Expert testimony is needed when the activity is beyond the scope of the general knowledge of a juror in Connecticut.Posted: May 7, 2018
In this case, the plaintiff’s claim failed because they needed any expert witness and the one they had hired was disqualified. Without an expert in horseback riding lessons, the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed.
State: Connecticut, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Plaintiff: Louisa R. Ellis, ppa Elizabeth Ellis, Elizabeth Ellis
Defendant: YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc.
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence
Holding: For the Defendant
Your expert witness must have the experience, education or background to be able to testify as to their findings. In states where an expert opinion is needed, like Connecticut, not having an expert means not have a case.
Here the expert witness hired by the plaintiff did not have the necessary qualifications, and the court would not allow his testimony. Because horseback riding and equine issues were outside of the scope of the normal juror in Connecticut, an expert witness was needed by the plaintiff. Without an expert, the plaintiff’s case was dismissed.
On July 18, 2011, Louisa Ellis fell from a pony while taking horseback riding lessons at YMCA Camp Mohawk. Ellis sustained injuries to her hand and elbow that required surgery and therapy. Appellants identified Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic, to investigate the claims and to provide expert testimony.
The plaintiff’s hired an expert witness to provide expert testimony on why the defendant was negligent. The court found the plaintiff’s expert was not qualified to render an expert opinion on the matter.
… Corey Andres, was not qualified to render an expert opinion regarding the standard of care for an equestrian course at the YMCA camp at which twelve-year-old Louisa was injured.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s case because they could not prove their case.
The district court excluded Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding. Therefore, appellants’ failure to produce an expert where expert testimony was required led the district court to grant summary judgment.
The plaintiffs appealed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
Although the case was brought in the federal district court because the parties were from different states, the law of the state where the accident happened was the law used in the case. Since the accident occurred in Connecticut, Connecticut law was applied to the case.
Under Connecticut law, horseback riding was outside the general knowledge of jurors and thus required expert testimony for the jurors to make their decisions.
Connecticut courts have held, on similar facts, that the general public is no longer as familiar with horsemanship as it arguably was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that expert testimony is necessary to establish a standard of care and a breach of that standard.
An expert witness is needed to show both the standard of care in the case and whether the defendant breached that standard of care.
The plaintiff hired Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic.
Andres claimed his expertise based on his membership in the American Camp Association (“ACA”) and his study of therapeutic education at Ohio State, University of Toledo, including a study pertaining to equestrian matters. Andres’s investigation concluded that YMCA was negligent in failing to provide complete and proper instruction as to how to fall from a horse in a way that minimizes injury.
The district court excluded “Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding.”
The district stated, and the appellate court agreed that:
Andres does not rise to the level of expertise required to opine on the matters at hand. Andres has practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship — his resume makes no reference to any such knowledge, and his investigation merely points to three publications that he relied on when preparing his report. Andres’s resume instead highlights a wide array of fields and organizations in which he has obtained certifications or is a member. Appellants argue that Andres’s membership in the ACA broadly reaches all camp recreations. This broad qualification falls well short of the specialized knowledge that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 demands. The district court therefore did not abuse its discretion in its decision to exclude Andres’s testimony.
Because the plaintiff’s expert witness was excluded and could not testify, the plaintiffs could not prove their case.
Appellants’ failure to provide necessary expert testimony precludes them from presenting these claims under Connecticut state law. Thus, there are no issues of material fact raised to challenge the district court’s entry of summary judgment.
So Now What?
The courts have been given broader discretion to determine who can and cannot testify as an expert witness. The courts can also determine, even if the expert is qualified to testify, that the testimony they are going to give is not based on science.
In states where expert testimony is required or any state where you want to win, you need to hire expert witnesses who are going to qualify as an expert in their field and provide an opinion based on science, history, experience and real life.
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Louisa R. Ellis, ppa Elizabeth Ellis, Elizabeth Ellis, Plaintiff-Appellant, -v.- YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT
615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057
September 10, 2015, Decided
NOTICE: PLEASE REFER TO FEDERAL RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE RULE 32.1 GOVERNING THE CITATION TO UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Thompson, J.).
Ellis v. Y.M.C.A. Camp Mohawk, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110403 (D. Conn., Aug. 11, 2014)
OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: -A claim that a summer camp operator was negligent in offering horseback riding instruction required the support of expert testimony, as the intricacies of horseback riding technique and horsemanship were no longer within the bounds of ordinary knowledge or experience of judges and jurors; -The proffered expert witness was not qualified under Fed. R. Evid. 702, as he claimed a generalized familiarity with camp education but had practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship.
OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.
CORE TERMS: expert testimony, summary judgment, state law, standard of care, specialized knowledge, horsemanship, expertise, juror, horseback riding, expert witness, issues of material fact, qualification, familiarity, membership, diversity, resume, equestrian, pony
COUNSEL: FOR APPELLANT: Megan L. Piltz, Sabatini and Associates, LLC, Newington, Connecticut.
FOR APPELLEES: Renee W. Dwyer and Katherine L. Matthews, Gordon, Muir and Foley, LLP, Hartford, Connecticut.
JUDGES: PRESENT: RALPH K. WINTER, JOHN M. WALKER, JR., DENNIS JACOBS, Circuit Judges.
[*697] SUMMARY ORDER
UPON DUE CONSIDERATION, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that the judgment of the district court be AFFIRMED.
Louisa Ellis and Elizabeth Ellis (“Appellants”) appeal from the judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Thompson, J.), dismissing [*698] on summary judgment their diversity action alleging negligence against YCMA Camp Mohawk, Inc. (“YMCA”). Appellants argue that the district court abused its discretion in determining that their expert, Corey Andres, was not qualified to render an expert opinion regarding the standard of care for an equestrian course at the YMCA camp at which twelve-year-old Louisa was injured. Appellants also argue that the district court erred in determining that all of the issues presented require expert testimony. We assume the parties’ [**2] familiarity with the underlying facts, the procedural history, and the issues presented for review.
On July 18, 2011, Louisa Ellis fell from a pony while taking horseback riding lessons at YMCA Camp Mohawk. Ellis sustained injuries to her hand and elbow that required surgery and therapy. Appellants identified Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic, to investigate the claims and to provide expert testimony. Andres claimed his expertise based on his membership in the American Camp Association (“ACA”) and his study of therapeutic education at Ohio State, University of Toledo, including a study pertaining to equestrian matters. Andres’s investigation concluded that YMCA was negligent in failing to provide complete and proper instruction as to how to fall from a horse in a way that minimizes injury.
The district court excluded Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding. Therefore, appellants’ failure to produce an expert where expert testimony was required led the district court to grant summary judgment.
[HN1] A grant of summary judgment is reviewed de novo to determine whether any genuine issues of material fact would bar summary judgment. [**3] Zurich Am. Ins. Co. v. ABM Indus., Inc., 397 F.3d 158, 164 (2d Cir. 2005). [HN2] We review the district court’s evidentiary ruling under an abuse-of-discretion standard. See id. at 171-72. “Either an error of law or a clear error of fact may constitute an abuse of discretion.” Schering Corp. v. Pfizer, Inc., 189 F.3d 218, 224 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). [HN3] A district court’s qualification of an expert witness will only be overturned if it is manifestly erroneous. United States v. Barrow, 400 F.3d 109, 123 (2d Cir. 2005).
[HN4] In a diversity action, whether expert testimony is required is a matter of state law, whereas the admissibility of a given expert witness is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence. See 29 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 6263; see also Beaudette v. Louisville Ladder Inc., 462 F.3d 22, 27 (1st Cir. 2006). [HN5] Under Connecticut state law, expert testimony is required when a matter goes “beyond the ordinary knowledge and experience of judges or jurors.” LePage v. Horne, 262 Conn. 116, 809 A.2d 505, 511 (Conn. 2002). Connecticut courts have held, on similar facts, that the general public is no longer as familiar with horsemanship as it arguably was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that expert testimony is necessary to establish a standard of care and a breach of that standard. Keeney v. Mystic Valley Hunt Club, Inc., 93 Conn. App. 368, 889 A.2d 829, 833-34 (Conn. App. Ct. 2006).
As the district court held, Appellants’ claims required the support of expert testimony. The intricacies of horseback riding technique and horsemanship [**4] are no longer within the bounds of ordinary knowledge or experience of judges and jurors. Questions [*699] such as whether the stirrups were improperly installed and whether the pony was of sufficient size to carry the rider are not questions that the average juror can decide based on past knowledge or experience. We therefore agree that Ellis needed expert testimony to show both a standard of care and a breach of that standard.
Andres claimed a generalized familiarity with camp education. However, [HN6] Federal Rule of Evidence 702 requires expertise based on specialized knowledge and experience, not a mere understanding derived from others’ publications. “A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion if the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Fed. R. Evid. 702(a); see also Marvel Characters, Inc. v. Kirby, 726 F.3d 119, 135 (2d Cir. 2013). Andres does not rise to the level of expertise required to opine on the matters at hand. Andres has practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship — his resume makes no reference to any such knowledge, and his investigation merely points to three publications [**5] that he relied on when preparing his report. Andres’s resume instead highlights a wide array of fields and organizations in which he has obtained certifications or is a member. Appellants argue that Andres’s membership in the ACA broadly reaches all camp recreations. This broad qualification falls well short of the specialized knowledge that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 demands. The district court therefore did not abuse its discretion in its decision to exclude Andres’s testimony.
Appellants’ failure to provide necessary expert testimony precludes them from presenting these claims under Connecticut state law. See LePage, 809 A.2d at 511. Thus, there are no issues of material fact raised to challenge the district court’s entry of summary judgment.
For the foregoing reasons, and finding no merit in Appellant’s other arguments, we hereby AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.
Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576
Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., Defendant.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576
September 26, 2016, Decided
September 26, 2016, Filed
CORE TERMS: trail, summary judgment, exculpatory, recklessness, equine, stirrup, stable, immunity, genuine, horse, horseback riding, recreational, animal, material fact, skiing, ride, assumption of risk, faulty, broken, ski, rider, inherent risk, exculpatory clause, riding, sport, skier, enumerate, counter, rental, entity
COUNSEL: [*1] For Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, Counterclaim Defendant: Robin A. Feeney, LEAD ATTORNEY, FINE & STAUD LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
For Happy Trails and Riding Center, Incorporated, Defendant, Counterclaim Plaintiff: Dennis M. Marconi, Barnaba & Marconi, LLP, Trenton, NJ.
JUDGES: Robert D. Mariani, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Robert D. Mariani
I. Introduction and Procedural History
On September 30, 2014, Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, filled a one count Complaint with this Court against Defendant, Happy Trails and Riding Center, lnc.1 (Doc. 1). The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff suffered injury as a result of Defendant’s negligence in its operation of a business which rented horses and equipment to the public for recreational horseback riding. After the conclusion of fact discovery, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) and supporting brief (Doc. 20) on October 29, 2015. Plaintiff filed a Brief in Opposition (Doc. 22) and Defendant filed a Reply. (Doc. 23). Oral argument on the matter was held on April 4, 2016.
1 Defendant points out that the business is owned and operated by Randolph Bennett, d/b/a Happy Trails Stables, and was incorrectly pleaded as Happy Trails Riding [*2] Center, Inc. For the purposes of this motion, the error, if any, is immaterial and the opinion will refer to Defendant as “Defendant” or “Happy Trails.”
The motion is now ripe for decision. For the reasons set forth below the Court will deny Defendant’s motion in its entirety.
II. Statement of Undisputed Facts
In accordance with Local Rule 56.1, Defendant submitted a Statement of Material Facts in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 20), as to which it contends that there is no genuine dispute for trial. Plaintiff submitted a response, a Counter Statement of Facts, (Doc. 22), with the result being that the following facts have been admitted, except as specifically noted:
Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, went to Defendant’s stable on May 31, 2014, for the purpose of going horseback riding. (Doc. 20, ¶¶ 1, 2). After his group arrived, Plaintiff went into the stable’s office to register. (Id. at ¶ 5). Plaintiff was presented with a form (the “agreement”), which stated, in pertinent part:
AGREEMENT FOR PARTICIPATION AND\OR VOLUNTEERS [sic] I RELEASE AND DISCHARGE, ACCEPTANCE OF RESPONSIBILITY AND ACKNOWLEDGE [sic] OF RISK:
IN CONDERATION [sic] FOR BEING PERMITTED TO UTILIZE THE FACILITIES AND EQUIPMENT [*3] OF HAPPY TRAILS RIDING STABLES AND TO ENGAGE IN HORSEBACK RIDING, AND ALL RELATED ACTIVITIES.
1. I understand and acknowledge that the activity I am voluntarily engage [sic] in as a participant and/or [sic] bears certain know [sic] risk [sic] and unanticipated risks which could result in jury, [sic] death, illness, or disease, physical or mental, or damage to myself, to my property, or to spectators or other third parties. I understand and acknowledge those risk [sic] may result in personal claims against “HAPPY TRAILS STABLES” or claims against me by spectators or other third parties.
1. [sic] The nature of the activity itself, including the possible risks to you the rider.
A. The animal may be startled by unforeseen or unexpected noises from other animals, people, vehicles, activities and as a result you the rider may be hurt or injured should the animal react to said noises or activity, by running, bucking, rolling, or kicking, etc.
B. That you as the rider realizes [sic] that the animal is reacting to your physical instructions, conduct, and verbal instructions and commands, and therefore, the animal will respond in accordance with your reactions or commands. However, there are [*4] times when the animal may be confused or distracted during course [sic] of your instructions and/or commands.
C. You the rider understands [sic] that an animal may kick or bite you the rider, or you the pedestrian, and that other animals which may be on tour, could kick or bite you the rider and/or pedestrian.
D. You the rider are aware that physical conditions of the trails may cause injury or risk to you, should these physical conditions such as low tree limbs, bushes, or other type of natural growth come in contact with animal [sic] or yourself.
2. I hereby release and discharge Happy Trails Stables, instructors, trail guides, stable managers, employees, owners of the horses and related equipment and land utilized for Happy Trails Stables activities, hereinafter referred to as the “Released Parties,” from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I, or any of my heirs, successors or assigns, [sic] may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence of the released parties.
3. I further agree that I, my heirs, successors, or assigns, [sic] will not sue or make claim [*5] against the Released Parties for damage or other loses sustained as a result of my participation in Happy Trails activities.
4. I understand and acknowledge that Happy Trails activities have inherent dangers that no amount of cares, [sic] caution, instruction, or expertise can eliminate and I expressly and voluntarily assume all risk of personal injury or death sustained while participating in “Happy Trails Stables” activities weather [sic] or not caused by negligence of the Released Parties ….
6. I hereby expressly recognize that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence of the Released Parties. I also assume the risk of the equine activities pursuant to the [sic] Pennsylvania law.
(Id. at ¶¶ 5, 11; Doc. 20-7) (emphasis original). An employee of Happy Trails informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff must sign the agreement in order to go horseback riding. (Doc. 20, 5). Plaintiff signed the agreement. (Id. at ¶ 8). In addition to the agreement, there were signs posted inside the office, outside [*6] the office, and by the stable which read “You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania Law.” (See id. at ¶¶ 12-15; Doc. 20-8).
After completing the agreement, Plaintiff waited while a Happy Trails employee saddled up a horse. (Doc. 20, ¶ 17). Plaintiff then mounted the horse and participated in a guided group horseback ride for the next forty-five minutes without incident. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 21). On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. (Id. at ¶¶ 22, 23). Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail. (Id.). At the end of the ride, one of the guides brought Plaintiff away from the group so that Plaintiff could canter the horse. (Id. at ¶ 26). Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal. (id. at ¶¶ 27-29).
Plaintiff maintains that the stirrup Defendant provided him was faulty or defective and that this was the cause of his fall. (Doc. 22 at 1). Plaintiff further maintains that this fall resulted in fractured ribs and pneumothorax. (Id. at 3).
III. Standard of Review
Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those [*7] claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “As to materiality, ….[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).
The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Once such a showing has been made, the non-moving party must offer specific facts contradicting those averred by the movant to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990). Therefore, the non-moving party may not oppose summary judgment simply on the basis of the pleadings, or on conclusory statements that a factual issue exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing to particular parts of materials in the record…or 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)(A)-(B). In evaluating whether summary judgment should be granted, “[t]he court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). “Inferences [*8] should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied 507 U.S. 912, 113 S. Ct. 1262, 122 L. Ed. 2d 659 (1993).
However, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine’ dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). If a party has carried its burden under the summary judgment rule,
its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact. When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.
Id. (internal quotations, citations, and alterations omitted).
IV. Analysis [*9]
Plaintiffs complaint alleges that Defendant was negligent in providing broken or defective equipment–the stirrup–to Plaintiff, which directly resulted in his injury. (Doc. 1, ¶ 20). Defendant puts forth two arguments that it maintains are separate and independent grounds for summary judgment. First, Defendant argues that the agreement that Plaintiff signed prior to the horseback ride insulates Defendant from liability under these facts. (Doc. 20 at 9). Second, Defendant argues that, pursuant to 4 P.S. §§ 601-606 (hereinafter “Equine Activities Immunity Act,” “EAIA,” or “the Act”), Happy Trails is immune from liability as a provider of equine activities. (Id.).
A. Exculpatory Agreement
An exculpatory clause is valid if (1) the clause does “not contravene public policy”; (2) the contract is “between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs”; and (3) each party is “a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (Pa. 2010) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993)). However, a valid exculpatory clause will nevertheless be unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Contracts immunizing a [*10] party against liability for negligence are not favored by law and therefore established standards must be “met before an exculpatory provision will be interpreted and construed to relieve a person of liability for his own or his servants’ acts of negligence.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (Pa. 1963). Thus, Pennsylvania courts have established several standards governing the enforceability of exculpatory clauses:
1) the contract 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 immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.
Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (Pa. 2012) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Further, exculpatory clauses may not immunize a party for intentional or reckless behavior. Id. at 1202-03.
Defendant contends that the agreement Plaintiff signed is valid, enforceable, and encompasses broken equipment. (Doc. 20 at 13-16). Therefore, Defendant argues, Plaintiffs negligence [*11] claim is barred and Happy Trails is entitled to summary judgment. (Id. at 16).
Plaintiff does not appear to argue that the agreement is not valid on its face. Nor should he, considering that the agreement easily satisfies the validity requirements under Chepkevich. First, the agreement does not violate any public policy of Pennsylvania. In light of the Equine Activities Immunity Act–discussed in the next section–and similar statutes addressing other recreational activities, it is the policy of the state to encourage participation in those activities, despite their inherent danger, and assign the risk of loss to those who choose to participate in them. Cf. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (finding that, in light of a statute that preserves the assumption of risk defense in the context of downhill skiing, it is “the clear policy of this Commonwealth . . .to encourage the sport and to place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier.”). Further, Pennsylvania courts have held as valid similar exculpatory agreements in the context of a variety of other inherently dangerous recreational activities. See, e.g., id. (downhill skiing); Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 2007 PA Super 283, 933 A.2d 110, 113-14 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007) (snow tubing); Valeo v. Pocono Int’l Raceway, Inc., 347 Pa. Super. 230, 500 A.2d 492, 492-93 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985) (auto racing); Nissley v. Candytown Motorcycle Club, Inc., 2006 PA Super 349, 913 A.2d 887, 889-91(Pa. Super. Ct. 2006) (motorcycle riding).
Second, the agreement was between two private [*12] parties, Happy Trails and Mr. Melendez, concerning the purely private matter of renting a horse for recreational purposes. Finally, this is not a contract of adhesion. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1190-91 (“The signer I 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.”). Thus, the agreement is facially valid.
Turning to enforceability, Plaintiff contends that Defendant has failed to meet its burden to show either that defective equipment is an inherent risk of horseback riding, or that the language of the agreement shows that Plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 11). Plaintiff points out that the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk. (Id.). Further, Plaintiff argues that a broken stirrup is not an inherent risk of horseback riding as demonstrated by the testimony of both Happy Trails’ owner and a Happy Trails’ employee who both stated they had never seen a stirrup break before. (Id. at 12-13). Thus, Plaintiff argues, because the risk was not foreseeable and was not expressly in the agreement, Plaintiff could [*13] not appreciate the risk and could therefore not assume it. (Id. at 13).
Plaintiffs argument essentially states that the second element from Tayar –that “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”–is not met in this case because the agreement did not specifically enumerate the risk of defective equipment. Pennsylvania courts, however, have rejected this argument before. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193-94.
In Chepkevich, a skier, Lori Chepkevich, sued a ski resort after she fell from a ski lift and was injured. Id. at 1175-76. She claimed her injury occurred because an employee promised to stop the ski lift briefly to allow Chepkevich to help a child board the lift and then the employee failed to do so. Id. Prior to the accident, Chepkevich had signed a document titled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY” which stated, in pertinent part,
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 [certain enumerated risks]…. I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley [*14] Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part.
Id. at 1176. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court first rejected Chepkevich’s argument that she did not assume the specific risk that caused her injury and instead found that a fall from a ski lift was an inherent risk in the sport of skiing. Id. at 1188. Therefore, the Court found that the suit was barred by the Skier’s Responsibility Act, 42 PA. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7102(c), which preserves the common law assumption of the risk defense in the context of downhill skiing. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88.
Turning to an alternative ground for summary judgment–the release–the Chepkevich Court held that the term “negligence” did not require any definition or illustration to be given effect. Id. at 1193. Indeed, reversing the court below on that point, the Court found “no reason to require the drafters of exculpatory releases to provide definitions and context for commonly used terms such as ‘negligence.”‘ Id. The Court then found that the plain language of the release encompassed Chepkevich’s claim for negligence and therefore barred the claim. Id. at 1194-95. Because the Court had already found that the risk involved was inherent, the Court found it unnecessary to address the merits of Chepkevich’s [*15] final argument “that the Release exempted Hidden Valley from liability only when its negligence gave rise to a risk otherwise inherent to the sport of skiing.” Id. at 1193-94.
Concerning the case at hand, while this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the provision of defective equipment is not an inherent risk in the sport of horseback riding, this point is not dispositive. As one Pennsylvania court explained, “the assumption of the risk doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering in tort for risks inherent to a certain activity. In contrast, the explicit, broad, and valid language of the exculpatory clause bars all claims, regardless of whether they arise from an inherent risk.” Nissley, 913 A.2d at 892 (footnote and internal citations omitted). Thus, as long as the language of the exculpatory agreement applies, any inherent risk analysis is superfluous. The fact that the court in Chepkevich found it unnecessary to its holding to address the plaintiffs argument that non-inherent risks cannot be released in exculpatory agreements does not affect this analysis. As that court saw no need to overturn the language in Nissley, this Court sees no reason not to follow it.
As for enforceability of the agreement, in the realm of recreational [*16] activities, Pennsylvania has upheld expansive language in exculpatory agreements. See, e.g., Nissley, 913 A.2d at 890-91 (upholding motor cycle club’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that plaintiff “hereby give[s] up all my rights to sue or make claim”); Zimmer v. Mitchell & Ness, 385 A.2d 437, 440 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1978), aff’d per curiam, 416 A.2d 1010 (1980) (upholding ski rental shop’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that skier released defendant from “any liability”); Valeo, 500 A.2d at 492-93 (upholding race track’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action where race car driver signed an agreement releasing “defendants ‘from all liability …for all loss or damage'”).
Here, Plaintiff signed an agreement that he knew to be a waiver. (Doc. 20-2 at 51-53; Doc. 20-7). Paragraph two of the agreement stated that Plaintiff released Happy Trails “from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I…may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence.” Further, paragraph six states that Plaintiff “hereby expressly recognize[s] that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the [*17] Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence.” Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant was negligent in providing him defective equipment during his trail ride. The plain language of the agreement signed by Plaintiff releases Defendant from “all claims” including those “caused by negligence.” Thus, Plaintiffs claim, in as much as it is alleging that Defendant acted negligently, is encompassed by the exculpatory language of the agreement and therefore barred.2
2 This Court notes that there is some language in Chepkevich that seems to support Plaintiffs argument. As an aside, the Chepkevich Court states that “the risk [in this case] was not so unexpected, or brought about in so strange a manner, as to justify placing this injury beyond the reach of the plain language of the Release.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. Plaintiff has pointed out that a broken stirrup is a very uncommon, and therefore unexpected, occurrence. (Doc. 22 at 12-13). Nevertheless, because Chepkevich does not give any standards for what type of risks fall beyond the realm of the plain language of an exculpatory agreement, this Court must turn to other cases. This Court finds [*18] Zimmer v. Mitchell and Ness instructive.
In Zimmer, a skier, Joseph Zimmer, sued a ski rental company after the bindings on the skis he rented failed to release as they were supposed to during a fall, causing him substantial injury. Zimmer, 385 A.2d at 438. Zimmer argued that the rental company was negligent in renting him skis without testing and fitting the bindings. Id. at 440. The court granted the ski rental company’s motion for summary judgment based on an exculpatory agreement that Zimmer signed when he rented the skis that released the rental company “from any liability for damage and injury to myself or to any person or property resulting from the use of this equipment.” Id.
Thus, while the specific issue of a broken stirrup may be very uncommon, Pennsylvania courts have enforced exculpatory agreements in the case of a released party negligently providing the releasing party with defective or broken equipment.
Plaintiff advances a more narrow reading of the agreement and argues that because the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk, he did not expressly assume it. The Chepkevich Court, however, was clear that no illustrations or examples are required to give common terms effect in an exculpatory [*19] agreement. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193. “All claims” and “negligence” are commonly used terms and Pennsylvania law does not require drafters of exculpatory clauses to enumerate every possible contingency that is included in broader language they choose to use. Plaintiff agreed to release Defendant from “all claims” including those that arose from Defendant’s negligence. Plaintiff cannot now protest that he did not know what “all claims” included.3
3 At oral argument, Plaintiff advanced a slightly different argument. Plaintiff argued, in effect, that because paragraph one of the agreement enumerates risks associated with horseback riding, the rest of the agreement is limited to those enumerated lists. This argument was also advanced in Chepkevich. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. There, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that “by enumerating risks inherent to downhill skiing and then requiring the skier to accept those risks, the Release only bars suits that arise out of the listed risks.” Id. The court found that the release, which stated that skiing “is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks,” was not limited to the enumerated the risks, but clearly included “other risks.” Here, as in Chepkevich, Plaintiff’s argument [*20] fails on textual grounds. It is true that the agreement, in paragraph one, lists some risks inherent to horseback riding. However, in paragraph two and six, the agreement states that Plaintiff relinquishes “any and all claims.” There is no limiting language in paragraph two or six that would indicate that Plaintiff was only relinquishing claims arising out of the enumerated risks in paragraph one.
Plaintiff finally argues that Defendant’s conduct amounts to recklessness and exculpatory agreements cannot immunize reckless conduct. (Doc. 22 at 14); see Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1202-03. Defendant concedes that the agreement only releases it from suits for negligence, not recklessness, and counters that its “conduct at most amounts to ordinary negligence.” (Doc. 23 at 10). “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.” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200.
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 [*21] 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.
Id. at 1200-01 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500).
Defendant’s bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. The record shows that Happy Trails provided a saddle for Plaintiffs ride, that a stirrup on that saddle broke during the ride, and that Plaintiff fell from a horse when the stirrup broke. (Doc. 22-5 at 35-36, 39-40). It was the responsibility of Happy Trails, not the customer, to inspect the equipment, but no records of inspections or repairs were kept, nor was the Happy Trails’ owner able to say if any inspection of the specific stirrup occurred on the day of the accident. (Id. at 13, 53-55, 58, 60). Happy Trails’ owner testified that he bought used saddles on the internet and also from individuals who walk into his business. (Id. at 18). He was unable to say where he procured the saddle in question, how long he had had it, or how old it was. (Id. at 18-19, 58, 60). Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards [*22] safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal. (Id. at 32-33). Viewing the record in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains as to whether Defendant’s action rose to the level of recklessness.
Defendant goes on to argue that Plaintiff failed to plead recklessness and that if “recklessness is the standard to apply in this case, plaintiffs compliant must be dismissed with prejudice.” (Doc. 23 at 10). This argument, however, runs counter to the holding in Archibald v. Kemble, 2009 PA Super 79, 971 A.2d 513 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009).
Archibald involved a lawsuit stemming from Robert Archibald’s participation in a “no-check” adult hockey league. Id. at 515. In his complaint, Archibald alleged that another player, Cody Kemble, checked him into the boards of the ice hockey rink. Id. The complaint went on to say that
Cody Kemble’s negligence consisted of the following:
a. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was aware and/or warned that the check was going to be attempted before checking him into the boards;
b. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was willing [*23] to be checked;
c. checking Robert Archibald when not safe to do so;
d. failing to understand and learn the rules, prohibition and limitation on any checking prior to participating in the non-checking league and game.
Id. at 516. First determining that Archibald would only be able to recover if he showed that Kemble acted recklessly, the Court went on to hold that recklessness “may be averred generally.” Id. at 517, 519. Thus, “merely determining the degree of care is recklessness does not give rise to a separate tort that must have been pled within the applicable statute of limitations.” Id. at 519. Instead, “Archibalds’ cause of action was…subsumed within the negligence count pled in their Complaint.” Id.; see also M.U. v. Downingtown High Sch. E., 103 F. Supp. 3d 612, 629 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (construing a separately pleaded recklessness claim “simply as a mechanism to recover punitive damages under [the] negligence claim” because “[t]here is no cause of action for recklessness under Pennsylvania law” and “recklessness is a heightened standard of care required to potentially recover punitive damages”).
Consequently, under Archibald, the fact that Plaintiff did not specifically plead recklessness in his Complaint is not fatal to his claim. In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleged that, among other things, [*24] Defendant “provid[ed] equipment or tack that defendant knew or should have known was faulty.” This statement encompasses the allegation that Defendant recklessly provided Plaintiff with defective or faulty equipment. The fact that Plaintiffs Complaint does not contain the word “reckless” is immaterial.
In sum, because the agreement that Plaintiff signed is only enforceable to immunize Defendant for its negligence, and not for its recklessness, and because there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether Defendant acted recklessly in this case, the Court finds that the agreement is not a sufficient basis for summary judgment.
B. Equine Activities Immunity Act
Defendant next points to the Equine Activities Immunity Act, 4 P.S. §§ 601-606, as an alternative, independent basis for summary judgment. The EAIA limits the liability of certain providers of equine activities if specific requirements are met. Defendant argues that, as a provider of a qualifying equine activity who has complied with the EAIA’s statutory requirements, it is entitled to immunity from suit. (Doc. 20 at 10-11). Plaintiff counters that Defendant’s negligent provision of defective or faulty equipment puts the suit outside of the EAIA’s [*25] protections. (Doc. 22 at 4).
The issue of whether a covered entity is immunized from liability under the EAIA for providing defective or faulty equipment is a question of first impression. As such, this Court must engage in statutory interpretation. For this Court to interpret state law, it “must determine how the highest court of the State would decide an issue.” Baker ex rel. Thomas v. Gen. Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 249, 118 S. Ct. 657, 139 L. Ed. 2d 580 (1998). Pennsylvania interprets statutes according to the Statutory Construction Act of 1972, 1 Pa.Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 1501-1991. “When interpreting statutory language, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is guided by the ‘plain meaning’ rule of construction.” Hofkin v. Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co., 81 F.3d 365, 371 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Commonwealth v. Stanley, 498 Pa. 326, 446 A.2d 583, 587 (Pa. 1982)). “The object of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly. Every statute shall be construed, if possible, to give effect to all its provisions.” 1 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1921(a). “When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit.” Id. at § 1921(b).
The EAIA provides immunity for “an individual, group, club or business entity that sponsors, organizes, conducts or provides the facilities for an equine activity” including “[r]ecreational rides or drives which involve riding or other activity [*26] involving the use of an equine.” 4 P.S. §§ 601, 602(b)(6). The EAIA, however, only provides immunity where signs of at least a certain size are “conspicuously posted on the premises…in two or more locations, which states the following: You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania law.” Id. at § 603. For covered entities in compliance with the signs requirement, “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven with respect to damages due to injuries or death to an adult participant resulting from equine activities.” Id. at § 602(a). Finally, the Act is clear that “[t]he immunity provided for by this act shall be narrowly construed.” Id. at § 606.
Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant, as a provider of recreational horseback riding activities, is not a covered entity under the statute. Additionally, Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant did not have the appropriate signs as prescribed under the EAIA. Plaintiffs sole argument is that the Act does not bar actions for the negligent provision of faulty or defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 6). Stated otherwise, Plaintiff argues that because he did not know he might be given defective or faulty [*27] equipment, he could not knowingly assume the risk of such. Defendant counters that “[o]nce plaintiff entered the stables property and took part in recreational horse riding, he assumed the risk of harm associated with such activities.” (Doc. 20 at 11).
The EAIA states that “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven.” 4 P.S. § 602(a). The Act, therefore, appears to preserve the common law assumption of risk doctrine in the context of equine activities. In delineating the contours of this doctrine, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has looked to the Restatement Second of Torts. See Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 341-42 (Pa. 2000). The Restatement outlines four varieties of the doctrine, the first two of which are of interest in this case. See Restatement (second) of Torts § 496A cmt. c. The first, express assumption of risk occurs when lithe plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. (emphasis added). This is the type of assumption of risk examined above in respect to the agreement signed by Plaintiff. The second, implied assumption of risk, occurs when lithe plaintiff has [*28] entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.” Id. (emphasis added).
It is self-evident that a person “cannot be found to have implicitly assumed a risk of which he had no knowledge.” Rutter v. Ne. Beaver Cty. Sch. Dist., 496 Pa. 590, 437 A.2d 1198, 1204 (Pa. 1981) (plurality opinion). As such, lithe defense of assumption of the risk requires that the defendant show that the plaintiff was subjectively aware of the facts which created the danger and…must have appreciated the danger itself and the nature, character and extent which made it unreasonable.”‘ Berman v. Radnor Rolls, Inc., 374 Pa. Super. 118, 542 A.2d 525, 532 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988) (alteration in original) (quoting Crance v. Sohanic, 344 Pa. Super. 526, 496 A.2d 1230, 1232 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985)); See also Restatement (second) of Torts § 496D.4 Thus, for a defendant to prevail on a summary judgment motion based on the assumption of risk defense, it must be “beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.” Barrett v. Fredavid Builders, Inc., 454 Pa. Super. 162, 685 A.2d 129, 131 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1996) (citing Struble v. Valley Forge Military Acad., 445 Pa. Super. 224, 665 A.2d 4 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1995)). Finally, “[t]he mere fact one engages in activity that has some inherent danger does not mean that one cannot recover from a negligent party when injury is subsequently sustained.” Bullman v. Giuntoli, 2000 PA Super 284, 761 A.2d 566, 572 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2000).
4 Of course, a plaintiff’s own assertion about whether he knew of and understood [*29] the risk is not conclusive.
There are some risks as to which no adult will be believed if he says that he did not know or understand them. Thus an adult who knowingly comes in contact with a fire will not be believed if he says that he was unaware of the risk that he might be burned by it; and the same is true of such risks as those of drowning in water or falling from a height, in the absence of any special circumstances which may conceal or appear to minimize the danger.
Restatement (Second) of Torts §496D cmt. d.
In short, to preclude Plaintiffs negligence action under the EAIA, Defendant must show that Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge. Only then can Plaintiff be said to knowingly assume the risk. Defendant, however, has made no such showing. Defendant has failed to point to anything in the record to show that Plaintiff decided to use the equipment with the knowledge that the stirrup or any other equipment Plaintiff was provided with might break. Nor is this a case where the risk is so obvious that the knowledge could be inferred. The owner of Happy Trails testified that, in the approximately ten years he operated [*30] the stable, he never remembered a single stirrup breaking. (Doc. 20-3 at 20-21). Given that it is not a common occurrence, it strains credibility to argue that a recreational participant would know that being provided broken equipment was likely.
Therefore, because there has been no showing that Plaintiff knew of the risk and voluntarily disregarded it, the EAIA provides no relief for Defendant.5
5 At oral argument, counsel for the Defendant conceded that, even under the broad interpretation of the Act that Defendant argued for, the Act would not immunize a covered entity for acts of recklessness or gross negligence. As this Court has already found that there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether the Defendant acted recklessly, this provides an alternative ground for the finding that the Act does not provide immunity under these facts.
For the reasons stated above, the Court will deny Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19). A separate Order follows.
/s/ Robert D. Mariani
Robert D. Mariani
United States District Judge
AND NOW, THIS 26th DAY OF SEPTEMBER, 2016, upon consideration of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19), IT IS HEREBY ORDERED [*31] THAT:
1. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) is DENIED.
2. A telephone scheduling conference will be held on Wednesday, October 5, 2016, at 4:00 p.m. Counsel for Plaintiff is responsible for arranging the call to (570) 207-5750, and all parties should be ready to proceed before the undersigned is contacted.
/s/ Robert D. Mariani
Robert D. Mariani
United States District Judge
Jessica Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, et al.
SUPREME COURT OF CONNECTICUT
280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006 Conn. LEXIS 330
May 16, 2006, Argued
October 3, 2006, Officially Released
COUNSEL: Jeffrey I. Carton, with whom, on the brief, was Robert J. Levine, for the appellant (plaintiff).
John C. Turner, Jr., for the appellees (defendants).
JUDGES: Borden, Norcott, Katz, Vertefeuille and Zarella, Js. In this opinion KATZ, VERTEFEUILLE and ZARELLA, Js., concurred. NORCOTT, J., concurring.
OPINION BY: BORDEN
[*154] [**1157] BORDEN, J. The dispositive issue in this appeal is whether a release signed by the plaintiff, Jessica Reardon, indemnifying the defendants, Windswept Farm, LLC, and its owners, William Raymond and Mona Raymond, from an action brought in negligence, precludes the plaintiff from recovering damages. More specifically, the question before this court is whether the release signed by the plaintiff violates public policy pursuant to our holding in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005). [***2] The plaintiff appeals 1 from the judgment of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff claims that: (1) the trial court incorrectly concluded that the release signed by the plaintiff was clear and unambiguous; and (2) in light of this court’s holding in Hanks, the release violates public policy. 2 [*155] We conclude that our holding in Hanks controls the present case and, therefore, that the release signed by the plaintiff was invalid. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.
1 The plaintiff appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court. We then transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c) and Practice Book § 65-1.
2 Briefly stated, in Hanks this court dealt with an issue left unresolved by our holding in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 643, 829 A.2d 827 (2003), wherein we did not have the opportunity to pass upon the question of whether the enforcement of a well drafted agreement that purports to release a party from liability for its prospective negligence is contrary to public policy. In particular, in Hanks we concluded that an otherwise well drafted, clear and unambiguous exculpatory agreement, purporting to release a defendant from its prospective liability for ordinary negligence, nonetheless violated public policy and was therefore unenforceable. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 326. That decision was issued during the pendency of the present appeal, which led us to order supplemental briefing by the parties regarding whether the trial court’s judgment should be summarily reversed in light of our decision in Hanks.
[***3] The plaintiff brought this personal injury action against the defendants alleging negligence. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the release signed by the plaintiff was clear and unambiguous, and thus satisfied the standard [**1158] that this court set forth in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 643, 829 A.2d 827 (2003), which provided that [HN1] “a party cannot be released from liability for injuries resulting from its future negligence in the absence of language that expressly so provides.” The trial court agreed that the plaintiff had signed a well drafted waiver of liability in the defendants’ favor, granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and rendered judgment thereon. This appeal followed.
The following facts are relevant to our analysis of the plaintiff’s claims. The defendants are in the business of providing horseback riding lessons to the general public. In October, 2002, the plaintiff came to the defendants’ property and requested a horseback riding lesson. As a condition to riding one of the defendants’ horses, the plaintiff was required by the defendants to sign a release and indemnity agreement [***4] (release). The release was printed on a single page and consisted of [*156] three sections entitled, “Warning,” 3 “RELEASE,” 4 and “INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.” 5 It is undisputed that the plaintiff signed and dated the release prior to commencing her horseback riding lesson with the defendants. Similarly, it is undisputed that the plaintiff identified herself on the release as an “[e]xperienced [r]ider” and as someone who had “[r]idden [horses] frequently” several years earlier.
3 The “Warning” portion of the release provided as follows: “Pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes § 52-577p, [now § 52-557p] a person engaged in recreational activities assumes the risk and responsibility for any injury to his person or property arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports, unless the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual engaged in the equestrian activities or the failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity by the person provided the horse or horses or his agents or employees.”
4 The “RELEASE” portion of the release provided in relevant part: “For, and in consideration of, the privilege to participate in an equine activity at Windswept Farm this date, receipt and sufficiency of which is hereby acknowledged, the undersigned hereby agrees to release, discharge and acquit WINDSWEPT FARM, its owners, stockholders, officers, directors, employees, agents, and servants from any and all claims, demands, sums of money, actions, rights, causes of action, liabilities and obligations of any kind or nature whatsoever, including ordinary negligence, which I may have had or now have or claim to have had, or hereafter may have, or assert to have, which arise out of, or is in any manner whatsoever directly or indirectly, connected with or related to my participation in the equine activity on this date. . . .” (Emphasis added.)
5 The “INDEMNITY AGREEMENT” portion of the release provided in relevant part: “The undersigned represents and warrants that he/she has read and understood the above-captioned Warning and Release. . . .”
Subsequent to the plaintiff signing the release [***6] provided by the defendants, the defendants paired the plaintiff with one of the horses from their stables and with one of the instructors in their employ. During the course of the plaintiff’s horseback riding lesson, the horse provided by the defendants became excited, bucked back and forth suddenly and without warning, and threw the plaintiff to the ground, causing her serious injuries.
[*157] The plaintiff brought an action in August, 2003, alleging that she had been injured due to the defendants’ negligence. In particular, the plaintiff alleged that her injuries were caused by the “carelessness, recklessness and negligence of the defendants” including, among other things, that (1) the “defendants failed to ensure that the horse on which [she] was placed was an appropriate horse commensurate with [**1159] [the plaintiff’s] skill and experience”; (2) the “defendants failed to prevent, warn or protect the plaintiff from the risk of a fall”; (3) the “defendants knew of the horse’s propensity to buck yet failed to warn [the plaintiff] of the same”; and (4) the “defendants failed properly to hire and train their riding instructor . . . .” In their answer, the defendants raised a special defense, [***7] namely, that “[t]he plaintiff [had] assumed the risk and legal responsibility for any injury to her person per . . . General Statutes [§ ] 52-557p,” 6 and that “[t]he plaintiff’s claims [were] barred [due to the fact] that she signed a waiver/release of all claims in favor of the defendants.”
6 The “Warning” section of the release mirrors General Statutes § 52-557p, which provides: [HN2] “Each person engaged in recreational equestrian activities shall assume the risk and legal responsibility for any injury to his person or property arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports, unless the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual engaged in recreational equestrian activities or the failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity by the person providing the horse or horses or his agents or employees.”
The plaintiff makes two claims on [***8] appeal. First, the plaintiff claims that the release of all claims “includ[ing] ‘ordinary negligence'” set forth in the release was ambiguous when read together with the “Warning” section printed above it, which, tracking § 52-557p, did not exempt from liability injuries “proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual engaged in the equestrian activities . . . .” Second, pursuant to our order for supplemental [*158] briefing, the plaintiff claims that the release is void as a matter of public policy in light of this court’s decision in Hanks v.Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 314. We agree with the plaintiff that our decision in Hanks controls the present case. Accordingly, we need not consider the plaintiff’s claim that the trial court incorrectly concluded that the release signed by the plaintiff was clear and unambiguous. 7
7 Specifically, assuming that the standards identified in Hanks have been satisfied, as we conclude in the present case, it is irrelevant whether the underlying release of liability was clearly and unambiguously drafted and, therefore, was also invalid pursuant to our holding in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 643, which provided that “a party cannot be released from liability for injuries resulting from its future negligence in the absence of language that expressly so provides.”
[***9] We begin with the appropriate standard of review. [HN3] “Practice Book § 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted 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. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. . . . [HN4] The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the party is, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law. . . . The test is whether the party moving for summary judgment would be entitled to a directed verdict on the same facts. . . . [HN5] Our review of the trial court’s decision to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment is plenary.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Leisure Resort Technology, Inc. v. Trading Cove Associates, 277 Conn. 21, 30-31, 889 A.2d 785 (2006).
[**1160] In light of our holding in Hanks, we cannot conclude that the defendants are entitled to a judgment [***10] in their [*159] favor as a matter of law. Put another way, our reasoning in Hanks requires that we invalidate the release signed by the plaintiff; thus, several genuine issues of material fact surrounding the defendants’ potential negligence remain in dispute.
As previously noted, in Hanks, we concluded that [HN6] the enforcement of a well drafted exculpatory agreement that releases a provider of a recreational activity from prospective liability for personal injuries sustained as a result of the provider’s negligence may violate public policy if certain conditions are met. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 326. In general, we noted that “[t]he law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . . This is because exculpatory provisions undermine the policy considerations governing our tort system . . . [which include] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . .” (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 327. Moreover, we recognized that “it is consistent [***11] with public policy to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor and, if this policy is to be abandoned, it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not to shift the risk to the weak bargainer.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id.
Additionally, when assessing the public policy implications of a particular release or waiver of liability, we concluded that “[n]o definition of the concept of public interest [may] be contained within the four corners of a formula,” and that “[t]he ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 330. Our [*160] analysis in Hanks was also guided, though not limited, by the factors articulated by the Supreme Court of California in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal.2d 92, 98-101, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33 (1963), 8 which include, among other things, [HN7] a consideration as to whether the release pertains to a business thought suitable for [***12] public regulation, whether the party performing the service holds himself out as making the activity available to any member of the public who seeks it, and whether the provider of the activity exercises superior bargaining power [**1161] and confronts the public with a standard contract of adhesion.
8 The complete list of factors identified by the Supreme Court of California are as follows: “ [The agreement] concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.  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.  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.  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.  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.  Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.” Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 98-101.
[***13] In the context of snowtubing, which was the recreational activity at issue in Hanks, we placed particular emphasis on: (1) the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe; (2) the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with the activity from the burden of proper maintenance of the snowtubing run; and (3) the fact that the release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and [*161] offered to the plaintiff on a “‘take it or leave it'” basis. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 331-34. Moreover, we recognized the clear public policy in favor of participation in athletics and recreational activities. Id., 335 (“[v]oluntary recreational activities, such as snowtubing, skiing, basketball, soccer, football, racquetball, karate, ice skating, swimming, volleyball or yoga, are pursued by the vast majority of the population and constitute an important and healthy part of everyday life”).
We conclude that, based on our decision in Hanks, the totality of the circumstances surrounding [***14] the recreational activity of horseback riding and instruction that was offered by the defendants demonstrates that the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement in their favor from liability for ordinary negligence violates public policy and is not in the public interest. First, similar to the situation at issue in Hanks, the defendants in the present case provided the facilities, the instructors, and the equipment for their patrons to engage in a popular recreational activity, and the recreational facilities were open to the general public regardless of an individual’s ability level. Indeed, the defendants acknowledged that, although the release required riders to indicate their experience level, it also anticipated a range in skills from between “[n]ever ridden” to “[e]xperienced [r]ider,” and that the facility routinely had patrons of varying ability levels. Accordingly, there is a reasonable societal expectation that a recreational activity that is under the control of the provider and is open to all individuals, regardless of experience or ability level, will be reasonably safe.
Additionally, in the present case, as in Hanks, the plaintiff “lacked the knowledge, experience [***15] and authority to discern whether, much less ensure that, the defendants’ [facilities or equipment] were maintained in a reasonably safe condition.” Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant [*162] Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 331. Specifically, although the plaintiff characterized herself as an experienced rider, she was in no greater position then the average rider 9 to assess all the safety issues connected with the defendants’ enterprise. To the contrary, it was the defendants, not the plaintiff or the other customers, who had the “expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone [could] properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 331-32. In particular, the defendants acknowledged that they were responsible for providing their patrons with safe horses, qualified instructors, as well as properly maintained working equipment and riding surfaces. [**1162] In the context of carrying out these duties, the defendants were aware, and were in a position continually to gather more information, regarding any [***16] hidden dangers associated with the recreational activity including the temperaments of the individual horses, the strengths of the various riding instructors, and the condition of the facility’s equipment and grounds. As we concluded in Hanks, it is illogical to relieve the defendants, as the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with engaging in horseback riding at their facility, from potential claims of negligence surrounding an alleged failure to administer properly the activity.
9 We also note that we view the release as it applies to all customers, not solely this plaintiff, who happened to have significant riding experience, albeit several years prior to the date of her accident.
Furthermore, the release that the plaintiff signed broadly indemnifying the defendants from liability for damages resulting from the defendants’ own negligence was a classic contract of adhesion of the type that this court found to be in violation of public policy in Hanks. [***17] Specifically, we have noted that [HN8] “[t]he most salient feature [*163] [of adhesion contracts] is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts,” and that they tend to involve a “standard form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position, [usually] a consumer, who has little choice about the terms . . . .” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 333. In the present case, signing the release provided by the defendants was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the horseback riding lesson, there was no opportunity for negotiation by the plaintiff, and if she was unsatisfied with the terms of the release, her only option was to not participate in the activity. As in Hanks, therefore, the plaintiff had nearly zero bargaining power with respect to the negotiation of the release and in order to participate in the activity, she was required to assume the risk of the defendants’ negligence. This condition of participation violates the stated public policy of our tort system because the plaintiff was required to bear an additional risk despite her status as a patron who was not in a position [***18] to foresee or control the alleged negligent conduct that she was confronted with, or manage and spread the risk more effectively then the defendants.
We are also mindful that, as evidenced by § 52-557p, recreational horseback riding is a business thought suitable for public regulation, but that the legislature has stopped short of requiring participants to bear the very risk that the defendants now seek to pass on to the plaintiff by way of a mandatory release. In particular, the legislature has prescribed that “[e]ach person engaged in recreational equestrian activities shall assume the risk and legal responsibility for any injury to his person or property arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports, unless the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual . . . .” [*164] (Emphasis added.) General Statutes § 52-557p; see footnote 6 of this opinion. This language establishes that the plaintiff assumed the risk for certain injuries when riding at the defendants’ facility due to the nature of horseback riding as an activity, but that an operator of such a facility can still be liable [***19] for injuries caused by its own negligence. For the reasons previously discussed, we conclude that the defendants’ attempt contractually to extend the plaintiff’s assumption of risk one step beyond that identified by the legislature in § 52-557p violates the public policy of the state and, therefore, is invalid.
The defendants contend that the plaintiff’s only claim before the trial court was that the release was ambiguous, and that the plaintiff otherwise conceded the [**1163] release’s enforceability, thereby failing to preserve for appeal the issue of whether the release violated public policy. 10 Put another way, the defendants contend that the issue before the trial court was only whether the addition of the “warning” language to the release as a whole resulted in contradictory language, and that regardless of our decision in Hanks, we still must decide the issue articulated by the trial court. We disagree.
10 As part of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and in an effort to clarify the plaintiff’s case, the trial court asked the plaintiff directly if the release were found to be clear and unambiguous, would it be enforceable: “The Court: You are not trying to claim that it’s not possible under Connecticut law for a person in the defendants’ position to present an effective release to a horse rider and then to rely upon it to avoid liability, are you? “[Plaintiff’s Counsel]: Absolutely not, Your Honor. . . . “The Court: Okay. Then . . . so that what we have to do is to determine whether this is a sufficient release. That’s the only issue before us. “[Plaintiff’s Counsel]: Absolutely, Your Honor.” (Emphasis added.)
[***20] We recognize that [HN9] this court is not “bound to consider a claim unless it was distinctly raised at the trial or arose subsequent to the trial.” Practice Book § 60-5; see also Pestey v. Cushman, 259 Conn. 345, 372-74, 788 A.2d 496 (2002). Additionally, as a general rule, “[a] [*165] party cannot present a case to the trial court on one theory and then ask a reversal in the [S]upreme [C]ourt on another.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sorrentino v. All Seasons Services, Inc., 245 Conn. 756, 770, 717 A.2d 150 (1998). This court, however, has the discretion to act, sua sponte, on grounds not directly raised by the parties. See Burton v. Browd, 258 Conn. 566, 569, 783 A.2d 457 (2001). That is exactly what we did in the present case when, in light of our decision in Hanks, we ordered the parties to brief the issue of whether the release was void as a matter of public policy. 11 In sum, because Hanks resolved an issue previously unaddressed, and because the parties had the opportunity to brief the case’s impact, we conclude that the interest in the uniform application of the plainly [***21] governing law warrants our consideration of a claim beyond the narrow issue that was before the trial court.
11 See footnote 2 of this opinion.
Finally, the defendants contend that horseback riding is somehow different from snowtubing and, therefore, that the defendants’ release does not violate public policy. In particular, the defendants note that horseback riding is not one of the recreational activities that we specifically identified by name in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 335, and that, unlike in Hanks, which involved an injury caused by a defective snowtube run, in the present case the plaintiff was injured when the horse she was riding bucked and threw her to the ground. The defendants claim that this distinction is significant because they characterize a bucking horse as a risk that is inherent to horseback riding in general. We are not persuaded.
The list of recreational activities that we identified in Hanks was meant to be illustrative, [***22] not exhaustive. See id. Indeed, it would be impossible for us to identify all of the recreational activities controlled by the Hanks [*166] decision. 12 Additionally, as previously [**1164] discussed in detail, the circumstances surrounding the defendants’ horseback riding business and the signing of the release by the plaintiff bear many similarities to the circumstances present in Hanks. In particular, the defendants’ horseback riding business was open to the general public regardless of skill level, the plaintiff was ill equipped to discern whether she had been paired negligently with her horse and instructor commensurate with her skill level, the defendants controlled which horse and instructor were assigned to the plaintiff, and the defendants’ release constituted a classic contract of adhesion.
12 We are mindful that contrary to the defendants’ argument, our courts repeatedly have referenced horseback riding as a recreational activity. See Conway v. Wilton, 238 Conn. 653, 668, 680 A.2d 242 (1996) (state legislator commenting on necessity of “maintaining land that could very well serve for . . . horseback riding and for many other recreational activities”); Miskimen v. Biber, 85 Conn. App. 615, 620, 858 A.2d 806 (2004) (“[t]he excess land is also used for . . . horseback riding and other recreational activities”), cert. denied, 272 Conn. 916, 866 A.2d 1287 (2005). Moreover, our characterization of snowtubing as a recreational activity; see Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 330; does not, in and of itself, dictate our public policy.
[***23] Furthermore, the fact that there are certain risks that are inherent to horseback riding as a recreational activity, as the legislature recognized in § 52-557p, one of which may be that horses move unexpectedly, does not change the fact that an operator’s negligence may contribute greatly to that risk. For example, the defendants’ may have negligently paired the plaintiff with an inappropriate horse given the length of time since she last had ridden or negligently paired the plaintiff with an instructor who had not properly been trained on how to handle the horse in question. Both of these scenarios present factual questions that, at trial, may reveal that the defendants’ negligence, and not an inherent risk of the activity, was to blame for the plaintiff’s injuries.
[*167] Moreover, as aptly noted at oral argument before this court, the plaintiff does not challenge the fact that there were risks inherent in the activity of horseback riding that she otherwise was prepared to assume. Rather, she challenges the defendants’ claimed indemnity from the alleged neglect and carelessness of the stable operator and its employees to whom she entrusted her safety. Indeed, the inherent unpredictability [***24] of a horse is something that the legislature already has considered in providing to an operator of a horseback riding facility a defense to a claim of negligence pursuant to the assumption of risk doctrine codified in § 52-557p. This protection granted by the legislature, however, does not permit the operator to avoid liability entirely for its negligence or that of its employees. Accordingly, on the basis of our decision in Hanks, as well as the circumstances of the present case, we are unable to conclude that the recreational activity of horseback riding is so different from snowtubing that the release in this case should be enforced as a matter of law.
The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded to the trial court with direction to deny the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and for further proceedings according to law.
In this opinion KATZ, VERTEFEUILLE and ZARELLA, Js., concurred.
CONCUR BY: NORCOTT
NORCOTT, J., concurring. I agree with the majority that this court’s holding in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) [***25] , controls the present case.
Ricci v. Schoultz, M.D., 963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745Posted: February 28, 2016
Ricci v. Schoultz, M.D., 963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745
Gary Ricci, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Charles Schoultz, M.D., Defendant and Appellee.
Case No. 971189-CA
COURT OF APPEALS OF UTAH
963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745
July 23, 1998, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Third District, Salt Lake Department. The Honorable Homer F. Wilkinson.
COUNSEL: Jeffrey D. Eisenberg, Alan W. Mortensen, and Paul M. Simmons, Salt Lake City, for Appellant.
Paul M. Belnap, Robert L. Janicki, and Darren K. Nelson, Salt Lake City, for Appellee.
JUDGES: Before Judith M. Billings, Judge. I CONCUR: Russell W. Bench, Judge. Gregory K. Orme, Judge, Dissenting.
OPINION BY: JUDITH M. BILLINGS
Appellant Gary Ricci appeals the trial court’s grant of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (j.n.o.v.) to Dr. Charles Schoultz, dismissing Ricci’s negligence claims. We affirm.
The parties had completely different versions of how the accident occurred. [HN1] “We must review the record and determine whether there is any basis in the evidence, including reasonable inferences which could be drawn therefrom, to support the jury’s determination that [Schoultz] was negligent.” Braithwaite v. West Valley City Corp., 921 P.2d 997, 999 (Utah 1996). Thus, we recite the facts in a light most favorable to Ricci.
On April 12, 1994, Ricci and Schoultz were skiing [**2] at Snowbird Ski Resort (Snowbird) in Salt Lake County, Utah. Both parties were advanced skiers. On the sunny morning of the accident they were skiing an “easy run” that was groomed and had only a few skiers on it. Schoultz was skiing down Anderson Hill when Ricci reached the top of the run. Ricci began to ski towards the bottom and in the direction of Schoultz. Schoultz was taking a ski lesson and was making a number of small controlled turns as he descended. Schoultz and Ricci were both skiing at the same speed and in control throughout their descent. However, Schoultz slowed as he approached a small crest on the ski run and Ricci closed to within a few feet behind Schoultz. Schoultz unexpectedly lost control of his skis, and within a few seconds he fell to the left, and into Ricci, who was unable to avoid Schoultz. The two skiers slid into a tree well, with Ricci striking the tree with some force. Ricci suffered significant injuries and was eventually life-flighted to a local hospital. Schoultz was merely bruised and skied down the mountain on his own.
At trial, Ricci argued that since Schoultz’s fall took place on one of the easiest runs at Snowbird under near perfect conditions, [**3] there was no possible reason for Schoultz to have fallen except for his own negligence. The jury found that Schoultz was negligent, and that his failure to ski in control was the cause of the accident. Schoultz moved for a j.n.o.v. on the grounds that Ricci failed to demonstrate that Schoultz, by falling unexpectedly in front of him, had breached any duty he owed to Ricci. The trial judge agreed: “There was a duty not to be negligent. But there was no negligence on the part of defendant in this case.” Thus, the trial judge granted Schoultz’s j.n.o.v. motion, or alternatively granted a new trial. Ricci now appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Our standard for reviewing a trial court’s grant of a j.n.o.v. is strict: [HN2] “‘In passing on a motion for a j.n.o.v., . . . a trial court has no latitude and must be correct.'” Braithwaite, 921 P.2d at 999 (quoting Crookston v. Fire Ins. Exch., 817 P.2d 789, 799 (Utah 1991)). Further,
“The trial court [is] justified in granting a j.n.o.v. only if, after looking at the evidence and all of its reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to [the nonmoving party], the trial court concludes that there [is] no competent evidence to support [**4] a verdict in [the nonmoving party’s] favor.”
Id. (quoting Gold Standard, Inc. v. Getty Oil Co., 915 P.2d 1060, 1066 (Utah 1996)). “On appeal, we apply the same standard. In determining whether competent evidence supports the verdict, we accept as true all testimony and reasonable inferences flowing therefrom that tend to prove [the nonmoving party’s] case, and we disregard all conflicts [*786] and evidence that tend to disprove its case.” Gold Standard, 915 P.2d at 1066 (citing Koer v. Mayfair Mkts., 19 Utah 2d 339, 340, 431 P.2d 566, 568-69 (1967) (additional citation omitted). Thus, if we determine that there was competent evidence supporting the jury’s verdict, we must reverse the trial court’s grant of the j.n.o.v.
Although there is no helpful Utah authority, other state and federal courts have dealt with similar ski collision cases.
In LaVine v. Clear Creek Skiing Corp., 557 F.2d 730, 735 (10th Cir. 1977), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the plaintiff could not recover from defendant for injuries sustained in a mid-mountain ski collision. Similar to the case at bar, the defendant was skiing behind [**5] the plaintiff and failed to alert plaintiff of his presence before they collided. See id. at 735. The LaVine court specifically rejected the appellant’s claim of negligence: “Appellant contends that the collision itself conclusively establishes the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s right to recover. We disagree.” Id.
More recently, in Dillworth v. Gambardella, 970 F.2d 1113, 1114 (2d Cir. 1992), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with a similar issue: “Whether collisions between skiers require as a matter of law . . . a finding of negligence on the part of at least one skier.” In Dillworth, the parties had significantly different versions of the facts leading up to the mid-mountain collision, but the result was the same as this case–significant injuries to the party bringing the cause of action. See id. at 1114-15. The Dillworth court stated [HN3] some collisions between skiers may be as a result of the obvious and necessary risks inherent in skiing, and accidents might occur despite the exercise of ordinary and reasonable care and without negligence by either skier. . . . Like all others, skiers owe that degree of care an ordinary prudent person [**6] would exercise under like or similar circumstances. One skier is not the insurer of another skier’s safety nor, absent negligence, is one skier liable to another for inadvertent or accidental contact. . . . Thus . . . skiers who lose control even while exercising due care–that is, have breached no duty owed to other skiers–may pose a danger which is inherent, obvious and necessary to participate in the sport of skiing.
Id. at 1122 (citing LaVine, 557 F.2d 734-35) (additional citations omitted).
Cases that have supported a finding of negligence in a ski collision have required proof of some negligent conduct before the collision. For example, in Freeman v. Hale, 30 Cal. App. 4th 1388, 36 Cal. Rptr. 2d 418, 420 (Cal. Ct. App. 1994), two skiers collided while descending a ski slope and the plaintiff suffered severe injuries as a result of the accident. In Freeman, however, the defendant had consumed a large quantity of alcohol, and was inebriated when the collision occurred. See 36 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 420. The California Court of Appeals succinctly summarized its conclusion that a negligence regime was the proper way to analyze liability: “While Hale did not have a duty [**7] to avoid an inadvertent collision with Freeman, he did have a duty to avoid increasing the risk of such a collision.” Id. at 423-24 (citing Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 834 P.2d 696, 710-11 (Cal. 1992)). The Freeman court concluded that alcohol consumption was not an integral aspect of skiing, and that by consuming alcohol prior to and during his skiing, defendant breached his duty to plaintiff “‘not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport.'” 36 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 421 (quoting Knight, 834 P.2d at 710).
In sum, [HN4] a skier does have a duty to other skiers to ski reasonably and within control. However, an inadvertent fall on a ski slope, alone, does not constitute a breach of this duty. We conclude, after a careful review of the trial record, that Ricci failed to introduce any competent evidence that Schoultz was skiing negligently before his sudden and unexpected fall in front of Ricci. Ricci himself testified about the conditions and events just before the accident, noting that up to one second before the collision, Schoultz was skiing in control. Schoultz’s [*787] loss of control and fall, by itself, does not establish his negligence.
Ricci’s [**8] evidence, including all reasonable inferences drawn from it, is simply insufficient for a jury to have concluded that Schoultz skied negligently. We conclude the trial court was correct in determining that Schoultz did not breach his duty of reasonable care to Ricci by accidentally falling into Ricci when there was no evidence that Schoultz was skiing negligently at the time of his fall. Because we agree with the trial court’s ruling, we do not reach the questions of whether a new trial should have been granted or whether the trial court’s decisions to exclude Schoultz’s expert witness testimony were proper.
Some collisions between skiers are an inherent risk of skiing and may occur absent negligence, as in this case. Thus, we affirm the trial court’s grant of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
Judith M. Billings, Judge
Russell W. Bench, Judge
DISSENT BY: GREGORY K. ORME
ORME, Judge (dissenting):
By focusing on the evidence plaintiff presented, rather than all evidence in the record and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, my colleagues take a too narrow view of our role in reviewing a trial court’s reversal of a [**9] jury’s verdict. Simply stated, the question is not whether the evidence plaintiff presented supports the jury’s verdict; rather, it is whether any evidence from whatever source will support it. See Gold Standard, Inc. v. Getty Oil Co., 915 P.2d 1060, 1066 (Utah 1996) (“In determining whether competent evidence supports the verdict, we accept as true all testimony and reasonable inferences flowing therefrom that tend to prove [the nonmoving party’s] case, and we disregard all conflicts and evidence that tend to disprove its case.”). As the Fifth Circuit has noted,
on motions for directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict the Court should consider all of the evidence– not just that evidence which supports the non-mover’s case–but in the light and with all reasonable inferences most favorable to the party opposed to the motion.Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374 (5th Cir. 1969) (en banc), overruled on other grounds, Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331, 336, 339 (5th Cir. 1997). Accord Guilbeau v. W. W. Henry Co., 85 F.3d 1149, 1161 (5th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 136 L. Ed. 2d 713, 117 S. Ct. 766 (1997); Lamb [**10] ex rel. Shepard v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 1 F.3d 1184, 1187 (11th Cir. 1993); Epoch Producing Corp. v. Killiam Shows Inc., 522 F.2d 737, 743 (2d Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 424 U.S. 955, 47 L. Ed. 2d 360, 96 S. Ct. 1429 (1976); Anderson v. Lykes Pasco Packing Co., 503 So. 2d 1269, 1271-72 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1986); Millet v. Cormier, 671 So. 2d 1101, 1107-08 (La. Ct. App.), cert. denied, 673 So. 2d 1036 (La. 1996).
In this case, the jury might well have believed defendant’s testimony that he was skiing in complete control until immediately before the accident, that his skis did not come apart, and that he did not fall. Rejecting defendant’s testimony that he was hit from behind by plaintiff, which was essentially impossible given where the two ended up after the collision, the jury was also free to disbelieve plaintiff’s recollection that defendant’s skis separated and defendant merely fell into plaintiff’s path. The jury could nonetheless have believed plaintiff’s testimony that, immediately prior to the collision, he was skiing in control and a safe distance from defendant and defendant’s apparently intended route. Mindful that plaintiff and defendant ended up [**11] in a heap well off the ski run, in a position consistent with defendant hitting into plaintiff at high speed, the jury might well have inferred that the only way the accident could have occurred was if defendant, fully in control, carelessly and precipitously turned sharply to the left, hitting the unsuspecting plaintiff, who had every reason to assume defendant was going to continue with his pattern of tight turns as plaintiff passed uneventfully on the left.
To be sure, this is not exactly the theory plaintiff developed at trial, but it is a scenario that emerges quite readily if one reviews all the evidence and all reasonable inferences that could be drawn therefrom in the light [*788] most favorable to the jury’s verdict. If that is what the jury concluded, then the accident was caused by defendant’s negligence, not an inadvertent fall. Accordingly, the trial court should not have disturbed the jury’s verdict, and we should reinstate it.
Gregory K. Orme, Judge