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Moore v. Waller, et al., 930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

Moore v. Waller, et al., 930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

Richard J. Moore, Appellant, v. Terrell Waller and Square 345 Limited Partnership T/A Grand Hyatt Hotel, Appellees.

No. 05-CV-695

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS

930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476

June 20, 2006, Argued

August 2, 2007, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY:  [**1]

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-1522-04). (Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge).

COUNSEL: John P. Fatherree for appellant.

Terrell Waller, Pro se.

Rocco P. Porreco for appellee, Square 345 Limited Partnership.

JUDGES: Before GLICKMAN, KRAMER, and FISHER, Associate Judges.

OPINION BY: FISHER

OPINION

[*177]  FISHER, Associate Judge: Appellant Richard Moore claims that he was injured on February 26, 2001, while participating in a demonstration of kick boxing at Club Fitness, which is operated by the appellee, Square 345 Limited Partnership (hereinafter Grand Hyatt). Relying on a waiver and release of liability Moore signed when he joined the fitness center, the Superior Court granted summary judgment, first for Grand Hyatt and then for Terrell Waller, the instructor who allegedly injured Moore. We affirm.

I.

Plaintiff Moore alleged that he had gone to the fitness center on February 26, 2001, to exercise. Although “he was not participating in the kick boxing classes, the instructor [*178]  , defendant Waller, asked [Moore] to hold . . . a detached Everlast body bag, so [Mr.] Waller could demonstrate a kick to his class.” According to Mr. Moore, he “reluctantly agreed, saying to [Mr. Waller], ‘Not hard.’ Defendant  [**2] Waller showed [Mr. Moore] how to hold the bag, braced against his body, and then kicked the bag five times, in rapid succession, with great force.” He claims that when Waller finished, “he was out of breath from the strenuous effort, and commented with obvious sarcasm and irony, ‘That wasn’t hard, was it.'” Moore states that he “immediately felt trauma to his body,” felt “stiff and achy” the next day, and consulted a physician about one month later. Mr. Moore asserts that “[h]e has been diagnosed as having torn ligaments and tendons from the trauma of the injury, and may have neurological damage, as well.” The resulting limitations on his physical activity allegedly have diminished the quality of his life in specified ways.

Mr. Moore had joined the fitness center on January 16, 2001, signing a membership agreement and initialing that portion of the agreement that purports to be a waiver and release of liability.

Article V – WAIVER AND LIABILITY

Section 1. The Member hereby acknowledges that attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s activities or programs by such Member, including without limitation, the use of the Club’s equipment and facilities, . . . exercises  [**3] (including the use of the weights, cardiovascular equipment, and apparatus designed for exercising), [and] selection of exercise programs, methods, and types of equipment, . . . could cause injury to the Member or damage to the Member’s personal property. As a material consideration for the Club to enter into this Agreement, to grant membership privileges hereunder and to permit the Member and the Member’s guests to use the Club and its facilities, the Member, on its own behalf and on behalf of the Member’s guests, agrees to assume any and all liabilities associated with the personal injury, death, property loss or other damages which may result from or arise out of attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s programs or activities, notwithstanding any consultation on any exercise programs which may be provided by employees of the Club.

By signing this Agreement, the Member understands that the foregoing waiver of liability on its behalf and on the behalf of the Member’s guests will apply to any and all claims against the Club and/or its owners, shareholders, officers, directors, employees, agents or affiliates . . . for any such claims, demands, personal  [**4] injuries, costs, property loss or other damages resulting from or arising out of any of foregoing risks at the Club, the condominium or the associated premises.

The Member hereby, on behalf of itself and the Member’s heirs, executors, administrators, guests and assigns, fully and forever releases and discharges the Club and the Club affiliates, and each of them, from any and all claims, damages, demands, rights of action or causes of action, present or future, known or unknown, anticipated or unanticipated resulting from or arising out of the attendance at or use of the Club or their participation in any of the Club’s activities or programs by such Member, including those which arise out of the negligence of the Club and/or the Club and the Club affiliates from any and all liability for any loss, or theft of, or damage to personal property, including, without limitation, automobiles and the contents of lockers.

 [*179]  THE MEMBER, BY INITIALING BELOW, ACKNOWLEDGES THAT HE/SHE HAS CAREFULLY READ THIS WAIVER AND RELEASE AND FULLY UNDERSTANDS THAT IT IS A WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY, AND ASSUMES THE RESPONSIBILITY TO INFORM HIS/HER GUESTS OF THE PROVISIONS OF THIS AGREEMENT.

If effective,  [**5] this provision waives and releases not only claims against the Club but also claims against its “employees [and] agents.” 1

1 We assume for purposes of analysis that the Grand Hyatt is responsible for the conduct of Mr. Waller at issue here, but we need not determine whether he was an employee or an independent contractor.

Ruling on Grand Hyatt’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court concluded:

The Waiver and Liability section of the contract . . . expresses a full and complete release of all liability for personal injury occurring in the fitness center. Moore signed an acknowledgment indicating that [he] had read and understood that he was releasing Grand Hyatt from all liability for personal injuries that he might sustain. Furthermore, there is no allegation of fraud or overreaching in the amended complaint. In the circumstances, the court finds that the waiver and release is valid and enforceable and is a complete defense for Grand Hyatt in this action.

The court later held “that the terms of the waiver . . . apply equally to defendant Terrell Waller….”

II.

This court has not often addressed the validity of exculpatory clauses in contracts. We have enforced them, however. For  [**6] example, “[i]t is well settled in this jurisdiction that a provision in a bailment contract limiting the bailee’s liability will be upheld in the absence of gross negligence, willful act, or fraud.” Houston v. Security Storage Co., 474 A.2d 143, 144 (D.C. 1984). Accord, Julius Garfinckel & Co. v. Firemen’s Insurance Co., 288 A.2d 662, 665 (D.C. 1972) (“gross negligence or willful misconduct”); Manhattan Co. v. Goldberg, 38 A.2d 172, 174 (D.C. 1944) (“a bailee may limit his liability except for gross negligence”). We recently considered such a clause contained in a home inspection contract and concluded that it would be sufficient to waive or limit liability for negligence. Carleton v. Winter, 901 A.2d 174, 181-82 (D.C. 2006). However, after surveying “leading authorities” and cases from other jurisdictions, we recognized that “courts have not generally enforced exculpatory clauses to the extent that they limited a party’s liability for gross negligence, recklessness or intentional torts.” Id. at 181. See also Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 525 (Md. 1994) ( [HN1] “a party will not be permitted to excuse its liability for intentional harms or for the more extreme forms of negligence, i.e., reckless,  [**7] wanton, or gross”); Seigneur v. National Fitness Institute, Inc., 132 Md. App. 271, 752 A.2d 631, 638 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2000) (exculpatory clause will not be enforced “when the party protected by the clause intentionally causes harm or engages in acts of reckless, wanton, or gross negligence”). In Carleton, the court remanded for further proceedings to determine whether the conduct of the defendants “was not just simple negligence, but rather gross negligence.” 901 A.2d at 182.

As Moore’s counsel conceded at oral argument, he does not claim that Waller intentionally or purposefully injured  [*180]  him. The complaint does allege reckless conduct, however, 2 and he argued to the trial court, as he does to us, that the fitness center could not exempt itself from liability for reckless or wanton behavior or gross negligence. Nevertheless, the defendants had moved for summary judgment, and  [HN2] “[m]ere conclusory allegations on the part of the non-moving party are insufficient to stave off the entry of summary judgment.” Musa v. Continental Insurance Co., 644 A.2d 999, 1002 (D.C. 1994); see also Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (e) (“the . . . response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this Rule, must set forth specific  [**8] facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial”). “‘[T]here is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.'” Brown v. George Washington Univ., 802 A.2d 382, 385 (D.C. 2002) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). “‘The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence . . . will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-moving party].'” LaPrade v. Rosinsky, 882 A.2d 192, 196 (D.C. 2005) (quoting Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 252).

2 In his second amended complaint, Moore alleged that “defendant Waller recklessly disregarded [his] duty of due care [and] acted with deliberate indifference to the likelihood that his action would injure the plaintiff. Defendant Waller’s reckless action was the direct and proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries.” He also alleged that the Grand Hyatt was responsible for Waller’s actions.

Nothing Moore presented in opposition to summary judgment would be sufficient to prove gross negligence or reckless conduct. Indeed, in one of his affidavits Mr. Moore stated that “as I was shown by defendant  [**9] Waller exactly how to hold the body bag while he demonstrated his kick(s), the purpose of his directions as communicated to me as to how to hold the bag were plainly for safety.” Such concern for safety is inconsistent with recklessness or gross negligence. See generally In re Romansky, 825 A.2d 311, 316 (D.C. 2003) (defining “recklessness”); District of Columbia v. Walker, 689 A.2d 40, 44 (D.C. 1997) (defining “gross negligence” for purposes of D.C. Code § 2-412 (2001) (formerly D.C.Code § 1-1212 (1981)). Moreover, Moore did not allege that defendant Waller kicked an unprotected portion of his body. Nor did he proffer expert testimony suggesting that the demonstration was so hazardous that it was reckless to undertake it, even with the protection of the Everlast body bag.

Because there is no viable claim for gross negligence, recklessness, or an intentional tort, we turn to the question of whether this particular contractual provision is sufficient to bar claims for negligence. 3 Although this is a suit for personal [*181]  injury, not merely for economic damage, the same principles of law apply. See Wright v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., 394 F. Supp. 2d 27, 34 (D.D.C. 2005) (“by voluntarily  [**10] signing the Contestant Release Form, plaintiff waived his right to bring any claims for negligently caused personal injury”; applying District of Columbia law). This court has not previously considered the effect of an exculpatory clause in a membership agreement with a health club or fitness center, but many jurisdictions have done so. After surveying the legal landscape, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals concluded that most courts hold “that  [HN3] health clubs, in their membership agreements, may limit their liability for future negligence if they do so unambiguously.” Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 636. We have found the analysis in Seigneur to be very helpful.

3 Appellant’s brief explains that he “claims damages from Waller based upon negligent infliction of injury, and against Square 345 Limited Partnership based upon respondeat superior and upon apparent agency and authority, as well as negligent failure to properly select, train and supervise a person whose services were retained to provide lessons in an activity which would certainly be dangerous if not expertly and responsibly performed.” He later elaborates: “While kick boxing is an inherently dangerous activity, had the demonstration  [**11] been conducted in a responsible, non-negligent way, it would not have been dangerous.” The words “strict liability” appear under the caption of the second amended complaint, but appellant has not cited any statute or regulation that purports to impose strict liability on demonstrations of kick boxing, nor has he alleged the common law elements of strict liability in tort. See Word v. Potomac Electric Power Co., 742 A.2d 452, 459 (D.C. 1999). Neither has he proffered facts which would support such a theory. In sum, the waiver is sufficient to cover any theory of liability which is supported by more than conclusory allegations.

 [HN4] A fundamental requirement of any exculpatory provision is that it be clear and unambiguous. Maiatico v. Hot Shoppes, Inc., 109 U.S. App. D.C. 310, 312, 287 F.2d 349, 351 (1961) (“exculpation must be spelled out with such clarity that the intent to negate the usual consequences of tortious conduct is made plain”; also recognizing that in most circumstances modern law “permit[s] a person to exculpate himself by contract from the legal consequences of his negligence”). Cf. Adloo v. H.T. Brown Real Estate, Inc., 344 Md. 254, 686 A.2d 298, 305 (Md. 1996) (“Because it does not clearly,  [**12] unequivocally, specifically, and unmistakably express the parties’ intention to exculpate the respondent from liability resulting from its own negligence, the clause is insufficient for that purpose.”). The provision at issue here meets the requirement of clarity. Article V is entitled, in capital letters, “WAIVER AND LIABILITY.” The Article ends with a prominent “box” containing a sentence typed in capital letters. Appellant Moore initialed that box, verifying that he had “carefully read this waiver and release and fully understands that it is a waiver and release of liability . . . .” By accepting the terms of membership, Moore “agree[d] to assume any and all liabilities associated with the personal injury, death, property loss or other damages which may result from or arise out of attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s programs or activities . . . .” He understood that this waiver of liability would “apply to any and all claims against the Club and/or its owners, shareholders, officers, directors, employees, agents or affiliates . . . for any . . . personal injuries . . . resulting from or arising out of any of [the] foregoing risks at the Club .  [**13] . . .” He “release[d] and discharge[d] the Club . . . from any and all claims, damages, demands, rights of action or causes of action…, including those which arise out of the negligence of the Club . . . .” This release is conspicuous and unambiguous, and it is clearly recognizable as a release from liability. Moreover, the injuries alleged here were reasonably within the contemplation of the parties. “Because  [HN5] the parties expressed a clear intention to release liability and because that release clearly included liability for negligence, that intention should be enforced.” Anderson v. McOskar Enterprises, Inc., 712 N.W.2d 796, 801 (Minn. Ct. App. 2006) (health and fitness club). 4

4 Because this waiver expressly refers to “claims . . . which arise out of the negligence of the Club,” its effect is clear. We have held, however, that it is not always necessary to use the word “negligence” in order to relieve a party of liability for such conduct. See Princemont Construction Corp. v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co. 131 A.2d 877, 878 (D.C. 1957) (“the terms of an indemnity agreement may be so broad and comprehensive that although it contains no express stipulation indemnifying against a party’s  [**14] own negligence, it accomplishes the same purpose”); see also Avant v. Community Hospital, 826 N.E.2d 7, 12 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005)( [HN6] “an exculpatory clause need not include the word ‘negligence’ so long as it conveys the concept specifically and explicitly through other language”).

 [*182]  Appellant protests that the waiver provisions are so broad that they could be construed to exempt the Club from liability for harm caused by intentional torts or by reckless or grossly negligent conduct. Because such provisions are unenforceable, he argues that the entire release is invalid. We disagree. “‘A better interpretation of the law is that  [HN7] any “term” in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire [contract].'” Anderson, 712 N.W.2d at 801 (quoting Wolfgang v. Mid-American Motorsports, Inc., 898 F. Supp. 783, 788 (D. Kan. 1995) (which in turn quotes RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 195(1) (1981) (“A term exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy.” (emphasis added))). See Ellis v. James V. Hurson Associates, Inc., 565 A.2d 615, 617 (D.C. 1989)  [**15] (“The Restatement sets forth the relevant principles. Where less than all of an agreement is unenforceable on public policy grounds, a court may nevertheless enforce the rest of the agreement ‘in favor of a party who did not engage in serious misconduct.'” (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 184(1) (1981))).

Nor is Article V (the waiver and release) unenforceable due to unequal bargaining power, as Mr. Moore asserts. We do not suppose that the parties in fact had equal power, but Moore does not meet the criteria for invalidating a contract on the grounds he invokes. He does not invite our attention to any evidence that he objected to the waiver provision or attempted to bargain for different terms. Nor has he shown that the contract involved a necessary service.

 [HN8] Even though a contract is on a printed form and offered on a “take it or leave it” basis, those facts alone do not cause it to be an adhesion contract. There must be a showing that the parties were greatly disparate in bargaining power, that there was no opportunity for negotiation and that the services could not be obtained elsewhere.

Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 924-25 (Minn. 1982) (emphasis in  [**16] original). “Health clubs do not provide essential services[,]” Shields v. Sta-Fit, Inc., 79 Wn. App. 584, 903 P.2d 525, 528 (Wash. Ct. App. 1995), and “[t]he Washington metropolitan area . . . is home to many exercise and fitness clubs.” Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 639 (rejecting argument that patron’s bargaining position was grossly disproportionate to that of the fitness club).

We, of course, would not enforce such a release if doing so would be against public policy. See Godette v. Estate of Cox, 592 A.2d 1028, 1034 (D.C. 1991) ( [HN9] “An exculpatory clause [in a will] that excuses self-dealing [by the personal representative] or attempts to limit liability for breaches of duty committed in bad faith, intentionally, or with reckless indifference to the interest of the beneficiary, is generally considered to be against public policy.”); George Washington Univ. v. Weintraub, 458 A.2d 43, 47 (D.C. 1983) (exculpatory clause in lease was ineffective to waive tenants’ rights under implied warranty of habitability); see also Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 526 (Md. 1994) (public policy will not permit exculpatory agreements in certain transactions affecting the performance of a public service obligation or “so important [*183]   [**17] to the public good that an exculpatory clause would be patently offensive”). However, we agree with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and with numerous other courts which have held that it does not violate public policy to enforce exculpatory clauses contained in membership contracts of health clubs and fitness centers. Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 640-41 (and cases cited therein); see also, e.g., Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 926 (“the exculpatory clause in the contract before us was not against the public interest”); Ciofalo v. Vic Tanney Gyms, Inc., 10 N.Y.2d 294, 177 N.E.2d 925, 927, 220 N.Y.S.2d 962 (N.Y. 1961) (“there is no special legal relationship and no overriding public interest which demand that this contract provision, voluntarily entered into by competent parties, should be rendered ineffectual”); Massengill v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132 (Wyo. 2000). 5

5 The Supreme Court of Wisconsin refused to enforce one such clause on grounds of public policy. Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4, 277 Wis. 2d 303, 691 N.W.2d 334 (Wis. 2005). That decision was based on several factors, however, and we do not understand the court to have announced a categorical rule. See id. at 340-42 (waiver was “overly broad  [**18] and all-inclusive,” the word “negligence” was not included, the provision was not “sufficiently highlight[ed],” and there was “no opportunity to bargain”).

The trial court properly held that “the waiver and release is valid and enforceable and is a complete defense for Grand Hyatt [and Mr. Waller] in this action.” The judgment of the Superior Court is hereby

Affirmed.

 

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“Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case, the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels

Cornell and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment used in a gym at Cornell were being sued by an injured student who used the equipment. The court definitely was leaning towards the student; however, the student had come to court prepared, (and backed by a lot of money I’m guessing.)

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau

Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak

Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability, Failure to Warn, requesting punitive damages

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: No duty, Failure to state a claim, Assumption of Risk & Release?

Year: 2012

This case spent four years getting to this point, and it is obvious the court is a little tired of the litigation. Consequently, the facts are difficult to determine.

It seems the plaintiff was a beginning gymnast and injured himself on a piece of equipment at the Cornell University gym called the Tumbletrak. The extents of his injuries are never clear, but based on the number of experts the plaintiff hired and the lengthy fight; I guess his injuries were extensive.

This case was being heard in a Pennsylvania Federal Court with a Michigan and a New York Defendant. That fact alone is confusing.

The decision is based on motions for summary judgment filed by both Cornell and the manufacturer Tumbletrak.

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

The court first examines the manufacture’s motion for summary judgment. The first issue the manufacturer claimed the plaintiff failed to establish the minimum facts necessary to go to trial; the plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages, and the plaintiff assumed the risk. The court first looked at what was required to establish a failure to warn case. Meaning a manufacturer has a duty to warn users of the product of the risks and failed to do so.

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage.

The burden is on the plaintiff to prove the failure to warn of the risk by the manufacturer was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded a warning had one been given. Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.”

Failure to warn can be denied both by proving the plaintiff read and heeded the risk or knew of the risk prior to using the equipment. The manufacturer argued the risk was open and obvious, which does not require proof because the plaintiff should have seen the risk.

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding

In a footnote at this point, the court states the plaintiff signed a release stating he understood the risks; however, nothing else is mentioned about the release in the rest of the decision.

One way to defend against a motion for summary judgment is to argue there are enough facts or issues that make the facts relied upon by the defendant an issue.  Meaning if enough facts are in dispute, the motion for summary judgement cannot be granted. This is what the plaintiff did through his experts.

Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. [Emphasize added]

Here the manufacturer shot his defense down before the product left the assembly plant by confusing risk management and marketing. Teddy bears doing the activities unspotted that the warning allegedly warns against eliminated the warning in the court’s eyes. (And rightfully so!) If the manufacturer shows cartoons doing the act without regard for safety, then the act must be safe, no matter what the warning says. If the warning can be located.

In a scary statement, the court held that failure to read the warnings on the product is not an issue in a failure to warn case.

However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.”

The court based this analysis on the many different statements by witnesses who seemed to go in every direction, but all stated they never saw the warning.

Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter.

A warning does not exist unless the consumer can’t miss it. Meaning the warning must be in the consumer’s face every time they go to use a product. On top of that the warning must be in the manual, in some states on the packaging and maybe on a hangtag with the product.

The failure to warn claim was sustained and would be decided at trial.

The court then looked at the assumption of the risk defense brought by the defendant manufacturer. The court started this analysis looking at the requirements to prove a negligence claim in a product case.

To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff.

However, assumption of the risk in a product’s case is a little more stringent then in a recreation case. “Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events.” In sporting or recreation cases, the risk is clear and understood by all involved and to be effective the risk was not altered or enhanced by the defendant. In a product’s case the requirements are slightly different.

Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. To establish assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk.

Again, the case goes back to did the plaintiff know of the risks. Where the risks open and obvious or can you prove under the law the plaintiff knew of the risk. Because no one ever saw the warning, the warning had no value. That left it up to a jury to decide if the plaintiff knew the risk of the sport or activity.

The next argument was a motion to eliminate a punitive damages claim by the manufacturer arguing the case should be tried under Michigan’s law because the manufacturer was based in Michigan. Michigan does not allow punitive damages, unless they are expressly authorized by statute.

There has been a prior argument about the jurisdiction and venue of the case decided by a prior judge. (Which is alone confusing since none of the defendants are located in Pennsylvania where the court sits, however, the court is applying New York law?) Because of the prior decision, this court followed it and ruled that New York law would be applied to the facts of the case, and punitive damages were going to be at issue.

Cornell University was then giving a shot at its motions starting with the punitive damages issue. Cornell claimed the plaintiff had not presented any evidence that could support a punitive damages claim. The plaintiff responded arguing facts that could prove a punitive damages claim against the university.

(1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.”

The court defined the requirements to prove a punitive damages claim.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.”

The court found there was sufficient evidence to support a possible punitive damages claim.

There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

Cornell next argued that the plaintiff assumed the risk and there was no evidence proving causation. Cornell was arguing a breach of a duty was not related to the injury. There was no causation between the two which is required to prove negligence.

The court found that Cornell’s case law did not apply correctly to the facts of this case. That means the case law facts were sufficiently different from the facts of this case, that the law could not be interpreted the same way. “Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here.”

On the causation issues the judge found the plaintiff had presented enough evidence that there could be an issue leading to punitive damages against the college.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

Both defendants failed in their motion for summary judgment, and the decision was to allow the case to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

I have not been able to find the outcome of this case. Meaning it probably settled. The entire issue was the warning on the product; it was not clear; it was not visible, and it could not be seen in normal use.

If you manufacture products and your product poses a risk to the user, then you need to notify the consumer as often and as many were possible that you can. User manuals, hangtags, the container or bag the product is shipped in and on the product itself. It is also not enough that you can say the label or warning is there; the user must be able to see the warning……every time.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

July 31, 2012, Decided

July 31, 2012, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)

CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure

COUNSEL:  [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.

For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II

OPINION

Jones, II, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1

1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and  [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which  [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).

T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.

Failure to Warn

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause  [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).

2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.

Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded  [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:

o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.

o Plaintiff  [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.

o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.

o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.

 

Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.

However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA,  [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).

Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611.  [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.

3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.

4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.

In sum, this evidence of record establishes  [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.

Assumption of Risk

T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A.,     F. Supp. 2d    , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish  [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.

5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).

Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased  [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff  [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.

6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to  [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006)  [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).

Punitive Damages

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled  [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed,  [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).

Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and  [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7

7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.

Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.

Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages

Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct  [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).

Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would  [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s  [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9

8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.

9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.

Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to  [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the  [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.

10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In  [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.

11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s  [*25] apparent invitation.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.

Conclusion

Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product.  [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.

An appropriate Order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:

  1. Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
  2. Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
  3. Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
  4. The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.

In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed  [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.

13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II

  1. DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.

 


Colorado Appellate Court rules that fine print and confusing language found on most health clubs (and some climbing wall) releases is void because of the Colorado Premises Liability Act.

Door swings both ways in the law. Ski areas used the Colorado Premises Liability Act to lower the standard of care and effectively eliminate claims for lift accidents in Colorado. Here the same act is used to rule a release is void for accidents occurring on premises. However, the release was badly written and should have been thrown out.

Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

State: Colorado, Colorado Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Wendy Jane Stone

Defendant: Life Time Fitness, Inc., a Minnesota corporation doing business in the State of Colorado, d/b/a Life Time Fitness; Life Time Fitness Foundation; and LTF Club Operations Company, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

This case is going to change a lot of releases in Colorado, and possibly nationwide. Similar decisions concerning health club releases have occurred in other states for the same or similar reasons. Basically, your have to write a release correctly, or it is void.

Remember the articles about Vail using the Colorado Premises Liability Act to defeat claims for lift accidents? (See Colorado Premises Liability act eliminated common law claims of negligence as well as CO Ski Area Safety Act claims against a landowner and Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?) The same act has been used to void a release in a health club case.

The Colorado Premises Liability Act is a law that tells a landowner (which is broadly defined to include renters as well as landowners indoors and out) how they must treat three types of people on their land or as in this case, a person who is in a health club.

Here the plaintiff had washed her hands in the locker room, and as she was leaving she tripped over the blow dryer cord fracturing her right ankle.

Stone was a member of a Life Time fitness club located in Centennial. According to the complaint, she sustained injuries in the women’s locker room after finishing a workout. Stone alleged that she had washed her hands at a locker room sink and then “turned to leave when she tripped on the blow dryer cord that was, unbeknownst to her, hanging to the floor beneath the sink and vanity counter top.” She caught her foot in the cord and fell to the ground, fracturing her right ankle.

The plaintiff’s injuries arose from her being the land, not for using the benefits of the health club.

The plaintiff sued for negligence and for violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act. The Colorado Premises Liability Act sets for the duties owed by a landowner to someone on their land based on the relationship between the landowner and the person on the land. Pursuant to an earlier Colorado Supreme Court decision, the Colorado Premises Liability Act provides the sole remedies available to persons injured on the property of another.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based upon the release used by the health club, and the plaintiff appealed.

This decision is new and there is a possibility that it could be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court and reversed.

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

The plaintiff filed here a complaint with two claims, negligence and breach of the Colorado Premises Liability Act. The court first looked at the negligence claim. The court found that negligence claim was properly dismissed, but for a different reason that the release stopped the claim. Here, the Colorado Premises Liability Act provides the only legal recourse against a landowner, so the negligence claim has no validity.

The PLA thus provides the sole remedy against landowners for injuries on their property established that the PLA abrogates common law negligence claims against landowners.

Accordingly, albeit for reasons different from those expressed by the trial court, we conclude that Stone could not bring a claim for common law negligence, and the trial court; therefore, correctly ruled against her on that claim.

When a statute as in this case the Colorado Premises Liability Act, states the only way to sue is under this act, the statute bars all other ways or theories to sue.

The plaintiff’s argument then was the release that was written and signed by the plaintiff only covered the activities in the health club and did not provide protection from a suit for simply being on the premises.

As we understand Stone’s contentions, she does not dispute that the exculpatory language in the Agreement would preclude her from asserting claims under the PLA for any injuries she might sustain when working out on a treadmill, stationary bicycle, or other exercise equipment or playing racquetball. We therefore do not address such claims. Instead, Stone argues that the exculpatory clauses do not clearly and unambiguously apply to her injuries incurred after washing her hands in the women’s locker room.

The court then reviewed the general rules surrounding release in Colorado law.

Generally, exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored.” Determining the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court. This analysis requires close scrutiny of the agreement to ensure that the intent of the parties is expressed in clear, unambiguous, and unequivocal language.

Under Colorado law, clear and unambiguously language is reviewed based on the lengthy, the amount of legal jargon and the possibility of confusion.

To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, we have previously examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.

Colorado has a four-part test to determine the validity of a release.

Under Jones, a court must consider four factors in determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language.

The court quickly ruled that the first three factors were not at issue in this case.

In Colorado, there is no public duty based on recreational services. Recreational services are neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity. The third factor was also met because the defendant did not have any advantage. The plaintiff was free to obtain the services of the defendant someplace else.

The fourth factor provided the issue the case would resolve around, “Whether the intention of the parties was clear and unambiguous.”

The issue is not whether a detailed textual analysis would lead a court to determine that the language, even if ambiguous, ultimately would bar the plaintiff’s claims. Instead, the language must be clear and unambiguous and also “unequivocal” to be enforceable.

The court found eight ways the release in this case failed.

First, the release was very small type, dense fine print.

First, as explained by the New York Court of Appeals, “a provision that would exempt its drafter from any liability occasioned by his fault should not compel resort to a magnifying glass and lexicon.” Here, the Agreement consists of extremely dense fine print, for which a great many people would require a magnifying glass or magnifying reading glasses.

Second, the release was full of confusing legal jargon, including the following terms:

…affiliates, subsidiaries, successors, or assigns”; “assumption of risk”; “inherent risk of injury”; “includes, but is not limited to”; and “I agree to defend, indemnify and hold Life Time Fitness harmless.

This jargon was found to mitigate against the idea the release was clear and simple to understand.

Third, the release, referenced clauses, identified as chapters, which even the attorneys for the defendant found confusing. Nor could anyone explain what the references to chapters referred to.

Fourth the focus of the release was on the use of the exercise equipment. The court pointed out five instances in the release that related to the use of the equipment and none relating to occupation of the premises. Meaning the court found a release must release the claims the plaintiff is complaining of.

The fifth reason was the use of the term “inherent.” (As I’ve stated before and given presentations on, inherent is a limiting term you do not want to use in a release.) The court said the use of this term was only applied under Colorado law to apply to activities that are dangerous or potentially dangerous. A locker room is not inherently dangerous so the term is confusing in this case.

In light of this statutory and case law backdrop, the use of the inherent risk language in the assumption of risk clause, and the Agreement’s focus on the use of exercise equipment and facilities and physical injuries resulting from strenuous exercise, one could reasonably conclude that by signing the Agreement he or she was waiving claims based only on the inherent risks of injury related to fitness activities, as opposed to washing one’s hands.

The sixth issue the court had was the language between the different release terms was “squirrely.” (In 35 years of practicing law, I have used the term a lot, but never in a courtroom, and I’ve never seen it in a decision.) The way the language referred back to other clauses in the release and attempting to identify what injuries were actually covered created ambiguities and confusion. The defense counsel for the health club admitted the language was squirrely.

The seventh issue was the general language of the release used to broaden the release, (after using the narrowing term inherent). The release was full of “but for” or “but is not” type of phrases. It was an attempt to broaden the language in the release, which only made the release more confusing.

Seventh, the exculpatory clauses repeatedly use the phrases “includes, but is not limited to” and “including and without limitation,” as well as simply “including.” The repeated use of these phrases makes the clauses more confusing, and the reader is left to guess whether the phrases have different meanings. The problem is compounded by conflicting views expressed by divisions of this court on whether the similar phrase “including, but not limited to” is expansive or restrictive.

The use of these terms created more ambiguity in the release. Specifically, the language created an expansive versus restrictive flow in the release, none of which referenced the locker room.

Based on the above language the court found the release was not clear, unambiguous and unequivocal.

Based on the foregoing discussion, and after scrutinizing the exculpatory clauses, we conclude that the Agreement uses excessive legal jargon, is unnecessarily complex, and creates a likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. Accordingly, the Agreement does not clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally bar Stone’s PLA claim based on the injuries she alleges she sustained after she washed her hands in the women’s locker room.

The negligence claim was dismissed, and the claim under the Colorado Premises Liability Act was allowed to proceed.

So Now What?

First remember, this case could still be appealed and changed by the Colorado Supreme Court. However, the logic and reasoning behind the Colorado Appellate Court decision is well laid out and clear. I don’t think these are issues the Colorado Supreme Court is going to take on.

Colorado has jumped onto the release bandwagon I’ve been telling people about for 25 years.  Your release has to be written in English, it needs to be understandable, and it needs to cover everything. Most importantly, it needs to be a separate document with no fine print, no legal jargon and easily read. You can no longer hide your release on the back of an agreement using fine print and expect it to protect you from claims.

Colorado has been a state where releases are rarely over-turned. However, this was a crappy piece of paper that had release language on it. The print was too small; the language was so confusing the attorney for the health club did not understand it and the court pointed this fact out.

Your release needs to be well written, needs to be written by an attorney, needs to be written by an attorney who understands what you do and the risks you are presenting to your guests/customers/participants.

If you are interested in having me prepare a release for you, download the information form and agreement here: information-and-agreement-to-write-a-release-for-you-1-1-17

For more articles on this type of releases found in health clubs see:

Sign-in sheet language at Michigan’s health club was not sufficient to create a release.            http://rec-law.us/28J1Cs8

For articles explaining why using the term inherent in a release is bad see:

Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.   http://rec-law.us/1SqHWJW

 

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Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

* Formatting in this case maybe different when finalized by the Court.

Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

Wendy Jane Stone, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., a Minnesota corporation doing business in the State of Colorado, d/b/a Life Time Fitness; Life Time Fitness Foundation; and LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., Defendants-Appellees.

Court of Appeals No. 15CA0598

COURT OF APPEALS OF COLORADO, DIVISION I

2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

December 29, 2016, Decided

OPINION

[*1] City and County of Denver District Court No. 14CV33637 Honorable R. Michael Mullins, Judge

Opinion by JUDGE MILLER

Taubman and Fox, JJ., concur

Announced December 29, 2016

Charles Welton P.C., Charles Welton, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant

Markusson Green & Jarvis, John T. Mauro, H. Keith Jarvis, Denver, Colorado, for Defendants-Appellees

¶ 1 In this action seeking recovery for personal injuries sustained at a fitness club, plaintiff, Wendy Jane Stone, appeals the summary judgment entered in favor of defendants, Life Time Fitness, Inc.; Life Time Fitness Foundation; and LTF Club Operations Company, Inc. (collectively, Life Time), on Stone’s negligence and Premises Liability Act (PLA) claims based on injuries sustained when she tripped on a hair dryer cord after washing her hands. The principal issue presented on appeal is whether the district court correctly ruled that Stone’s claims are contractually barred based on assumption of risk and liability release language contained in a member usage agreement (Agreement) she signed when she became a member of Life Time.

¶ 2 We disagree with the district court’s conclusion that the exculpatory provisions of the Agreement are valid as applied [*2] to Stone’s PLA claim. Consequently, we reverse the judgment as to that claim and remand the case for further proceedings. We affirm the district court’s judgment on the negligence claim.

I. Background

¶ 3 Stone was a member of a Life Time fitness club located in Centennial. According to the complaint, she sustained injuries in the women’s locker room after finishing a workout. Stone alleged that she had washed her hands at a locker room sink and then “turned to leave when she tripped on the blow dryer cord that was, unbeknownst to her, hanging to the floor beneath the sink and vanity counter top.” She caught her foot in the cord and fell to the ground, fracturing her right ankle.

¶ 4 Stone alleged that allowing the blow dryer cord to hang below the sink counter constituted a trip hazard and a dangerous condition and that, by allowing the condition to exist, Life Time failed to exercise reasonable care. She asserted a general negligence claim and also a claim under Colorado’s PLA, section 13-21-115, C.R.S. 2016.

¶ 5 Life Time moved for summary judgment, relying on assumption of risk and liability release language contained in the Agreement Stone signed when she joined Life Time. Life Time argued that the Agreement was [*3] valid and enforceable, that it expressly covered the type and circumstances of her injuries, and that it barred Stone’s claims as a matter of law. A copy of the Agreement appears in the Appendix to this opinion.

¶ 6 After full briefing, the district court granted Life Time’s motion, concluding that the Agreement was “valid and enforceable” and that Stone had released Life Time from all the claims asserted in the complaint.

II. Discussion

¶ 7 She contends that the district court, therefore, erred in entering summary judgment and dismissing her action.

A. Summary Judgment Standards

¶ 8 Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings and supporting documents establish that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Gagne v. Gagne, 2014 COA 127, ¶ 24; see C.R.C.P. 56(c). We review de novo an order granting a motion for summary judgment. Gagne, ¶ 24; see Ranch O, LLC v. Colo. Cattlemen’s Agric. Land Tr., 2015 COA 20, ¶ 12.

B. Negligence Claim

¶ 9 In her complaint, Stone alleged common law negligence and PLA claims, and she pursues both claims on appeal. The trial court’s summary judgment ruled in favor of Life Time without distinguishing between Stone’s negligence and PLA claims. It simply concluded that the [*4] exculpatory clauses in the Agreement were “valid and enforceable” and released Life Time from all claims asserted against it.

¶ 10 We turn to the negligence claim first because we may affirm a correct judgment for reasons different from those relied on by the trial court. English v. Griffith, 99 P.3d 90, 92 (Colo. App. 2004).

¶ 11 The parties agree that the PLA applies to this case. In section

13-21-115(2), the statute provides:

In any civil action brought against a landowner by a person who alleges injury occurring while on the real property of another and by reason of the condition of such property, or activities conducted or circumstances existing on such property, the landowner shall be liable only as provided in subsection (3) of this section.

The PLA thus provides the sole remedy against landowners for injuries on their property. Vigil v. Franklin, 103 P.3d 322, 328-29 (Colo. 2004); Wycoff v. Grace Cmty. Church of Assemblies of God, 251 P.3d 1260, 1265 (Colo. App. 2010). Similarly, it is well

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

Section 13-21-115(1), C.R.S. 2016, defines “landowner” as including “a person in possession of real property and a person legally responsible for the condition of real property or for the activities conducted or circumstances existing on real property.” In its answer, Life Time admitted that it owned and operated the club where Stone was injured and that the PLA governs her [*5] claims.

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

established that the PLA abrogates common law negligence claims against landowners. Legro v. Robinson, 2012 COA 182, ¶ 20, aff’d, 2014 CO 40.

¶ 12 Accordingly, albeit for reasons different from those expressed by the trial court, we conclude that Stone could not bring a claim for common law negligence, and the trial court therefore correctly ruled against her on that claim. We now turn to the effect of the exculpatory clauses in the Agreement on Stone’s PLA claim.

C. Application of Exculpatory Clauses to PLA Claim

¶ 13 As we understand Stone’s contentions, she does not dispute that the exculpatory language in the Agreement would preclude her from asserting claims under the PLA for any injuries she might sustain when working out on a treadmill, stationary bicycle, or other exercise equipment or playing racquetball. We therefore do not address such claims. Instead, Stone argues that the exculpatory clauses do not clearly and unambiguously apply to her injuries incurred after washing her hands in the women’s locker room. We agree.

1. Law

¶ 14 “Generally, exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored.” B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 136 (Colo. 1998). Determining the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court. Id.; Jones [*6] v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 375 (Colo. 1981). This analysis requires close scrutiny of the agreement to ensure that the intent of the parties is expressed in clear, unambiguous, and unequivocal language. Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004). Our supreme court has explained:

To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, we have previously examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.

Id.

¶ 15 Under Jones, a court must consider four factors in determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language. 623 P.2d at 375.

2. Analysis

a. The First Three Jones Factors

¶ 16 The first three Jones factors provide little help for Stone’s position. The supreme court has specified that no public duty is implicated if a business provides recreational services. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467 (addressing guided hunting services and noting that providers of recreational activities owe “no special duty [*7] to the public”); Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-78 (skydiving services); see also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949 (addressing recreational camping services and noting supreme court authority).

¶ 17 With regard to the second factor, the nature of the services provided, courts have consistently deemed recreational services to be neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949; see also Brooks v. Timberline Tours, Inc., 941 F. Supp. 959, 962 (D. Colo. 1996) (snowmobiling not a matter of practical necessity), aff’d, 127 F.3d 1273 (10th Cir. 1997); Lahey v. Covington, 964 F. Supp. 1440, 1445 (D. Colo. 1996) (whitewater rafting not an essential service), aff’d sub nom. Lahey v. Twin Lakes Expeditions, Inc., 113 F.3d 1246 (10th Cir. 1997). Stone attempts to distinguish those cases by asserting that people join fitness centers “to promote their health, not for the thrill of a dangerous recreational activity.” She cites no authority for such a distinction, and we are not persuaded that such activities as camping and horseback riding, at issue in the cases cited above, are engaged in for a dangerous thrill as opposed to the healthful benefits of outdoor exercise. Consequently, the recreational nature of the services Life Time provides does not weigh against upholding or enforcing the Agreement.

¶ 18 With respect to the third factor, a contract is fairly entered into if one party [*8] is not at such an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power that the effect of the contract is to place that party at the mercy of the other party’s negligence. See Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949; see also Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784 (Colo. 1989). Possible examples of unfair disparity in bargaining power include agreements between employers and employees and between common carriers or public utilities and members of the public. See Heil Valley Ranch, Inc., 784 P.2d at 784. However, this type of unfair disparity is generally not implicated when a person contracts with a business providing recreational services. See id.; see also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949-50.

¶ 19 In evaluating fairness, courts also examine whether the services provided could have been obtained elsewhere. Hamill, 262 P.3d at 950. Nothing in the record indicates that Stone could not have taken her business elsewhere and joined a different fitness club or recreation center. Nor is there any other evidence that the parties’ relative bargaining strengths were unfairly disparate so as to weigh against enforcing the Agreement.

¶ 20 We therefore turn to the fourth prong of the Jones test – whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language. [*9]

b. The Fourth Jones Factor

¶ 21 The validity of exculpatory clauses releasing or waiving future negligence claims usually turns on the fourth Jones factor – whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Wycoff, 251 P.3d at 1263 (applying the Jones factors to a PLA claim). This case also turns on that factor.

¶ 22 The issue is not whether a detailed textual analysis would lead a court to determine that the language, even if ambiguous, ultimately would bar the plaintiff’s claims. Instead, the language must be clear and unambiguous and also “unequivocal” to be enforceable. Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467; see also Threadgill v. Peabody Coal Co., 34 Colo. App. 203, 209, 526 P.2d 676, 679 (1974), cited with approval in Jones, 623 P.2d at 378.

¶ 23 We conclude that the Agreement fails this test for numerous reasons.

¶ 24 First, as explained by the New York Court of Appeals, “a provision that would exempt its drafter from any liability occasioned by his fault should not compel resort to a magnifying glass and lexicon.” Gross v. Sweet, 400 N.E.2d 306, 309 (N.Y. 1979), cited with approval in Jones, 623 P.2d at 378. Here, the Agreement consists of extremely dense fine print, for which a great many people would require a magnifying glass or magnifying reading glasses.

¶ 25 Second, the two clauses are replete with legal jargon, using phrases and terms such as “affiliates, subsidiaries, [*10] successors, or assigns”; “assumption of risk”; “inherent risk of injury”; “includes, but is not limited to”; and “I agree to defend, indemnify and hold Life Time Fitness harmless.” The use of such technical legal language militates against the conclusion that the release of liability was clear and simple to a lay person.

¶ 26 Third, the first of the two clauses relied on by Life Time bears the following heading: “under Chapter 458, 459, 460, or Chapter 461 ASSUMPTION OF RISK.” At oral argument, counsel for Life Time conceded that the reference to multiple chapters was ambiguous and confusing, and he could not explain to what the chapters referred. Our research has not enlightened us on the subject. Conscientious lay persons could reasonably have skipped over the fine print appearing under that heading, believing it did not apply to them because they would have no reason to understand that chapters 458, 459, 460, or 461 had any relevance to their situation. Thus, the assumption of risk heading was not clear and unambiguous.

¶ 27 Fourth, the dominant focus of the Agreement is on the risks of strenuous exercise and use of exercise equipment at the fitness center:

  • The opening paragraph [*11] of the Agreement contains the following warning: “All members are strongly encouraged to have a complete physical examination by a medical doctor prior to beginning any work out program or strenuous new activity. If I have a history of heart disease, I agree to consult a physician before becoming a Life Time Fitness member.”
  • Under the confusing assumption of risk heading, the first sentence states, “I understand that there is an inherent risk of injury, whether caused by me or someone else, in the use of or presence at a Life Time Fitness Center, the use of equipment and services at a Life Time Fitness Center, and participation in Life Time Fitness’ programs.”
  • There then follows a listing of types of risks, including the use of “indoor and outdoor pool areas with waterslides, a climbing wall area, ball and racquet courts, cardiovascular and resistance training equipment,” and other specified programs, as well as
  • “[i]njuries arising from the use of Life Time Fitness’ centers or equipment” and from activities and programs sponsored by Life Time; “[i]njuries or medical disorders resulting from exercise at a
  • Life Time Fitness center, including, but not limited to heart attacks, strokes, [*12] heart stress, spr [sic] broken bones and torn muscles or ligaments”; and “[i]njuries resulting from the actions taken or decisions made regarding medical or survival procedures.”

¶ 28 Fifth, the term “inherent risk of injury” that appears in the assumption of risk clause has been applied in various Colorado statutes and case law to address waivers of liability only for activities that are dangerous or potentially dangerous. Thus, the General Assembly has provided for releases from liability in circumstances such as activities involving horses and llamas, section 13-21-119, C.R.S. 2016; being a spectator at baseball games, section 13-21-120, C.R.S. 2016; agricultural recreation or agritourism activities (including hunting, shooting, diving, and operating a motorized recreational vehicle on or near agricultural land), section 13-21-121, C.R.S. 2016; skiing, section 33-44-109, C.R.S. 2016; and spaceflight activities, section 41-6-101, C.R.S. 2016. Significantly, not one of these statutory exemptions from liability extends to the use of locker rooms, rest rooms, or dressing rooms associated with these activities. Rather, the releases of liability extend only to the dangerous or potentially dangerous activities themselves.

¶ 29 Colorado’s published cases concerning the term “inherent risks” similarly concern dangerous or potentially [*13] dangerous activities. For example, the term “inherent risks” has been addressed in cases involving skiing, Graven v. Vail Assocs., Inc., 909 P.2d 514, 519 (Colo. 1995); horseback riding, Heil Valley Ranch, Inc., 784 P.2d at 782; medical procedures or surgical techniques, Mudd v. Dorr, 40 Colo. App. 74, 78-79, 574 P.2d 97, 101 (1977); and attendance at roller hockey games, Teneyck v. Roller Hockey Colo., Ltd., 10 P.3d 707, 710 (Colo. App. 2000). Thus, in reported cases, the term “inherent risks” has been limited to dangerous or potentially dangerous activities, rather than accidents occurring in more common situations, such as using locker rooms.

¶ 30 In light of this statutory and case law backdrop, the use of the inherent risk language in the assumption of risk clause, and the Agreement’s focus on the use of exercise equipment and facilities and physical injuries resulting from strenuous exercise, one could reasonably conclude that by signing the Agreement he or she was waiving claims based only on the inherent risks of injury related to fitness activities, as opposed to washing one’s hands. Indeed, Stone so stated in her affidavit submitted in opposition to the motion for summary judgment.

¶ 31 Sixth, Life Time contends that the only relevant language we need consider is that set forth in the second exculpatory clause, labeled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY.” That provision begins [*14] by stating that “I waive any and all claims or actions that may arise against Life Time . . . as a result of any such injury.” (Emphasis added.) The quoted language, however, is the first use of the term “injury” in the release of liability clause. So the scope of the release can be determined only by referring back to the confusing assumption of risk clause. It is not surprising then that Life Time’s counsel characterized the release’s reference to “such injury” as “squirrely.” In any event, all of the ambiguities and confusion in the assumption of risk clause necessarily infect the release clause.

¶ 32 Seventh, the exculpatory clauses repeatedly use the phrases “includes, but is not limited to” and “including and without limitation,” as well as simply “including.” The repeated use of these phrases makes the clauses more confusing, and the reader is left to guess whether the phrases have different meanings. The problem is compounded by conflicting views expressed by divisions of this court on whether the similar phrase “including, but not limited to” is expansive or restrictive. Compare Maehal Enters., Inc. v. Thunder Mountain Custom Cycles, Inc., 313 P.3d 584, 590 (Colo. App. 2011) (declining to treat the phrase as restrictive and citing Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern [*15] Legal Usage 432 (2d ed. 1995)), with Ridgeview Classical Sch. v. Poudre Sch. Dist., 214 P.3d 476, 483 (Colo. App. 2008) (declining to conclude that the phrase took the statute out of the limiting rule of ejusdem generis). For purposes of deciding this case we need not resolve this conflict; the relevance of the conflict for present purposes is that it creates another ambiguity.

¶ 33 That ambiguity – expansive versus restrictive – is critical because nothing in the Agreement refers to risks of using sinks or locker rooms. The assumption of risk clause refers to the “risk of loss, theft or damage of personal property” for the member or her guests while “using any lockers” at a Life Time fitness center. That is quite a separate matter, however, from suffering a physical injury in a locker room.

¶ 34 Significantly, when Life Time intends to exclude accidental injuries occurring in locker rooms, it knows how to draft a clear waiver of liability doing so. In Geczi v. Lifetime Fitness, 973 N.E.2d 801, 803 (Ohio Ct. App. 2012), the plaintiff entered into a membership agreement with Life Time in 2000 (eleven years before Stone entered into the Agreement), which provided in relevant part:

[T]he undersigned agrees to specifically assume all risk of injury while using any of the [*16] Clubs[‘] facilities, equipment, services or programs and hereby waives any and all claims or actions which may arise against LIFE TIME FITNESS or its owners and employees as a result of such injury. The risks include, but are not limited to

. . . .

(4) Accidental injuries within the facilities, including, but not limited to the locker rooms, . . . showers and dressing rooms.

Id. at 806. Life Time chose not to include similar language in the Agreement signed by Stone.

c. The Agreement Is not Clear, Unambiguous, and Unequivocal

¶ 35 Based on the foregoing discussion, and after scrutinizing the exculpatory clauses, we conclude that the Agreement uses excessive legal jargon, is unnecessarily complex, and creates a likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. Accordingly, the Agreement does not clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally bar Stone’s PLA claim based on the injuries she alleges she sustained after she washed her hands in the women’s locker room.

III. Conclusion

¶ 36 The judgment on Stone’s negligence claim is affirmed, the judgment on her PLA claim is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings on that claim.

JUDGE [*17] TAUBMAN and JUDGE FOX concur.


Delaware Supreme Court decision quickly determines a health club release is not void because of public policy issues and is clear and unequivocal.

The decision is very short and very clear. Write a clear and direct release and it will be upheld in Delaware.

Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 2016 Del. LEXIS 19

State: Delaware, Supreme Court of Delaware

Plaintiff: Deshaun Ketler and Brittany Ketler

Defendant: PFPA, LLC, a Delaware Corporation, d/b/a Planet Fitness

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2016

This is a Delaware Supreme Court decision on release law in Delaware from a lawsuit against a health club.

The plaintiff sued the defendant Planet Fitness because she was injured at the health club, a cable broke on a seated rowing machine she was using.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings finding the release stopped the claims of the plaintiff. The plaintiff appealed.

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

The Delaware Supreme Court did not waste a single sentence in this very short very instructive decision.

Releases are valid in Delaware. They must be clear and unequivocal if a release is to be valid.

This Court has previously recognized that a release of prospective negligence may be valid. Such a release must be “‘clear and unequivocal’ to insulate a party from liability

The court looked to the language of the release, and without comment stated the language was clear and unequivocal.  The court then looked at the other issues that may void a release.

The release may not be unconscionable.

Unconscionability is a concept that is used sparingly. Traditionally, an unconscionable contract is one which “no man in his senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and as no honest or fair man would accept, on the other.”

Unconscionable in Delaware means more than a just a disparity between the party’s ability to bargain. There must be no real choice for the party being offered the release or agreement.

But mere disparity between the bargaining powers of parties to a contract will not support a finding of unconscionability.” “[T]here must be an absence of meaningful choice and contract terms unreasonably favorable to one of the parties.” There is no deprivation of meaningful choice if a party can walk away from the contract. Here, DeShaun was free to accept the Planet Fitness membership or not. The Superior Court did not err in concluding that the release is not unconscionable.

Because the plaintiff was not being forced to sign the contract and a health club contract was not a necessity, the plaintiff could have walked away from the release. Thus the release was not unconscionable.

The next issue was whether the release violated public policy. In Delaware to violate public policy, there must be a statute specifically saying that a release for this activity violates public policy.

The public policy of this state is typically determined by the Delaware General Assembly. No Delaware statute has been identified which bears on the validity of a release of prospective negligence.

The statute must not only look at the issues identified in the release, but must specifically say a release is void for these issues.

However, a general release by its nature releases a party from a potential liability otherwise imposed by law. The public policy involved must be one which disapproves of the release.

The judgement of the lower court was affirmed.

So Now What?

There is very little instructional language in this decision. However, what information is provided is very clear and very easy to understand. Releases in Delaware if they are clear and unequivocal will be upheld in the state.

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