Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 Del. Super. LEXIS 495

Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 Del. Super. LEXIS 495

Thomas A Lynam, III and Antoinette M. Lynam, as Parents and Natural Guardians of Thomas A. Lynam, IV, a minor,

v.

Blue Diamond LLC and Parkway Gravel Inc. and Houghton’s Amusement Park, LLC

C.A. No. N14C-11-121 RRC

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

October 4, 2016

Submitted: July 6, 2016

On Defendants Blue Diamond LLC’s and Parkway Gravel, Inc.’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

Tabatha L. Castro, Esquire The Castro Firm, Inc. Attorney for Plaintiffs

Leonard G. Villari, Esquire Villari, Lentz & Lynam, LLC Attorney Pro Hac Vice for Plaintiffs

Marc S. Casarino, Esquire Dana Spring Monzo, Esquire Nicholas Wynn, Esquire White and Williams, LLP Attorneys for Defendants Blue Diamond LLC and Parkway Gravel, Inc.

Dear Counsel:

I. INTRODUCTION

Pending before this Court is Defendants Blue Diamond LLC’s and Parkway Gravel, Inc.’s (“Defendants”)[1] Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that minor Thomas Lynam, IV (“Tommy”) was riding his motocross bicycle on Defendants’ motocross track. After riding off a jump, Tommy landed, lost control of his motocross bicycle, and collided with a metal shipping container near the track. Tommy apparently sustained serious injuries. Plaintiffs’ complaint raises one count of “negligence” as a theory for liability.[2]Although not listed as a separate count in their complaint, Plaintiffs allude in their general “negligence” claim to a theory of reckless conduct by Defendants in connection with the operation of the motocross track.

In their motion, Defendants assert that their alleged behavior was, as a matter of fact and law, neither negligent nor reckless. Alternatively, Defendants raise an affirmative defense that they are released from any liability for negligent or reckless conduct due to a release agreement (the “Release”) signed by the Plaintiffs. Additionally, Defendants raise the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a separate affirmative defense as a bar to recovery.

Plaintiffs agree that they released Defendants from liability for Defendants’ own “negligence.” However, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants’ conduct amounted to recklessness, and that Plaintiffs never released Defendants from liability for their allegedly reckless conduct. In response to Defendants’ claim that Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury, Plaintiffs contend that the risk of a collision with a metal shipping container was not contemplated at either the signing of the Release or when Tommy began using the facilities.

This Court concludes that the Release was not specifically tailored so as to release Defendants from liability for their allegedly reckless conduct. The Court also finds that the factual record is insufficiently developed to make a legal determination of whether Defendants’ conduct as a matter of law amounted to recklessness. Finally, the Court concludes that it is premature at this juncture to consider Defendant’s affirmative defense. Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

II.FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On January 6, 2013, Tommy, then thirteen years old, was riding a motocross bicycle at Blue Diamond Motocross near New Castle. Plaintiffs allege that the track was advertised as being composed of “safe jumps.”[3] While riding, Tommy rode off a jump, made a hard landing, and was unable to stop in time before colliding with a large metal shipping container.

Prior to granting Tommy admission to the Blue Diamond facilities to ride his motocross bicycle, Blue Diamond required Tommy’s father to sign a release agreement. The Release, entitled “Parental Consent, Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement, ” stated that Plaintiffs understood the “risks and dangers of serious bodily injury” posed by motocross and relieved Defendants from liability for their own negligence.[4] The Release also released Defendants from liability for injuries suffered by Plaintiffs through their own negligence.[5]

In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants negligently allowed the container to remain on the premises at an unsafe distance from the motocross track.[6] While Plaintiffs do not specifically allege recklessness as a separate claim for recovery, but rather include it in a single count of “Negligence, ” Plaintiffs’ complaint references reckless conduct as another potential theory of recovery.[7]Plaintiffs, however, now agree that their claims of negligence are barred by the Release.[8] But Plaintiffs assert that the Release did not specifically address or contemplate potential claims against Defendants for “reckless” behavior.[9]

III. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

Under Superior Court Civil Rule 12(c), a party may move for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings are closed.[10] The standard of review in the context of a motion for judgment on the pleadings requires a court to “accept all the complaint’s well-pleaded facts as true and construe all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.”[11] “The motion will be granted when no material issues of fact exist, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[12] “The standard for a motion for judgment on the pleadings is almost identical to the standard for a motion to dismiss.”[13]

B. The Parties Agree that the Release Bars Plaintiffs’ Recovery Against Defendants for Any Negligence

Defendants contend that the executed Release bars recovery for negligence. At oral argument on this motion, Plaintiffs agreed (Plaintiffs’ filings were not explicit on this point) that the Release bars recovery for injuries resulting from Defendants’ allegedly negligent conduct.[14] Although Plaintiffs are residents of Pennsylvania, the parties agree that Delaware law applies to the present motion, as Defendants are Delaware businesses and the incident giving rise to the case at bar occurred in Delaware.

Under Delaware law, parties may enter into an agreement that relieves a business owner of liability for injuries to business invitees that result from the owner’s negligent conduct.[15] However, the release must be unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy. [16] Further, the release must be “‘crystal clear and unequivocal’ to insulate a party from liability for possible future negligence.”[17]

In Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, the Delaware Supreme Court recently determined the validity of a release waiving liability for negligence.[18] The release in Ketler provided:

‘I understand and voluntarily accept this risk and agree that [the defendant] . . . will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury . . . resulting from the negligence of [the defendant] or anyone on [the defendant’s] behalf whether related to exercise or not. Accordingly, I do hereby forever release and discharge [the defendant] from any and all claims, demands, injuries, damages, actions, or causes of action.'[19]

The Delaware Supreme Court held that the release was sufficiently clear and unequivocal, and that it expressly released the defendant from any and all causes of actions relating to the defendant’s own negligence.[20] Defendants rely heavily on this case, asserting that it applies to claims of reckless conduct.[21]

The Release that Plaintiffs executed in this case is also sufficiently “clear and unequivocal.” The Release provides:

3. I consent to the Minor’s participation in the Event(s) and/or entry into restricted areas and HEREBY ACCEPT AND ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, KNOWN AND UNKNOWN, AND ASSUME ALL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE LOSSES, COSTS, AND/OR DAMAGES FOLLOWING SUCH INJURY, DISABILITY, PARALYSIS OR DEATH, EVEN IF CAUSED, IN WHOLE OR IN PART, BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE “RELEASEES” NAMED BELOW.

4. I HEREBY RELEASE, DISCHARGE AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE the . . . track owners, [and] owners and lessees of premises used to conduct the Event(s) . . . all for the purposes herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO ME, THE MINOR, [and] my and the minor’s personal representatives . . . FOR ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, DEMANDS, LOSSES, OR DAMAGES ON ACCOUNT OF INJRY, including, but not limited to, death or damage to property, CAUSED . . . BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE “RELEASEES” OR OTHERWISE.[22]

Similar to the language at issue in Ketler, the Release expressly states that the signor assumes responsibility for injuries caused by Defendants’ own negligent conduct. The release also expressly states that the Defendants are released from any and all causes of action that may arise from Defendants’ negligent conduct. Accordingly, this Court agrees with the parties that the Release validly exculpates Defendants from liability for their own negligence.

Defendants also rely on Lafate v. New Castle County[23] and Devecchio v. Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.[24] to support their position that the Release waives claims of reckless conduct. Both Lafate and Devecchio concern agreements that released the tortfeasors from liability for their own negligent conduct. Both cases also discussed whether the language of the releases was sufficiently tailored to release the tortfeasor’s negligent conduct. In Lafate, this Court refused to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on grounds that the release did not clearly and unambiguously release the tortfeasor from claims that it was negligent.[25] In Devecchio, this Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment because the plaintiff signed a valid covenant not to sue for injury resulting from the plaintiffs own negligence.[26]

Defendants’ reliance on these cases in light of Plaintiffs’ potential claim of reckless conduct is inapposite. Because the parties have agreed that Defendants are insulated from claims of negligence, the question of whether the release clearly and unambiguously insulates the defendants from liability for their own negligent conduct is moot. Neither the holding in Lafate nor in Devecchio relate to allegations of reckless conduct. Accordingly, because Plaintiffs now assert that Defendant’s conduct was reckless, Lafate and Devecchio are distinguishable from the case at bar.

Finally, the Court considers whether, for purposes of this motion, recklessness is subsumed in negligence, and is therefore barred as a form of negligence. Prosser and Keeton on Torts is particularly informative, providing that “such [exculpatory] agreements [that expressly exempt defendants from liability for their negligent conduct] generally are not construed to cover the more extreme forms of negligence, described as willful, wanton, reckless or gross, and to any conduct which constitutes an intentional tort.”[27] Adopting Prosser and Keeton’s interpretation, this Court finds that although the Release does insulate Defendants from liability for negligent conduct, it does not bar claims of “more extreme forms of negligence, ” such as “reckless” conduct.[28]

C. A Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is Inappropriate at this Juncture in Light of any Undeveloped Claims of Reckless Conduct

Although Tommy’s father’s execution of the Release precludes recovery from Defendants on a theory of “negligence, ” Plaintiffs assert that the Defendants’ conduct was “reckless.” Plaintiffs did not explicitly allege in a separate count of the complaint that Defendant’s conduct was reckless, but Plaintiffs did make it apparent in the complaint that it was an intended theory of liability.[29] In their briefing and at oral argument, Plaintiffs suggested that Defendants, among other things, had been aware of previous collisions with the shipping container, and that their ignorance of these prior incidents amounts to reckless behavior.[30]Accordingly, the Court must determine whether the Release bars Plaintiffs from asserting claims resulting from injuries caused by Defendants’ reckless conduct.

Courts in Delaware have a strong preference for resolving cases on their merits, or at least allowing discovery to proceed such that additional evidence in support of the parties’ contentions can be developed.[31] While this preference is not outcome-determinative, the preference for resolving cases on the merits is a strong factor in determining whether to grant or deny a dispositive motion.

Plaintiffs, at oral argument and in their response to the motion, argue that they are entitled to recovery based on Defendants’ allegedly reckless conduct. The parties agree that this theory is separate from the one count of “negligence” listed in the complaint.[32] The operative language of the Release does not explicitly enumerate or contemplate recklessness as a theory of recovery barred by the Release. Under Delaware law, as provided in Ketler, a release must be “clear and unambiguous” in order to effectively release the business owner from liability.[33]

This Court finds that the language of the release is not “clear and unambiguous” with respect to Defendants’ liability for their own allegedly reckless conduct. In Ketler, the release at issue specifically used the word “negligence, ” and stated that Defendants “will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury . . . resulting from the negligence of [the defendants].” The Delaware Supreme Court held that this language satisfied the “clear and unequivocal” standard and upheld the language of the agreement.

Turning to the Release that Plaintiffs executed, this Court finds that the Release is silent as to claims of recklessness. The Release does not mention “reckless” conduct, and instead only expressly refers to injury caused by Defendants’ “negligence.” In the absence of such language, the Release does not clearly and unambiguously exculpate Defendants from liability for their own reckless conduct. Accordingly, the Release does not operate to bar Plaintiffs’ claim of recklessness.[34]

This Court holds that the Release does not bar claims of reckless conduct. This Court expresses no opinion at this juncture as to whether Plaintiffs ultimately can establish claims against for recklessness. Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and will grant Plaintiffs leave to conduct further discovery with the option of potentially amending the complaint in support of their contention that Defendants’ conduct was “reckless.”[35]

D. The Court does Not Reach Defendant’s Argument under the Doctrine of Assumption of the Risk

Finally, Defendants’ contend that Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury from Defendants’ alleged reckless conduct. However, the record has not been sufficiently developed to determine whether Defendants’ conduct was reckless or whether Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury from Defendants’ allegedly reckless conduct.[36] Accordingly, the Court does not reach this contention at this stage of the litigation.

IV. CONCLUSION

Defendant’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is DENIED. The Court has enclosed an Order establishing a Scheduling Conference in this case.

Very truly yours,

Richard R. Cooch Resident Judge

Notes:

[1] Defendant Houghton’s Amusement Park, LLC did not make an appearance in this case and had a default judgment taken against it on June 21, 2016.

[2]Compl. ¶¶ 79-87.

[3]Compl. ¶ 48.

[4]Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A.

[5]Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A. Tommy also signed an agreement, titled “Minor’s Assumption of the Risk Acknowledgment, ” that Defendants reference in their motion as another reason they are not liable for Plaintiffs’ injuries. However, it appears from the motion and subsequent filings that the release signed by Tommy is only mentioned in passing, and is not relied upon by Defendants. The release signed by Tommy’s father is the determinative release in the case at bar.

[6]Compl. ¶¶ 79-87.

[7]Compl. ¶¶ 49, 51, 77, 87. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that “Defendants’ failure to exercise reasonable care as alleged above comprised outrageous conduct under the circumstances, manifesting a wanton and reckless disregard of the rights of the Plaintiffs.” Compl. ¶ 87. The Complaint also alleges that Tommy’s injuries were caused by the “reckless indifference” of Defendants. Compl. ¶¶ 51, 77. Moreover, the Complaint alleges that the track was “reckless[ly] design[ed].” Compl. ¶ 49.

[8]At oral argument, Plaintiffs’ counsel answered in the affirmative when the Court asked “Am I understanding Plaintiffs’ position correctly when I read the papers to say that Plaintiffs are not alleging ordinary negligence, but rather recklessness?” Lynam et al. v. Blue Diamond LLC Motocross et al, C.A. No. N14C-11-121 RRC, at 6 (Del. Super. July 6, 2016) (TRANSCRIPT) [hereinafter Oral Arg. Tr.].

[9] Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A.

[10] A judgment on the pleadings is based only upon a review of Plaintiffs’ complaint and Defendants’ answer. However, under Rule 12(c), “If, on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the Court, the motion shall be treated as one for summary judgment.” Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12(c). In the case at bar, Defendants introduced the two executed releases as exhibits to their motion. However, the releases were not a part of the pleadings. Nevertheless, the parties agree that this motion should be treated as a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

[11] Silver Lake Office Plaza, LLC v. Lanard & Axilbund, Inc., 2014 WL 595378, at *6 (Del. Super. Jan. 17, 2014) (quoting Blanco v. AMVAC Chem. Corp., 2012 WL 3194412, at *6 (Del. Super. Aug. 8, 2012)).

[12] Id. (quoting Velocity Exp., Inc. v. Office Depot, Inc., 2009 WL 406807, at *3 (Del. Super. Feb. 4, 2009).

[13] Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

[14] See Oral Arg. Tr. at 6.

[15] Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 132 A.3d 746 (Del. 2016) (upholding “hold harmless” agreements and releases that relieve a proprietor from liability for its own negligent activities).

[16] Id. at 747-48.

[17] Riverbend Cmty., LLC v. Green Stone Eng’g, LLC, 55 A.3d 330, 336 (Del. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State v. Interstate Amiesite Corp., 297 A.2d 41, 44 (Del. 1972)).

[18] Ketler, 132 A.3d at 747.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Oral Arg. Tr. at 14-16.

[22] Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A (emphasis added).

[23] 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super. Oct. 22, 1999).

[24] 2004 Del. Super. LEXIS 444 (Del. Super. Nov. 30, 2004).

[25] The plaintiff in Lafate was injured by a metal bar used to divide a basketball court. This Court found that while the agreement did “speak[] of ‘any and all injuries which may be suffered by [players] during [their] participation, ‘” the absence of the word “negligence” insufficiently insulated the defendants from liability for their own negligent conduct. Lafate, 1999 WL 1241074, at *4.

[26] In Devecchio, the defendant owned a motorcycle race track that required riders to sign agreements releasing the defendant from liability for injuries resulting from both the riders and the defendant’s negligence. The release pertaining to the defendant’s negligence expressly used the word “negligence.” This Court found that the release using the word “negligence” was sufficiently clear and unambiguous, and therefore insulated the defendant from liability for its own negligent conduct. Devecchio v. Enduro Riders, Inc., 2004 Del. Super. LEXIS 444 (Del. Super. Nov. 30, 2004).

[27] W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on Torts, § 68 at 483-84 (5th ed. 1984)). Delaware courts often rely on Prosser and Keeton on Torts in reaching their conclusions. See, e.g., Culver v. Bennett, 588 A.2d 1094, 1097 (Del. 1991); Lafate v. New Castle County, 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super. Oct. 22, 1999); Brzoska v. Olson, 668 A.2d 1355, 1360 (Del. 1995).

[28] Additionally, the Delaware Civil Pattern Jury Instructions for negligence and recklessness are substantially different. The Delaware Civil Pattern Jury Instruction for negligence provides:

This case involves claims of negligence. Negligence is the lack of ordinary care; that is, the absence of the kind of care a reasonably prudent and careful person would exercise in similar circumstances. That standard is your guide. If a person’s conduct in a given circumstance doesn’t measure up to the conduct of an ordinarily prudent and careful person, then that person was negligent. On the other hand, if the person’s conduct does measure up to the conduct of a reasonably prudent and careful person, the person wasn’t negligent.

Del. Super. P.J.I. Civ. § 5.1 (2003), http://courts.delaware.gov/forms/download.aspx?id=85928. On the other hand, the Delaware Civil Pattern Jury Instruction for reckless conduct states:

Reckless conduct reflects a knowing disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk. It amounts to an “I don’t care” attitude. Recklessness occurs when a person, with no intent to cause harm, performs an act so unreasonable and so dangerous that he or she knows, or should know, that harm will probably result.

Del. Super. P.J.I. Civ. § 5.9 (2003), http://courts.delaware.gov/forms/download.aspx?id=85928. It is apparent from a comparison of the two different jury instructions that negligence conduct requires a departure from the ordinary standard of care exhibited by the reasonably prudent person, an objective standard. However, in contrast, it appears from the pattern jury instructions that reckless conduct requires a subjective “I don’t care” attitude that evidences an even greater departure from the ordinary standard of care, amounting to an unreasonable conscious disregard of a known risk.

[29] Compl. ¶¶ 49, 51, 77, 87. For example, Plaintiffs allege that “The reckless design of the track, which was intentionally constructed next to the pre-existing intermodal container, requires riders to land from a jump and immediately decelerate in order to execute a 90° right turn.” Compl. ¶ 49. Moreover, Plaintiffs allege that Tommy’s injuries were “a direct and proximate result of the negligence, carelessness and reckless indifference of Defendants.” Compl. ¶ 77.

[30] Pl.’s Suppl. Resp. in Opp’n to the Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, at 2.

[31] Keener v. Isken, 58 A.3d 407, 409 (Del. 2013); see also Wallace v. Wood, 2007 WL 3331530 (Del. Ch. Oct. 31, 2007); DeSantis v. Chilkotowsky, 2004 WL 2914314, at *2 (Del. Super. Nov. 18, 2004), Sup. Ct. Civ. R. 56.

[32] Plaintiffs did not plead any explicit claim of recklessness. See, e.g., J.L. v. Barnes, 33 A.3d 902, 916 n.77 (De. 2011) (treating recklessness and gross negligence as interchangeable and noting, “In order for a plaintiff to plead gross negligence with the requisite particularity, the plaintiff must articulate ‘facts that suggest a wide disparity between the process [] used . . . and that which would have been rational.'” J.L. states that a complaint pleading ten pages of facts to support a claim of gross negligence or recklessness was sufficient to meet the pleading standard). Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have not properly pleaded reckless conduct under Superior Court Civil Rule 9(b). However, the Court need not reach that issue since it will give Plaintiffs the opportunity to amend their complaint.

[33] Ketler, 132 A.3d at 747.

[34] Because the Court finds that Defendants’ release does not explicitly bar claims of “reckless” conduct, this Court does not reach the question of whether such a release is potentially permissible under Delaware law. However, this Court notes that other jurisdictions have differing perspectives on whether exculpatory agreements barring claims for recklessness, gross negligence, willful acts, or strict liability are enforceable. See Randy J. Sutton, Annotation, Validity, Construction, and Effect of Agreement Exempting Operator of Amusement Facility from Liability for Personal Injury or Death of Patron, 54 A.L.R.5th 513 (1997). For example, in Barker v. Colo. Region-Sports Car Club of Am., the Colorado Court of Appeals held that exculpatory agreements can release a party only for simple negligence, and not from willful and wanton negligence. 532 P.2d 372, 377 (Colo.App. 1974). Similarly, in Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc., the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii held that a release was invalid with respect to claims of gross negligence and strict liability. 839 F.Supp. 730, 736 (D. Haw. 1993). The above annotation suggests that a common reason to not enforce such an agreement is because they are void against the state’s public policy.

Alternatively, other jurisdictions have upheld agreements that exculpate business owners for reckless conduct or strict liability. For example, in Murphy v. N. Am. River Runners, Inc., the West Virginia Supreme Court discussed the matter, stating:

Generally, in the absence of an applicable safety statute, a plaintiff who expressly and, under the circumstances, clearly agrees to accept a risk of harm arising from the defendant’s negligent or reckless conduct may not recover for such harm, unless the agreement is contrary to public policy. When such an express agreement is freely and fairly made, between two parties who are in equal bargaining position, and there is no public interest with which the agreement interferes, it will generally be upheld.

412 S.E.2d 504, 508-09 (W.Va. 1991).

[35]Delaware Courts have previously allowed such an amendment to be made. As this Court held in Guy v. Phillips, a party may amend a complaint following additional discovery when the amended count arises out of the same factual basis for the original complaint. 1997 WL 524124 (Del. Super. July 2, 1997).

[36] In support of this defense, the Court notes that Defendants rely solely on Deuley v. DynCorp Int’l, Inc., 2010 WL 704895 (Del. Super. Feb. 26, 2010). However, Deuley is distinguishable from the case at bar. In Deuley, surviving relatives of decedents killed by an improvised explosive device (“IED”) in Afghanistan filed a wrongful death action. As part of the employment agreement, the decedents signed an agreement that provided employees expressly assumed the risk of injury or death. In reaching its conclusion that the decedents assumed the risk of death, the Court found that “when [the decedents] signed the releases, even a poorly informed American had to have appreciated that working in Afghanistan involved the general risk of insurgent or terrorist attacking by an IED.” Deuley, 2010 WL 704895, at *4. “The complaint offers no reason to find that any plaintiff here was probably unaware of the general risk of being injured or killed by a bomb.” Id. In the case at bar, drawing inferences in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, it is unlikely that Plaintiffs were aware of the risk posed by the shipping container, since they allege that they were unable to inspect the track prior to Tommy using it. Accordingly, Defendants’ reliance on Deuley is inapposite since it could be determined that a collision with the metal shipping container was not contemplated by the Plaintiffs when they signed the Release.


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Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206

Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206

Lorianne Weed and Scott Trefero as parents and natural guardians of A.M., a minor, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. Sky NJ, LLC a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone Moorestown and/or a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone and David R. Agger, Defendants-Appellants.

No. A-4589-16T1

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

February 22, 2018

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued January 18, 2018

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Docket No. L-2790-16.

Marco P. DiFlorio argued the cause for appellants (Salmon, Ricchezza, Singer & Turchi LLP, attorneys; Joseph A. Ricchezza and Marco P. DiFlorio, on the briefs).

Iddo Harel argued the cause for respondents (Ross Feller Casey, LLP, attorneys; Joel J. Feller and Iddo Harel, on the brief).

Before Judges Currier and Geiger.

PER CURIAM

Defendants Sky NJ, LLC a/k/a/ Sky Zone Moorestown and David Agger (defendants) appeal from the May 19, 2017 order denying their motion to compel arbitration in this personal injury suit brought by plaintiffs after A.M.[1] suffered severe injuries while jumping on a trampoline at defendants’ facility. After a review of the presented arguments in light of the record before us and applicable principles of law, we affirm.

Plaintiff visited the trampoline facility in July 2016. Entrance to the park is conditioned on all participants signing a “Conditional Access Agreement, Pre-Injury Waiver of Liability, and Agreement to Indemnity, Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate” (the Agreement). Weed executed the agreement on behalf of her son in July 2016.

Plaintiff returned to the facility with a friend in November 2016, and was injured while using the trampolines during a “Glow” event, which plaintiff submits used different and less lighting than was present at his earlier visit. Plaintiff entered the facility in November with an agreement signed by his friend’s mother on behalf of both her daughter and A.M.[2] In an affidavit submitted by Weed in opposition to the motion, she stated that she was unaware that her son was going to the facility at the time of the November visit.

Both agreements required the submission of all claims to binding arbitration and contained the following pertinent language:

I understand that this Agreement waives certain rights that I have in exchange for permission to gain access to the [l]ocation. I agree and acknowledge that the rights I am waiving in exchange for permission to gain access to the [l]ocation include but may not be limited to the following:

a. the right to sue [defendants] in a court of law;

b. the right to a trial by judge or jury;

c. the right to claim money from [defendants] for accidents causing injury within the scope of the risk assumed by myself;

d. the right to claim money from [defendants] for accidents causing injury unless [defendants] committed acts of gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct; and

e. the right to file a claim against [defendants] if I wait more than one year from . . . the date of this Agreement.

Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate

IF I AM INJURED AND WANT TO MAKE A CLAIM AND/OR IF THERE ARE ANY DISPUTES REGARDING THIS AGREEMENT, I HEREBY WAIVE ANY RIGHT I HAVE TO A TRIAL IN A COURT OF LAW BEFORE A JUDGE AND JURY. I AGREE THAT SUCH DISPUTE SHALL BE BROUGHT WITHIN ONE YEAR OF THE DATE OF THIS AGREEMENT AND WILL BE DETERMINED BY BINDING ARBITRATION BEFORE ONE ARBITRATOR TO BE ADMINISTERED BY JAMS[3] PURSUANT TO ITS COMPREHENSIVE ARBITRATIONRULES AND PROCEDURES.I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of New Jersey and that the substantive law of New Jersey shall apply. I acknowledge that if I want to make a claim against [defendants], I must file a demand before JAMS. … To the extent that any claim I have against [defendants] has not been released or waived by this Agreement, I acknowledge that I have agreed that my sole remedy is to arbitrat[e] such claim, and that such claim may only be brought against [defendants] in accordance with the above Waiver of Trial and Agreement to Arbitrate.

After Weed filed suit on behalf of her son, defendants moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the agreement. Defendants argued that the agreements contained “straightforward, clear, and unequivocal” language that a participant was waiving their right to present claims before a jury in exchange for conditional access to the facility. They asserted that the first agreement signed by Weed remained in effect at the time of plaintiff’s subsequent visit in November as there was no indication that it was only valid for the one day of entry in July. Finally, defendants contended that any dispute as to a term of the agreement should be resolved in arbitration.

Plaintiff opposed the motion, asserting that nothing in the first agreement alerted Weed that it would remain in effect for either a certain or an indefinite period of time. To the contrary, defendants’ policy of requiring a new agreement to be signed each time a participant entered the park belied its argument that a prior agreement remained valid for a period of time.

On May 19, 2017, Judge Joseph L. Marczyk conducted oral argument and denied the motion in an oral decision issued the same day. The judge determined that the first agreement did not apply to the November visit because it did not contain any language that it would remain valid and applicable to all future visits. Therefore, there was no notice to the signor of the agreement that it would be in effect beyond that specific day of entry, and no “meeting of the minds” that the waiver and agreement to arbitrate pertained to all claims for any future injury.

As for the second agreement, the judge found that there was no precedent to support defendants’ contention that an unrelated person could bind plaintiff to an arbitration clause. This appeal followed.

“[O]rders compelling or denying arbitration are deemed final and appealable as of right as of the date entered.” GMAC v. Pittella, 205 N.J. 572, 587 (2011). We review the judge’s decision to compel arbitration de novo. Frumer v. Nat’1 Home Ins. Co., 420 N.J.Super. 7, 13 (App. Div. 2011). The question of whether an arbitration clause is enforceable is an issue of law, which we also review de novo. Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Group, L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 445-46 (2014). We owe no deference to the trial court’s “interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts.” Manalapan Realty v. Twp. Comm., 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

Defendants argue that the trial court erred when it determined that the first arbitration agreement signed by Weed four months before plaintiff’s injury was no longer binding on the parties at the time of plaintiff’s injury. We disagree.

While we are mindful that arbitration is a favored means of dispute resolution in New Jersey, the threshold issue before us is whether Weed’s signature on the July agreement would be binding on plaintiff for all subsequent visits. We apply well-established contract principles, and ascertain the parties’ intent from a consideration of all of the surrounding circumstances. James Talcott, Inc. v. H. Corenzwit & Co., 76 N.J. 305, 312 (1978). “An agreement must be construed in the context of the circumstances under which it was entered into and it must be accorded a rational meaning in keeping with the express general purpose.” Tessmar v. Grosner, 23 N.J. 193, 201 (1957).

It is undisputed that neither agreement contains any reference to a term of validity. The parties submitted conflicting affidavits in support of their respective positions. Weed stated there was nothing in the agreement she signed to apprise a participant that the agreement was in effect for longer than the day of entry. Defendants contend that plaintiff did not need a second agreement signed for the November visit as the initial agreement remained in effect.

There is no evidence in the record before us to support defendants’ argument as the agreements are silent as to any period of validity. Defendants drafted these agreements and required a signature from all participants waiving certain claims and requiring submission to arbitration prior to permitting access to the facility. Any ambiguity in the contract must be construed against defendants. See Moscowitz v. Middlesex Borough Bldq. & Luan Ass’n, 14 N.J.Super. 515, 522 (App. Div. 1951) (holding that where a contract is ambiguous, it will be construed against the drafting party). We are satisfied that Judge Marczyk’s ruling declining enforcement of the July agreement was supported by the credible evidence in the record.

We further find that defendants’ argument regarding the November agreement lacks merit. The signor of that agreement was neither a parent, a legal guardian, nor the holder of a power of attorney needed to bind the minor plaintiff to the arbitration agreement. Defendants’ reliance on Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 346 (2006) is misplaced. While the Court found that a parent had the authority to waive their own child’s rights under an arbitration agreement in Hojnowski, there is no suggestion that such authority would extend to a non-legal guardian. Not only would such a holding bind the minor to an arbitration agreement, it would also serve to bind the minor’s parents, waiving their rights to bring a claim on behalf of their child. We decline to so hold. See Moore v. Woman to Woman Obstetrics & Gynecology, LLC, 416 N.J.Super. 30, 45 (App. Div. 2010) (holding there is no legal theory that would permit one spouse to bind another to an agreement waiving the right to trial without securing consent to the agreement).

As we have concluded the threshold issue that neither the July nor the November agreement is enforceable as to the minor plaintiff, we do not reach the issue of whether the arbitration provision contained within the agreement accords with our legal standards and case law. Judge Marczyk’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration was supported by the evidence in the record.

Affirmed.

Notes:

[1] Lorianne Weed is A.M.’s mother. Because A.M. is a minor, we use initials in respect of his privacy and we refer to him hereafter as plaintiff.

[2] The agreement required the adult to “certify that [she was] the parent or legal guardian of the child(ren) listed [on the agreement] or that [she had] been granted power of attorney to sign [the] Agreement on behalf of the parent or legal guardian of the child(ren) listed.” There were no proofs presented that the adult met any of these requirements.

[3] JAMS is an organization that provides alternative dispute resolution services, including mediation and arbitration.

 


Need a Handy Reference Guide to Understand your Insurance Policy?

This book should be on every outfitter and guide’s desk. It will answer your questions, help you sleep at night, help you answer your guests’ questions and allow you to run your business with less worry.

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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States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

If your state is not listed here, you should assume a parent cannot waive a minor’s right to sue in your state.

State

By Statute

Restrictions

Alaska Alaska: Sec. 09.65.292 Sec. 05.45.120 does not allow using a release by ski areas for ski injuries
Arizona ARS § 12-553 Limited to Equine Activities
Colorado C.R.S. §§13-22-107
Florida Florida Statute § 744.301 (3) Florida statute that allows a parent to release a minor’s right to sue
Virginia Chapter 62. Equine Activity Liability § 3.2-6202. Liability limited; liability actions prohibited Allows a parent to sign a release for a minor for equine activities
Utah 78B-4-203. Limitations on Liability for Equine and Livestock Activities Limited to Equine Activities
(b) providing a document or release for the participant, or the participant’s legal guardian if the participant is a minor, to sign.

By Case Law

California Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal.App.3d 1559, 274 Cal.Rptr. 647 (1990)
Florida Global Travel Marketing, Inc v. Shea, 2005 Fla. LEXIS 1454 Allows a release signed by a parent to require arbitration of the minor’s claims
Florida Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So.2d 1067, 29 Fla. L. Weekly D1147 Release can be used for volunteer activities and by government entities
Maryland BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, 435 Md. 714; 80 A.3d 345; 2013 Md. LEXIS 897 Maryland top court allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. Release was not fantastic, but good enough.
Massachusetts Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99; 769 N.E.2d 738; 2002 Mass. LEXIS 384
Minnesota Moore vs. Minnesota Baseball Instructional School, 2009 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 299
North Dakota McPhail v. Bismarck Park District, 2003 ND 4; 655 N.W.2d 411; 2003 N.D. LEXIS 3 North Dakota decision allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue
Ohio Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 696 N.E.2d 201, 82 Ohio St.3d 367 (1998) Ohio Appellate decision upholds the use of a release for a minor for a commercial activity
Wisconsin Osborn v. Cascade Mountain, Inc., 655 N.W.2d 546, 259 Wis. 2d 481, 2002 Wisc. App. LEXIS 1216, 2003 WI App 1 However the decision in Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2 may void all releases in the state

On the Edge, but not enough to really rely on

Decisions are by the Federal District Courts and only preliminary motions
North Carolina Kelly v. United States of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741 North Carolina may allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue for injuries when the minor is engaged in non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations
New York DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695 New York Federal Magistrate in a Motion in Limine, hearing holds the New York Skier Safety Statute allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Paperwork, the death of trees and in this case the only defense the defendant had at this stage of the trial because the paperwork was not taken care of properly.

The youth camp failed to keep a good copy of the registration paperwork. What was presented to the court as a forum selection clause was illegible so the court held it was not valid.

Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

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

Plaintiff: Ben Epps, et al.

Defendant: 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Motion to Dismiss because of improper venue

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2007

Summary

Lawsuits are not games; they are not invitations to parties, there is a lot of money riding on the outcome in most cases. Documents needed for the case must be given to the attorneys defending the case in the condition in which they are maintained. In this case, a document was faxed to the defense attorneys and in such a bad way the court could not read the document. Since the court could not read the document, the court assumed the original was the same, and therefore, the document was not valid.

At the same time, if you are collecting and keeping documents that may end up in court, you need to create a system that preserves these documents in perfect condition so if they do get to court the judge can read them.

Finally, you must get the documents from the people you need a signature from in a condition the court will accept.

Facts

Plaintiffs allege that on June 24, 2005, their son, Axel, fell from a bike and was seriously injured while attending Defendant’s Independent Lake Camp located in Orson, Wayne County, Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs allege that Axel’s accident was caused by Defendant’s negligence while Defendant was acting in loco parentis. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant: 1) failed to provide proper supervision and safeguards; 2) gave Axel a bike, helmet, and other equipment without properly training him to use them; 3) allowed Axel to use a bike track, which was inappropriate for his age and experience; and 4) failed to obtain parental consent for its actions.

Plaintiffs further allege that Axel suffered serious and permanent physical injuries, including permanent cognitive and psychological damage, several fractures, lacerations resulting in scarring, cervical and lumbar sprain, and a shock to his nervous system. Plaintiffs also claim that Axel’s injuries include severe financial losses in the form of future costs of treatment and therapy, loss of earnings, and loss of earning capacity.

Defendant brought its motion to dismiss for improper venue alleging that the Registration Agreement, which Plaintiffs had to sign for Axel to attend camp, contained a forum selection clause. Defendant attached a blank, unsigned version of the Independent Lake Camp Registration 2005 (“Registration Agreement”) to its motion to dismiss. Defendant alleges that under the Registration Agreement, the proper forum would be a court in Wayne County, which is located in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

In Plaintiffs’ response to Defendant’s motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs argued that the blank Registration Agreement was unsigned and thus that Defendant failed to show that Plaintiffs had agreed to the terms in the document, including the forum selection clause. Plaintiffs averred by affidavit that they did not agree and would not have agreed to such a forum selection clause.

Defendant then provided a signed copy of the Registration Agreement, in which the information requested had been filled in and which was signed by Plaintiff Ben Epps. Defendant submitted an affidavit by Daniel Gould, the president of Defendant and Director of Independent Lake Camp. Mr. Gould avers that, after an exhaustive and diligent search, Defendant could only locate a photocopy of the signed Registration Agreement and was unable to locate the original. He avers that the original agreement is presumed lost and/or destroyed through no bad faith or improper act on the part of Defendant. The photocopy of the agreement provided to the court also appears to be a faxed copy, as evident from a fax header across the top margin.

In the copy of the signed Registration Agreement submitted by Defendant, the small print containing the terms of the agreement is blurry and barely legible. As Defendant concedes, the right-side margin, toward the bottom, is cut off, truncating the forum selection clause.

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

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss because the plaintiffs had filed the case in the wrong court according to the agreement, the registration form signed by the parents of the injured youth. The forum selection clause as defined by the courts or agreement to hold the trial at a specific court, allegedly stated the trial was to be held in Wayne County Court, Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs filed the case in the federal district our in Pennsylvania. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss from federal court and force the case to the state court.

The jurisdiction in the case was going to be Pennsylvania law no matter what; however, the trial would not be held in the back yard of the defendant, which is normally a good thing for the defendant.

When in the federal district court system, if a forum selection clause is upheld the case is simply transferred to the proper court. However, in this case because the selection clause stated a state court the case could not be transferred. The case would be dismissed at the federal court. The case could be refiled in the state court at that time if the statute of limitations had not run.

However, here, the document that was presented to the court that was the alleged agreement by the parents to only sue in state court was not legible.

The court agrees that the small print of the forum selection clause in the photocopied and faxed signed Registration Agreement is blurry and illegible, and does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court cannot assume that Mr. Epps signed a clear version of the agreement that became blurry and illegible upon subsequently being photocopied and faxed, because such evidence is not before the court. There is no evidence that Plaintiff Ben Epps signed any version of the Registration Agreement other than the document provided to the court.

Further, even if the forum selection clause were legible, it’s essential term, that any cause of action be brought in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, is cut off so as to be incomprehensible. Even if legible, the term “V– County Pennsylvania” in the forum selection clause gives no reasonable notice of the location of any agreed-upon forum.

The court concludes that the forum selection clause is inconspicuous and does not give notice of its terms to a reasonable person in violation of strong Pennsylvania public policy. The forum selection clause therefore is unreasonable, invalid, and unenforceable. Because the court finds that the forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid, it does not address the private and public factors as transfer considerations under § 1404(a).

The agreement was a copy that had been faxed, was illegible and could not be read by the court.

Since the court could not read the document, the legal wording was incomplete and the entire document had sections missing the court could not find there was an agreement. The motion to change venue was dismissed.

So Now What?

I would guess the camp had received the faxed copy from the parents. There would be no need to fax the documents around the camp. The camp probably had sent the documents to the parents for their signature, and they had faxed them back. This was mistake one, because the camp accepted a badly faxed copy of the document.

  1. When you receive an email, fax, or original where you cannot make out what is going on, signature seems off, the document is unreadable, you must get a good copy. Tell the signor to do it again and make the copy legible.
  2. Set up a system to check documents when they come in.
  3. Set the system up with enough time so that is time to correct problems. Don’t place yourself in a position where you are balancing the money coming in versus proper paperwork you need.

Second, the camp seemed to not locate the original fax, but only had a copy of the faxed document.

  1. Develop a system to store and maintain the documents. Now day’s scanners are so efficient all the documents can be scanned and maintained in seconds. The original paper documents can be preserved and kept for the statue of limitations for the state, and a good electronic copy is also available.

Don’t allow a kid or adult to come to camp, attend the program, participate in the activity unless you have all the paperwork you need, signed and in a good legible condition. Then and only then cash the check and open the gates.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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

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