiomatic that [HN19] we review the trial court’s rulings and not its reasoning'” and [*1303] “[t]hus, a reviewing court may affirm a trial court’s decision granting summary judgment for an erroneous reason”].)

D. Any Lack of Safety Instructions Was Not a Substantial Factor in Causing Grotheer’s Injury

[HN20] (14) “The elements of actionable negligence, in addition to a duty to use due care, [are] breach of that duty and a proximate or legal causal connection between the breach and plaintiff’s injuries.” (Onciano v. Golden Palace Restaurant, Inc. (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 385, 394 [268 Cal. Rptr. 96] (Onciano).) [HN21] (15) To be considered a proximate cause of an injury, the acts of the defendant must have been a “substantial factor” in contributing to the injury. (Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, 969 [67 Cal. Rptr. 2d 16, 941 P.2d 1203].) Generally, a defendant’s conduct is a substantial [**33] factor if the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct. (Ibid.) If the injury “‘would have happened anyway, whether the defendant was negligent or not, then his or her negligence was not a cause in fact, and of course cannot be the legal or responsible cause.'” (Toste v. CalPortland Construction (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 362, 370 [199 Cal. Rptr. 3d 522], quoting 6 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (10th ed. 2005) Torts, § 1185, p. 552.) As our high court has explained, “‘a force which plays only an “infinitesimal” or “theoretical” part in bringing about injury, damage, or loss is not a substantial factor.'” (Bockrath v. Aldrich Chemical Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 71, 79 [86 Cal. Rptr. 2d 846, 980 P.2d 398].)

[HN22] While proximate cause ordinarily is a question of fact, it may be decided as a question of law if “‘”‘under the undisputed facts, there is no room for a reasonable difference of opinion.'”‘” (Onciano, supra, 219 Cal.App.3d at p. 395.) As noted, once a defendant claiming the plaintiff cannot satisfy an element of his or her claim meets the initial burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a triable issue of fact. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 850-851.) When the evidence supports only one reasonable inference as to the cause of the plaintiff’s injury, courts should not engage in “unreasonable speculation that other contradictory evidence exists but was not adduced in the summary judgment proceedings.” (Constance B. v. State of California (1986) 178 Cal.App.3d 200, 211 [223 Cal. Rptr. 645] [dismissal [**34] of negligence claim was proper because no reasonable fact finder could find a causal nexus between defendant store owner’s improper lighting and the assault on plaintiff based on the evidence presented during the summary judgment proceedings].)

As explained in the previous part, the purpose of the safety instructions is to reduce injury in the event of rough landings. Here, however, the undisputed descriptions of the landing establish it was not merely rough, but rather [*1304] was a forceful and violent event–a crash. According to Boyd and Kristi Roberts, whose uncontested descriptions are the most detailed, the basket was descending “pretty fast” when it hit the fence with such force it “knocked it right apart,” taking out several fence sections. The basket then hit the ground “hard” and skidded for about 40 yards, becoming more and more horizontal as it was dragged, before coming to a stop on its side with Grotheer’s section on the bottom. Gallagher, the pilot, said the balloon had been descending more quickly than he had anticipated when the basket made a “hard landing, first on the fence and then on the ground.” Grotheer too described both impacts as “hard.” Both Grotheer and Kristi [**35] said they had been holding on to the handles (Kristi as tightly as she could) but were unable to keep from slipping or falling.

From these descriptions, we gather the crash landing was a jarring and violent experience, a “wild ride” so forceful that several passengers fell–even one who had tried desperately not to fall by gripping the basket handles as tightly as possible. (See Endicott v. Nissan Motor Corp. (1977) 73 Cal.App.3d 917, 926 [141 Cal. Rptr. 95] [“If the violence of a crash is the effective efficient cause of plaintiff’s injuries to the extent that it supersedes other factors … and makes them immaterial, plaintiff cannot recover”].) The accounts of the crash satisfied defendants’ burden of demonstrating the violence of the crash, not any lack of instructions, was the proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury. The burden then shifted to Grotheer to explain how things may have played out differently had everyone been instructed on proper body positioning during landing. She produced no such evidence. Instead, she said at her deposition she believed everyone had in fact been holding on to the basket handles during the descent. While one could speculate that Kristi had been the only passenger holding the handles correctly and the woman who fell into Grotheer [**36] had employed an improper grip (say, using only one hand or not holding “tight,” as the FAA Handbook instructs), Grotheer presented no evidence to support such a theory. As a result, she did not meet her burden of demonstrating an evidentiary dispute about whether the provision of instructions would have produced a different outcome.

(16) We conclude any failure to instruct on Escape’s part was not a proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury, and we affirm the grant of summary judgment on that ground. Given our holding that defendants are not liable for negligence, it is unnecessary to review the trial court’s ruling on Wilson Creek’s vicarious liability or its ruling on defendants’ liability waiver defense.6

6 Defendants asked us to review the ruling on their affirmative defense in the event we reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, citing Code of Civil Procedure section 906, which allows a respondent, without appealing from a judgment, to seek appellate review (at the court’s discretion) of any ruling that “substantially affects the rights of a party,” for “the purpose of determining whether or not the appellant was prejudiced by the error … upon which he relies for reversal.” Because we do not reverse the grant of summary judgment, we need not reach the issue of defendants’ affirmative defense.

[*1305]

III

DISPOSITION

We affirm the judgment. The parties shall bear their costs on appeal.

Ramirez, P. J., and Codrington, J., concurred.