Washington Appellate court reviews release law in 2021 and the requirements on when a release is ambiguous and/or conspicuous.

Like most other states, if you signed the release, you read and agree to the release. However, that is about the only similarity to release law in other states as pointed out in this decision.

McCoy v. PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness,

State: Washington, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

Plaintiff: Carol J. McCoy

Defendant: PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

The release used by the health club stopped the lawsuit filed by the plaintiff for her injuries. However, this decision points out two very different requirements Washington’s law requires for a release to be valid. No release will work in all 43 states that allow the use of a release.

Facts

On February 1, 2016, McCoy entered into a membership agreement at Planet Fitness in Lacey. The first page of the two-page membership agreement begins with a section covering personal information, membership rate, and financial terms of the membership. The final sentence of this section states, “Cancellation & Billing Policies: I have read and understand the cancellation rights and billing policies on the front and back of this agreement,” followed by McCoy’s signature/initials. Clerk’s Papers (CP) at 25. Below McCoy’s signature/initials is a large box marked “PAYMENT AUTHORIZATION” with McCoy’s bank account information, and her signature after the paragraph authorizing a monthly membership fee payment.

In July 2016, McCoy fell from a stair stepper machine at Planet Fitness. She alleged that the emergency stop button failed to stop the machine, causing her injury. In January 2019, McCoy filed an amended complaint, naming Planet Fitness and the manufacturer of the machine, the Brunswick Corporation, [ 2] as defendants. She alleged claims of negligence and failure to provide a safe product.

Planet Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing in part that McCoy had signed an enforceable liability waiver. In support of its motion, it provided a copy of the membership agreement as well as excerpts from a transcript of McCoy’s deposition testimony. In her deposition, when shown the membership agreement, McCoy stated that she did not remember seeing the membership agreement before and that she did not remember signing it.

McCoy responded to the motion, arguing that the waiver provision in the membership agreement was inconspicuous and ambiguous, and because McCoy was not given an opportunity to read or review the agreement, it was unwittingly signed. In a supporting declaration, McCoy recalled the day she signed the membership agreement: 3.I was there for a short time, and I spoke to a person who appeared to be the manager, or at least was working behind the desk, who presented me with some documents to sign. He identified these documents as mere formalities and that I had to sign them in order to join the club. He showed me where to sign on a couple documents and I signed them, but I was not given an opportunity to read all the language, and when I mentioned that, he told me he would send me copies of these documents in the mail to my home address. He never did. 4.What little I could see of the documents was in very fine, small print which I could not read, at least on one of the documents, and the first time I saw the documents was at my deposition. I did not have time to read them at my deposition and I would have had difficulty anyway because the print was so small. . . . . As I said, the only direction I got from the person who was working behind the counter was to “sign here” and I did. He immediately took the documents back and told me that he would mail them to me, but I never received copies in the mail so I never really had an opportunity to review them before the incident occurred, or any time afterwards.

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

Washington’s law since 1988 has allowed the use of releases to allow parties to stop litigation.

The Washington Supreme Court has recognized the right of parties “‘expressly to agree in advance that the defendant is under no obligation of care for the benefit of the plaintiff, and shall not be liable for the consequences of conduct which would otherwise be negligent.'”

Washington has three ways to void releases, one that is found in most states and two slightly different ways. The first, a release fails if it violates public policy. This means the release is void based on who the release is attempting to protect or the services being offered that are to be covered by the release. However, in Washington, the state has adopted six factors to define public policy.

Six factors are considered in determining whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy. The court considers whether (1) the agreement concerns an endeavor of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation; (2) the party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public; (3) such party holds itself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established; (4) because of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks the services; (5) in exercising a superior bargaining power, the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence; and (6) the person or property of members of the public seeking such services must be placed under the control of the furnisher of the services, subject to the risk of carelessness on the part of the furnisher, its employees or agents. Wagenblast v. Odessa Sch. Dist. 105-157-166J, 110 Wash.2d 845, 851-55, 758 P.2d 968 (1988) (citing Tunkl v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 60 Cal.2d 92, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 446 (1963)).

The second and third ways are very different from other states. If the negligent act falls below the standard of protection for others, it is void. This phrase is not defined in Washington’s law that I can find, even though it is quoted in several cases. I am guessing it is similar to a gross negligence argument. The act or omission of the defendant was so great as to far exceed negligence. However, I’m not sure.

Generally, a liability waiver or exculpatory clause in a contract is “enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous.” The first two exceptions are not at issue here. A liability waiver provision is not enforceable if the releasing language is “‘so inconspicuous that reasonable persons could reach different conclusions as to whether the document was unwittingly signed.’

The inconspicuous argument was the main argument made by the defendant in this case and discussed by the court. Washington has six factors to determine if the language in a contract is inconspicuous.

Courts look to several factors in deciding whether a liability waiver provision is conspicuous, including: (1) whether the waiver provision is set apart or hidden within other provisions, (2) whether the heading or caption of the provision is clear, (3) whether the waiver provision is set off in capital letters or in bold type, (4) whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, (5) what the language says above the signature line, and (6) whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver provision.

The is far more requirements than most states, in fact; most states only require the waiver or release provisions be set apart or not hidden within the contract. Washington also requires that there be a heading or caption providing notice of the importance of the release or waiver section. That language of the exculpatory provisions must be in capital letters or bold type. The signature on the document must be below the exculpatory provisions. That means if your contract has a signature on the front of the document but references release language on the back, the release will be void.

The language above the signature line must indicate the person is giving up their legal rights or the signature line must be specifically below the release provisions, and the signature must clearly relate to the release provisions.

This six-part analysis of conspicuous is not done individually but looking at the agreement as a whole. Yet the analysis the court made was of each point of the test and reviewed individually, not as a whole.

We do not look to whether the plaintiff unwittingly signed the form from her subjective viewpoint, but whether, “objectively, the waiver provision was so inconspicuous that it is unenforceable.” Essentially, if the waiver provision is hidden, i.e. inconspicuous, it is unenforceable. Nevertheless, even if the waiver provision is conspicuous, and a person signs without reading it, the provision is enforceable unless the signor was not given an opportunity to read it. (“[A] person who signs an agreement without reading it is bound by its terms as long as there was ‘ample opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as he cared, and he failed to do so for his own personal reasons.'”)

The following two pages of analysis in the decision by the court looked at the release in detail to determine if the six factors had been met. The court found the waiver language in the contract was conspicuous and thus valid.

The next argument made by the plaintiff was the plaintiff did not have time to read the release.

McCoy admits that she did not read the agreement. Even though she did not read the agreement, she would be bound by its terms only if there was opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as she cared, and she failed to do so for her own personal reasons. (“Where a party has signed a contract without reading it, that party cannot successfully argue that mutual assent was lacking as long as the party was not deprived of the opportunity to read the contract.”).

Basically, if you signed the agreement, you have read and understood the agreement.

So Now What?

No release or waiver can be written to satisfy the laws of all 50 states or the 43 states that allow the use of a release or waiver. Even though Washington’s law is similar to the law in most states, it is very different in several aspects, enough so that if you operate in or are based in Washington your release must be written to meet Washington’s law.

No other state has the requirements for conspicuous that are required for a waiver or release to be valid like Washington’s law. It is specific and as stated by the court, if all six parts of the requirements are not met the release is void.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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McCoy v. PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness,

McCoy v. PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness,

Carol J. McCoy, a single person, Respondent,

PFWA Lacey, LLC, a Washington limited company, dba Planet Fitness, Petitioner,

and

BRUNSWICK CORPORATION, a foreign corporation, Defendant.

No. 54400-8-II

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

May 11, 2021

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Veljacic, J.

Carol McCoy brought suit against Planet Fitness-Lacey for negligence after she was injured using a fitness machine. Planet Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that McCoy was precluded from bringing suit because she signed a membership agreement that contained a liability waiver provision.[ 1] McCoy argued that the waiver was inconspicuous and that she was not given an opportunity to read the membership agreement.

The court denied Planet Fitness’s motion, determining that material issues of fact remained regarding whether McCoy unwittingly signed the waiver provision because it was inconspicuous. Planet Fitness appeals. We reverse the order denying summary judgment because the waiver provision was conspicuous and McCoy did not demonstrate an issue of material fact bearing on whether she was provided an opportunity to read the membership agreement.

FACTS

On February 1, 2016, McCoy entered into a membership agreement at Planet Fitness in Lacey. The first page of the two-page membership agreement begins with a section covering personal information, membership rate, and financial terms of the membership. The final sentence of this section states, “Cancellation & Billing Policies: I have read and understand the cancellation rights and billing policies on the front and back of this agreement,” followed by McCoy’s signature/initials. Clerk’s Papers (CP) at 25. Below McCoy’s signature/initials is a large box marked “PAYMENT AUTHORIZATION” with McCoy’s bank account information, and her signature after the paragraph authorizing a monthly membership fee payment.

The waiver provision is found below the payment authorization box, a little more than halfway down the first page of the agreement. Image Omitted

CPat25.

Below a dark line is a banner containing the bolded, capitalized words “RELEASE OF LIABILITY,” “ASSUMPTION OF RISK,” “CLUB RULES,” and “BUYER’S NOTICE & RIGHT TO CANCEL.” CP at 25. Directly below that banner is a paragraph in the same small sized font as the majority of the agreement that enumerates the waiver of legal rights. The waiver provision states that certain risks are inherent in physical activity and that the signer understands and voluntarily accepts responsibility for risk of injury or loss arising from the use of Planet Fitness facilities. It goes on to state twice that the member agrees that Planet Fitness is not liable for injury resulting from negligent conduct or omission of Planet Fitness or anyone acting on its behalf. The second paragraph of the waiver provision reads: I understand that I am not obligated to sign this agreement and should not do so if there are any unfilled blanks. I understand my right of cancellation and the billing and refund policies. I understand my release of liability, assumption of risk and agreement to indemnify, defend and hold harmless and I have been given the opportunity to review and ask questions related to my use of facilities . . . and other equipment. . . . I agree to comply with Planet Fitness’ membership policies and club rules. . . . Planet fitness may, in its sole discretion, modify any policy or club rule at any time and from time to time without advance notice. Planet Fitness reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to refund the pro-rated cost of unused services. . . . By signing below, I acknowledge and agree to all of the terms contained on the front and back of this agreement.

CP at 25.

McCoy’s signature appears immediately below this paragraph, next to a Planet Fitness authorized signature.

Bold, capital letters at the bottom of the first page and underneath the signature line discuss the nonrefundable initiation fee, then an acknowledgement of receipt of a written description of the health studio services and equipment and a complete copy of the rules on separate lines, followed by lines for initials. Finally, the page details, again in bold capital letters, the process for cancellation of the membership agreement. The second page of the agreement has a large bold heading that reads “PLEASE READ AND UNDERSTAND THIS AGREEMENT BEFORE SIGNING.” CP at 26. The remaining language of the contract is immaterial to this appeal.

In July 2016, McCoy fell from a stair stepper machine at Planet Fitness. She alleged that the emergency stop button failed to stop the machine, causing her injury. In January 2019, McCoy filed an amended complaint, naming Planet Fitness and the manufacturer of the machine, the Brunswick Corporation, [ 2] as defendants. She alleged claims of negligence and failure to provide a safe product.

Planet Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing in part that McCoy had signed an enforceable liability waiver. In support of its motion, it provided a copy of the membership agreement as well as excerpts from a transcript of McCoy’s deposition testimony. In her deposition, when shown the membership agreement, McCoy stated that she did not remember seeing the membership agreement before and that she did not remember signing it.

McCoy responded to the motion, arguing that the waiver provision in the membership agreement was inconspicuous and ambiguous, and because McCoy was not given an opportunity to read or review the agreement, it was unwittingly signed. In a supporting declaration, McCoy recalled the day she signed the membership agreement: 3.I was there for a short time, and I spoke to a person who appeared to be the manager, or at least was working behind the desk, who presented me with some documents to sign. He identified these documents as mere formalities and that I had to sign them in order to join the club. He showed me where to sign on a couple documents and I signed them, but I was not given an opportunity to read all the language, and when I mentioned that, he told me he would send me copies of these documents in the mail to my home address. He never did. 4.What little I could see of the documents was in very fine, small print which I could not read, at least on one of the documents, and the first time I saw the documents was at my deposition. I did not have time to read them at my deposition and I would have had difficulty anyway because the print was so small. . . . . As I said, the only direction I got from the person who was working behind the counter was to “sign here” and I did. He immediately took the documents back and told me that he would mail them to me, but I never received copies in the mail so I never really had an opportunity to review them before the incident occurred, or any time afterwards.

CP at 140-41.

In reply, Planet Fitness argued that the waiver provision was conspicuous under Washington law, and provided a screen shot of an undated e-mail from Planet Fitness to McCoy with a copy of McCoy’s signed membership agreement attached.

The court denied Planet Fitness’s motion for summary judgment. Planet Fitness filed a motion for reconsideration, which the court also denied. We granted Planet Fitness’s motion for discretionary review.

ANALYSIS

I. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Chauvlier v. Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., 109 Wn.App. 334, 338, 35 P.3d 383 (2001). On a motion for summary judgment, we view all evidence and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 338-39. Where different competing inferences may be drawn from the evidence, the issue must be resolved by the trier of fact. Kuyper v. Dep’t. of Wildlife, 79 Wn.App. 732, 739, 904 P.2d 793 (1995). On appeal, we review an order denying summary judgement de novo. Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 339.

On appeal, Planet Fitness argues that the court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment, because McCoy signed an enforceable liability waiver provision. Planet Fitness contends that the liability waiver provision was so conspicuous that it could not have been unwittingly signed and is therefore enforceable. McCoy argues that a genuine issue of material fact remains as to whether the waiver provision was conspicuous and whether she was given adequate opportunity to read the membership agreement.

II. Legal Principles

The Washington Supreme Court has recognized the right of parties “‘expressly to agree in advance that the defendant is under no obligation of care for the benefit of the plaintiff, and shall not be liable for the consequences of conduct which would otherwise be negligent.'” Wagenblast v. Odessa Sch. Dist., 110 Wn.2d 845, 848, 758 P.2d 968 (1988) (quoting W. Page Keeton, et al, Prosser and Keeton on Torts § 68, at 482 (5th ed. 1984)).

Generally, a liability waiver or exculpatory clause in a contract is “enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous.” Johnson v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, 176 Wn.App. 453, 458, 309 P.3d 528 (2013). The first two exceptions are not at issue here. A liability waiver provision is not enforceable if the releasing language is “‘so inconspicuous that reasonable persons could reach different conclusions as to whether the document was unwittingly signed.'” Johnson v. UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn.App. 533, 538, 210 P.3d 1021 (2009) (quoting McCorkle v. Hall, 56 Wn.App. 80, 83, 782 P.2d 574 (1989)).[ 3]

Courts look to several factors in deciding whether a liability waiver provision is conspicuous including: (1) whether the waiver provision is set apart or hidden within other provisions, (2) whether the heading or caption of the provision is clear, (3) whether the waiver provision is set off in capital letters or in bold type, (4) whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, (5) what the language says above the signature line, and (6) whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver provision. See Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 202, 484 P.2d 405 (1971); McCorkle, 56 Wn.App. at 83-84; Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 342; Stokes v. Bally’s Pacwest, Inc., 113 Wn.App. 442, 448, 54 P.3d 161 (2002).

We do not look to whether the plaintiff unwittingly signed the form from her subjective viewpoint, but whether, “objectively, the waiver provision was so inconspicuous that it is unenforceable.” Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 446. Essentially, if the waiver provision is hidden, i.e. inconspicuous, it is unenforceable. Nevertheless, even if the waiver provision is conspicuous, and a person signs without reading it, the provision is enforceable unless the signor was not given an opportunity to read it. Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 341 (“[A] person who signs an agreement without reading it is bound by its terms as long as there was ‘ample opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as he cared, and he failed to do so for his own personal reasons.'”) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Nat’l Bank of Wash. v. Equity Inv’rs, 81 Wn.2d 886, 913, 506 P.2d 20 (1973)).

III. Analysis

A. Conspicuousness of the Waiver Provision

We first consider whether the waiver provision is inconspicuous so as to invalidate the agreement. Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 446. Here, the waiver provision contains some, but not all of the elements that we have found significant in determining the conspicuousness of waiver provisions.

1. The Waiver Provision is Set Apart from Other Provisions

To determine if the waiver provision is conspicuous, we first look at whether it is set apart or hidden within other provisions. In Baker, our Supreme Court held that the waiver provision was unenforceable because it was set in the middle of the agreement without anything to distinguish it from the rest of the terms of the agreement. 79 Wn.2d at 202. Here, the waiver provision is set off by a shaded banner or header with a title indicating that the subject of the following section is a “RELEASE OF LIABILITY” and “ASSUMPTION OF RISK.” CP at 25. The waiver language is not hidden within other provisions. This factor supports a finding of conspicuousness.

2. The Heading of the Waiver Provision is Clear

We also look to whether the heading or caption of the waiver provision is clear. For example, the plaintiff in McCorkle argued that the title “Liability Statement” in the agreement did not allow him to “conclude [that] future negligent conduct was being released.” 56 Wn.App. at 83. This court contrasted the title “Liability Statement” with the release provisions in two earlier cases that were deemed conspicuous because their titles clearly and unambiguously indicated that they dealt with a waiver of liability. Id. In contrast, in Chauvlier, this court found clear and enforceable a waiver provision entitled “LIABILITY RELEASE & PROMISE NOT TO SUE. PLEASE READ CAREFULLY!” 109 Wn.App. at 342.

Here, the shaded header reads: “RELEASE OF LIABILITY,” “ASSUMPTION OF RISK,” “CLUB RULES,” and “BUYER’S NOTICE & RIGHT TO CANCEL.” CP at 25. Although the header indicates that release of liability and assumption of the risk are not the only topics of the following paragraphs, it is clear from the header what the following provision contains-namely, a release of liability and an assumption of the risk. The inclusion of the other two subjects does not make the heading of the provision unclear or the reader ignorant of what is contained below the shaded header. This factor supports a finding of conspicuousness.

3. The Appearance of the Waiver Provision Language is Not Emphasized We then look to the appearance or attributes of the waiver provision itself, like whether the words are emphasized in capital letters or in bold type. For example, in Stokes and Chauvlier, the words indicating release of liability appear in bold or capital letters throughout the provisions. 113 Wn.App. at 448; 109 Wn.App. at 342. Here, the body of the waiver provision is in the same size and type of text as the remainder of the form and has no bold or capital letters. This factor does not support a finding of conspicuousness.

4. The Signature Line

We next consider the signature line and its relation to the waiver provision. Specifically, whether it is located below the waiver provision, what the language above the signature line indicates, and whether it is clear that the required signature is related to the release of liability. Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 342; Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 448; UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn.App. at 538.

a. The Signature Line is Below the Waiver Provision

Here, the signature line is below the waiver provision. This supports a finding of conspicuousness.

b. The Language Immediately Above the Signature Line does Not Relate only to the Waiver Provision

Here, although the signature line is located below the waiver provision, the signature and waiver are separated by an intervening paragraph. The first paragraph underneath the header relates to the waiver of liability. The second paragraph, situated directly above the signature line relates to the club rules and the right to cancel. This second paragraph also states: “By signing below, I acknowledge and agree to all of the terms contained on the front and back of this agreement.” CP at 25.

In Stokes, this court held that reasonable minds could not differ regarding the conspicuousness of a waiver provision contained in a retail installment contract. 113 Wn.App. at 448. This court’s determination relied in part on the fact that a statement immediately below the signature line said that the contract contained a waiver and release to which the signatory would be bound. Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 448. In Chauvlier, this court relied in part on a statement directly above the signature line reading: “I have read, understood, and accepted the conditions of the Liability Release printed above” in making its determination that the waiver provision at issue was conspicuous and enforceable. 109 Wn.App. at 342. Here, the statement above the signature line is unlike those contained in the contracts held to be enforceable in Stokes and Chauvlier, because it relates to all provisions of the membership agreement, rather than only the waiver provision. This factor does not support a finding of conspicuousness.

c. The Required Signature Relates to the Waiver Provision

Although separated by a paragraph, the signature line clearly relates to the waiver provision because it is spatially oriented near the waiver provision. It is within the area set off by the large banner described above and by its own language relates to the “all of the terms contained” in the agreement. CP at 25. This factor also favors a finding of conspicuousness.

In summary, although the signature line does not correspond solely to the waiver provision, the provision is set apart from the other provisions of the contract by a banner, the caption heading within the banner clearly identifies the contents of the waiver, the signature line is below the waiver provision and it clearly relates to the waiver provision. We conclude that the waiver provision is conspicuous.

B. Opportunity to Examine the Agreement

McCoy admits that she did not read the agreement. Even though she did not read the agreement, she would be bound by its terms only if there was opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as she cared, and she failed to do so for her own personal reasons. Yakima County ( W.Valley) Fire Prot. Dist. No. 12 v. City of Yakima, 122 Wn.2d 371, 389, 858 P.2d 245 (1993) (“Where a party has signed a contract without reading it, that party cannot successfully argue that mutual assent was lacking as long as the party was not deprived of the opportunity to read the contract.”).

McCoy asserts that the Planet Fitness employee identified the agreement as a “mere formalit[y]” that she had to sign in order to join the club. CP at 140. The employee “showed [her] where to sign on a couple documents and [she] signed them, but [she] was not given an opportunity to read all the language” because he immediately took the papers back. CP at 140-41. When McCoy mentioned that she had not been able to read them, he told her that he would mail them to her home address. McCoy was apparently satisfied with not reading it before signing. Although McCoy asserts that she was not given the opportunity to read the membership agreement, there is no indication that she could not have read the contract either before or after she signed it if she had asked. Additionally, McCoy sought out the membership and there is no evidence that she was coerced. The waiver was conspicuous as a matter of law, McCoy has not shown that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding her opportunity to read the membership agreement. In any case, even if she felt rushed to sign the document, the waiver language was, as a matter of law, conspicuous enough for her to notice it.

CONCLUSION

The liability waiver was conspicuous. McCoy did not demonstrate an issue of fact regarding her opportunity to read the membership agreement. Accordingly, we reverse.[ 4]

A majority of the panel having determined that this opinion will not be printed in the Washington Appellate Reports, but will be filed for public record in accordance with RCW 2.06.040, it is so ordered.

We concur: Worswick, J. Lee, C.J.

Notes:

[ 1] Alternatively, the parties and witnesses refer to the “membership agreement” as “the documents” and “the contract.” We will refer to it as the “membership agreement” throughout this opinion. The liability waiver provision is contained within the membership agreement. Throughout the remainder of this opinion, we will refer to this provision simply as the “waiver provision.”

[ 2] The claims against Brunswick are not at issue in this appeal.

[ 3] Although the inconspicuousness of a waiver provision appears to be a factual inquiry, the Supreme Court in Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 484 P.2d 405 (1971), determined that a liability waiver provision hidden in the middle of an agreement was so inconspicuous that, as a matter of public policy, it would be unconscionable to enforce it. Subsequent courts of appeal have treated the issue of conspicuousness, as the Baker holding implies, as a matter of law determined by the court. See e.g. Stokes v. Bally’s Pacwest, Inc., 113 Wn.App. 442, 448, 54 P.3d 161 (2002)(“The language is conspicuous, as a matter of law, and it was not unwittingly signed.”).

[ 4] Because we reverse the denial of summary judgment, we do not reach the issue of whether the court abused its discretion in denying the motion for reconsideration.


Do Releases Work? Should I be using a Release in my Business? Will my customers be upset if I make them sign a release?

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Chapter 5    Law 57

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Chapter 7    Pre-injury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

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Chapter 9    Minors

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                                             Table of Contents

Chapter 1    Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Law, and Insurance: An Overview

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

Chapter 4    Risk, Accidents, and Litigation: Why People Sue

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    PreInjury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

Chapter 12    Water Sports, Paddlesports, and water-based activities

Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

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This book can help you understand why people sue and how you can and should deal with injured, angry or upset guests of your business.

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                                      Table of Contents

Chapter 1    Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Law, and Insurance: An Overview

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

Chapter 4    Risk, Accidents, and Litigation: Why People Sue

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    Pre-injury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

Chapter 12    Water Sports, Paddlesports, and water-based activities

Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1    Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Law, and Insurance: An Overview

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

Chapter 4    Risk, Accidents, and Litigation: Why People Sue

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    PreInjury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

Chapter 12    Water Sports, Paddlesports, and water-based activities

Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

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New Jersey holds that if you signed the release, you are held to its terms even if you cannot read English.

There was a ton of issues that in many states might have voided the release, 8 pt font, missing initial and the plaintiff not understanding English were just a few of them.

Citation: Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

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

Plaintiff: Soon Ja Kang

Defendant: LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2016

Summary

If you sign the membership agreement containing a release in New Jersey, you are held to the terms of the release, even if you can’t speak or read English. Plaintiff could not read or speak English, signed LA Fitness membership agreement and could not sue after she was injured on a piece of equipment.

Facts

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action.

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

The court started its analysis by looking at the release and the injury the plaintiff suffered. The court found the injury fell within the confines of the release.

As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

The issue then became whether or not the release applied to someone who did not speak or read English. Releases in New Jersey are enforceable if:

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

The court throughout the third factor because the defendant was not a public utility or common carrier. The court then reviewed whether the exculpatory clause affected the public interest. The court found it did not.

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

There seemed to be somewhat of a limit to the release based on the courts next comment about the reach of the release.

The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

The plaintiff then argued the release violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. The act requires a consumer contract to be “written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.”

The plaintiff then argued the act was violated because the print size (font) was 8 points, and the margins of the paper were .5″ “reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.”

Reviewing examples of bad language found in the act, the court determined the release did not violate the Plain Language Act.

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

The next issue was there any legal duty to perform on the part of the defendant part 2 of the four requirements.

There were no state statutes or regulation’s setting standards for fitness facilities. The plaintiff argued that National Associations had created standards that applied to fitness facilities. However, the court could not find that to be valid. “However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state.”

The final argument was the release was unconscionable because of unequal bargaining power between the plaintiff and defendant.

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter.

The court did not agree with any of the plaintiffs’ arguments. And stated in clear language that the plaintiff’s inability to speak English did not stop her from becoming bound to the terms of the release.

As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

The court went on to explain that if you sign the agreement, you are bound to the terms of the agreement, whether or not you understood the agreement.

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

The final issue was the missing initial in the document. Because she had signed the agreement, the signature at the bottom of the agreement was all that was needed for the release to be valid.

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms.

The plaintiff then argued the release and fitness contract containing the release were unconscionable. The court summed up the plaintiffs’ unconscionable argument as an amalgamation of all of her other arguments. The court found the exculpatory clause did not offend public policy, and the other arguments for unconscionability did not change the release validity.

Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

The motion for summary judgment of the defendant was granted the plaintiff’s claims dismissed.

So Now What?

New Jersey is another state that upholds the idea that if you sign a release, you are bound to the terms of the release no matter if you could understand the release, the type was too small; you did not read or speak English, or you just want out of the release.

At the same time, this list from my studies has only two states on it, California being the other state. See Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

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

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

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

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

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

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

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

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

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

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

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

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

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

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

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

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Do Releases Work? Should I be using a Release in my Business? Will my customers be upset if I make them sign a release?

These and many other questions are answered in my book Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Insurance and Law.

Releases, (or as some people incorrectly call them waivers) are a legal agreement that in advance of any possible injury identifies who will pay for what. Releases can and to stop lawsuits.

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Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

Chapter 4    Risk, Accidents, and Litigation: Why People Sue

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    Pre-injury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

Chapter 12    Water Sports, Paddlesports, and water-based activities

Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

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Artwork by Don Long donaldoelong@earthlink.net

 


Can’t Sleep? Guest was injured, and you don’t know what to do? This book can answer those questions for you.

An injured guest is everyone’s business owner’s nightmare. What happened, how do you make sure it does not happen again, what can you do to help the guest, can you help the guests are just some of the questions that might be keeping you up at night.

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                                      Table of Contents

Chapter 1    Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Law, and Insurance: An Overview

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

Chapter 4    Risk, Accidents, and Litigation: Why People Sue

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    Pre-injury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

Chapter 12    Water Sports, Paddlesports, and water-based activities

Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

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Chapter 1    Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Law, and Insurance: An Overview

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

Chapter 4    Risk, Accidents, and Litigation: Why People Sue

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    PreInjury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

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Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

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Chapter 1    Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Law, and Insurance: An Overview

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

Chapter 4    Risk, Accidents, and Litigation: Why People Sue

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    PreInjury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

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Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

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

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

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

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Kamil Macias

Defendant: Naperville Gymnastics Club

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

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

Summary

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

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

Facts

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

The plaintiff broke his neck requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation.

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

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

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

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

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

The appellate court looked at contract law in Illinois.

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the interesting argument in the case.

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

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

The plaintiff also argued his injury was not foreseeable because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

Kamil Macias, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 2-14-0402

APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, SECOND DISTRICT

2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

March 10, 2015, Order Filed

NOTICE: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(e)(1).

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 11-L-1418. Honorable Judges Hollis L. Webster and John T. Elsner, Judges, Presiding.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

CORE TERMS: gym, pit, landing, summary judgment, foam, exculpatory clause, gymnastics, release agreement, surface, inherent risk, jumping, discovery, ambiguity, exculpatory, deposition, injury resulting, public policy, risk of injury, physical condition, releasing, ambiguous, sport, bones, supervision, de novo, springboard, encompassed, notice, undersigned, climbing

JUDGES: JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court. Presiding Justice Schostok and Justice Zenoff concurred in the judgment.

OPINION BY: BURKE

OPINION

ORDER


Held: Release agreement for the gym was sufficiently clear, explicit, and unequivocal to show intent to protect facility from liability arising from use of its “foam pit”; it was proper for the gym to raise the issue it had raised in the section 2-619 motion in a summary judgment motion as it alleged new facts which were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release; affirmed.

[*P2] Plaintiff, Kamil Macias, filed a complaint against defendant, Naperville Gymnastics Club (the Club), for injuries he received after jumping off a springboard and landing head first into a “foam pit.” The trial court denied the Club’s motion to dismiss, pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2010)), but it later granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment based on a liability release agreement signed by plaintiff. Plaintiff raises several issues on appeal concerning the release and the effect of the earlier [**2] section 2-619 motion to dismiss. We affirm.

[*P3] I. BACKGROUND

[*P4] On January 15, 2011, plaintiff came to the Club with his friend. The Club offers “open gym” hours where members of the Club and the general public can attend. Plaintiff, who was not a member of the Club, paid a $10 admission fee and he signed a liability release agreement.

[*P5] A foam pit was located in the gym. After seeing participants jumping into the pit, plaintiff jogged up to a springboard in front of the pit, jumped onto the board and into the pit. While attempting to jump feet first, plaintiff’s body moved in the air, causing him to land head first, striking the bottom of the pit. Plaintiff immediately lost all feeling in his body below the neck. He remained in the pit covered by pieces of foam until he was extracted by the Naperville Fire Department. At the time, plaintiff was 20 years old, about 6 feet tall, and weighed 310 pounds. As a result of the accident, plaintiff suffered a broken neck, requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging the Club was negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities [**3] and use of equipment in the open gym.

[*P6] The Club filed a section 2-619(a)(9) motion to dismiss (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2010)), alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release agreement that contained an exculpatory clause releasing the Club from liability for any acts of negligence.

[*P7] The trial court found the release ambiguous and denied the section 2-619(a)(9) motion without prejudice. In denying the motion, the judge stated that she felt it was inappropriate to dismiss the suit at that point, that there was case law on both sides of “these exculpatory clauses,” and the judge agreed that it was something that could be developed through discovery. She further stated, “But I think it’s something that is better suited for a summary judgment motion if the facts do bear that out from the defense’s perspective.”

[*P8] During discovery, plaintiff was questioned by defense counsel and testified to the following:

“Q. Okay. That first part of the form it says, ‘To gain admission to the activity areas of [the Club], all parts of this form must be read, understood, and signed.’ Do you see that?

A. Yes.

Q. And did you understand what that means?

A. Yes.

* * *

Q. Did you understand this to be an agreement on January 15th, 2011[,] between you and [the [**4] Club]?

A. Had I read this agreement I would have understood.

* * *

Q. And you understand that [the release] means that when you sign it that you’re agreeing to not bring any lawsuit against [the Club]?

A. Correct.

Q. And if you had read it on January 15th of 2011, that’s what you would have understood it to mean?

A. Correct.

* * *

Q. And you agree that the sport of gymnastics is a risky sport?

A. Correct.

Q: And you would have felt the same on January 15th, 2011[,] before your accident?

A. Yes.”

[*P9] At the entrance to the gym was a closed door with a window pane in it. Plaintiff did not recall seeing a sign on the door entitled, “Rules of the Gym.” Plaintiff reviewed the rules at his deposition and admitted that it said to “Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on [**5] feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant.

[*P10] After discovery, the Club filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the exculpatory clause of the release signed by plaintiff. The motion included the deposition testimony and that (1) plaintiff denied being given any verbal instructions and denied seeing the warning signs or rules posted in the gym before he was injured, and (2) plaintiff admitted that he would have understood the terms of the liability release, had he read it. Following argument, the trial court granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment. This timely appeal follows.

[*P11] II. ANALYSIS

[*P12] A. Standard of Review

[*P13] Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, 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.” 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2010). The motion should be denied if there are disputed facts, but also if reasonable people could draw different inferences from the undisputed facts. Wood v. National Liability & Fire Insurance Co., 324 Ill. App. 3d 583, 585, 755 N.E.2d 1044, 258 Ill. Dec. 225 (2001). We review an order granting summary judgment de novo. Pielet v. Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30, 978 N.E.2d 1000, 365 Ill. Dec. 497.

[*P14] We review the parties’ [**6] liability release agreement in accordance with well-established contract principles. Joyce v. Mastri, 371 Ill. App. 3d 64, 74, 861 N.E.2d 1102, 308 Ill. Dec. 537 (2007). The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Kerton v. Lutheran Church Extension Fund, 262 Ill. App. 3d 74, 77, 634 N.E.2d 16, 199 Ill. Dec. 416 (1994). Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly. Id.

[*P15] In order for an exculpatory clause to be valid and enforceable, it should contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. Calarco v. YMCA, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 1040, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986). In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution. Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 827, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986). The precise occurrence which results in injury need not have been contemplated by the parties at the time the contract [**7] was entered into. Schlessman v. Henson, 83 Ill. 2d 82, 86, 413 N.E.2d 1252, 46 Ill. Dec. 139 (1980). It should only appear that the injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff. Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd., 201 Ill. App. 3d 581, 585, 559 N.E.2d 187, 147 Ill. Dec. 187 (1990). Further, when interpreting a contract containing an exculpatory clause, the court must interpret the scope of the exculpatory provision in the “context of the entire agreement.” Shorr Paper Products, Inc. v. Aurora Elevator, Inc., 198 Ill. App. 3d 9, 13, 555 N.E.2d 735, 144 Ill. Dec. 376 (1990). We review the interpretation of an exculpatory agreement or release of liability authorization de novo. Stratman v. Brent, 291 Ill. App. 3d 123, 137, 683 N.E.2d 951, 225 Ill. Dec. 448 (1997).

[*P16] In Garrison, a member of a health club who was injured when lifting weights on a bench press brought suit against the club and the manufacturer of the press. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the club, and the plaintiff appealed. The First District Appellate Court held that the exculpatory clause could not have been more clear or explicit, as it stated that each member bore the “sole risk” of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment, or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the “entire responsibility” of the member. The court found that the injury the plaintiff sustained clearly fell within the scope of possible dangers [**8] ordinarily accompanying the activity of weightlifting. Id. at 585. The court observed that the injury was of a type that would normally be contemplated by the parties at the time the contract was made and, therefore, the court held that it clearly fell within the parameters of the exculpatory clause. Id. See also Hussein v. L.A. Fitness International, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 121426, 987 N.E.2d 460, 369 Ill. Dec. 833; Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986).

[*P17] Similar to Garrison and the cases cited above, the release agreement in the present case is clear and specific regarding the risks it covers and the release of the Club’s negligence. It specifically references the inherent risk of injury resulting from landing on landing surfaces, and plaintiff acknowledged in his deposition that this phrase includes the foam pit in which he was injured. The agreement also releases the Club from any and all claims, including those caused by its negligence. Furthermore, plaintiff’s signature certified that he recognized the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities and that he voluntarily assumed the risks.

[*P18] Nevertheless, plaintiff raises several arguments regarding the validity of the release and the effect of the earlier section 2-619 motion.

[*P19] B. Ambiguity of the Release

[*P20] 1. First Clause

[*P21] The first clause of the release, which is typed in capital letters, states: [**9]

“BY SIGNING THIS DOCUMENT YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT UNSUPERVISED USE OF ANY AREA OF FACILITY IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED AND COMPLETELY AT THE RISK OF THE PARTICIPANT AND THAT THE RULES [OF] EACH AREA BEING UTILIZED ARE UNDERSTOOD PRIOR TO PARTICIPATION!”

Plaintiff asserts that this clause is ambiguous as to whether supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition precedent to releasing defendant from liability. We agree that the first clause, standing alone, might be construed as stating that supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition preceding releasing the Club from liability. However, case law teaches that we must review the language of the release in its entirety in order to interpret the parties’ intent.

[*P22] The release contains a “Covenant Not to Sue for Injury or Damages,” which provides, in relevant part:

“Notice: This is a legally binding agreement. By signing this agreement, you waive your right to bring a court action to recover compensation or to obtain any other remedy for any injury to yourself *** however caused arising out of use of the facilities of [the Club].

I hereby acknowledge and agree that the sport of gymnastics [**10] and the use of the accompanying equipment has INHERENT RISKS. I have full knowledge of the nature and extent of all of the risks inherent in gymnastics and the use of the facilities of the gym, including but not limited to:

***

5. Injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces; and

6. Injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

[*P23] The section of the release agreement entitled “Release Indemnification Liquidation Damages and Agreement to Arbitrate” states, in relevant part:

“In consideration of my use of the GYM, I the undersigned user, agree to release on behalf of myself *** [the Club] *** including but not limited to a claim of NEGLIGENCE.”

[*P24] The clause of the release immediately preceding plaintiff’s signature provides that “the undersigned recognize[s] the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities,” and the undersigned is “assuming the hazard of this risk upon myself because I wish to participate. I realize that I am subject to injury from this activity and that no form of pre-planning can remove all of the danger to which I am exposing myself.”

[*P25] In reading the release in its entirety, it is clear that the first clause of the release cannot be construed as plaintiff argues. The [**11] release contains no such limitations as it covers a number of activities, including “[i]njuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces” (i.e. the “foam pit”), releasing the Club from negligence, and “the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities.”

[*P26] 2. Physical Condition Clause

[*P27] Two clauses of the release request the participant to agree that he or she is in good physical health and proper physical condition to participate. Plaintiff cites Calarco v. YMCA of Greater Metropolitan Chicago, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986), and Macek v. Schooner’s Inc., 224 Ill. App. 3d 103, 586 N.E.2d 442, 166 Ill. Dec. 484 (1991), for the proposition that these types of clauses render the release ambiguous, as it is unclear whether the release only applies to injuries resulting from a participant’s physical ailments. In other words, the release does not apply to participants without physical ailments.

[*P28] We fail to follow the logic of plaintiff’s argument. However, the cases relied on by plaintiff are readily distinguishable. In Calarco, the plaintiff had been injured when metal weights from an exercise machine fell on her hand, breaking her bones. The plaintiff had agreed “to hold free from any and all liability the [defendant] *** for damages which [the plaintiff] may have or which may hereafter accrue to [the plaintiff] arising out of or connected with [the plaintiff’s] participation [**12] in any of the activities of the [defendant].” We held that the exculpatory clause in the membership application for the defendant’s facility was insufficient to protect the defendant from liability as a matter of law because the clause did not adequately describe the covered activities to clearly indicate that defendant’s negligence would be covered by the release. Calarco, 149 Ill. App. 3d at 1043-44. We further noted that the statement immediately following the alleged exculpatory language contained a declaration of physical health by the signer, and that the combination of the two provisions further complicated the interpretation of the release. Id.

[*P29] In Macek, the plaintiff participated in an arm wrestling contest with a machine that broke his arm. The court held that summary judgment was inappropriate because the release did not specify the covered activities but rather merely indicated that damages for “all injuries suffered” are waived. The court found further that the line immediately following the exculpatory language regarding the signer’s physical condition provided additional ambiguity. Id. at 106.

[*P30] In both Calarco and Marek, the releases did not specify the covered activities and did not specifically cover the defendants’ [**13] negligence. Both courts held that the physical condition clause simply added to the ambiguity of the release. However, contrary to Calarco and Marek, the release in this case clearly covers the activities in question and specifically releases defendant from liability for its negligence.

[*P31] 3. Inherent Risk Language

[*P32] Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

[*P33] C. Forseeability

[*P34] Plaintiff argues that his injury was not foreseeable because (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

[*P35] A plaintiff who expressly consents to relieve a defendant of an obligation of conduct toward the plaintiff assumes the risk of injury as a result of the [**14] defendant’s failure to adhere to the obligation. Larsen v. Vic Tanny International, 130 Ill. App. 3d 574, 576, 474 N.E.2d 729, 85 Ill. Dec. 769 (1984). The doctrine of assumption of risk presupposes, however, that the danger which causes the injury is such that it ordinarily accompanies the activities of the plaintiff, and that the plaintiff knows or should know both the danger and the possibility of injury prior to its occurrence. Id. at 576. The standard is a subjective one geared to a particular plaintiff, and the determination ordinarily will be made by a jury. Id. at 576-77.

[*P36] “The foreseeability of a specific danger defines the scope.” Cox v. U.S. Fitness, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 122442, ¶ 14, 377 Ill. Dec. 930, 2 N.E.3d 1211. “The relevant inquiry *** is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.” Hellweg v. Special Events Management, 2011 IL App (1st) 103604, ¶ 7, 956 N.E.2d 954, 353 Ill. Dec. 826.

[*P37] Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes [**15] injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death. Plaintiff agreed that the foam pit was a landing surface and that some of the possible injuries that he could sustain at the gym from gymnastics activities included injuries to his bones, and he admitted at deposition that he had not read the release and that, had he read the release, he would have understood it to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Based on these facts, plaintiff should have known the risks of injury associated with the activity of jumping into the foam pit. Plaintiff participated in open gym, which reasonably contemplates participating in the use of the accompanying equipment. Plaintiff could have reasonably presumed that, should he jump from a springboard into the foam pit, he might land on his head. It is entirely foreseeable that, if plaintiff accidently fell on his head, he would be hurt by “landing on the landing surfaces,” a risk encompassed by the release agreement. See Oelze v. Score Sports Venture, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 121, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596 (2010). Although plaintiff suffered a serious injury, we are bound by the release agreement. Accordingly, we find the trial court properly granted summary judgment on the basis that the release barred plaintiff’s negligence [**16] claim.

[*P38] D. Public Policy

[*P39] Plaintiff next argues that it would be against public policy to enforce the release in this case because the Club opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public. Plaintiff does not cite any cases in support of this argument. In fact, the only case he cites, Hamer v. City Segway Tours of Chicago, LLC, 402 Ill. App. 3d 42, 930 N.E.2d 578, 341 Ill. Dec. 368 (2010), is inapposite to his position.

[*P40] Several cases have rejected plaintiff’s argument in the fitness club setting. See, e.g., Kubisen v. Chicago Health Clubs, 69 Ill. App. 3d 463, 388 N.E.2d 44, 26 Ill. Dec. 420 (1979); Owen v. Vic Tanny’s Enterprises, 48 Ill. App. 2d 344, 199 N.E.2d 280 (1964). Had plaintiff, an adult, read the release and disagreed with it, he could have simply refused to participate in open gym. “While exculpatory or limitation of damages clauses are not favored and must be strictly construed against a benefitting party [citation] the basis for their enforcement is the strong public policy favoring freedom of contract.” Rayner Covering Systems, Inc. v. Danvers Farmers Elevator Co., 226 Ill. App. 3d 507, 512, 589 N.E.2d 1034, 168 Ill. Dec. 634 (1992). There does not seem to be any reason in this case to depart from the strong public policy of allowing parties to freely enter into contracts.

[*P41] E. Section 2-619 Motion to Dismiss

[*P42] The Club filed a section 2-619 motion, alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release that contained an exculpatory clause, which released the Club from liability for any acts of negligence. The trial court found the release was ambiguous and denied the motion. However, [**17] the court recognized that disputed facts might affect the validity of the release and indicated that the Club was free to raise the issue again in a summary judgment motion after facts surrounding the execution of the release were developed in discovery.

[*P43] Citing Makowski v. City of Naperville, 249 Ill. App. 3d 110, 117-18, 617 N.E.2d 1251, 187 Ill. Dec. 530 (1993), plaintiff acknowledges that a trial court may allow a party to reassert a defense after previously ruling on the merits only when new evidence is presented. Plaintiff claims that the summary judgment motion did not allege new facts but simply relied on the language of the release as it did in the Club’s section 2-619 motion. We disagree.

[*P44] The Club did allege additional facts in its summary judgment motion that were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release. Those facts included plaintiff’s acknowledgment that he understood the meaning of the terms of the release, that he understood the inherent risks, and that he understood that the risk of “landing on landing surfaces” would include the foam pit where he was injured. He also testified that had he read the release he would have understood its language to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Since we review a summary judgment motion [**18] de novo (Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30), this evidence tends to defeat plaintiff’s ambiguity arguments.

[*P45] III. CONCLUSION

[*P46] For the reasons stated, we affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court of Du Page County granting the Club’s motion for summary judgment.

[*P47] Affirmed.


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Chapter 1    Outdoor Recreation Risk Management, Law, and Insurance: An Overview

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

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Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    PreInjury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

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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.

 


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

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

Deshaun Ketler and Brittany Ketler, his wife, Plaintiff-Below, Appellant, v. PFPA, LLC, a Delaware Corporation, d/b/a Planet Fitness, Defendant-Below, Appellee.

No. 319, 2015

SUPREME COURT OF DELAWARE

2016 Del. LEXIS 19

December 2, 2015, Submitted

January 15, 2016, Decided

NOTICE:

THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION IN THE PERMANENT LAW REPORTS. UNTIL RELEASED, IT IS SUBJECT TO REVISION OR WITHDRAWAL.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware. C.A. No. N14C-12-235.

Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 2015 Del. Super. LEXIS 270 (Del. Super. Ct., June 3, 2015)

DISPOSITION: Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.

COUNSEL: Edward T. Ciconte, Esquire, Adam F. Wasserman, Esquire, Ciconte, Scerba & Kerrick, LLC, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellant.

Gary H. Kaplan, Esquire, Jessica L. Tyler, Esquire, Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA, and VAUGHN, Justices.

OPINION BY: VAUGHN

OPINION

VAUGHN, Justice:

Plaintiffs-Below/Appellants DeShaun Ketler and Brittany Ketler appeal from a Superior Court order granting Defendant-Below/Appellee PFPA, LLC’s (“Planet Fitness”) motion for judgment on the pleadings. DeShaun Ketler was injured while using exercise equipment in a Planet Fitness facility. The Ketlers claim that the injuries were caused by negligence on the part of Planet Fitness. The Superior Court found that the Ketlers claim was barred by a signed release of liability. It determined that a release which allows a party to avoid liability for its own negligence is permissible under Delaware Law if the release is unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy. It further determined that the release satisfied all three criteria. [*2] On appeal, the Ketlers contend that the Superior Court erred because the release is ambiguous, unconscionable, and against public policy. We approve the Superior Court’s determinations and affirm.

In 2010, DeShaun joined Planet Fitness at a cost of $10 per month.1 DeShaun signed a membership agreement, which contained the following:

I understand and expressly agree that my use of this Planet Fitness facility . . . involves the risk of injury to me or my guest whether caused by me or not. I understand that these risks can range from minor injuries to major injuries including death. In consideration of my participation in the activities and use of the facilities offered by Planet Fitness, I understand and voluntarily accept this risk and agree that Planet Fitness . . . will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury. . . resulting from the negligence of Planet Fitness or anyone on Planet Fitness’ behalf whether related to exercise or not. Accordingly, I do hereby forever release and discharge Planet Fitness from any and all claims, demands, injuries, damages, actions or causes of action. I further understand and acknowledge that Planet [*3] Fitness does not manufacture fitness or other equipment in its facilities, but purchases and/or leases equipment, and therefore Planet Fitness may not be held liable for defective products.2

In April 2013, DeShaun was injured when a cable broke on a seated rowing machine that he was using at Planet Fitness.

1 Devana Fitness, LLC was the franchisee of the Planet Fitness location on the date the Membership Agreement was executed. On July 31, 2012, prior to Ketler’s incident, Devana Fitness, LLC assigned its rights and interests in, and under, all Membership Agreements to PFPA, LLC.

2 Appellant’s Op. Br. App. at A8.

This Court has previously recognized that [HN1] a release of prospective negligence may be valid.3 Such a release must be “‘clear and unequivocal’ to insulate a party from liability . . . .”4 The release provision involved here expressly releases Planet Fitness from any liability for any injury resulting from the negligence of Planet Fitness, whether related to exercise or not. It expressly releases Planet Fitness from any and all claims or causes of action. The provision’s language is clear and unequivocal.

3 Riverbend Cmty., LLC v. Green Stone Eng’g, LLC, 55 A.3d 330, 336 (Del. 2012).

4 Id. (quoting State v. Interstate Amiesite Corp., 297 A.2d 41, 44 (Del. 1972)).

[HN2] It must also not be unconscionable. Unconscionability is a concept that [*4] is used sparingly.5 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.”6 “But mere disparity between the bargaining powers of parties to a contract will not support a finding of unconscionability.”7 “[T]here must be an absence of meaningful choice and contract terms unreasonably favorable to one of the parties.”8 There is no deprivation of meaningful choice if a party can walk away from the contract.9 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.

5 See Progressive Int’l Corp. v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 2002 Del. Ch. LEXIS 91, 2002 WL 1558382, at *11 (Del. Ch. July 9, 2002) (discussing the reluctance of courts to apply the doctrine).

6 Reserves Mgmt., LLC v. Am. Acquisition Prop., LLC, 86 A.3d 1119, 2014 WL 823407, at *9 (Del. 2014) (internal quotations omitted).

7 Id.

8 Tulowitzki v. Atl. Richfield Co., 396 A.2d 956, 960 (Del. 1978).

9 See Graham v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 565 A.2d 908, 913 (Del. 1989) (finding the doctrine of unconscionability inapplicable, in part, because the plaintiffs had the opportunity to cancel the insurance policy); Progressive, 2002 Del. Ch. LEXIS 91, 2002 WL 1558382, at *11 (rejecting the plaintiff’s unconscionability argument, in part, because nothing had prevented the plaintiff from walking away from a contract with allegedly unfavorable terms).

Finally, [HN3] the release must not violate public policy. The public policy of this state is typically [*5] determined by the Delaware General Assembly. No Delaware statute has been identified which bears on the validity of a release of prospective negligence. The Ketlers argue that the release violates the public policy embodied in the principle that a property owner has a duty to make his property safe for business invitees. 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.

For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Superior Court is AFFIRMED.