Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds use of an express assumption of the risk agreement to bar a claim for wrongful death during a triathlon

The court defined the written agreement, signed electronically, as an assumption of the risk agreement, even though a lower court had called it a liability waiver.

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

State: Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in Her Own Right

Defendant: Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Statute

Defendant Defenses: Express Assumption of the Risk Agreement

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds release to stop claims under PA’s wrongful-death statute. Since the deceased assumed the inherent risks of the sport, that removed the duty of the defendant triathlon therefore, the triathlon could not be negligent. No negligence, no violation of the wrongful-death statute.

Facts

In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.

The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon.

The trial court and the appellate court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the express assumption of the risk agreement signed by the deceased. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted the plaintiff’s appeal which resulted in this decision.

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

The release or wavier used in this agreement is not included in the decision. One small section is quoted, which speaks to the risks the participants in the triathlon must assume. Which makes sense since the court refers to the agreement as an express assumption of the risk agreement rather than a release or waiver.

Pennsylvania follows the Restatement Second of Torts in defining assumption of the risk.

The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.”

Under Pennsylvania law, “when a plaintiff assumes the risk of an activity it elminates the defendants duty of care”. When the deceased signed the valid agreement and expressly assumed the risks inherent in the triathlon, the decedent extinguished the defendant triathlon’s duty of care.

If there is no duty to the deceased there cannot be any negligence. Existence of a duty and a breach of that duty is the first of four steps to prove negligence.

A negligent act is required to be successful under Pennsylvania’s wrongful-death statute.

Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive.

There were three dissents in the decision. The dissents argued the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute voided the waiver. Since the right of the plaintiff under the wrongful-death statute was a right of a survivor, and the decedent could not sign away a survivor’s rights, the release, waiver or assumption of the risk agreement was void.

So Now What?

You can breathe a little easier in Pennsylvania when using releases signed electronically. It is important to make sure you include assumption of the risk language in your release to make sure the possible plaintiff assumes those risks if the court throws out the release or finds another way to sue the document to defend you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in Her Own Right, Appellant

v.

Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, Appellee

No. 17 EAP 2017

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

June 18, 2019

Argued: May 15, 2018

Appeal from the Judgment of Superior Court entered on November 15, 2016 at No. 3049 EDA 2013 affirming the Order entered on September 30, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Civil Division at No. 1417 April Term, 2012. Jacqueline F. Allen, Judge

Craig A. Falcone, Esq., Sacchetta & Falcone, for Appellant Michele Valentino, as Admin. of the Estate of Derek Valentino, etc.

Barbara Axelrod, Esq., The Beasley Firm, L.L.C., for Appellant Amicus Curiae Pennsylvania Association for Justice.

Heather M. Eichenbaum, Esq., Spector Gadon & Rosen, P.C., for Appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC.

SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

ORDER

PER CURIAM

AND NOW, this 18th day of June, 2019, the Court being evenly divided, the Order of the Superior Court is AFFIRMED.

Justice Wecht did not participate in the consideration or decision of this matter.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF AFFIRMANCE

BAER, JUSTICE.

This Court granted allocatur to determine whether an express assumption of the risk agreement executed by triathlon participant Derek Valentino (“Decedent”) serves as a defense to a wrongful death claim commenced against the Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC (“Triathlon”) by Decedent’s heir (“Appellant”), who was not a signatory to the agreement.[1] The Superior Court held that Decedent’s express assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the sporting event eliminated Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious. Absent tortious activity, the Superior Court concluded that the wrongful death claim brought by Decedent’s heir could not succeed as a matter of law because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Accordingly, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. For the reasons set forth herein, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court and adopt its astute legal analysis.

Preliminarily and as explained in more detail infra, we respectfully note that the Opinions in Support of Reversal (both hereinafter collectively referred to as “OISR”) ignore the issue for which we granted allocatur and, instead, attempt to reverse the judgment of the Superior Court on grounds not encompassed by this appeal. Specifically, the OISR would sua sponte hold that express assumption of the risk agreements are void and unenforceable in violation of public policy in cases involving claims brought pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. The OISR reaches this conclusion notwithstanding that no party to this appeal challenges the validity of the agreement on public policy grounds or otherwise. We decline to engage in this judicial overreaching and proceed to address the merits of the issue before us.

We begin with a brief recitation of the facts. In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.

The executed Agreement stated that Decedent understood “the physical and mental rigors associated with triathlon,” and “that running, bicycling, [and] swimming

… are inherently dangerous and represent an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits.” Appellee’s Motion for Summary Judgment Ex. G, dated Aug. 5, 2013. The Agreement further acknowledged Decedent’s understanding that “participation involves risks and dangers which include, without limitation, the potential for serious bodily injury, permanent disability, paralysis and death … and other undefined harm or damage which may not be readily foreseeable[.]” Id. The Agreement provided that Decedent was aware “that these Risks may be caused in whole or in part by [his] own actions or inactions, the actions or inactions of others participating in the Event, or the acts, inaction or negligence of [the Triathlon].” Id.

Germane to this appeal, the Agreement stated that Decedent “expressly assume[d] all such Risks and responsibility for any damages, liabilities, losses or expenses” resulting from his participation in the event. Id. (emphasis added). The Agreement also included a provision stating that Decedent further agreed that if he or anyone on his behalf “makes a claim of Liability against any of the Released Parties, [Decedent] will indemnify, defend and hold harmless each of the Released Parties from any such Liability which any [sic] may be incurred as the result of such claim.” Id. [2]

The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon. On April 12, 2012, Decedent’s widow, Michele Valentino, both in her own right and as administratrix of her husband’s estate (referred to as “Appellant” herein), asserted wrongful death and survival claims against various defendants, including Triathlon. Only the wrongful death claim is at issue in this appeal. Appellant subsequently amended her complaint and the defendants filed preliminary objections. On July 27, 2012, the trial court sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections and struck all references in the complaint that referred to outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages, holding that these averments were legally insufficient as the facts alleged demonstrated only ordinary negligence. The trial court further struck particular paragraphs of the amended complaint on grounds that they lacked specificity.

In December of 2012, following the various defendants’ filing of an answer and new matter, the defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting the Agreement as an affirmative defense. The trial court denied summary judgment, finding that questions of material fact remained regarding the existence of the Agreement. Appellant thereafter stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants except Triathlon. Once discovery was completed, Triathlon again moved for summary judgment. Concluding that the evidence at that point in the proceedings demonstrated that the Agreement was among Decedent’s possessions and was valid and enforceable, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Triathlon.

Prior to the trial court issuing its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion explaining its rationale for granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon, the Superior Court, in an unrelated matter, decided the case of Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2013), which held that a non-signatory wrongful death claimant was not bound by an arbitration agreement signed by a decedent.[3] Id. at 663. On April 14, 2012, shortly after Pisano was decided, the trial court issued its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion in this matter and urged the Superior Court to vacate its order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon based on that decision.

Relying upon Pisano, Appellant argued to the Superior Court that Decedent’s Agreement with Triathlon does not apply to her as a non-signatory and, thus, has no preclusive effect upon her wrongful death claims asserted against Triathlon. In response, Triathlon contended that Decedent’s assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the event relieved its duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious as a matter of law. The Triathlon maintained that, absent tortious activity, a wrongful death claim could not succeed because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301.

Initially, on December 30, 2015, a divided panel of the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order in part, holding that under Pisano, Decedent’s Agreement was not applicable to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the contract. The Superior Court thereafter granted en banc argument and withdrew its panel decision.

On November 15, 2016, an en banc Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting Triathlon summary judgment in a published decision. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016). Preliminarily, the Superior Court acknowledged that because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of a decedent’s cause of action, “a decedent may not compromise or diminish a wrongful death claimant’s right of action without consent.” Id. at 493. Nevertheless, the Superior Court went on to hold that “a third-party wrongful death claimant is subject to substantive defenses supported by the decedent’s actions or agreements where offered to relieve the defendant, either wholly or partially, from liability by showing that the defendant’s actions were not tortious.” Id.

The Superior Court found that the available substantive defense here was Decedent’s contractual assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the triathlon.

The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.” Id.

Pennsylvania case law illustrates that one’s assumption of the risks inherent in a particular activity eliminates the defendant’s duty of care. SeeHughes v. Seven Springs Farm Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000) (explaining that under Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, where the plaintiff assumes the risk of harm, the defendant is under no duty to protect the plaintiff from such risks); Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 469 A.2d 120, 125 (1983) (explaining that one’s assumption of the risk of injury is simply another way of expressing the lack of duty on the part of the defendant to protect against such risks); Thompson v. Ginkel, 95 A.3d 900, 906 (Pa. Super. 2014) (citation omitted) (acknowledging that the assumption of the risk doctrine is a function of the duty analysis required in all negligence actions).

Relying on this substantive tort law, the Superior Court in the instant case held that by knowingly and voluntarily executing a valid agreement expressly assuming the risks inherent in participating in the sporting event, Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering its conduct not tortious. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493.[4] As noted, the intermediate appellate court concluded that absent tortious conduct, Appellant’s wrongful death claim could not survive as a matter of law; thus, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. Id.

The Superior Court in the instant case readily distinguished Pisano on the ground that it did not involve an agreement to assume all risks inherent in a particular activity, which would serve to eliminate the duty element of the wrongful death action against the alleged tortfeasor. Acknowledging Pisano’s principle that a third party’s right of action in a wrongful death claim is an independent statutory claim of a decedent’s heirs and is not derivative of a decedent’s right of action, the Superior Court emphasized that “a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493. The Superior Court cogently explained that Pisano does not undermine the fundamental principle that a statutory claimant in a wrongful death action has the burden of proving that the defendant’s tortious conduct caused the decedent’s death. It opined that this cannot occur where the

decedent assumed all risks inherent in participating in the activity and thereby abrogated any duty the putative tortfeasor may have had. Id.

Similarly, the Superior Court distinguished this Court’s decision in Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), upon which Appellant had relied. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 495. In that case, James Buttermore was injured in an automobile accident and signed a release in settlement of his claim against the tortfeasors for the sum of $25,000, agreeing to release all persons from liability. Buttermore, 561 A.2d at 734. The issue on appeal to this Court was whether Buttermore’s wife, who was not a signatory to the settlement agreement, had an independent right to sue the tortfeasors for loss of consortium. Id. at 735. Acknowledging that the release applied to all tortfeasors, including the defendants, this Court held that one could not bargain away the rights of others who were not a party to the contract. Id. Because Buttermore’s wife was not a party to her husband’s settlement agreement and because she sought to sue in her own right for loss of consortium, we held that she had an independent cause of action, unaffected by her husband’s settlement agreement. Id. at 736.

The Superior Court below distinguished Buttermore, finding that unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement here, the settlement agreement in Buttermore did not extinguish a requisite element of the wife’s loss of consortium claim. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 496. Stated differently, unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement in the instant case, nothing in the settlement agreement in Buttermore precluded the finding that the defendants acted tortiously.

We agree with the Superior Court’s application of well-settled tort law and its conclusion that the assumption of the risk agreement entered into between Decedent and the Triathlon operates much differently than the settlement agreement in Buttermore and the arbitration agreement in Pisano, as the latter agreements do not preclude a finding that the defendant acted tortiously. We further agree with the intermediate appellate court that a decedent’s valid assumption of the risk agreement does not negate his heir’s right to commence a wrongful death lawsuit, but it “can support a defense asserting that the alleged tortfeasor owed no duty to the decedent.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 494.

Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive. Such a result not only defies logic, but also the statutory requisites for a wrongful death claim. As there is no genuine issue of material fact and it is clear that Triathlon is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the trial court order granting summary judgment in Triathlon’s favor. See Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2 (providing that summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact or when a party which will bear the burden of proof has failed to present evidence sufficient to present the issue to the jury).

As noted, regarding the OISR’s sua sponte public policy declaration, our primary objection is that the issue of whether the express assumption of the risk agreement violates public policy is not properly before the Court; thus, the grant of relief on this claim cannot serve as a means to disturb the judgment of the Superior Court.

SeeSteiner v. Markel, 600 Pa. 515, 968 A.2d 1253, 1256 (2009) (holding that an appellate court may not reverse a judgment on a basis that was not properly raised and preserved by the parties).

Additionally, we observe that the OISR declares the express assumption of the risk agreement violative of the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act, i.e., to compensate family members of victims of tortious conduct, without any explanation as to how tortious conduct can exist in the absence of a duty of care. Further, the OISR seeks to invalidate not all express assumption of the risk contracts, but only those relating to wrongful death claims, based upon the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act. Accordingly, under the OISR’s reasoning, express assumption of the risk agreements would generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity, but would be invalid where a participant’s injuries were fatal and his heirs sought recovery for wrongful death. Thus, a participant who suffered grievous non-fatal injury would have no redress, but his family would have redress if the participant succumbed to his injuries.

This result is untenable as there is no evidence to suggest that it is the public policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to elevate the rights of victims’ heirs over those of the victims themselves or to immunize wrongful death claims from ordinary and readily available defenses. In fact, not only did the General Assembly premise recovery in wrongful death on the precise tortious conduct that caused the decedent’s fatal injuries, but directed expressly that a wrongful death action “may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). There is simply no provision in the Wrongful Death Act that renders an heir’s entitlement to relief absolute. Had the Legislature intended that mandate, it would have so directed.

Moreover, it is not the role of this Court to create the public policy of this Commonwealth. Instead, “public policy is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interest.” Burstein v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 570 Pa. 177, 809 A.2d 204, 207 (2002) (quoting Eichelman v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 551 Pa. 558, 711 A.2d 1006, 1008 (1998)). We have held that “only dominant public policy” justifies the invalidation of a contract and in the “absence of a plain indication of that policy through long governmental practice or statutory enactments, or violations of obvious ethical or moral standards, the Court should not assume to declare contracts contrary to public policy.” Burstein, 809 A.2d at 207. Significantly, we have acknowledged that in such circumstances, “courts must be content to await legislative action.” Id.

The OISR fails to heed this warning. By declaring the public policy of this Commonwealth, untethered to legislative fiat and in a case where the issue is not before us, the OISR comes dangerously close to displacing the legislative process with judicial will. Accordingly, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the order granting summary judgment in favor of the Triathlon. While the facts of this case are most tragic, this Court may not afford relief where the law does not so provide.

Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Todd join this opinion in support of affirmance.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL

DOUGHERTY, JUSTICE.

The question before the Court is whether the Superior Court erred when it determined

a pre-injury exculpatory waiver signed by a triathlon participant provides a complete defense to claims brought by the participant’s non-signatory heirs pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. We would find the waiver is unenforceable against the heirs and does not preclude their wrongful death action. We would therefore reverse the Superior Court’s decision and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

In 2010, appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, organized the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon Sprint (the Triathlon). The Triathlon consisted of three events: (1) a 0.5 mile swim; (2) a 15.7 mile bicycle race; and (3) a 3.1 mile run. The swim portion of the Triathlon took place in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a participant in the Triathlon, Decedent, Derek Valentino, registered as a participant for the Triathlon and executed a Waiver and Release of Liability (the Waiver) by affixing his electronic signature to an online registration form.

On race day, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River for the swim portion of the Triathlon, but he did not complete the swim and, on the following day, his body was recovered from the Schuylkill River. There is no dispute Decedent drowned in the river while participating in the Triathlon. SeeValentino v. Phila. Ins. Co., No. 120401417, 2014 WL 4796614, at *1 (Pa. Com. Pl. Aug. 26, 2014).

Appellant Michele Valentino filed a lawsuit in her individual capacity and as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, against several defendants, including appellee, asserting survival claims on Decedent’s behalf and wrongful death claims on her own behalf and that of her children.[1] See Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 26-28, 34-36, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (Survival Act provides “[a]ll causes of action or proceedings, real or personal, shall survive the death of the plaintiff or of the defendant …”); Amended Complaint at ¶¶29-33, 37-41, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a), (b) (Wrongful Death Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”).[2] In response to preliminary objections, the trial court entered orders striking from the complaint all references to outrageous acts, gross negligence and recklessness. The trial court also struck appellant’s claim for punitive damages. Remaining in the case were several allegations of ordinary negligence, specifically, that appellee failed to: make a

reasonable inspection of the premises and event course; remove or take measures to prevent dangerous conditions; follow rules, regulations, policies and procedures governing safety standards; properly train the Triathlon’s agents, servants and employees with respect to safety rules, regulations, policies and procedures; properly supervise the Triathlon’s employees to ensure the Triathlon was conducted in a reasonable and safe manner; properly construct or design a safe event route to avoid dangerous conditions; regulate or control the number of individuals participating in each phase of the race simultaneously; have proper rules, regulations, policies and procedures for the timely recognition and response of event participants in distress and need of rescue; and have adequate safety personnel on hand for each aspect of the event. Seeid. at ¶ 22(b), (d) & (f) – (l).

Thereafter, appellee filed an answer with new matter, claiming Decedent was sufficiently negligent himself to completely bar appellant’s recovery, or alternatively, to reduce appellant’s recovery in accordance with the amount of comparative negligence attributed to Decedent. See Answer with New Matter at ¶43, citing Comparative Negligence Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102. In addition, appellee asserted the complete defense of assumption of risk, claiming it owed no duty to Decedent or his survivors based on Decedent’s execution of the Waiver. Id. at ¶¶44, 46.

a. Summary Judgment

On September 30, 2013, the trial court granted appellee’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of appellant’s remaining claims with prejudice. On appellant’s motion for reconsideration, the court opined summary judgment on the survival action was proper based on the Waiver. Valentino, 2014 WL 4796614, at *2. The court reversed itself regarding appellant’s wrongful death action, and opined that claim should be remanded for further proceedings based on the Superior Court’s decision in Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 663 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014) (resident-decedent’s contractual agreement with nursing home to arbitrate all claims was not binding on non-signatory wrongful death claimants). Id. at *3. In recommending the wrongful death action be remanded, the trial court observed “a decedent can contract away his own right to recover in court under a survival action, [but] he cannot similarly alienate the rights of third parties to recover in their own wrongful death actions.” Id.

b. Superior Court

A divided en banc panel of the Superior Court subsequently affirmed summary judgment on all claims. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016).[3] The majority reasoned that, for a decedent’s heirs to recover damages in a wrongful death action, there must be an underlying tortious act by the defendant. See id. at 492-93, quotingKaczorowski v. Kalkosinski, 321 Pa. 438, 184 A. 663, 664 (1936) (“… a right to recover must exist in the party injured when he died in order to entitle[ ] those named in the act to sue…. [W]here the deceased would have been barred by contributory negligence, or by the statute of limitations, the parties suing for his death are likewise barred.”) (internal citations omitted). The majority further held its own decision in Pisano, which allowed non-signatory wrongful death claimants to file a court action despite their decedent’s execution of an arbitration

agreement, is limited to the facts of that case. Id. at 493. The majority opined an heir’s right to recover for her decedent’s wrongful death is dependent upon the existence of a tortious act that caused the death, stating “while a third party’s wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s right of action, a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Id. Underpinning the en banc majority’s analysis was its position that arbitration and settlement agreements “bind[ ] only the parties to the agreement while the [liability waiver] extends to non-signatory third-parties.” Id. at 497 n.9. The en banc majority considered the Waiver to be an express assumption of all risks which eliminated any legal duty otherwise owed to anyone by appellee, creating a complete bar to tort liability.[4] Id.

Appellant filed a petition for allowance of appeal and this Court granted review of two questions:

Whether the Superior Court erred when it determined that a waiver of liability form, executed solely by the decedent, and stating the signer assumes all risks of participation in a triathlon, also binds his heirs, thereby precluding them from bringing a wrongful death action?

Whether the defense of assumption of risk should be abolished except in those situations where it is specifically permitted by the Comparative Negligence Act?[5]

Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 641 Pa. 515, 168 A.3d 1283 (2017) (per curiam ).

Our standard and scope of review on appeal from summary judgment are well-established. “[A]n appellate court may reverse the entry of summary judgment only where it finds that the trial court erred in concluding that the matter presented no genuine issue as to any material fact and that it is clear that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1004 (2003), citingPappas v. Asbel, 564 Pa. 407, 768 A.2d 1089 (2001). In determining whether the lower court erred in granting summary judgment, the standard of review is de novo and the scope of review is plenary. Liss & Marion, P.C. v. Recordex Acquisition Corp., 603 Pa. 198, 983 A.2d 652, 657 (2009), citingLJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 647 (2009). We consider the parties’ arguments with these standards in mind.

II.

Appellant argues the Superior Court erred in determining the Waiver, which

was executed solely by Decedent, barred his heirs’ wrongful death action. Appellant first notes wrongful death actions are statutorily authorized in Pennsylvania:

(a) General rule.–An action may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules, to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another if no recovery for the same damages claimed in the wrongful death action was obtained by the injured individual during his lifetime and any prior actions for the same injuries are consolidated with the wrongful death claim so as to avoid a duplicate recovery.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). Relying on Pennsylvania jurisprudence, appellant argues a wrongful death action is derivative of the victim’s fatal injuries, but is nevertheless meant to compensate a decedent’s survivors “for the pecuniary loss they have sustained by the denial of future contributions decedent would have made in his or her lifetime.” Appellant’s Brief at 13-15, quotingFrey v. Pa. Elec. Comp., 414 Pa.Super. 535, 607 A.2d 796, 798 (1992), and citingTulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992), Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is “derivative” because “it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action”).

Appellant relies on Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), where the tort-victim husband executed a general release and settlement agreement after a car accident which purported to waive recovery by “any and all other persons associations and/or corporations[.]” Appellant’s Brief at 15-16, quotingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 734. Plaintiff’s wife did not sign the release agreement. The Buttermores filed a suit against medical professionals who treated him after the accident, including a claim brought by wife for loss of consortium. Seeid. at 16. On appeal from summary judgment, this Court ruled husband’s claim was barred by the release he executed, but wife’s claim was not because she herself had not signed it. Id., citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736. Appellant argues the lower courts’ ruling the Waiver in this case, which only Decedent signed, bars his heirs’ wrongful death claims is in direct contravention of Buttermore . Id. at 17-18, citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 735.

In response, appellee contends summary judgment was properly entered and dismissal of appellant’s wrongful death claims should be affirmed. Appellee argues a wrongful death action is derivative of, and dependent upon, a tortious act that results in decedent’s death. Appellee’s Brief at 13, citingCentofanti v. Pa. R. Co., 244 Pa. 255, 90 A. 558, 561 (1914) (additional citations omitted). Appellee insists the Superior Court correctly determined Decedent’s execution of the Waiver meant appellee’s conduct was rendered non-tortious in all respects because appellee no longer owed Decedent any duty of care. Id. at 16-17, citingMontagazzi v. Crisci, 994 A.2d 626, 635 (Pa. Super. 2010) (plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily encountering an obvious and dangerous risk relieves those “who may have otherwise had a duty”); Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc., 749 A.2d 522, 526 (Pa. Super. 2000) (en banc ) (“Our [S]upreme [C]ourt appears to have concluded that in a negligence action, the question whether a litigant has assumed the risk is a question of law as part of the court’s duty analysis ….”) (additional citations omitted). Appellee also argues Pisano is not applicable here. Appellee contends Pisano determined only the narrow issue of whether a wrongful death plaintiff is bound by an arbitration agreement which she did not sign, and is not relevant to questions regarding

the exculpatory Waiver signed by Decedent. Seeid. at 24.

III.

The Wrongful Death Act (the Act), provides an independent statutory cause of action that belongs to specific claimants, i.e. the surviving spouse, children or parents of the deceased. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301 (Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”). SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665 (“By the statute there is given an explicit and independent right of action to recover the damages peculiarly suffered by the parties named therein.”). This statutory claim for wrongful death “is derivative because it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action. Its derivation, however, is from the tortious act and not from the person of the deceased, so that it comes to the parties named in the statute free from personal disabilities arising from the relationship of the injured party and tort-feasor.” Id. at 664 (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, Pennsylvania courts recognize that while wrongful death actions seek damages for losses to heirs arising from their relative’s wrongful death, the claims are not derivative of — or limited by — the decedent’s own rights. SeePisano, 77 A.3d at 660.

It is clear the General Assembly intended the Act to compensate the decedent’s surviving heirs, not the decedent himself, whose own losses are encompassed in a survival action. Compare 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(wrongful death) with 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (survival); see alsoAmato v. Bell & Gossett, 116 A.3d 607, 625 (Pa. Super. 2015), quotingHatwood v. Hosp. of the Univ. of Pa., 55 A.3d 1229, 1235 (Pa. Super. 2012) (“The purpose of the Wrongful Death Statute … is to compensate the decedent’s survivors for the pecuniary losses they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death…. A wrongful death action does not compensate the decedent; it compensates the survivors for damages which they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death.”) (additional citations omitted). The Act is thus designed to assure a decedent’s heirs may seek compensation “for the loss of pecuniary benefits which [they] would have received from the deceased had death not intervened.” Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 665. Also, the Act is a remedial statute, and as such it must be liberally interpreted to effect its purpose and promote justice. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1928(c); Amadio v. Levin, 509 Pa. 199, 501 A.2d 1085, 1087 (1985) (wrongful death statute is “remedial in nature and purpose, and as such should be liberally construed to accomplish the objective of the act”); see alsoO’Rourke v. Commonwealth, 566 Pa. 161, 778 A.2d 1194, 1203 (2001) (noting remedial statutes are to be liberally construed to effect objectives).

With these principles and the legislative purpose of the Act in mind, we must determine whether the Waiver provides a complete defense to a wrongful death claim brought by non-signatory heirs. A liability waiver is, at its core, a contract, and must be construed and interpreted in the same manner as other contracts — such as arbitration clauses or settlement agreements and releases — when determining whether it is effective against a non-signatory third party. The Waiver purports to be an exculpatory contract, and such contracts are generally disfavored by the law. SeeEmployers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966) (“contracts providing for immunity from liability for negligence must be construed strictly since

they are not favorites of the law”); see alsoSoxman v. Goodge, 372 Pa.Super. 343, 539 A.2d 826, 828 (1988) (“the law … recognized that lying behind [exculpatory] contracts is a residuum of public policy which is antagonistic to carte blanche exculpation from liability and thus developed the rule that these provisions would be strictly construed with every intendment against the party seeking their protection”), quotingPhillips Home Furnishings Inc. v. Continental Bank, 231 Pa.Super. 174, 331 A.2d 840, 843 (1974). Accordingly, a pre-injury exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy, is between parties relating entirely to their private affairs, and where each party is a free bargaining agent so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1177 (2010), citingTopp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (1993). This Court has consistently recognized the exculpatory contract is an agreement that is “intended to diminish legal rights which normally accrue as a result of a given legal relationship or transaction … [which must be] construed strictly against the party seeking [its] protection.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963), quotingMorton v. Ambridge Borough, 375 Pa. 630, 101 A.2d 661, 663 (1954).

Thus, in determining whether the Waiver provides a defense to appellant’s wrongful death action, we must liberally apply the remedial Act while we simultaneously construe the Waiver strictly against appellee as the party seeking protection from the contract. We would hold the Superior Court did the opposite in its decision below: the court erroneously gave the Waiver the broadest application possible while disregarding the remedial nature of the Act and the public policy considerations underpinning it.[6]

First, we note the Waiver is a contract between Decedent and appellee involving their own private affairs. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. The Waiver includes broad language barring Triathlon participants from filing suit to recover damages for injuries or death “which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the [Triathlon], including claims for Liability caused in whole or in part by the negligence of” appellees. See Waiver attached as Exhibit A to appellee’s Answer and New Matter. However, the Waiver is plainly not an agreement between Triathlon participants’ wrongful death heirs and appellee. We emphasize a wrongful death action belongs solely to a decedent’s heirs, is intended to compensate them, and does not accrue to the decedent. SeeHatwood, 55 A.3d at 1235, quotingMachado v. Kunkel, 804 A.2d 1238, 1246 (Pa. Super. 2002) (“Under the wrongful death act the widow or family is entitled, in addition to costs, to compensation for the loss of the contributions decedent would have made …”). Thus, while a pre-injury exculpatory

waiver might indeed be effective to bar a survival claim by a decedent’s estate, it is quite another thing to conclude the decedent’s agreement acts as a complete defense to statutory claims that are specifically available to his non-signatory heirs. Appellee argues the Waiver provides a complete defense to appellant’s wrongful death claim, but in our considered view, allowing the Waiver to have this effect would require us to ignore the purpose of the Act and the public policy concerns it was specifically enacted to protect.[7]

Our conclusion is consistent with prior Pennsylvania case law arising from wrongful death actions. As this Court has stated, such lawsuits are meant to compensate the statutory beneficiaries, i.e. the spouse, children or parents of the decedent for the pecuniary losses they sustained as a result of their relative’s death. SeeTulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431. Accordingly, our courts have recognized the distinct nature of these claims and have declined to enforce a decedent’s own agreements and obligations against his heirs. SeeButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736 (release signed by husband barred his own action against hospital but not the independent action of wife, who did not sign release); Pisano, 77 A.3d at 660, citingKaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is derived from injury to decedent but it is independent and distinct cause of action; decedent’s agreement to arbitrate not binding on non-signatory heirs); see alsoRickard v. Am. Nat’l Prop. & Cas. Co., 173 A.3d 299 (Pa. Super. 2017) (decedent’s agreement to accept insurance benefits in exchange for allowing subrogation by insurer not binding on non-signatory heirs who recovered damages in subsequent wrongful death action against tortfeasor). The Waiver in this regard is analogous to the settlement and release agreement at issue in Buttermore, or the arbitration agreement in Pisano .

We observe that the undisputed purpose of the Act is “to provide a cause of action against one whose tortious conduct caused the death of another.” Amadio, 501 A.2d at 1087. And, as we have stated, exculpatory contracts must be read narrowly. SeeDilks, 192 A.2d at 687; see alsoTayar v. Camelback Ski Corp. Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (2012) (for exculpatory clause to be enforceable “contract language must be construed strictly”), quotingTopp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99. Allowing the Waiver to have a broad exculpatory effect with respect to non-signatory wrongful death claimants would essentially make the right the General Assembly created for certain heirs through the Act an illusory one. Abrogation of an express statutory right to recovery in this way violates public policy, and a pre-injury exculpatory waiver that contravenes public policy is invalid and unenforceable. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). Moreover, our recognition of relevant public policy concerns in this regard does not constitute “creation” of public policy. See OISA at 947. Our law is clear that determination of whether contract terms may be avoided on public policy grounds “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents [or] governmental practice ….” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199. The public policy

we recognize here is well-established in both judicial precedents and statutory enactment. This Court has declined to enforce exculpatory contracts “[w]here the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, [because] that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44, 46 (1953) (exculpatory waiver of liability unenforceable on public policy grounds due to conflict with statute). Precluding the use of the Waiver as a carte blanche automatic defense to wrongful death actions comports with the remedial purpose and protection expressed in the Act. A contrary holding elevates a private contract above public policy embodied in a statutory enactment, and overrides our jurisprudence directing a narrow and strict construction of exculpatory waivers.

Accordingly, we would hold the Waiver is void and unenforceable with respect to appellant’s wrongful death claims and, as such, the Waiver should not be available to appellee as a defense in the underlying wrongful death litigation.[8] We would hold the Superior Court erred in affirming summary judgment in favor of appellee on that basis, and reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings on appellant’s wrongful death claim.

Justice Donohue and Justice Mundy join this opinion in support of reversal.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL

DONOHUE, JUSTICE.

I join Justice Dougherty’s Opinion in Support of Reversal (“OISR”) in full. I too disagree with the Superior Court’s conclusion that the Decedent’s exculpatory agreement may serve as a complete defense to the wrongful death heir’s claim against the Triathlon. I write separately to express my view that, in light of the derivative nature of wrongful death actions, the Superior Court was technically correct in its analysis of the mechanical operation of the liability waiver in reaching its conclusion. However, when the mechanical operation of the law works to defeat the purpose of a remedial statute like the Wrongful Death Act, by way of the broad enforcement of a legally disfavored exculpatory agreement, the mechanical operation must yield.

As Justice Dougherty explains, this Court has repeatedly affirmed a requirement that exculpatory agreements must be narrowly and strictly construed because exculpatory language, which purports to relieve a person of liability even when he has negligently caused injury to another, is not favored in the law. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954-55 (citing Employers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966); Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (2010); Topp Copy Prods. Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98 (1993);

Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963)). Here, Appellant does not challenge the validity or the enforceability of the contractual assumption of risk in the survival action she brought (as administratrix) on behalf of Decedent’s estate. Therefore, for purposes of this appeal, the liability waiver is valid and enforceable as a complete defense to the survival action. As between the Triathlon and Decedent, there is a knowing and voluntary agreement to extinguish Decedent’s ability to recover for claims of ordinary negligence.

I believe that we must, however, decline to allow the liability waiver to defeat a wrongful death action brought by heirs who never agreed, expressly or otherwise, to eliminate their statutory right to recover for their pecuniary loss resulting from the death of their loved one that, as alleged, was tortious but for the liability waiver. Allowing the liability waiver to defeat the wrongful death action, as the Superior Court did, gives the waiver the broadest possible reading, contrary to our mandate to narrowly construe such provisions. The tenet of strict construction requires that we limit this liability waiver to its narrowest effect: a bar to recovery under the survival action.

Moreover, as noted by Justice Dougherty, for an exculpatory waiver to be valid, it must meet three conditions: it must not contravene public policy, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs, and each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53 (citing Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177). As to these first two prongs, this Court’s decision in Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44 (1953), is instructive. In Boyd, an agreement between a property owner and a tenant relieved the property owner from liability for any injury occasioned by the property owner’s negligence in the maintenance of the leased building. Boyd, 94 A.2d at 45. However, pursuant to statute, “no building … shall be used for human habitation unless it is equipped with a fire escape or fire escapes as required by law.” Id. (quoting 53 P.S. § 3962). The property in question was not equipped with fire escapes. The building caught fire and, unable to escape the building by fire escape, the tenant sustained serious injuries and sued. The property owner attempted to rely on the exculpatory agreement in the lease to avoid liability.

We declined to find the waiver enforceable, explaining:

Such a protective clause is undoubtedly valid and enforceable if it does not contravene any policy of the law, that is, if it is not a matter of interest to the public or the state but merely an agreement between persons relating entirely to their private affairs. The situation becomes an entirely different one in the eye of the law when the legislation in question is, as here, a police measure obviously intended for the protection of human life; in such event public policy does not permit an individual to waive the protection which the statute is designed to afford him.

Id. at 46. We further held, “where the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Id.

We are tasked here with determining the legal effect of a liability waiver upon a third party, not the signatory – a far more extreme reach of the waiver of liability than in Boyd . However, as in Boyd, the fullest enforcement of the liability waiver would contravene an unequivocal policy determination by the General Assembly,

namely that wrongful death heirs are entitled to recover pecuniary losses from the party responsible for their provider’s death. See OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954.

The Wrongful Death Act, which is remedial in nature and must be construed liberally, assures that surviving heirs do not need to go without financial support nor look to public welfare agencies to shoulder the economic burden of the loss of a provider. SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665; see alsoGershon v. Regency Diving Center, 368 N.J.Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720, 728 (2004) (observing that, “in many wrongful death cases the decedent was the ‘breadwinner’ and the heirs are children, incompetents or those otherwise economically dependent on the decedent”). Notably, in the case at bar, Decedent was a forty-year-old husband and father of two who worked full-time for United Parcel Service and part-time as a licensed realtor. See Appellant’s Response to Triathlon’s Motion for Summary Judgment at 2.

Allowing the Triathlon to use Decedent’s waiver of liability to defeat a wrongful death claim would require us to ignore clear public policy embedded in the wrongful death statute and our laws governing decedents more generally. Analogously, the General Assembly has for centuries prohibited spousal disinheritance by will in order to ensure the surviving spouse’s financial security after the decedent’s death. SeeIn re Houston’s Estate, 371 Pa. 396, 89 A.2d 525, 526 (1952); see also 20 Pa.C.S. § 2203 (authorizing a surviving spouse to take against the will an elective share of one-third of the deceased’s property, subject to certain exceptions, thereby ensuring the surviving spouse’s right to some inheritance). Thus, a married individual cannot eliminate his spouse’s statutory entitlement, even through an attempted disinheritance in a last will and testament. In my view, it is impossible to reconcile allowing a sporting event participant to eradicate a statutory claim for wrongful death damages when he could not accomplish a disinheritance by virtue of a will. For this reason, and because liability waivers are disfavored, I join Justice Dougherty in narrowly construing the liability waiver so that it is enforceable only in the survival action brought on behalf of Decedent’s estate, where it was not challenged. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). So construed, it has no effect on the wrongful death action. Like Justice Dougherty, I would decline to give any effect to the Decedent’s contractual waiver of the Triathlon’s duty of care in the wrongful death action because doing so would implicate public, not merely private, affairs and would contravene the policy set forth by our legislature in the Wrongful Death Act which we must liberally construe. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 954-55; see alsoChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189; Boyd, 94 A.2d at 46.

———

Notes:

[1] We also granted allowance of appeal to determine whether to abolish the assumption of the risk doctrine under circumstances where the Comparative Negligence Act does not expressly permit its application. Appellant, however, waived this issue by not challenging the overall viability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in the lower tribunals. See Pa.R.A.P. 302(a) (providing that “[i]ssues not raised in the lower court are waived and cannot be raised for the first time on appeal”).

[2] In block capital lettering above the signature line, the Agreement stated that Decedent’s acceptance of the Agreement confirmed that he read and understood its terms, that he understood that he would surrender substantial rights, including the right to sue, and that Decedent signed the agreement freely and voluntarily. Id. This final paragraph went on to state that acceptance of the Agreement constituted “a complete and unconditional release of all liability to the greatest extent allowed by law.” Id.

[3] In Pisano, the decedent had executed an agreement at the time of his admission to a long-term care nursing facility (“Extendicare”), providing that any dispute arising from the agreement would be resolved by binding arbitration. Id. at 653. The decedent’s son subsequently commenced a wrongful death action against Extendicare in the trial court. Extendicare filed preliminary objections, seeking to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court overruled Extendicare’s preliminary objections, holding that a wrongful death action is a creature of statute and is independent of the right of action of the decedent’s estate. Id. at 654. Thus, the trial court concluded, the decedent’s agreement to arbitrate disputes did not preclude the wrongful death claim brought by the decedent’s son. Id.

The Superior Court affirmed. The court reasoned that pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301, a wrongful death action is not derivative of the decedent’s claim, but is a separate and distinct right of action belonging to statutory claimants to compensate them for damages they sustained as a result of the decedent’s death. Id. at 656-8. The Pisano court concluded that the arbitration agreement was not binding on the decedent’s son because he was not a party to that agreement; thus, the trial court was correct in refusing to compel arbitration.

[4] Notably, the Superior Court presumed the validity of the Agreement as Appellant presented no claim to the contrary. See id. at 492 n.6 (explaining that Appellant “does not challenge the substantive validity of the liability waiver as a bar to her claims of ordinary negligence. Consequently, we need not address the validity of the exculpatory provisions in the context of this case.”). By declaring the Agreement void as against public policy, the OISR ignores this clear waiver of any challenge to the Agreement on those grounds.

[1] Appellant stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants other than appellee on January 29, 2013, and they are not involved in this appeal. See Stipulation of Dismissal Without Prejudice.

[2] In Pennsylvania, wrongful death claims are separate and distinct from survival claims, although both involve allegations of negligence against the defendant. SeeDubose v. Quinlan, 643 Pa. 244, 173 A.3d 634, 637 (2017); Kiser v. Schulte, 538 Pa. 219, 648 A.2d 1, 4 (1994) (discussing differences between survival and wrongful death claims); Tulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992); (“the two actions are designed to compensate two different categories of claimants”); Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 654 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa . 2014) (“Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly distinguished wrongful death claims from survival claims”). The survival claim is the “continuation of a cause of action that accrued to the plaintiff’s decedent while the decedent was alive …. On the other hand, a wrongful death action accrues to the decedent’s heirs when the decedent dies of such an injury ….” Dubose, 173 A.3d at 637. As explained more fully infra, a wrongful death claim is an independent action which belongs to the decedent’s heirs for damages aimed to compensate members of a decedent’s family for their loss. Tulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431.

[3] Judge Olson authored the majority opinion joined by P.J. Gantman, P.J.E. Bender, and Judges Bowes, Shogun and Ott.

[4] In a concurring and dissenting opinion joined by Judges Panella and Lazarus, P.J.E. Ford Elliott determined Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989) was instructive on the analysis of the Waiver, despite the majority’s effort to distinguish it. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 501-02 (Ford Elliott, P.J.E., concurring and dissenting). Judge Ford Elliott noted the Waiver is similar to the release in Buttermore, and the non-signatory heir in that case had an independent right to sue for the injury she suffered as a result of her decedent’s death. Id. Judge Ford Elliott stated the majority’s holding the Decedent’s own assumption of risk created a complete defense to his heirs’ wrongful death action would “eviscerate the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute which creates an independent and distinct cause of action, not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death.” Id. at 502. Judge Ford Elliott would also have relied on Pisano to reverse summary judgment. Id. at 504.

[5] This Court granted review of this second issue and ordered supplemental briefing via a per curiam order dated January 26, 2018. As acknowledged by the Opinion in Support of Affirmance (OISA), although appellant challenged the effectiveness of the Waiver as it applied to Decedent, she never questioned the overall viability of the doctrine of assumption of the risk below, and the issue is therefore waived. See OISA at 942, n.1.

[6] The OISA suggests our view of the case ignores the question before the Court. See OISA at 942-43. Respectfully, the OISA’s position reveals an overly narrow reading of the issue on appeal, i.e., whether an exculpatory contract can be enforced against non-signatory heirs in a claim made pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act. Seesupra at 950-51. In answering that question, we examine the terms of the Waiver within the context in which it is to be enforced. We cannot disregard the nature of the underlying suit and our jurisprudence guiding our interpretation of exculpatory contracts, which specifically includes a consideration of public policy. SeeChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177 (exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy …”). Although the question granted on appeal did not include the term “public policy,” we must surely consider public policy when determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid and enforceable under the given circumstances.

[7] The OISA accurately observes an exculpatory agreement would “generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity,” but nevertheless rejects our view that the same waiver could be ineffective as a defense in a wrongful death claim while providing a viable defense in a survival action. See OISA at 947. We consider the disparate treatment of the Waiver in the two causes of action to be the direct result of the different goals and purposes served by the relevant statutes. Seesupra at 942, n.2.

[8] Importantly, our holding would not render appellee defenseless in that litigation, despite the OISA statement our reading means appellant’s right to relief is “absolute”. See OISA at 947. We recognize a wrongful death action is a tort claim arising from the alleged “wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Appellant must still prove the elements of her case, including causation, before any recovery would be assured. See, e.g.,Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1008 (2003) (to maintain negligence action, plaintiff must show defendant had duty to conform to standard of conduct, breach of duty, the breach caused the injury, and the injury resulted in damages).

———


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Scotti and Russo v. Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 63 Misc.3d 843

Scotti and Russo v. Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 63 Misc.3d 843

97 N.Y.S.3d 825

63 Misc.3d 843

Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo, Plaintiffs,

v.

Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, Defendants.

No. 2019-29098

522905/17

Supreme Court of New York, Kings

March 29, 2019

[97 N.Y.S.3d 828] Plaintiffs were represented by Brandon Michael Cruz THE BONGIORNO LAW FIRM, PLLC. Address

Defendants were represented by Joshua Cash WILSON ELSER MOSKOWITZ EDELMAN & DICKER LLP Address

Opinion

Debra Silber, J.

Defendants Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated move for an order, pursuant to CPLR 7501 and 7503(a), to compel arbitration and to stay this action pending resolution of the arbitration proceeding. For the reasons which follow, the motion is denied.

Background and Procedural History

This personal injury action stems from an accident which occurred on July 23, 2016, when the plaintiffs Richard E. Scotti (Scotti) and Joseph Russo (Russo) (collectively, plaintiffs) participated in the “Tough Mudder,” a physically challenging obstacle course event (hereinafter, the TM Event), which took place at 1303 Round Swamp Road, Old Bethpage, New York. Defendants Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated (collectively, “Tough Mudder”) are the business entities that organized the TM Event. Plaintiffs commenced the within action on or about November 17, 2017 against Tough Mudder alleging that they each sustained injuries as a result of defendants’ negligent operation of an activity at the event, referred to as the “salmon ladder.” Tough Mudder joined issue on or about December 20, 2017, with the service of a Verified Answer. In their answer, Tough Mudder denied all material allegations and asserted various affirmative defenses, including that the plaintiffs’ action is barred by the participation/registration agreement, which included an arbitration clause.

Tough Mudder now moves, pursuant to CPLR 7501 and 7503, to compel arbitration, arguing that the plaintiffs are barred from pursuing the instant action in this Court because they each waived the right to sue by virtue of agreeing to arbitrate any “disputes, controversies, or claims” arising out of their participation in the TM event. Tough Mudder claims that the plaintiffs each entered into an agreement to arbitrate all claims related to their participation in the TM Event when they completed an on-line internet registration form. In support of this contention, Tough Mudder has submitted the sworn affidavit of Jenna Best, the Manager of Customer Relations for Tough Mudder Incorporated (Affirmation of Joshua Cash, Exhibit C). Best avers that she is fully familiar with the TM Event on-line registration process as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM Event at issue.[1] Tough Mudder has submitted copies of the on-line registration forms that the plaintiffs allegedly completed for the TM Event (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit D). Best states that, during the on-line registration process, the plaintiffs were required to scroll down to a section containing the “Participant Waiver and Course Rules” (hereinafter, PWCR), a document version of which has been submitted herein (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit F). She contends that the full text of the PWCR was contained in a box on the screen, which could be read by scrolling down in the text box. Best contends that the initial visible content of the scrollable box, which preceded the full PWCR document, which could be read in its entirety by scrolling down, read as follows:

“Participant Waiver: Tough Mudder Incorporated

ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS. (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit E).

Best claims the PWCR contained the following “Mediation and Arbitration” provision:

Mediation and Arbitration: In the event of a legal issue, I agree to engage in good faith efforts to mediate any dispute that might arise. Any agreement reached will be formalized by a written contractual agreement at that time. Should the issue not be resolved by mediation, I agree that all disputes, controversies, or claims arising out of my participation in the TM event shall be submitted to binding arbitration in accordance with the applicable rules of the American Arbitration Association then in effect. The costs of such action shall be shared equally by the parties.

I further acknowledge and agree that any question, issue or dispute as to the arbitrability of any dispute, controversy, or claim arising out of my participation in the TM event, will be submitted to an arbitrator in accordance with the applicable rules of the American Arbitration Association then in effect. The Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association are available on-line at http://www.adr.org (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit F).

Below the box containing the scrollable PWCR was another box next to the statement: “I agree to the above waiver.” Best avers that it was necessary for the plaintiffs, or any other registrant, to click on the box to indicate his or her consent to the PWCR in order for the registrant to complete his or her registration for the TM Event. According to Best, the internet registration form cannot proceed to the payment page, and registration cannot be completed, until the registrant checks the box indicating his or her consent to the PWCR (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit D at ¶ 5). She further avers that both plaintiffs did in fact click on the box indicating their consent to the PWCR, as otherwise they would not have been able to participate in the TM Event (id at ¶ 6). Based upon the foregoing, Tough Mudder contends that the plaintiffs agreed to the terms of the on-line waiver, which included the arbitration clause and, therefore, are barred from pursuing the instant action. In opposition, plaintiffs argue that the arbitration provision at issue is unenforceable because Tough Mudder has failed to establish that they actually agreed to it. In this regard, plaintiffs point out that the web page where the PWCR was located contained a text box that did not show the entire document. In order to read the full PWCR, including the arbitration provision, plaintiffs contend it would have been necessary to scroll down through many screens of text using the arrows on the right-hand side of the text box. The PWCR fills seven single-spaced pages of text (Exhibit F to Cash Affirmation). Plaintiffs further argue that Tough Mudder has failed to proffer any evidence that either plaintiff actually signed/checked the consent box, or any evidence identifying the computers or electronic devices from which their respective registrations were completed.

Plaintiffs additionally argue that the arbitration clause in the PWCR is unenforceable because it contains a conflicting provision regarding disputes. Plaintiffs point out that the PWCR contains a clause entitled “Venue and Jurisdiction” located several paragraphs before the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, which states [Exhibit F, Page 3]:

I understand that if legal action is brought, the appropriate state or federal trial court for the state in which the TM Event is held has the sole and exclusive jurisdiction and that only the substantive laws of the State in which the TM Event is held shall apply.

Plaintiffs argue that this provision clearly conflicts with the arbitration clause located many lines of type below it, thereby rendering it void and unenforceable.

Finally, plaintiffs argue that the entire PWCR agreement, including the purported arbitration provision, is unenforceable because the “Waiver of Liability for Ordinary Negligence” clause (on page three of the PWCR as Exhibit F) violates General Obligations Law (GOL) § 5-326, which prohibits contracts between the owner or operator of any “place of amusement or recreation” from exempting such owner or operator from “liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment.” In this regard, plaintiffs contend that Tough Mudder’s operation of the TM Event obstacle course was clearly operated as “a place of amusement or recreation” within the meaning of GOL § 5-326. Since the plaintiffs paid a fee to use the obstacle course and were injured while engaged in that activity, they argue that GOL § 5-326 renders the entire waiver of liability clause, and all remaining provisions of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause, void and unenforceable.

In reply, Tough Mudder points out that the plaintiffs do not dispute that they each did in fact register for the TM Event. In addition, Tough Mudder argues that GOL § 5-326 is not applicable herein and, therefore, does not invalidate the waiver or any other PWCR provision. In this regard, Tough Mudder maintains that the TM Event is distinguishable from the “recreational” activities intended to be covered under the statute, such as horseback riding, auto racing, cycling and skiing, which Tough Mudder characterizes as being “relaxed and undemanding” activities, which “do not necessitate any research or physical preparation.” Tough Mudder argues that the TM Event is distinguishable from the foregoing activities in that it is “a rigorous and grueling athletic competition that requires proper training and dedication” (Cash Reply Affirmation, at ¶ 8). Tough Mudder further argues that TM Events are “unique to their participants,” and pose risks and challenges exclusive to obstacle courses, thereby rendering such events completely distinct from the recreational activities engaged in by the “general public” as contemplated by GOL § 5-326.

In addition, Tough Mudder points out that the PWCR contains a “Severability” provision which states, in relevant part, as follows:

“I understand and agree that this … Waiver of Liability … is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the state in which the TM Event is held and that if any provision shall be found to be … void, or for any reason unenforceable, then that provision shall be severed from this Agreement and does not affect the validity and enforceability of any remaining provisions.”

[97 N.Y.S.3d 831] In light of the foregoing provision, Tough Mudder argues that, in the event a clause is deemed unenforceable, it does not invalidate any of the remaining provisions of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue.

Tough Mudder also argues that the “Venue and Jurisdiction” clause is not contradicted by the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, as the latter clause only mandates arbitration regarding disputes “arising out of [one’s] participation in the TM event …” Therefore, Tough Mudder contends that there are clearly certain circumstances when a state or federal trial court would be the appropriate venue for claims that do not arise out of one’s participation in the TM Event. However, since plaintiffs’ claims do arise out of their participation, Tough Mudder maintains that arbitration of this matter is required.

Discussion

It is well settled that “[a] party to an agreement may not be compelled to arbitrate its dispute with another unless the evidence establishes the parties’ clear, explicit and unequivocal agreement to arbitrate” (God’s Battalion of Prayer Pentecostal Church, Inc. v. Miele Assocs., LLP, 6 N.Y.3d 371, 812 N.Y.S.2d 435, 845 N.E.2d 1265 [2006] [internal quotation marks omitted]; seeMatter of Robert Stigwood Org. [Atlantic Recording Corp.], 83 A.D.2d 123, 126, 443 N.Y.S.2d 726 [1981] ). When one party seeks to compel the other to arbitrate any disputes between them, the court must first determine whether the parties made a valid arbitration agreement (seeHarriman Group v. Napolitano, 213 A.D.2d 159, 162, 623 N.Y.S.2d 224 [1995] ). The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists (seeSeneca Ins. Co. v. Secure— Southwest Brokerage, 294 A.D.2d 211, 212, 741 N.Y.S.2d 690 [2002]; Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. v. Roseboro, 247 A.D.2d 379, 380, 667 N.Y.S.2d 914 [1998] ). The court must draw all inferences in favor of the non-moving party. (Nicosia v. Amazon.com Inc., 834 F.3d 220, 229 [2d Cir. 2016] ).

“The creation of online contracts ‘has not fundamentally changed the principles of contract’ ” (Resorb Networks, Inc. v. YouNow.com, 51 Misc.3d 975, 981, 30 N.Y.S.3d 506 [Sup.Ct. N.Y. County 2016] quoting Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 403 [2d Cir. 2004] ). The question of whether there is agreement to accept the terms of an on-line contract turns on the particular facts and circumstances. Courts generally look for evidence that a website user had actual or constructive notice of the terms by using the website (seeSchnabel v. Trilegiant Corp., 697 F.3d 110, 120 [2d Cir. 2012] ). Where the person’s alleged consent is solely online, courts seek to determine whether a reasonably prudent person would be put on notice of the provision in the contract, and whether the terms of the agreement were reasonably communicated to the user (id. at 120; see Fteja v. Facebook, Inc., 841 F.Supp.2d 829, 833, 835 [S.D.N.Y. 2012]; Starke v. Gilt Groupe, Inc., 2014 WL 1652225, *2, *3, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58006, *6-7 [S.D.N.Y. 2014]; Jerez v. JD Closeouts, LLC, 36 Misc.3d 161, 168, 943 N.Y.S.2d 392 [Nassau Dist. Ct. 2012] ). In Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2002), the court emphasized that “[r]easonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent to those terms by consumers are essential if electronic bargaining is to have integrity and credibility” (id. at 35; seeStarke v. Squaretrade, Inc., No. 16-CV-7036 [NGG], 2017 WL 3328236, at *5 [E.D.N.Y. Aug. 3, 2017], affd 913 F.3d 279 [2d Cir. 2019] ).

In Berkson v. Gogo LLC, 97 F.Supp.3d 359, 394-403 (E.D.N.Y. 2015), the four “general types of online consumer contracts

are identified as (a) browsewrap; (b) clickwrap; (c) scrollwrap; and (d) sign-in-wrap.” As explained by Judge Weinstein in Berkson:

Browsewrap exists where the online host dictates that assent is given merely by using the site. Clickwrap refers to the assent process by which a user must click “I agree,” but not necessarily view the contract to which she is assenting. Scrollwrap requires users to physically scroll through an internet agreement and click on a separate “I agree” button in order to assent to the terms and conditions of the host website. Sign-in-wrap couples assent to the terms of a website with signing up for use of the site’s services…. (Id. at 394-95). (seeApplebaum v. Lyft, Inc., 263 F.Supp.3d 454, 465 [S.D.N.Y. 2017] [applying New York law and denying motion to compel arbitration where notice of contract terms was insufficient to bind plaintiff] ).

Here, the PWCR at issue appears to be a click-wrap agreement as identified in Berkson in that the clickable box is located directly below the scrollable text box that allegedly contained the full text of the agreement. Only by scrolling down in the text box would the user see all of the terms of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue. However, the user could proceed to complete the registration process without necessarily scrolling down through the text box to view the full document, thereby rendering it a click-wrap agreement. At oral argument, counsel for defendants claimed that it was a scrollwrap agreement, as it was not possible to click “I agree” without scrolling through the agreement, but there is nothing in the record to support this claim.[2]

A party may be bound to a click wrap agreement by clicking a button declaring assent, so long as the party is given a “sufficient opportunity to read the … agreement, and assents thereto after being provided with an unambiguous method of accepting or declining the offer.” (Serrano v. Cablevision Sys. Corp., 863 F.Supp.2d 157, 164 [E.D.N.Y. 2012]; see alsoWhitt v. Prosper Funding LLC, 15— CV— 136, 2015 WL 4254062, at *4 [S.D.N.Y. July 14, 2015]; Kai Peng v. Uber Techs., Inc., 237 F.Supp.3d 36, 47-48 [E.D.N.Y. 2017]; Berkson, 97 F.Supp.3d at 397). However, as stated by Judge Koeltl in Applebaum v. Lyft, Inc., 263 F.Supp.3d at 466,

“[a] court cannot presume that a person who clicks on a box that appears on a … screen has notice of all contents not only of that page but of other content that requires further action (scrolling, following a link, etc.) … The presentation of the online agreement matters: Whether there was notice of the existence of additional contract terms presented on a webpage depends heavily on whether the design and content of that webpage rendered the existence of terms reasonably conspicuous…. Clarity and conspicuousness of arbitration terms are important in securing informed assent.” (internal citations omitted)

Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, a valid agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous, and manifestation [97 N.Y.S.3d 833] of assent is unambiguous as a matter of law (seeSpecht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 28 [2d Cir. 2002] ). Therefore, issue herein is whether Tough Mudder’s website registration screen put a reasonably prudent user on inquiry notice of the relevant terms of the PWCR, particularly the arbitration clause at issue (seeApplebaum, 263 F.Supp.3d at 465). Insofar as it turns on the reasonableness of notice, the enforceability of a web-based agreement is clearly a fact-intensive inquiry (id. ; seeMeyer v. Uber Techs., Inc., 868 F.3d 66, 76 [2d Cir. 2017], citing Schnabel v. Trilegiant Corp., 697 F.3d 110, 124 [2d Cir. 2012] ).

Here, plaintiffs did not have actual notice of the arbitration provision at issue in this case. However, plaintiffs can still be bound by the contractual terms if there is inquiry notice of the terms and plaintiffs “assent[ed] to [the terms] through the conduct that a reasonable person would understand to constitute assent” (Plazza v. Airbnb, Inc., 289 F.Supp.3d 537, 548 [S.D.N.Y. 2018]; see alsoNicosia, 834 F.3d at 233). A person is on inquiry notice if a “reasonably prudent offeree would be on notice of the terms at issue” (Schnabel, 697 F.3d at 120 [” ‘[I]nquiry notice’ is ‘actual notice of circumstances sufficient to put a prudent man upon inquiry’ “] quoting Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 27 n.14 [2d Cir. 2002] ).

As cited in a recent decision, Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 238 F.Supp.3d 475 (S.D.N.Y. 2017) “a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided ‘reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms’ ” (Specht v. Netscape Communications Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 32 [2d Cir. 2002] [Sotomayor, J.] ). In many cases, this becomes a fact-intensive inquiry because “electronic agreements fall along a spectrum in the degree to which they provide notice, and it is difficult to draw bright-line rules because each user interface differs from others in distinctive ways (Meyer v. Kalanick, 200 F.Supp.3d 408, 420 [S.D.N.Y. 2016] ). In Meyer, a putative class action claiming price-fixing, the district court found that adequate notice was not given to plaintiff of mandatory arbitration when he registered to use Uber. The screen had a hyperlink to the agreement, but plaintiff did not need to click on it to register as a user. Then, after clicking on it, you needed to click further to read the Terms of Service and the arbitration provision was at the bottom of page seven. This was determined to be a “browsewrap” agreement. The Second Circuit, on appeal,[3] determined that the issue was whether the plaintiff was on inquiry notice of the arbitration provision by virtue of the hyperlink on the screen, under California Law, and determined that adequate notice was given. The panel reversed the district court, finding the motion to compel arbitration should have been granted.

The court further notes that on-line agreements may be revised from time to time, so not only must the court determine whether the party seeking to enforce such an agreement has provided the version seen by the other party at the time the contract was made, but whether the court in any seemingly on point case cited actually rendered its decision based on the same version of the agreement (seePlazza v. Airbnb, 289 F.Supp.3d 537 [S.D.N.Y. 2018] [archived computer code for 2009 sign-up screen provided to court, along with screen shots of Terms of Service] ).

In Berkson, supra, Judge Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, surveying cases from federal courts nationwide, provided a useful set of parameters to guide a court’s inquiry. First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement (Berkson, 97 F.Supp.3d at 401 [citingNguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1177 [9th Cir. 2014] ). Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through a hyperlink. Third terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage or tucked away in obscure corners.” Special attention should be paid to whether the site design brings the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable. “When contractual terms as significant as … the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink … with text about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent” (Meyer v. Kalanick, 200 F.Supp.3d at 421-22 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted] ). A broad exculpatory clause waiving liability for negligence would also certainly qualify as a material term and one that alters a contracting party’s commonly-understood rights.

Here, the court finds that Tough Mudder has failed to establish that the webpage, as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM Event, provided reasonable notice of the relevant term (the arbitration provision) of the PWCR. In fact, Tough Mudder has failed to set forth sufficiently detailed evidence as to how its on-line registration webpage appeared to the plaintiffs, or other users/registrants, during the relevant time period. In this regard, the court finds that the affidavit by Ms. Best holds little evidentiary value, as she does not set forth the basis of her personal knowledge of Tough Mudder’s on-line registration process at the time the plaintiffs registered, or of her familiarity with the applicable computer generated documents (seeGogos v. Modell’s Sporting Goods, Inc., 87 A.D.3d 248, 253-254, 926 N.Y.S.2d 53 [2011] ). Additionally, absent from her affidavit is any indication that she was even employed by Tough Mudder at the relevant time period.

In addition, the court notes that the purported copies of the plaintiffs’ respective on-line registration forms (screen shots) submitted by Tough Mudder (Exhibit D) are black and white copies of poor quality, the text of which is in an extremely small font size and is barely legible. Tough Mudder has not proffered any color copies of any screen shots depicting its on-line registration process. In addition, the full text of the PWCR, as provided by Tough Mudder, is not a screen shot but a black and white document, consisting of seven pages of single-spaced language, all in the same font and size, with no underlined, hyperlinked or bolded terms. In order to view the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, the plaintiffs, by using the arrows inside the text box, needed to scroll down significantly beyond what is initially visible, to page four of the seven-page single-spaced PWCR document. The court additionally notes that, as with the entire document, the arbitration provision is neither underlined, bolded nor hyperlinked. Further, since this court has only been provided with a black and white document, not screen shots, it is unable to discern how the subject arbitration clause actually appeared to the user. Indeed, “[i]n the context of web-based contracts, [courts] look to the design and content of the relevant interface to determine if the contract terms were presented to the offeree in a way that would put her [or him] on inquiry notice of such terms” (Starke v. Squaretrade, Inc., 913 F.3d 279, 289-90 [2d Cir. 2019] citing Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1177 [9th Cir. 2014] and Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 23 [2d Cir. 2002] [where court refused to enforce terms of use that “would have become visible to plaintiffs only if they had scrolled to the next screen”] ). Here, Tough Mudder’s submissions with respect to the “design and content” of its website and the relevant terms of the PWCR, especially the arbitration clause, are woefully inadequate.

The court further notes that the initially visible portion of the on-line text box containing the scrollable PWCR has an all-caps header stating: “ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS.” However, while this header specifically draws the user’s attention to certain specified provisions (i.e., Assumption of Risk, Waiver of Liability and Indemnity) which appear at the beginning of the document (on pages one and three), it makes no reference to the arbitration provision, which appears on page four of the seven-page PWCR document.

Additionally, the court notes that the “Venue and Jurisdiction” clause, which appears on page three of the PWCR states that if “legal action is brought, the appropriate state or federal trial court for the state in which the TM Event is held has the sole and exclusive jurisdiction….” This provision clearly conflicts with the arbitration clause at issue, which mandates that all claims “arising out of [one’s] participation in the TM Event shall be submitted to binding arbitration….” Given that the plaintiffs would have viewed (in the scrollable text box) the “Venue and Jurisdiction” provision first, the court finds it highly unlikely that they would have been placed on inquiry notice of the arbitration provision, which appeared on a subsequent page in the agreement. As noted above, the party seeking to compel arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists (see Seneca Ins. Co. v. Secure— Southwest Brokerage, 294 A.D.2d at 212, 741 N.Y.S.2d 690), which Tough Mudder has failed to do. Under the circumstances presented here, the court finds that the arbitration provision was not sufficiently conspicuous to place the plaintiffs on inquiry or constructive notice and, therefore, is not enforceable (seeSpecht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d at 32; Applebaum, 263 F.Supp.3d at 465). Further, due to the conflicting provisions regarding litigation and arbitration, the arbitration provision is void due to ambiguity. Accordingly, Tough Mudder’s motion to stay the action and compel arbitration is denied.

General Obligations Law § 5-326

As to plaintiffs’ argument that the waiver and release provision set forth in the PWCR [Exhibit F Page 3] is invalid pursuant to GOL § 5-326, the court agrees. That statute protects consumers from the effect of form releases printed on membership applications and similar documents when such releases are offered in connection with the use of a “place of amusement or recreation” for which a fee is paid (GOL § 5-326; seeRogowicki v. Troser Mgt., 212 A.D.2d 1035, 623 N.Y.S.2d 47 [1995]; Blanc v. Windham Mtn. Club, 115 Misc.2d 404, 454 N.Y.S.2d 383 [1982], affd 92 A.D.2d 529, 459 N.Y.S.2d 447 [1983] ). The terms of this statute apply to the plaintiffs herein, who paid a fee to use Tough Mudder’s obstacle course, which, contrary to Tough Mudder’s assertion, is a place of recreation (seeLeftow v. Kutsher’s Country Club Corp., 270 A.D.2d 233, 234, 705 N.Y.S.2d 380 [2000] ). Indeed, the nature of the TM Event as described by Tough Mudder — a rigorous, athletic competition requiring proper training — is comparable to the other activities, such as horseback riding, auto racing, cycling and skiing, which have been held to be covered by GOL § 5-326. Furthermore, Tough Mudder’s assertion that, unlike the TM Event, such activities are “relaxed and undemanding” and “do not necessitate any research or physical preparation” is an inaccurate and absurd distinction. Thus, the PWCR’s waiver provision, waiving defendants’ liability for “ordinary negligence” violates GOL § 5-236 and is therefore void (seeGarnett v. Strike Holdings LLC, 64 A.D.3d 419, 882 N.Y.S.2d 115 [2009] [applying § 5— 326 where plaintiff paid a fee to use the recreational facility]; Alibey v. Tough Mudder Inc., 2018 WL 5298473, at *2 [Sup.Ct., Kings County, Oct. 24, 2018]; Hansen v. Tough Mudder, Inc., [Sup Ct Kings Co. 2018, Ind. 515072/15] ).

However, as Tough Mudder correctly argues, the unenforceable provisions of the PWCR do not nullify the entire agreement. Where an agreement consists partially of an unlawful objective, “the court may sever the illegal aspect and enforce the legal one, so long as the illegal aspects are incidental to the legal aspects and are not the main objective of the agreement.” (Mark Hotel LLC v. Madison Seventy-Seventh LLC, 61 A.D.3d 140, 143, 872 N.Y.S.2d 111 [2009] ). “[W]hether the provisions of a contract are severable depends largely upon the intent of the parties as reflected in the language they employ and the particular circumstantial milieu in which the agreement came into being.” (Matter of Wilson’s Estate, 50 N.Y.2d 59, 65, 427 N.Y.S.2d 977, 405 N.E.2d 220 [1980] ).

Here, the waiver of liability provision in the PWCR releasing Tough Mudder from liability, as well as the arbitration clause, are severable from the remainder of the PWCR agreement on the ground that the unenforceable provisions are incidental to the legal aspects and not the main objective of the agreement. Further, the severability provision in the PWCR reflects the intent of the parties that the legal provisions of the agreement be severed from any provisions determined to be void and unenforceable.

Conclusion

For the reasons state above, Tough Mudder’s motion to compel arbitration and stay the action is denied.

The parties are directed to appear on May 1, 2019 in the Intake Part for a Preliminary Conference.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the court.

Notes:

[1] It seems defendants conduct similar events all over the United States. There are two other actions pending in Kings County Supreme Court against defendants, and in both actions, defendants motions to compel arbitration were denied, albeit on different grounds.

[2] In any event, as the court states in Meyer v. Uber Tech., Inc., 868 F.3d 66, 76 (2d Cir. 2017).: Classification of web-based contracts alone, however, does not resolve the notice inquiry. See Juliet M. Moringiello and William L. Reynolds, From Lord Coke to Internet Privacy: The Past, Present, and Future of the Law of Electronic Contracting, 72 Md. L.Rev. 452, 466 (2013) (“Whether terms are classified as clickwrap says little about whether the offeree had notice of them.”). Insofar as it turns on the reasonableness of notice, the enforceability of a web based agreement is clearly a fact-intensive inquiry. SeeSchnabel, 697 F.3d at 124.

[3] Meyer v. Uber Techs., Inc., 868 F.3d 66 (2017)


Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park),

Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park),

Scott Barth, Plaintiff,

v.

Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park), a Delaware corporation, The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc., a New Jersey corporation, and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc., a Delaware corporation, Defendants.

C.A. No. N15C-01-197MMJ

Superior Court of Delaware

November 29, 2017

Submitted: November 17, 2017

Motions for Summary Judgment on the Issue of Primary Assumption of Risk

Batholomew J. Dalton, Esq., Laura J. Simon, Esq., Dalton & Associates, Larry E. Coben, Esq. (Argued), Gregory S. Spizer, Esq., Anapol Weiss, Attorneys for Plaintiff Scott Barth

Michael J. Logullo, Esq. (Argued), Rawle & Henderson LLP Attorney for Defendants The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.

George T. Lees III, Esq., Logan & Petrone, LLC Attorney for Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC

OPINION

The Honorable Mary M. Johnston.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL CONTEXT

In this Opinion, the Court considers an apparent issue of first impression in Delaware. The question is whether the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies in certain risky or dangerous sports-related activities in the absence of an express waiver of liability. This is a personal injury case. The plaintiff, Scott Barth, suffered serious injuries during an off-road dirt-bike race. Barth alleges that the race’s course was owned by Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC (“Blue Diamond”), co-sponsored by Defendant Delaware Enduro Riders (“DER”), and overseen by Defendant East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. (“ECEA”). Barth alleges that the Defendants’ negligent and reckless failure to properly mark the race’s course caused his injuries. Prior to the race, Barth signed a release of liability form.

DER and ECEA filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment as to Barth’s allegations of recklessness, which Blue Diamond adopted. DER and ECEA also jointly filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, while Blue Diamond separately filed its own. At the hearing on the motions, this Court denied the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, holding that genuine issues of material fact exist regarding recklessness, particularly as to, among others things, “the adequacy of signage” and “the adequacy of warnings on the course.”[1] The Court declined to rule from the bench as to the Motions for Summary Judgment, instead instructing the parties to make additional submissions limited to the issue of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, the central grounds for the three defendants’ motions.

DER and ECEA argue they are entitled to summary judgment for two reasons. First, Barth signed a waiver releasing them from liability. Second, Barth assumed the risk inherent in an off-road dirt-bike race. In its separate motion, Blue Diamond makes the same two arguments and adds a third-Barth was a member of the Blue Diamond Riding Club, and Blue Diamond did not owe Barth the same duty it would owe a common law business invitee, MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment is granted only if the moving party establishes that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute and judgment may be granted as a matter of law.[2] All facts are viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party.[3] Summary judgment may not be granted if the record indicates that a material fact is in dispute, or if there is a need to clarify the application of law to the specific circumstances.[4] When the facts permit a reasonable person to draw only one inference, the question becomes one for decision as a matter of law.[5] If the non- moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, yet “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, ” then summary judgment may be granted against that party.[6]

ANALYSIS

Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Barth signed a release of liability and, separately, because Barth assumed the risk of participating in the race. Both of these arguments are properly analyzed within the framework of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.

In Delaware, “primary assumption of the risk is implicated when the plaintiff expressly consents ‘to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.'”[7] When primary assumption of risk exists, “the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no legal duty, he or she cannot be charged with negligence.”[8]

The Waiver Form Released the Defendants from Liability for Negligence, not Recklessness

Defendants argue they are entitled to summary judgment under a theory of express primary assumption of risk. Before participating in the race, Barth signed a release titled, “RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.” It states that Barth:

HEREBY RELEASES, WAIVES, DISCHARGES, AND COVENANTS NOT TO SUE . . . racing associations, sanctioning organizations … track operators, track owners … herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO THE UNDERSIGNED . . . FOR ANY AND ALL LOSS OR DAMAGE . . . ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE EVENT(S), WHETHER CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.

Barth asserts that the entire waiver agreement is unenforceable as an invalid contract due to lack of consideration. He further contends that even if the agreement is enforceable, it does not release Defendants from liability for recklessness.

To be enforceable under Delaware law, releases of liability “must be crystal clear and unequivocal” and “unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy.”[9] Barth does not (and cannot) argue that the waiver form at issue does not meet this standard. In Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, this Court found a virtually identical release form valid.[10]

Barth instead argues that the form is unenforceable due to lack of consideration. Barth bases his argument on this Court’s finding in Devecchio v. Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.[11] In Devecchio, this Court deemed a waiver of liability unenforceable due to lack of consideration when the form stated that riders agreed to inspect the course, but the defendants admitted that, under the race’s sanctioning body’s rules, the riders were not allowed to inspect the course before the race. [12]

As in Devecchio, the release here contains an agreement that the race participants “have or will immediately upon entering any of such RESTRICTED AREAS, and will continuously thereafter, inspect the RESTRICTED AREAS . . ., “[13] Unlike in Devecchio, however, no sanctioning body’s rule barred Defendants from performing an inspection of the course.

Instead, the rule in this case stated: “Participants are allowed to walk or bicycle the course prior to the event-with the club’s permission.” Barth argues that, despite this distinction, Devecchio should apply because Barth was never given permission or made aware of his responsibility to inspect the course. Notably, however, Barth never asked for permission to inspect the course. That Barth hypothetically may not have received permission to perform the inspection is not dispositive. Barth cannot claim he was denied permission if he never asked for it. Additionally, the “failure to apprise himself of, or otherwise understand the language of a release that he is asked to sign is insufficient as a matter of law to invalidate the release.”[14] The Court finds that Barth’s own failure to perform a permissive part of the agreement does not make the waiver invalid.

Pursuant to Lynam, however, the form exculpates the Defendants’ negligence, not recklessness. As in Lynam, the form here provides for a release of liability caused by “THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE ‘RELEASEES’ OR OTHERWISE.” As this Court determined in Lynam, “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.”[15]

The Court finds that the waiver form releases the defendants from their liability for negligence, but not for recklessness.

Implied Primary Assumption of Risk Does Not Bar a Claim of Recklessness

It is undisputed that primary assumption of risk applies when the plaintiff signs a valid release of liability form.[16] But because Defendants argue that primary assumption of risk exists in addition to and independent of the waiver form, the Court must determine whether-and if so, how-to apply the defense beyond an express written agreement to waive liability.

Delaware courts have noted, paradoxically, that “depending upon the situation at hand, express consent may be manifested by circumstantial words or conduct.”[17]The illogic of “express consent” being “manifested by circumstantial words or conduct” can be resolved with the conclusion that Delaware recognizes an implied primary assumption of risk doctrine.[18]

Case law suggests that courts should find an implied primary assumption of risk only with respect to certain activities. Delaware cases have noted that primary assumption of risk commonly applies to “sports-related activities that ‘involv[e] physical skill and challenges posing significant risk of injury to participants in such activities, and as to which the absence of such a defense would chill vigorous participation in the sporting activity and have a deleterious effect on the nature of the sport as a whole.'”[19] Examples of such sports-related activities include:

(1) being a spectator at a sporting event such as a baseball or hockey game or tennis match where projectiles may be launched into the audience; (2) participating in a contact sporting event; (3) bungee jumping or bungee bouncing; (4) operating a jet-ski, or engaging in other noncompetitive water sports such as water-skiing, tubing, or white-water rafting; (5) drag racing; and (6) skydiving.[20]

The nature of the activity is pertinent to an analysis of primary assumption of risk. Otherwise, in the absence of a waiver of liability, the dangerousness of the activity would be irrelevant. The case law therefore suggests that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies to certain sports-related activities, even in the absence of an express waiver form. However, though Delaware seems to allow for the application of implied assumption of risk in certain sporting events, no Delaware case has provided a framework for applying the doctrine. This precise issue appears to be one of first impression.

The California case Peart v. Ferro, [21] which this Court cited in support of its observations on the prevalence of primary assumption of risk in dangerous sporting events, [22] provides a means of analysis. Under the Peart framework, courts must examine two things to determine whether an implied primary assumption of risk exists: the nature of the activity and the relationship between the parties.[23]

When examining the nature of the activity, courts consider:

what conditions, conduct or risks that might be viewed as dangerous in other contexts are so integral to or inherent in the activity itself that imposing a duty of care would either require that an essential aspect of the sport be abandoned, or else discourage vigorous participation therein. In such cases, defendants generally do not have a duty to protect a plaintiff from the inherent risks of the sport, or to eliminate all risk from the sport.[24]

In examining the relationship of the parties, the court bears in mind that “the general duty of due care to avoid injury to others does not apply to coparticipants in sporting activities with respect to conditions and conduct that might otherwise be viewed as dangerous but upon examination are seen to be an integral part of the sport itself.”[25]

When analyzed within this framework, implied primary assumption of risk remains distinct from secondary assumption of risk. Secondary assumption of risk has been subsumed by Delaware’s contributory negligence statute.[26] It is therefore no longer available as a complete defense. Secondary assumption of risk exists when “the plaintiffs conduct in encountering a known risk may itself be unreasonable, because the danger is out of proportion to the advantage which he is seeking to obtain.”[27] In contrast, the focus for implied primary assumption of risk remains on the nature of the activity the plaintiff has consented to participate in and the actions of the defendants-not how the conduct of the plaintiff may have contributed to his injuries. Commentators also have noted that implied primary assumption of risk is distinct from secondary assumption of risk.[28]

The Court finds that implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to negligence. Because Barth signed a valid release of liability for Defendants’ negligence, the remaining issue in this case is whether implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to allegations of recklessness as well.

Though defendants do not owe a duty to protect a plaintiff from the risks inherent in an activity to which the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk applies, “defendants do have a duty not to increase the risk of harm beyond what is inherent in the sport through intentional or reckless behavior that is completely outside the range of the ordinary activity in the sport.”[29]

Here, the Court has ruled as a matter of law that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendants recklessly marked the course with inadequate signage. The Court finds there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Defendants committed reckless conduct which increased the race’s risk of harm.[30] Further, the Court holds that the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate a tortfeasor from liability for intentional or reckless conduct. The Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment on this issue are denied.

Barth was a Business Invitee for the Race Despite his Blue Diamond Membership

Because Barth’s primary express and implied assumption of risk bar his claims of negligence, the Court need not reach this issue. However, for the sake of completeness, the Court finds that because Barth paid a fee to participate in the race, his relationship with Blue Diamond for the purposes of that event was that of a business invitee. His membership with the Blue Diamond Riding Club had no bearing on his participation in the race.

This fact distinguishes this case from Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, [31] upon which Blue Diamond relies. There, the plaintiff was a member of a fitness center and was injured while using a rowing machine. Because the fitness center was a “private-membership based business, ” the Court found the fitness center did not owe the plaintiff the same duty it “would owe to a common law business invitee or to the public at large.”[32]

In this case, participation in the race was not restricted to members of the Blue Diamond Riding Club. The race was open to any “American Motorcyclist Association Member.” Unlike the fitness center, Blue Diamond invited non-members to the race, and therefore owed participants the duties owed to business invitees.

CONCLUSION

The doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate tortfeasors from liability for intentional or reckless conduct.

DER and ECEA’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court finds that the allegations of negligence against these defendants are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to the allegations of recklessness against these defendants, Blue Diamond’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court finds that the allegations of negligence against this defendant are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to the allegations of recklessness against this defendant. With the dismissal of the negligence allegations, the question of Blue Diamond’s status as a business invitee is moot.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

Notes:

[1] October 3, 2017 Tr. of Motions, 71:12-16.

[2] Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c).

[3] Burkhart v. Davies, 602 A.2d 56, 58-59 (Del. 1991).

[4] Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c).

[5] Wooten v. Kiger, 226 A.2d 238, 239 (Del. 1967).

[6] Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

[7] Helm v. 206 Massachusetts Avenue, LLC, 107 A.3d 1074, 1080 (Del. 2014) (quoting Fell v. Zimath, 575 A.2d 267, 267-68 (Del. Super. 1989)).

[8] Id.

[9] Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 WL 5793725, at *3 (Del. Super.).

[10] See id. The release in Lynam read:

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.

[11] 2004 LEXIS 444 (Del. Super.).

[12] Id.

[13] The corresponding clause in Devecchio read:

EACH OF THE UNDERSIGNED . . . acknowledges, agrees and represents that he has, or will immediately upon entering any of such restricted areas, and will continuously thereafter, inspect such restricted areas and all portions thereof which he enters and with which he come in contact, and he does further warrant that his entry upon such restricted area or areas and his participation, if any, in the event constitutes an acknowledgment that he has inspected such restricted area and that he finds and accepts the same as being safe and reasonably suited for the purposes of his use ….

[14] Id. This principle also dispenses with the argument that Barth did not have sufficient time to understand the release that he chose to sign.

[15] Id. (quoting W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on Torts, § 68 at 483-84 (5th ed. 1984)).

[16] See Lafate v. New Castle Cty., 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super.) (analyzing whether a signed waiver constitutes primary assumption of risk).

[17] Storm v. NSL Rockland Place, LLC, 898 A.2d 874, 882 (Del. Super. 2005) (citing Croom v. Pressley, 1994 WL 466013, at *5 (Del. Super. 1994)).

[18] See id. at 882 n.30 (‘”Primary assumption of risk is akin to express or implied consent… .'” (quoting 57B Am. Jur. 2d. Negligence § 1010)). Storm also quoted the Restatement (Second) of Torts at length to explain assumption of risk generally. Id. at 881. That passage described a form of assumption of risk “closely related to” that acquired through “express consent” as one in which:

the plaintiff has entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances. Thus a spectator entering a baseball park may be regarded as consenting that the players may proceed with the game without taking precautions to protect him from being hit by the ball. Again the legal result is that the defendant is relieved of his duty to the plaintiff.

Id.; see also McCormick v. Hoddinott, 865 A.2d 523, 529 (Del. Super. 2004) (“In the instant case there appears to be no evidence to support a claim that minor Plaintiff expressly or impliedly assumed any risk; therefore, an affirmative defense of assumption of risk based on primary assumption of risk cannot stand.”) (emphasis added).

[19] Helm, 107 A.3d at 1080 (quoting Storm, 898 A.2d at 883).

[20] Storm, 898 A.2d at 883 (citations omitted). Storm noted, however, that a “common theme” of these activities is that they frequently involve the signing of consent forms, suggesting the Court may have only meant to invoke them as another example of where express consent may apply. Id. However, a “common theme” is not a “common requirement”-spectators at sporting events do not sign releases of liability to view an event. Moreover, courts have found waiver of liability forms enforceable in contexts dissimilar to those listed above. See, e.g., Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 2015 WL 3540187, at *2 (Del. Super. 2015) (finding a waiver form sufficient to invoke primary assumption of risk when the plaintiff snapped a cable on a rowing machine at the defendant’s gym). The Storm Court would have had no occasion to comment on the nature of the activity if it were not independently meaningful in the analysis.

[21] 13 Cal.Rptr.3d 885, 894 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2004).

[22] See Storm, 898 A.2d at 883 (citing Peart to define the sort of sports-related activities that typically raise the issue of primary assumption of risk).

[23] Peart, 13 Cal.Rptr.3d at 894 (citations omitted).

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at 894-95.

[26] Helm, 107 A.3d at 1080 (“[I]t is now accepted in Delaware that the concept of secondary assumption of risk is completely subsumed by the principles of comparative negligence.”).

[27] Fell v. Zimath, 575 A.2d 267, 268 (Del. Super. 1989).

[28] See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496A (1979) (distinguishing a description of implied primary assumption of risk from a secondary assumption of risk, “in which the plaintiffs conduct in voluntarily encountering a known risk is itself unreasonable, and amounts to contributory negligence”); 57B Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 1010 (“Primary assumption of risk is akin to express or implied consent, and relieves the defendant of any obligation to exercise care for the injured person’s protection, including situations where an injured person, having knowledge of a hazard, continued voluntarily to encounter it. Secondary assumption of risk is akin to contributory negligence . . . .”).

[29] Peart, 13 Cal.Rptr.3d at 894.

[30] This conclusion is in line with Delaware decisions that applied similar logic under framework of a different name. See Farrell v. University of Delaware, 2009 WL 3309288, at *3 (Del. Super.) (finding persuasive the New York Supreme Court’s rationale that “[a]lthough [a] rink could not be liable for harms caused by the inherent dangers of skating or by unpreventable events, the court considered assumption of risk inapplicable to injuries resulting from ‘the reckless actions of another skater which the defendant, by adequate supervision, could have prevented.'”(quoting Shorten v. City of White Plains, 637 N.Y.S.2d 791, 796 (N.Y.App.Div.1996)); Lafate v. New Castle Cty., 1999 WL 1241074, at *4 (Del. Super. 1999) (denying summary judgment, in part because “it would not be within the normal expectation of the health risk of playing basketball that a supervising employee would place a metal bar within normal head range between two basketball courts” in spite of an express release of liability).

[31] 2015 WL 3540187 (Del. Super 2015).

[32] Id. at*l.


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Chapter 7    Pre-injury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

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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

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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

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Ray v. Lesniak, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28301

Ray v. Lesniak, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28301

Raven Renee Ray, Plaintiff, v. Steve A. Lesniak, Defendant.

No.: 2:16-cv-1752-DCN

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA, CHARLESTON DIVISION

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28301

February 22, 2018, Decided

February 22, 2018, Filed

CORE TERMS: sheet, boat, brain, crew members, traumatic, pain, sailboat, captain, gybe, admiralty, passenger, maneuver, sailing, vessel, medication, symptoms, present value, guest, experienced, emotional, headaches, safe, hit, suffering, lookout, sit, citation omitted, concussion, sitting, opined

COUNSEL: [*1] For Raven Renee Ray, Plaintiff: Benjamin Catlett Smoot, II, William P Early, LEAD ATTORNEY, Pierce Herns Sloan and McLeod, Charleston, SC; Theodore Augustus Consta Hargrove, II, Pierce Herns Sloan and Wilson LLC, Charleston, SC.

For Steve A Lesniak, Defendant: Joseph R Weston, Stephanie A Phillips, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Weston Law Firm, Mt Pleasant, SC.

JUDGES: DAVID C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: DAVID C. NORTON

OPINION

Plaintiff Raven Renee Ray (“Ray”) brought this admiralty action against Defendant Steve A. Lesniak (“Lesniak”) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(h). Ray is suing Lesniak for personal injuries and other damages she sustained as a result of being struck by the main sheet during a sailing race on Lesniak’s boat “the Celadon.”

The court tried this case without a jury on September 18, 2017. Having considered the testimony and the exhibits admitted at trial, as well as the parties’ pre-trial briefs and post-trial proposed findings and conclusions, the court now makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). It finds that Lesniak was negligent in his captaining of the Celadon, that Ray suffered an injury while an invited guest on the Celadon as a result of Lesniak’s negligence, and [*2] that as a result of this injury Ray has a permanent traumatic brain injury. It awards $958,758.15 in damages. This award, in the court’s eyes, gives Ray what she deserves–“just some justice, some recognition and help.” Tr. 135:24.

FINDINGS OF FACT1

1 These findings are based on the preponderance of the evidence presented to the court.

1. At the time of the incident at issue, Ray was a 29-year-old female working two jobs in the food and beverage industry, volunteering at an acupuncture clinic, and simultaneously pursuing advanced degrees in psychology and clinical counseling at The Citadel. Ray had never been on a sailboat before the day of the incident.

2. At the time of the incident, 57-year-old Lesniak was the owner, operator, and captain of the sailboat Celadon on which the incident occurred. Lesniak is an experienced captain, who has 35 years of sailing experience–including 25 years of sailing experience in Charleston. Tr. 205:15-17. He has captained “several hundred, maybe a thousand” sailboat races. Tr. 205:18-20. He has been sailing with some of the crew members that were on the Celadon at the time of the incident for “15, 20 years.” Tr. 205:24-206:7.

3. The sailboat Celadon on which the incident occurred is a fifty-one foot, 1995 Beneteau Oceanis 510 registered in [*3] Charleston County, South Carolina. At the time of the incident, Lesniak had owned and operated the Celadon for approximately fifteen years.

4. Operation of the sailboat during a race requires several crewmembers. Thirteen crewmembers and a number of guests were aboard the sailboat on the day of the incident. Tr. 182:1-183:1.

A. The Accident:

1. The court now turns to the day of the incident, May 21, 2014. Ray was invited to a sailboat race by Colin Skinner (“Skinner”), who Ray knew as a “regular” customer at the Oak Bar Tavern where she worked. Tr. 106:14-20. Skinner was a crew member on the Celadon. Tr. 184:3-6. Skinner has been sailing with Lesniak for “[r]oughly five years.” Tr. 206:20-22. Lesniak allowed Skinner to invite a guest on the boat. Tr. 184:5-6.

2. The other crew members who were on the Celadon during the incident had years of sailing experience, many as crew members with Lesniak. Tr. 206:10-208:4. Of the crew members on the boat at the time of the incident, at least three had medical backgrounds, ranging from Emergency Room nurse to thoracic surgeon. Tr. 206:10-208:9. Lesniak testified that these crew members had previously taken action if anyone suffered an injury on the [*4] boat during sailing races and trips. Tr. 209:21-210:5.

3. Lesniak testified that all of his crew members “[knew] to look after new people.” Tr. 208:18-21.

4. Lesniak authorized crew members to perform tasks during the race, including telling guests when and where to move during the course of the race. Tr. 209:1-20.

5. Ray and Skinner arrived at the Carolina Yacht Club, the marina where the yacht was docked. Tr. 107:7-12. When she got to the boat, there were “many” people on the boat, including crew members and guests. Tr. 108:1-4. Ray testified that she did not know anyone on the boat other than Skinner. Tr. 108:5-6.

6. Before May 21st, 2014, Ray had never been on a sailboat. Tr. 106:21-107:1. She knew nothing about how a sailboat worked. Tr. 107:2-4.

7. Lesniak did not give safety instructions to any of the guests, including Ray, who was on the Celadon. Tr. 184:12-17. He also did not give any written instructions to guests. Tr. 187:2-6. Furthermore, he did not have a written safety checklist or conduct a safety and operational briefing before the Celadon left the marina. Tr. 187:16-21. At the time of the incident, there were no safety placards or visual displays on the Celadon stating [*5] that there were dangerous places to sit on the boat, such as “around any rope, boom.” Tr. 186:20-187:1. Lesniak delegated the giving of safety instructions to two crew members, neither of whom testified during the trial. Tr. 14:16-185:6. Lesniak did not hear what safety talks were given to guests because he was at the helm of the boat. Tr. 185:5-9.

8. Ray was late to the start of the boat race and was given an abbreviated version of the “safety talk” by crew members, which involved an instruction on where not to sit on the boat. Tr. 192:10-18.

9. Upon arriving on the Celadon, Skinner placed Ray at the position where she was sitting when the main sheet hit her. Tr. 264:8-265:19. Ray was seated on the deck of the Celadon, near the main sheet. Ex. 13.

10. The crew was aware of where Ray was sitting. Tr. 204:4-6.

11. Within 5-10 minutes of Ray stepping on board the Celadon, the incident occurred. Tr. 194:2-5.

12. Before she was hit, Ray was given instructions by crew members to “get more neighborly, get closer together.” Tr. 114:2-3. Specifically, crew member Dawn Truog (“Truog”) asked Ray, who was sitting in front of the main sheet, to “move back from the [main] sheet.” Tr. 250:16-25. There [*6] was no evidence presented that Ray knew what a “main sheet” was. Crew member Mary Anne Becker (“Becker”) also testified, stating that she “told [Ray] specifically to move, move up front, move forward” multiple times, because Ray “was going to be brushed by the sheets” when the boat gybed. Tr. 257:6-12. Becker further testified that even after these verbal warnings to move, Ray “didn’t move,” and “the next thing” Becker knew was Ray “down on the gutter” of the boat. Tr. 257:17-20.

13. Lesniak made the decision to gybe, which is the action that caused the main sheet to strike Ray. Tr. 199:16-17. When the captain executes a gybe maneuver, as Lesniak did here, the main sheet moves across the deck of the boat. Tr. 221:14-25.

14. Lesniak testified that members of his crew told Ray to move “several times” and that the crew members were aware that she did not move–even after Lesniak had called for the gybe maneuver. Tr. 213:22-214:5. For example, Truog was aware that Ray was sitting in front of the main sheet when Lesniak gybed. Tr. 254:25-255:3. Truog saw “the boom [come] over, and that [Ray] was pushed down to the side of the boat.” Tr. 251:9-18.

15. If Lesniak had waited to gybe or made sure [*7] that Ray was in a safe location, Ray would not have been hit by the main sheet. Tr. 202:9-13.

16. After Lesniak did the gybe maneuver, Ray was hit by the main sheet, the force of which threw her from her seated position onto the deck of the boat. Tr. 115:14-20. The main sheet carries a significant amount of pressure, “absolutely” enough to cause a serious injury. Tr. 237:6-25. Lesniak saw the main sheet strike Ray. Tr. 198:25-199:6.

17. The court considered the testimony of various crew members who were on the Celadon during the incident. For example, Dr. Bill Lynch testified about the main sheet hitting Ray. Additionally, he testified that he did not give any safety instructions to Ray, and was not aware of any sailing experience that she had. Tr. 247:1-6.

18. Ray was left with an abrasion on her forehead as a result of the main sheet hitting her. Pl.’s Ex. 2.

19. After Ray was injured, Lesniak did not turn the boat around. Tr. 117:5-12. Lesniak continued with the boat race. Tr. 148:10-18.

B. Breach of Safety Protocol:

1. Ray testified about the instructions she was given when she got on the Celadon. Specifically, Ray stated that she was “told where the lines were” and where to sit. Tr. [*8] 109:18-23. She was given these instructions and told where to sit by a crew member, “Peggy.” Tr. 110:6-9. She was not warned that she “might get hit in the head with a boom or a rope or anything like that.” Tr. 110:10-17. There were also no written instructions on the “hull or deck of the boat or bow or the stern, starboard side” that said where to sit, and no one gave written instructions to Ray when she was on the boat. Tr. 110:18-24. There was also no formal verbal safety briefing. Tr. 111:4-7.

2. Ray did not hear, and “wouldn’t have understood” any instructions on whether the boom or main sheet were going to swing during the course of the race. Tr. 115:1-4.

3. The court also credits the testimony of Ray’s expert Captain Ken Wahl (“Wahl”), who the court qualified as a boating expert and marine safety consultant. Tr. 214:20-215:9. Wahl opined that competitive sailboat racing “requires a large number of experienced crew to adequately handle the fast-paced activities normally observed during this often dangerous and close quarters style of competitive sailing.” Ex. 1 at 8. Wahl further opined that “[o]nly highly experienced persons should be aboard for these events.” Id. Based on his [*9] review of the evidence, Wahl testified that “there appeared to be a lot of people” on the Celadon, and that “safe places . . . were probably a little bit difficult to find.” Tr. 220:1-9.

4. Wahl opined that Lesniak, who had captained hundreds of races, became “complacent” by delegating the “safety orientation” for guests to crew members. Tr. 225:9-226:3.

5. Wahl testified that when a boat race begins, “[t]here’s some very dangerous places to be on board the boat . . . [a]nd it’s certainly not a safe place to be right near the main sheet.” Tr. 221:10-13. Accordingly, Ray, who was seated on the deck of the boat near the main sheet, was in a dangerous position. Tr. 222:1-6.

6. Specifically, Wahl opined that “[m]oving isn’t quite enough” “when somebody doesn’t know anything about a sailboat, because they don’t know where to move to.” Tr. 223:23-25. The proper procedure for a crew member to ensure that Ray was moved safely to another area of the boat was for Lesniak or a crew member to physically ensure that she had been moved to a safer place. Tr. 226:14-227:16. Simply telling a novice passenger like Ray who had never been on a sailboat to move was insufficient, and a breach of safety protocol. [*10] Tr. 227:9-21.

7. Wahl further opined that it was in contravention of boat safety protocol for Lesniak to gybe while Ray was sitting next to the main sheet, as gybing the boat necessarily causes a movement of the main sheet. Tr. 223:14-19. Wahl offered suggestions on what safety protocol Lesniak should have followed in that scenario, such as “[d]elay the gybe, get somebody to move that person, tell them where to sit, where the safe spot is.” Tr. 223:16-22. Lesniak did none of these things.

8. When a captain changes the position of the sails, such as the gybe maneuver that Lesniak performed, Wahl testified that the captain “typically” will call out to the crew and let the crew members know that he will be changing the position of the sails. Tr. 238:16-239:4.

C. Comparative Negligence:

1. Ray was told to move away from the main sheet by multiple crew members, including Truog and Becker, but did not move. Tr. 257:17-20.

2. After getting hit by the main sheet, Ray did not ask anyone for medical attention and did not appear to be in need of any medical attention. Tr. 210:6-23.

3. When Ray got off the Celadon at the conclusion of the race, Lesniak asked her if she was “okay” and she replied that [*11] “she was fine.” Tr. 210:24-25.

4. A few days after the incident, Lesniak contacted Ray to give her the option of going to see Bill Lynch, a crew member on the Celadon during the incident and a doctor, at no cost. Tr. 210:1-5. Ray declined. Tr. 210:1-5.

D. Causation of Traumatic Brain Injury:

1. Two days after the incident, Ray went to Nason Medical Center because she was experiencing “extreme body pain.” Tr. 119:17-24. Within seven days of the incident, Ray began experiencing different symptoms–namely, debilitating nausea and headaches. Tr. 120:11-21. Ray was “extremely” confused when she went to the Medical University of South Carolina (“MUSC”) the week after the incident as a result of her new symptoms. Tr. 121:1-6. At MUSC, Ray was referred to a neurologist who diagnosed Ray with a concussion and prescribed medications for a head injury. Tr. 121:7-25.

2. The only medical expert who testified during the trial was Dr. Marshall Allen White (“Dr. White”), a board-certified neurologist.2 Tr. 8:15-16. Dr. White treats patients with traumatic brain injuries as part of his practice on “nearly a daily basis,” and has done so since 1991. Dr. White has testified in the past as to both the diagnoses [*12] and causation of traumatic brain injuries. The court credits Dr. White as an expert in the field of traumatic brain injuries. Tr. 9:21-10:17. Dr. White examined Ray, and reviewed the following medical records: (1) Nason Medical Center; (2) MUSC; (3) Dr. Jeffrey Buncher, a pain management physician in Charleston, South Carolina; (4) physical therapy records; (5) acupuncture records; (6) neuropsychological testing performed by Dr. Randolph Waid; and (7) psychiatric records from Dr. Kurtzman. Tr. 11:1-21. Dr. White testified that, based on his examination of Ray, a review of her medical records, and consulting with peer-reviewed articles, Ray sustained a traumatic brain injury. Tr. 12:5-12. Specifically, Dr. White testified that Ray had the symptoms of a concussion immediately following the incident, in that she was “dazed, confused,” and the morning after the event she felt “that she was not going to be able to wake up,” which Dr. White testified indicated “a level of hypersomnolence, which is typical following a concussion.” Tr. 12:17-13:1. Dr. White further testified that compared to “baseline records” that were “pretty close in proximity” to the incident, he observed that Ray had [*13] “heightened levels of anxiety, trepidation, moodiness, difficulty sleeping after the period of hypersomnolence, difficulty focusing, poor memory, and anxiety levels which were dramatically increased from her baseline levels.” Tr. 13:2-10. All of these symptoms of traumatic brain injury, according to Dr. White, were caused by the head trauma that Ray suffered during the incident. Tr. 13:11-15.

3. According to Dr. White, Ray’s traumatic brain injury is “permanent.” Tr. 13:16-18. All three of these opinions–that Ray had a traumatic brain injury, that the brain injury was permanent, and that the brain injury was the result of the incident on the Celadon–Dr. White testified that he held to a “reasonable degree of medical certainty.” Tr. 13:19-22. Specifically, in his report, Dr. White states that:

It is my opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Ms. Ray experienced traumatic brain injury as a result of her sailing incident, which occurred in 2014. There is ample evidence of headache, nausea, vomiting, and worsening in her neuropsychiatric syndrome and cognitive abilities following the incident . . . It is further my opinion that Ms. Ray would clearly have academic, social [*14] and occupational difficulties throughout every facet of her life.

Pl.’s Ex. 4. Dr. White further testified that when he examined Ray, she was having emotional and concentration issues that he attributed to her “residual [traumatic brain injury] symptomology,” and that this was consistent with a patient with her level of brain injury. Tr. 28:13-23.

4. Dr. White also testified at length about Ray’s post-incident treatment in the week after the incident, based on his review of her medical records. At Nason, Dr. White testified that no diagnostic testing was performed, and instead Nason “basically gave her pain medicine and sent her home.” Tr. 17:9-11. Then, Ray went to the MUSC emergency room, where she was “evaluated and treated” for “neck and back pain.” Tr. 17:14-15. Ray then returned to MUSC with “complaints of pain,” and returned once again within five days of the injury “complaining of headaches” as well as nausea and vomiting. Tr. 17:19-23. These symptoms of headaches, nausea, and vomiting, were, Dr. White testified, symptoms of a concussion. Tr. 18:11-14. Based on his review of Ray’s medical records and after taking her medical history, Dr. White concluded that Ray had “a lot” of [*15] the symptoms of the postconcussive syndrome. Tr. 20:5-9.

5. Lesniak argued at various points during the bench trial that Ray did not immediately experience any symptoms of headaches, nausea, and vomiting while on the Celadon or the next day. However, Dr. White testified that there can be “delayed effects from concussion.” Tr. 35:24. Furthermore, Ray had consumed at least one beer immediately before the incident. Alcohol consumption, Dr. White testified, would impair Ray’s ability to recognize her symptoms. Tr. 36:6-11.

6. Dr. White testified that postconcussive headaches such as the ones that Ray experienced can be developed “within seven days of the concussion itself.” Tr. 18:22-24. Indeed, Dr. White testified on the types of symptoms during the “days and weeks” after a concussion, and stated that there can be “difficulty concentrating, moodiness, hypersomnolence . . . [a]nxiety . . . headaches, nausea, and vomiting.” Tr. 19:1-17.

7. Ray had a CT scan done at MUSC, which had normal results, but Dr. White testified that the normal CT scan did not disturb his opinion that Ray had a traumatic brain injury, as mild traumatic brain injury patients will have “under almost all circumstances [*16] . . . normal imaging.” Tr. 21:18-22:2. Indeed, Dr. White testified that a normal CT scan was “expected” for patients with mild traumatic brain injury. Tr. 22:3-6.

8. The court considered that Ray was not diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, or indeed any injury at all, by any emergency room physicians in her visits to Nason or the MUSC ER. But, according to Dr. White, the peer-reviewed literature in the field is clear that mild traumatic brain injuries “can be overlooked,” even by emergency room physicians. Tr. 36:2-5. Furthermore, in none of the medical visits that Ray had in the immediate aftermath of the incident did she have any cognitive testing done that would have detected such cases of traumatic brain injury. Tr. 52:11-60:4.

9. Dr. Kurtzman, a psychiatrist who examined Ray on May 1st before the incident, indicated that Ray was working on her graduate thesis and had no “uncontrolled anxiety or crying spells.” This psychiatric record is closest in proximity to the incident. Tr. 14:13-15:11. Dr. Kurtzman’s psychiatric record further indicates that as of May 1st, Ray was a “student, working doing marketing, volunteering, and doing research–all while supporting herself financially.” [*17] Tr. 15:12-20. In his treatment notes for Ray after the incident, Dr. Kurtzman stated that Ray had “suffered . . . emotionally and physically from an injury sustained from being hit by a sailboat boom . . . I’m concerned about her emotional prognosis and her emotional upset secondary to the accident.” Tr. 23:6-24:4. Dr. Kurtzman also prescribed Ray the medication Adderall, which Dr. White testified is an “amphetamine stimulant” that is “used for patients with [traumatic brain injury] who are having difficulty concentrating.” Tr. 24:5-15. Concentration and attention problems such as those treated with Adderall are consistent with the diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury, Dr. White testified. Tr. 24:16. Dr. White further testified that during his examination and interview with Ray, she stated that she experienced those symptoms for the first time after the date of the incident. Tr. 24:19-22. Ray testified that she had never been prescribed Adderall or psychostimulants before the incident. Tr. 101:14-102:7. At the direction of her doctor, Ray has been taking Adderall in increasing doses since the incident. Tr. 126:22-11.

10. The court acknowledges that prior to the incident, Ray was [*18] on the medication Klonopin to treat anxiety. Tr. 16:2-9. However, Dr. Kurtzman was on a successful program to wean Ray off of Klonopin. Tr. 16:10-16. Ray testified that she was in the process of “taper[ing] off” the anti-anxiety medication. Tr. 102:16-103:4. The court also acknowledges that Ray suffered from general anxiety disorder, which can have symptoms similar to those found in someone with a concussion. Relatedly, the court has considered Ray’s testimony about the circumstances of her unfortunate upbringing, including her time in foster care and her intermittent history with prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. Tr. 92:1-99:3. The court credits Dr. White’s opinion–that the temporal relationship between the incident and the onset of symptoms supports a finding that Ray was not suffering from her historical general anxiety disorder, but from the head trauma she received as a result of the incident. Tr. 48:4-20.

11. Ray was seen by Dr. Woodard, a neurologist at MUSC, “several months” after the incident. Dr. Woodard also diagnosed Ray as having postconcussion syndrome, and placed her on gabapentin and nortriptyline. Nortriptyline is used to treat headaches, while [*19] gabapentin is used to treat headaches, mood disturbances, and sleep. Tr. 20:12-21:14.

12. On July 28, 2015, Ray had neuropsychological testing, which discerns whether there are “cognitive or emotional deficits related to injury” performed by Dr. Randolph Waid. Tr. 25:1-14. Specifically, Dr. Waid employed the Conners Continuous Performance Test II to assess Ray’s “attentional abilities.” Tr. 25:14-24. Based on Ray’s pre-incident level of functioning, Dr. Waid felt that Ray’s concentration abilities, which were in the ninth percentile, were low. Tr. 26:2-5. Ray had a “very high GPA” in her college and graduate work before the incident. Tr. 26:11-12. Ray had a 3.7 GPA at the College of Charleston. Tr. 101:5-7. The cause of the decrease in Ray’s attention between college and the day that Dr. Waid performed his neurophysical testing was, in Dr. White’s opinion, the traumatic brain injury that she suffered as a result of the incident. Tr. 26:15-18.

13. Ray also saw Dr. Jeffrey Buncher for injuries related to the incident. Ray had pain management issues before the incident, specifically with chronic neck and back pain. Ex. 8. But Ray’s pain problems with her sacrum were, in Dr. White’s opinion, [*20] “exacerbated” by the incident. Tr. 27:1-21.

14. Dr. White offered a future treatment plan to treat Ray’s permanent condition and opined that “there are a number of interventions that ought to be taken in her care that are currently not being taken” and that Ray was not receiving treatment from any doctors who treated traumatic brain injuries. Tr. 30:1-32:2. Dr. White also testified about the cash prices of the drugs necessary for the future treatment plan. Tr. 32:14-33:15.

15. The court also considered the testimony of Chad Houfek (“Houfek”), an acupuncturist and the owner of Charleston Community Acupuncture. Tr. 81:11-23. Houfek knew Ray as a patient as well as a volunteer at Charleston Community Acupuncture. Tr. 82:2. In her capacity as a volunteer, Ray worked answering phones, scheduling appointments, and also helped with bookkeeping. Tr. 82:11-83:8. Houfek testified about how Ray was different after the incident, from a treatment perspective, explaining that she came in for acupuncture a week after the incident, and that “she had a big mark on her temple, and she was very upset, she was crying and very scared, didn’t really know what to do, and she had a lot of neck pain.” Tr. 83:9-19. [*21] When Ray had her acupuncture appointment on May 28th, approximately one week after the incident, Houfek recorded in his session notes that Ray was “postconcussion,” and that what she was experiencing included sensitivity to stimulus and headaches. Tr. 84:9-18. After the incident, Houfek continued to treat Ray, and stated that he was treating her mostly for neck pain and lower back pain, as well as insomnia, and “extreme emotional.” Tr. 87:4-9.

16. Houfek also testified about the changes in Ray as a volunteer after the incident. Before the incident, Houfek described Ray as “awesome,” as an employee who was “very friendly,” who “always showed up on time,” and “took initiative.” Tr. 85:7-15. But after the incident, Houfek testified that Ray was “always late,” “very very scattered,” and that “communicating with her was difficult.” Tr. 85:17-25. Houfek further testified that he had not experienced any of those problems with Ray before the incident. Tr. 86:2-4.

17. The court has considered the reports and treatments notes of the doctors, including pain management specialists and neurologists, that Ray has seen since the incident. Ex. 10. In conjunction with Dr. White’s testimony, these medical [*22] documents support the conclusion that Ray suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of the injury she suffered on the Celadon.

18. Prior to the incident, Ray testified that “[l]ife was great,” and that she “was excited for finishing” her master’s thesis at the Citadel and continuing on for her Ph.D. Tr. 103:18-25. In addition to being in the master’s program at the Citadel, Ray was also working at the restaurant Oak Barrel four nights a week, Tr. 104:19-24, in the tasting room at the restaurant Freehouse two nights a week, Tr. 104:15-105:1. She was also volunteering with Charleston Community Acupuncture and doing research. Tr. 105:17-24. She testified that despite this busy schedule she never had any problems with attention before the incident. Tr. 106:1-11.

19. Since the incident, Ray has had suicidal ideations. Tr. 124:22-125:9. She has also been suffering from giggling issues and other inappropriate responses to stimuli, which never occurred before the incident. Tr. 127:19-25. As a result of these issues, as well as the problems in concentration and attention, her professors at the Citadel have expressed “legitimate concerns” about her ability to complete the graduate program. [*23] Tr. 127:19-25; 132:1-9. Furthermore, since the incident Ray has lost her jobs at the Oak Barrel and the Freehouse. Tr. 128:16-19. Ray attributes both of these job losses to the incident. For example, as a result of the injuries she sustained, Ray has had to ask her customers and friends to come and help her while she was at the bar. Tr. 129:1-10. Additionally, when there were stimuli such as music or “certain sounds,” Ray would run out of the bar and “leave the entire bar empty, and cry in the alley.” Tr. 129:4-11. Before the incident, Ray did not have these problems at work.

20. Since the incident, Ray has had physical and psychological problems. Physically, she has had trouble sleeping, has “nerve pain down the back of her leg,” and tension headaches. Tr. 130:13-131:21. She now also has communication issues, which have affected her interpersonal, professional, and educational goals. Tr. 136:21-137:13.

21. The court considered the medical bills that Ray has incurred, between the date of the incident and present. Pl.’s Ex. 10. Ray does not have health insurance. Tr. 123:4-7. The total medical bills for her injury totaled $20, 480.70. Pl.’s Ex. 10. By the time of trial, Ray had incurred [*24] the following expenses to treat her injuries:

a. Nason Medical Center $127.00
b. MUSC $4,654.00
c. MUSC Physicians $1,194.00
d. Dr. Waid $1,125.00
e. Dr. Kurtzman $2,050.00
f. Dr. Buncher $5,945.00
g. Charleston Community Acunpuncture $3,130.00
h. EnterpriseRx $74.82
i. Publix Pharmacy $228.36
j. Walgreens Pharmacy $1,952.52
Total: $20,480.70

2 Lesniak objects to allowing Dr. White to testify on the subject of future treatment. However, Ray disclosed Dr. White as one of her treating physicians and produced Dr. White’s medical evaluation of Ray, wherein Dr. White opined that Ray had sustained a permanent traumatic brain injury. The court is convinced that Dr. White’s written report and opinion of Ray’s permanent injury gave Lesniak adequate notice that Ray would need continued medical evaluation and treatment for her condition for the rest of her life. Ray disclosed Dr. White as an expert in neurological medicine and pain management in compliance with all relevant expert disclosure requirements and deadlines. Lesniak made the decision to decline to take Dr. White’s deposition, offer his own medical expert disputing the diagnosis of traumatic brain injury or offer an alternative future treatment plan, or to request any additional information from Dr. White regarding his evaluation of Ray. At the very least, Lesniak was on notice that as a result of the incident, Ray had already spent a significant amount of money on medical treatment including $2,255.70 on medication alone. Certainly, Ray’s medical bills were turned over during discovery. Therefore, the court overrules Lesniak’s objection.

III. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

Based on the testimony of all of Lesniak’s crew members and all experts, including Ray’s expert Captain Wahl, Lesniak was negligent in doing a gybe maneuver when he and his crew members knew or should have known that Ray was sitting in front of the main sheet which is a dangerous place to sit. Prior to undertaking the gybe maneuver during the sailboat race, Lesniak had a duty to: (1) properly administer safety briefings to Ray that included where the safe places to sit on the boat were during the race; (2) warn Ray that the gybe maneuver was going to be undertaken; (3) not gybe until Ray was no longer sitting in front of the main sheet; and (4) not hit Ray with the main sheet rope during the gybe maneuver. A failure to follow safety precautions, including telling Ray where to move and delaying the gybe maneuver until Ray had moved to a safe place, was [*25] a breach of Lesniak’s duty to Ray. The court further finds that it was completely foreseeable to Lesniak that Ray could be injured by his failure to warn her that a gybe maneuver was going to be undertaken that would involve moving the main sheet that she was sitting directly in front of, and his failure to prevent the main sheet from hitting Ray. Lesniak’s negligence was a proximate cause of Ray’s injuries; but for this breach of duty, Ray’s injuries would not have occurred.

However, Lesniak has presented sufficient evidence to support the allegation in his Answer that Ray was comparatively negligent. Specifically, Ray failed to pay attention to warnings from multiple crew members to move from her position in front of the main sheet rope. Ray was to blame, in part, for being hit by the main sheet. The court finds that Ray was 25% to blame, and so reduces her damages by 25%.

As a direct result of Lesniak’s failure to exercise the proper degree of skill required, Ray sustained injuries and damages, as discussed below. In making the above findings of fact, reference has been made to pertinent portions of the testimony and exhibits introduced into evidence; however, the court has taken [*26] into consideration all of the evidence presented. The court specifically finds the evidence, after considering the appearance, demeanor and qualifications of the witnesses and the testimony as a whole, supports each of its findings by a preponderance of the evidence.

A. Jurisdiction and Applicable Law

Federal admiralty jurisdiction exists where, as here, conditions of both (1) location and (2) a connection with maritime activity are satisfied. Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 534, 115 S. Ct. 1043, 130 L. Ed. 2d 1024, (1995). Admiralty jurisdiction extends to injuries involving recreational vessels such as the Celadon. See Oliver by Oliver v. Hardesty, 745 F.2d 317, 320 (4th Cir. 1984) (admiralty jurisdiction exists over a case involving a collision between a swimmer and a pleasure boat because the claim was based on an allegation of negligent navigation of the boat). The portion of the Charleston Harbor where the incident occurred constitutes navigable waters of the United States, and being struck by the main sheet of a racing sailboat has a connection to maritime activity. Accordingly, the court has subject matter jurisdiction of this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1333. See Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 364-65, 110 S. Ct. 2892, 111 L. Ed. 2d 292 (1990).

Cases involving a tort committed on navigable waters are governed by federal admiralty law. Byrd v. Byrd, 657 F.2d 615, 617 (4th Cir. 1981) (citation omitted). However, if there is no admiralty rule for a particular [*27] issue, the court looks to state law to supply the rule of decision. Id. “This rule is especially true in negligence causes of action,” which is the cause of action that Ray asserts. Schumacher v. Cooper, 850 F. Supp. 438, 447 (D.S.C. 1994) (citation omitted). Therefore, to the extent admiralty law is not directly on point, ordinary negligence law applies.

B. Lesniak’s Liability

To establish her claim, Ray must prove that Lesniak’s negligent operation of the Celadon harmed her. The elements of negligence are duty, a breach of that duty, proximate cause, and resulting injury. Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 447 (internal citations omitted).

a. Duty

It is well-established in general maritime law that a vessel operator has a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of his passengers. See Bubla v. Bradshaw, 795 F.2d 349, 353 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 630, 79 S. Ct. 406, 3 L. Ed. 2d 550 (1959)). Lesniak was the captain, and so was in charge of the vessel at the time of Ray’s injury. As such, he was charged with a duty of care to his passengers. This standard of care owed to a passenger by a vessel operator under maritime law is reasonable care under the circumstances at that particular time in each case. Id. “The extent to which circumstances surrounding maritime travel are different than those encountered in daily life and involve more danger to passengers, will determine [*28] how high a degree is reasonable in each case.” Keefe v. Bahama Cruise Line, Inc., 867 F.2d 1318, 1322 (11th Cir. 1989) (quoting Rainey v. Paquet Cruises, Inc., 709 F.2d 169, 172 (2nd Cir. 1983)). In this case, the circumstances surrounding a sailboat participating in a race in the Charleston harbor call for a heightened degree of care. Additionally, before stepping on board the Celadon, Ray had never before been on a sailboat, a fact of which Lesniak was unaware of and failed to inquire about.

A vessel operator also “has a duty to maintain a proper lookout by sight and by hearing” while the boat is travelling through navigable waters. Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 447. “This duty stems from general concepts of prudent seamanship as well as from the [regulations] governing the navigation of vessels.” Id. As a matter of prudent seamanship, “the performance of lookout duty is an inexorable requirement of prudent navigation.” Anthony v. Int’l Paper Co., 289 F.2d 574, 580 (4th Cir. 1961). Rule 5 of the Inland Navigation Rules states that “[e]very vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.” 33 C.F.R. § 83.05. Rule 5 perpetuates the common-law duty discussed in Anthony. Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 448 (citation omitted). It imposes a duty of proper lookout upon the operator of a pleasure [*29] craft such as the Celadon. See Todd v. Schneider, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25192, 2003 WL 23514560, at *11 (D.S.C. Dec. 8, 2003). Importantly, “[w]hoever is keeping a lookout must be able to give proper attention to that task and should not . . . undertake duties that would interfere with this function.” Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 448 (citation omitted).

“The duty to maintain a proper look-out, whether regulatory or customary, varies with the circumstances of each situation. When circumstances demand unusual care in navigation, such care should be used.” Id. at 449-50 (internal citations omitted). That higher level of care was required here, as Ray was an invited guest aboard a sailboat involved in a race in the Charleston harbor.

Lesniak was the owner, captain, and operator of the sailboat and was in control of its operation at all times. Ray was Lesniak’s passenger and guest. Although Lesniak designated his crewmembers to administer safety instructions to the passengers, as captain, Lesniak was ultimately responsible for the safety of the crewmembers and guests. Thus, Lesniak owed Ray a duty to maintain a proper lookout at all times during the Celadon’s outing.

b. Breach

Ray offered the testimony of Captain Wahl as her liability expert with regard to safe vessel operation. Captain Wahl has extensive knowledge about the safe [*30] operation of vessels. He obtained this knowledge from his many years of personally operating vessels, obtaining credentials, holding an array of maritime positions, authoring several books, and teaching well over 18,000 students in the subject. The court finds the testimony of Captain Wahl to be credible. Lesniak offered no liability expert at trial.

Captain Wahl testified that as the captain of the Celadon at the time of the incident, good seamanship practices required Lesniak to have the ultimate responsibility to look out for persons aboard his vessel–even if he delegated some of those responsibilities to crew members. Wahl testified that this ultimate responsibility includes providing adequate instructions, warnings, guidance, or lessons to all passengers, including late arriving ones, regarding the potential dangers of movement and position on his vessel and how to avoid those dangers. He also testified that looking out for passengers aboard a vessel includes refraining from performing a gybe maneuver until ensuring that all of the passengers are seated safely out of the path of the boom and its related parts such as the main sheet. Captain Wahl further testified that, even if [*31] a passenger is told verbally to move from a certain spot before a maneuver is performed, it would be a best practice to physically ensure that the person, especially if that person is a novice passenger with no sailing experience, has been moved to a safer place on the sailboat before proceeding to perform the maneuver. It is also Captain Wahl’s opinion that only highly experienced persons should be aboard for racing events, because inexperienced persons may not be able to handle the fast-paced activities normally observed during competitive sailing.

The court finds that Lesniak failed to act as a prudent mariner in failing to: (1) provide adequate posted, written, or verbal warnings to Ray regarding the potential dangers of movement and position on the Celadon and how to avoid those dangers; and (2) in failing to make sure that his passengers were in a safe location at all times, especially before performing a gybe maneuver which causes the boom and its related parts to swing quickly from port to starboard or vice versa. The court finds that these acts and omissions constitute a breach of Rule 5 of the Inland Navigation Rules, the common-law lookout duty, and the general duty of due care [*32] under Admiralty and South Carolina law.

c. Causation

General tort principles require a plaintiff asserting a negligence claim to show that the defendant’s breach of duty proximately caused her injuries. Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 451. However, a finding that the defendant breached his duty to maintain a proper lookout imposes upon him the burden of showing by clear and convincing evidence that such failure did not contribute to the accident. Id. This burden shift occurs regardless of whether the breach is viewed as a violation of Rule 5 or as breach of the common-law lookout duty. Id.

The court’s determination that Lesniak breached his duty to keep a proper lookout imposes upon him the burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that his breach of duty did not contribute to the incident. The record here does not support such a showing. Therefore, the court concludes that Lesniak’s negligence caused the main sheet to strike Ray’s head and, therefore, Ray’s resulting injuries.

d. Comparative Negligence

Since jurisdiction is premised upon admiralty, federal common law governs. As such, the doctrine of comparative negligence applies. See, e.g., Mullenix v. United States, 984 F.2d 101, 104 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., 421 U.S. 397, 407, 411, 95 S. Ct. 1708, 44 L. Ed. 2d 251, (1975)). Thus, in the context of an admiralty case, damages should “[b]e allocated [*33] among the parties proportionately to the comparative degree of their fault.” Reliable Transfer Co., Inc. 421 U.S. at 411, 95 S.Ct. 1708.

The court finds that Ray’s recovery should be reduced because Ray shares in the fault attributable as a result of the incident. Lesniak is required to prove the elements of duty, breach, causation, and injury as to Ray’s alleged negligence. Schumacher, 850 F. Supp. at 452 (citing Wilson v. Marshall, 260 S.C. 271, 195 S.E.2d 610, 612 (S.C. 1973)). Namely, an individual has a “duty to exercise due care for one’s own safety.” Id. The court finds that Ray’s conduct contributed to her injuries, and reduces her damages by 25%.

The court finds that Ray was instructed by multiple crew members on multiple occasions on safety protocol, including where to sit. Ray admits that she was aware of potential dangers on the Celadon, and that she was told to “get closer together” and to “get more neighborly” in the moments immediately before the main sheet hit her. Lesniak and all four members of his crew who testified at trial indicated that there was a safety protocol, that Becker, an individual with sixty plus years of sailing experience, and her fellow crew member Truog, were delegated the duty of administering safety instructions and watching out for new, inexperienced passengers. Becker and Truog testified at trial [*34] that these were duties bestowed by their captain, Lesniak, and that they had a present-day recollection of communicating with Ray directly. The court further finds that Ray did not follow the instructions to move. Thus, Ray failed to take responsibility for herself, a duty which is imposed under the law. However, the court considers Ray’s inaction against the backdrop of Captain Wahl’s testimony that Ray as a novice passenger would not know what the safe places were on the boat without being physically guided to those places.

C. Damages

Substantive admiralty law governs all cases brought under federal admiralty jurisdiction; however, it does not automatically displace state law. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 116 S. Ct. 619, 133 L. Ed. 2d 578 (1996). If there is no admiralty law on point, the court may look to the laws enacted by the state legislature or declared to be law by the state’s highest courts. Byrd v. Byrd, 657 F.2d 615, 617 (4th Cir. 1981). Accordingly, the court may look to the law of the State of South Carolina in regard to the award of damages arising out of a negligence cause of action in admiralty. Id.

In a personal injury case such as this, the elements of damages potentially recoverable “include past and future medical expenses, past and future pain and suffering, past and future loss [*35] of income and earning power, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of family services.” Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 453 (citing Watson v. Wilkinson Trucking Co., 244 S.C. 217, 136 S.E.2d 286, 291 (S.C. 1964)). Mathematical precision in ascertaining damages is not required. Brooks v. United States, 273 F.Supp. 619, 629 (D.S.C. 1967). Instead, the injured party must be awarded damages sufficiently proportionate to the injuries sustained. Drennan v. Southern Railway, 91 S.C. 507, 75 S.E. 45 (S.C. 1912).

The evidence in this case reveals Ray has suffered and will suffer such past and future damages, and she is entitled to recover for all of them.

a. Past Medical Expenses

Ray seeks to recover certain expenses for her prior medical care. At trial, she submitted a medical bill summary totaling $20,480.70 in prior care. Those expenses are recoverable, as they consist of services such as emergency medical treatment, imaging, physical therapy, psychiatric treatment, and pain management. Those expenses resulted from Lesniak’s negligence and were reasonably necessary. See Sossamon v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 243 S.C. 552, 135 S.E.2d 87, 91 (S.C. 1964). Moreover, the court is satisfied that the invoiced amounts are reasonable. See Haselden v. Davis, 353 S.C. 481, 579 S.E.2d 293, 295 (S.C. 2003) (citation omitted). Therefore, the court awards Ray $20,480.70 in past medical expenses.

b. Future Medical Expenses

Ray seeks damages to cover her anticipated future medical expenses. “[R]ecovery of damages based on future consequences of an injury may be had only if [*36] such consequences are reasonably probable or reasonably certain.” Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156, 1160 (4th Cir. 1986). “Reasonably certain” is “a consequence ‘which follows the original act complained of in the usual, ordinary, and experienced course of events.'” Rabb v. Orkin Exterminating Co., 677 F.Supp. 424, 426 (D.S.C. 1987) (quoting Ford v. AAA Highway Express, Inc., 204 S.C. 433, 29 S.E.2d 760, 762 (S.C. 1944)). In other words, damages can be recovered only if there is “[a] greater than 50% chance that a future consequence will occur.” Lohrmann, 782 F.2d at 1160.

Dr. White, the only medical expert offered in this case, testified at trial that Ray’s condition is permanent and will require ongoing future treatment and medication. The court concludes that Ray has established a reasonable certainty that her condition is permanent and will require ongoing future treatment, including seeing a psychiatrist and a neurologist quarterly, and medication, potentially including anti-inflammatories (anti-inflammatory patch), amphetamines or an amphetamine substitute (Nuvigil), a benzodiazepine (Klonopin), a sedative-hypnotic (Belsomra), an anxiolytic (Buspar), and a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (Cymbalta). Dr. White testified that Nuvigil costs approximately $800.00 per month, Cymbalta costs approximately $200.00-300.00 per month, and Belsomra costs approximately $400.00-500.00 per month.

Ray’s birthday [*37] is May 8, 1985. At the time of the incident she was 29 years old. Thus, at the time of the incident, Ray had a life expectancy of 52.53 years, or 630.36 months, under S.C. Code Ann. § 19-1-150.

Adjusted for present value,3 the future medications, frequency, current cost, duration, and present value are as follows:

Medication Frequency Current Cost Duration Present Value
Nuvigil annual $9,600/yr 2018-life $330,345
Cymbalta annual $2,400-$3,600/yr 2018-life $82,585-$123,870
Belsomra annual $4,800-$6,000/yr 2018-life $165,170-$206,465

3 Lesniak contends that Ray needs an expert economist on the issue of present value of future damages and needed to present evidence at trial on the calculation of present value discounts. However, he cites no caselaw–and the court is aware of none–that there is a requirement of obtaining expert testimony on the issue of present value of future damages. The court can find no clear requirement in relevant federal case law that plaintiff must present expert evidence of the present value of her claim for future damages. The court draws guidance from the Western District of North Carolina’s recent opinion in Talley v. City of Charlotte, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17604, 2016 WL 1212369, at *2 (W.D.N.C. Feb. 12, 2016), appeal dismissed (Aug. 31, 2016), which observed:

[t]he courts are split on whether it is necessary to introduce expert testimony to explain the concept of discounting an award to present value or to supply suggested discount and inflation rates and/or mathematical calculations. While some courts have permitted, for example, a local banker to testify as to the fair return on a safe investment, or a mathematician an actuary, or an accountant to testify concerning the procedure by which the reduction to present value should be calculated, other courts have held that expert testimony is permitted but not required, and that the jury should generally be left to its own discretion as to what discount factors should be used.

Here, the court calculated the present value discounts employing a discount rate of five percent to damages for future medical care. See Faust v. S.C. State Highway Dep’t, 527 F. Supp. 1021, 1036 (D.S.C. 1981), rev’d on other grounds, 721 F.2d 934 (4th Cir. 1983) (“I find that he is entitled to be properly compensated for his pain, suffering, damages and permanent partial disability, before and after trial, and taking into consideration future pain and suffering and discomfort, and reducing that amount to its present cash value by use of a discount rate of five (5%) percent, which this court feels is reasonable and fair.”).

Future [*38] medication costs are increased at an expected inflation rate for prescription drugs of 3.61 percent, compounded annually.4 The present value of the total future medications that Dr. White opined were reasonable and necessary for Ray’s treatment ranges in cost from $578,100 (using the low figures of the cost of medicine needed) to $660,689 (using the high figures of the cost of medicine needed).5 The court awards the average of the cost of medicine needed, and so awards $619,394.50 for future medical expenses associated with her injuries resulting from the May 21, 2014, incident.

4 This rate is based on inflation rates as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the period 1992-2016.

5 All future medication costs are discounted to present value at a rate of 5 percent, compounded annually. This is a rate that an ordinary person with average financial knowledge, with access to commonly available investment outlets, and facing the full range of financial risks might be expected to earn over a long period of time.

d. Pain and Suffering

Ray’s pain and suffering because of this incident is well documented through her deposition and trial testimony as well as her medical records. She endured months of frequent headaches, nausea, muscle pain, and back pain as a result of her physical injuries. Raven Ray seeks $75,000.00 for past and future pain and suffering. Based on the entire record, the court concludes that $50,000.00 is the appropriate amount of compensation for both past and future pain and suffering. See Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 453.

e. Past and Future Emotional Distress

Injured plaintiffs are entitled to recover for mental anguish and permanent emotional [*39] scarring. Steeves v. United States, 294 F. Supp. 446, 458 (D.S.C. 1968). Ray’s severe psychological and emotional injuries because of this incident are well-documented by Houfek. Testimony from Ray and Houfek, in addition to Dr. Kurtzman’s and Dr. Waid’s records, show the extent and severity of Ray’s psychological and emotional injuries proximately caused by Lesniak’s negligence. After a careful review of the entire record, the court finds $75,000.00 for her psychological and emotional injuries reasonable. Therefore, it awards judgment against Lesniak in the amount of $75,000.00 for Ray’s past and future psychological and emotional injuries.

f. Loss of Enjoyment of Life and Permanent Impairment

Next, Ray seeks $100,000.00 as compensation for losing her ability to enjoy the athletic and recreational activities in which she used to participate, as well as her loss of enjoyment of other normal activities of life. Based on the entire record, the court concludes that $100,000.00 is the appropriate amount of compensation for this loss.

Additionally, Ray is permanently impaired due to this traumatic brain injury and must be compensated for her permanent impairment. Ray’s birthday is May 8, 1985. At the time of the incident, she was 29 years old. Thus, [*40] at the time of the incident, Ray had a life expectancy of 52.53 years, or 19,173.45 days, under S.C. Code Ann. § 19-1-150. Finding a valuation of a traumatic brain injury at $20.00 per day to be reasonable, the court awards Ray $383,469.00 for her impairment. In sum, the Court awards Raven Ray $483,469.00 for her loss of enjoyment of life and permanent impairment.

g. Lost Wages/Inconvenience and Disruption of Normal Daily Life

At the time of the incident, Ray was working in the food and beverage industry and attending The Citadel to obtain a graduate degree. Because of her injuries resulting from Lesniak’s negligence, Ray was forced to miss work and experienced difficulty in completing her graduate coursework at The Citadel. The court finds $30,000.00 to be appropriate compensation for Ray’s lost wages and difficulties experienced in completing her graduate coursework at The Citadel. See Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 453.

D. Prejudgment Interest

Ray asks the court to add prejudgment interest to her damages. In maritime injury cases, “the awarding of prejudgment interest is the rule rather than the exception, and, in practice, is well-nigh automatic.” U.S. Fire Ins. Co. v. Allied Towing Corp., 966 F.2d 820, 828 (4th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted). The court may decline to award prejudgment interest when it finds that “peculiar [*41] circumstances” would make such relief inequitable. Id. This is an action instituted under the court’s admiralty jurisdiction and no peculiar or exceptional circumstances existed that would prevent Ray from recovering pre-judgment interest. This court, in its discretion, finds no such peculiar circumstances here and finds that Ray is entitled to pre-judgment interest in the amount of $22,952.44 from the date of the accident until the date of this order.

IV. CONCLUSION

Based on the foregoing, it is ORDERED that judgment be entered for Ray against Lesniak in the sum of nine-hundred and fifty-eight, and seven-hundred and fifty-eight dollars and fifteen cents $958,758.15,6 plus prejudgment interest in the amount of twenty-two thousand, nine-hundred and fifty-two dollars and forty-four cents $22,151.44, and postjudgment interest at the legal rate from the date of this order.

6 The tabulation of damages is $1,278,344.20 before the application of a 25% reduction in proportion to Ray’s comparative negligence. After applying the 25% reduction, the total damages award is $958, 758.15.

AND IT IS SO ORDERED.

/s/ David C. Norton

DAVID C. NORTON

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

February 22, 2018

Charleston, South Carolina


One box was unchecked in the release which was signed online, and the court would not grant the motion for summary judgment of the defendant because whether or not the release was valid was a decision for the jury.

This judge was either not going to make a decision or only allow the plaintiff to win. However, the defendants set themselves up to lose by having a check box in the release.

Moore v. North America Sports, Inc., et al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557

State: Florida: United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Panama City Division

Plaintiff: Brian Moore

Defendant: North America Sports, Inc., USA Triathlon

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the risk, Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

Having a box unchecked on a release sent the case to trial because the judge would not decide if that made the release valid. Having no jurisdiction and venue clause also created an opening, left unresolved on whether Florida or Montana’s law would apply. If Montana’s law, the releases would be void.

Overall, a poorly prepared or thought-out motion and supporting documents that helped the plaintiff more than the defendant left the defendant in a worse position than before they filed the motion.

Facts

The deceased lived in Montana and signed up in Montana to enter a triathlon in Panama City Beach Florida. In the process of signing up, he signed two releases. One for the website and one for the triathlon. The defendant also stated that the deceased signed two more releases upon registering for the event in Florida. The release signed for the website was not a factor in this decision.

During the swim portion of the triathlon the deceased experienced distress and died three days later.

His survivors filed this lawsuit.

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

The first issue reviewed by the court was the defense of assumption of the risk. The court resolved this issue in favor of the plaintiff in a short paragraph. Whether or not the deceased assumed the risk of his injury is a question for the jury. It cannot be resolved in a Motion for Summary Judgment.

When a participant volunteers to take certain chances, he waives his right to be free from those bodily contacts inherent in the chances taken.” However, it is the jury’s function to determine whether a participant should have anticipated the particular risk, and whether the defendant made the activity as safe as possible.

The second argument made by the plaintiff was whether or not the USA Triathlon was liable as a sanctioning body. “In order for a sanctioning organization, or sponsoring organization, to be liable, it must have some control over the event.” USA Triathlon argued they did not control the event and should be dismissed.

Again, the court stated whether or not USA Triathlon had any control over the event was a question of fact for the jury.

The next issues were the releases. The first issue was what law applied to the releases. There was obviously no jurisdiction and venue clause in the release or because there was an issue of the validity of the release, the court took it upon itself to determine what law applied.

The plaintiff’s argued that Montana’s law should apply. Montana does not allow the use of a release. See Montana Statutes Prohibits Use of a Release.

All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, for willful injury to the person or property of another, or for violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.” Mont. Code Ann. § 28-2-702 (2007). However, Plaintiff fails to take into account that first the applicable choice-of-law must be determined, and then the contract is interpreted according to that state’s substantive law.

Since this decision, the statute has been amended to allow the use of releases for sport or recreational opportunities. See Montana Recreation Responsibility Act.

However, the court never made a definitive statement as to whose law would be applied to the releases in this situation.

The next issue was a review of the releases signed on-line when the deceased registered for the event. The on-line release required a box to be checked. In the discovery process, the defendant provided a copy of the release signed by the deceased that had a box that was unchecked.

Defendants provide a printout showing an electronic signature. However, in order to properly exe-cute the waiver, the waivers state that the participant must check the box. Defendants fail to pro-vide any evidence to show a connection between checking the box and an electronic signature appearing in the printout. This lack of evidence leaves us just short of the finish line. Had a proper showing been made, summary judgment for the Defendants might have been warranted. Whether the online wavier was properly executed is a material fact for the jury to decide.

Again, the court saved this issue for the jury. Somehow the deceased was able to register for the event and leave a box unchecked; consequently, the court found one unchecked box was enough to deny a motion for summary judgment as to the validity of the release.

The defendant then argued that there were two additional releases signed by the deceased that would have stopped the plaintiff’s claims. However, the copies the defendant provided did not have signatures on them.

Defendants claim that Rice would have been required to sign two additional waivers in order to complete the onsite registration and be allowed to participate. Defendants do not provide signed copies of these waivers, only blank copies. Plaintiff denies that Rice signed any waiver on the day of the race. The fact that Defendants cannot provide a signed waiver does not exclude testimony on this matter; it merely goes to the weight of the evidence for the jury to consider.

This allowed the plaintiff to plead the deceased never signed the documents and the court again through the decision to the jury.

So Now What?

Remember this decision was decided nine years ago. At that time, the law concerning assumption of the risk has changed, and more courts are determining that the risk the plaintiff suffered was inherent in the sport. Therefore, the plaintiff assumed the risk. Whether or not that evolution in the law has occurred in Florida. I have not researched.

I suspect that USA Triathlon now has written agreements with all races it sanctions setting forth the legal requirements of the relationship. Absent an agreement, an industry practice can easily be proven, but not in a motion for summary judgement. A contract outlining the legal responsibilities between the parties can be used in a motion for summary judgment.

Check Boxes in a Release are landmines waiting to explode.

Why do you have boxes to be checked in a release? They do not support a contract, they only support the theory that the unchecked section is not valid or as in this case the entire release is not valid.

It was just stupid not to have your ducks in a row as a defendant when filing or defending motions for summary judgment. Here the defendants looked bad. Their arguments were strong, but they had no proof to support their arguments. For more on how check boxes can void your release see Trifecta of stupidity sinks this dive operation. Too many releases, operation standards and dive industry standards, along with an employee failing to get releases signed, sunk this ship on appeal.

You can prove the deceased signed a release if you don’t have a copy of the signature on the release, however, to do so you have to be able to prove that your system would not have allowed the deceased to race unless he signed. Nothing like that was introduced for all three of the releases the defense argued the decedent signed.

That does not even take into account novation. The second and third release might have been void because they were not signed for consideration. Only the first release had consideration, a benefit flowing to the decedent, entrance into the race. The decedent was in the race when he signed the second and third release, so there was no new consideration. See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.

Two many releases, no contracts between the defendants and this order made the defendants look bad and guaranteed a trial.

Honestly, the decision reads like either a judge, who does not want to make a decision or one that was heavily leaning towards the Plaintiff. At the same time, the defendants made easy for the judge to rule this way. However, there is not much choice, you have to play with the cards the court clerk gives you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Moore v. North America Sports, Inc., et al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557

Moore v. North America Sports, Inc., et al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557

Brian Moore, as Personal Representative on behalf of the Estate of Bernard P. Rice, deceased, Plaintiff, vs. North America Sports, Inc., et al., Defendants.

CASE NO. 5:08cv343/RS/MD

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA, PANAMA CITY DIVISION

2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557

June 26, 2009, Decided

June 26, 2009, Filed

CORE TERMS: summary judgment, decedent, affirmative defenses, online, registration, fault, box, tortfeasor, choice of law, necessary to complete, sanctioning, registered, printout, Black’s Law Dictionary, last act, material fact, nonmoving party, sole cause, concurrent tortfeasors, health care providers, undisputed, off-campus, designated, causation, lawsuit, movant’s, waived, willful, usage, medical attention

COUNSEL: [*1] For BRIAN MOORE, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF BERNARD P. RICE, DECEASED, Plaintiff: DIANA SANTA MARIA, LEAD ATTORNEY, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF BERNARD P. RICE, DECEASE, FORT LAUDERDALE, FL; DOROTHY CLAY SIMS, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICE OF DOROTHY CLAY SIMS ESQ, OCALA, FL; JOEL S PERWIN, LEAD ATTORNEY, JOEL S PERWIN PA – MIAMI FL, MIAMI, FL; JOHN N BOGGS, BOGGS & FISHEL – PANAMA CITY FL, PANAMA CITY, FL.

For NORTH AMERICA SPORTS INC, doing business as WORLD TRIATHLON CORPORATION, doing business as IRONMAN TRIATHLON, doing business as FORD IRONMAN FLORIDA, formerly known as IRONMAN NORTH AMERICA, USA TRIATHLON, A FOREIGN COMPANY, Defendants: JASON BERNARD ONACKI, LEAD ATTORNEY, COLE SCOTT & KISSANE PA – PENSACOLA FL, PENSACOLA, FL; LARRY ARTHUR MATTHEWS, LEAD ATTORNEY, MATTHEWS & HIGGINS LLC, PENSACOLA, FL; SHANE MICHAEL DEAN, DEAN & CAMPER PA – PENSACOLA FL, PENSACOLA, FL.

JUDGES: RICHARD SMOAK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: RICHARD SMOAK

OPINION

Order

Before me are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the Affirmative Defenses of Release (Doc. 46); Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 79); Plaintiff’s Motion for [*2] Partial Dismissal or for Partial Summary Judgment on the Defendants’ Sixth Affirmative Defense, Alleging Comparative Fault of Bay County Emergency Medical Services (Doc. 86); Plaintiff’s Motion in Limine to Exclude Reference of any Fault on the part of Bay County EMS or any other Non Party (Doc. 125); and Plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to File Reply (Doc. 144).

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The basic issue before the court on a motion for summary judgment is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-252, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2512, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). The moving party has the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact, and in deciding whether the movant has met this burden, the court must view the movant’s evidence and all factual inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970); Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). Thus, if reasonable minds could differ on the inferences arising from undisputed facts, then a court should deny summary judgment. Miranda v. B & B Cash Grocery Store, Inc., 975 F.2d 1518, 1534 (11th Cir. 1992) (citing Mercantile Bank & Trust v. Fidelity & Deposit Co., 750 F.2d 838, 841 (11th Cir. 1985)). However, a mere ‘scintilla’ of evidence supporting the nonmoving party’s position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the [*3] jury could reasonably find for that party. Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251, 106 S. Ct. at 2512).

II. FACTS

Decedent, Bernard Rice, registered online in Montana, and participated in the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon held in Panama City Beach, Florida on November 4, 2006. Defendant contends that Rice signed numerous waivers to participate in the race; Plaintiff denies that Rice signed any waivers. Decedent experienced distress in the swim course approximately half-way into the second 1.2 mile lap of the 2.4 mile swim course. He received medical attention, but the timing and nature of medical attention are in dispute. Rice died on November 7, 2006.

III. DUTY OWED TO PLAINTIFF

a. Assumption of Risk

Defendants contend that Rice voluntarily assumed the risk of participating in the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon. “When a participant volunteers to take certain chances he waives his right to be free from those bodily contacts inherent in the chances taken.Kuehner v. Green, 436 So. 2d 78, 80 (Fla. 1983). However, it is the jury’s function to determine whether a participant should have anticipated the particular risk, and whether the defendant made the activity as safe as possible. Id; O’Connell v. Walt Disney World Co., 413 So. 2d 444, 447 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1982). Therefore, summary judgment is not appropriate on this issue.

b. Sanctioning Body

Defendant [*4] USA Triathlon argues that it had no duty as the sanctioning organization of the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon. Defendants cite authority from Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York. In order for a sanctioning organization, or sponsoring organization, to be liable, it must have some control over the event. See Nova Southeastern University, Inc. v. Gross, 758 So. 2d 86 (Fla. 200) (university had duty to graduate student placed in specific off-campus internship which it knew to be unreasonably dangerous); D’Attilio v. Fifth Avenue Business Ass’n, Inc., 710 So.2d 117 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1998) (the party with control over land owes a duty, jury question whether defendant that coordinated and sponsored a fair on city streets, where city controlled amount of law enforcement, had a duty); Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So.2d 658 (Fla. 1982) (Principal and teacher had a duty to injured student because had the authority to control activities of school club even at a meeting held off-campus); Ass’n for Retarded Citizens-Volusia, Inc. v. Fletcher, 741 So.2d 520, 526 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1999) (camp sponsor could be found negligent for falling to tell lifeguard camper suffered from seizures). It is a question of fact for the jury whether Defendant USA Triathlon had sufficient control over the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon because of its sanction of the event to have a duty to the participants. Summary judgment is not appropriate.

IV. WAIVERS

Defendant moves for summary judgment based on [*5] the waivers decedent allegedly executed. Plaintiff moves for summary judgment on Defendants’ third and fourth affirmative defenses which read as follows.

THIRD AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

53. On November 6, 2005, and prior to Plaintiff’s claim in this action accruing, Decedent waived any and all claims against USAT and NA Sports. A copy of the waiver is attached as Exhibit “A.” Decedent also entered two additional waivers during race registration. Unsigned copies of the waivers entered by Decedent are attached as Exhibits “B” (although designated as a 2007 waiver, it is otherwise the same as the 2006 waiver executed by Decedent) and “C.” By entering these waivers, Decedent waived the Plaintiff’s ability to bring the claims in the instant lawsuit. Fla.R.Civ.P. § 1.110(d).

FOURTH AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

54. On November 6, 2005, and prior to accrual of Plaintiff’s claims in this action, Decedent entered a release of any and all claims against USAT and NA Sports relating to the 2006 Ford Ironman Triathlon. A copy of the release is attached as Exhibit “A.” Decedent also entered two additional releases during race registration. Unsigned copies of the releases entered by Decedent are attached as Exhibits “B” (although [*6] designated as a 2007 release, it is otherwise the same as the 2006 release executed by Decedent) and “C.” By entering these releases, Decedent has precluded Plaintiff’s claims in the instant lawsuit. Fla.R.Civ.P. § 1.110(d).

a. Choice of Law

First, the choice of law governing the waiver must be determined, because the applicable law might not support enforcement of the waiver, which would make the waivers irrelevant. As for the appropriate contract law to apply, the parties agree that Florida choice of law analysis is applicable.
See Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496, 61 S. Ct. 1020, 1021, 85 L. Ed. 1477 (1941).
Both parties also agree that under Florida law, “lex loci contractus” provides that the laws of the jurisdiction where the contract was executed govern interpretation of the substantive issues regarding the contract. Prime Ins. Syndicate, Inc. v. B.J. Handley Trucking, Inc., 363 F.3d 1089, 1091 (11th Cir. 2004). The determination of where a contract was executed is fact-intensive and requires a determination of “where the last act necessary to complete the contract [was] done.Id. at 1092-93 (quoting Pastor v. Union Cent. Life Ins. Co., 184 F.Supp.2d 1301, 1305 (S.D. Fla. 2002)). The last act necessary to complete a contract is the offeree’s communication of acceptance to the offeror. Id. (citing Buell v. State, 704 So.2d 552, 555 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997)). Here, it is undisputed that the last act necessary to complete the contract occurred in Montana.

Plaintiff points to Montana law, which states, “All contracts [*7] which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, for willful injury to the person or property of another, or for violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.” Mont. Code Ann. § 28-2-702 (2007). However, Plaintiff fails to take into account that first the applicable choice-of-law must be determined, and then the contract is interpreted according to that state’s substantive law. See Charles L. Bowman & Co. v. Erwin, 468 F.2d 1293, 1295 (5th Cir. 1972); See Shapiro v. Associated Intern. Ins. Co., 899 F.2d 1116, 1118 (11th Cir. 1990).

Defendants point to Montana law, which states, “A contract is to be interpreted according to the law and usage of the place where it is to be performed or, if it does not indicate a place of performance, according to the law and usage of the place where it is made.” Mont. Code Ann. § 28-3-102 (2007). The race occurred in Florida; therefore, Florida law applies. In Florida, waivers or exculpatory clauses, although not looked upon with favor, are valid and enforceable if the intent to relieve a party of its own negligence is clear and unequivocal. Banfield v. Louis, 589 So.2d 441, 444-45 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1991) (citing L. Luria & Son, Inc. v. Alarmtec Int’l Corp., 384 So.2d 947 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1980); O’Connell v. Walt Disney World Co., 413 So.2d 444 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1982); Middleton v. Lomaskin, 266 So.2d 678 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1972)).

b. Online Waivers

On November 6, 2005, Rice registered online for the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon, which includes two waivers. In order to properly execute both waivers, the participant had [*8] to check two separate boxes. While both sides agree that Rice registered himself online, it is in dispute whether the boxes were checked. The first waiver only applies to the active.com website, which advertises various races and allows participants to fill out online registrations. However, the website has nothing to do with the actual race and is not a party to this suit. The second online waiver applies to Defendants. Defendants contend that the online registration could not be completed unless the boxes were checked, but Plaintiff contends that the printout from the online registration provided by Defendants does not contain any checked boxes (or any boxes). Whether the online wavier was properly executed is clearly in dispute.

Defendants provide a printout showing an electronic signature. However, in order to properly execute the waiver, the waivers state that the participant must check the box. Defendants fail to provide any evidence to show a connection between checking the box and an electronic signature appearing in the printout. This lack of evidence leaves us just short of the finish line. Had a proper showing been made, summary judgment for the Defendants might have been [*9] warranted. Whether the online wavier was properly executed is a material fact for the jury to decide.

c. Onsite Registration

Defendants claim that Rice would have been required to sign two additional waivers in order to complete the onsite registration and be allowed to participate. Defendants do not provide signed copies of these waivers, only blank copies. Plaintiff denies that Rice signed any waiver on the day of the race. The fact that Defendants cannot provide a signed waiver does not exclude testimony on this matter; it merely goes to the weight of the evidence for the jury to consider.

V. BAY MEDICAL

Plaintiff moves for dismissal, or summary judgment, on Defendants’ sixth affirmative defense, which alleges that Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services was “the sole cause or contributing cause of the injuries and harm alleged by Plaintiff.” Plaintiff repeats the exact same argument in its Motion in Limine to Exclude Reference of any Fault on the part of Bay County EMS or any other Non Party (Doc. 125). Plaintiff argues that this is not an affirmative defense, but rather is a traditional basis for denying causation, on the ground that another entity was solely at fault. An affirmative [*10] defense is a defendant’s assertion of facts and arguments that, if true, will defeat the plaintiff’s claim, even if all the allegations in the complaint are true. Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004). Defendants contend that Florida Statute § 768.81(3) permits a defendant to apportion fault to a non-party whose negligence contributed to the plaintiff’s injury or death.

The Florida Supreme Court held that “apportion[ing] the loss between initial and subsequent rather than joint or concurrent tortfeasors…cannot be done.” Stuart v. Hertz Corp., 351 So.2d 703, 706 (Fla. 1977). Concurrent tortfeasors are two or more tortfeasors whose simultaneous actions cause injury to a third party. Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004). Here, Defendants and Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services are not concurrent tortfeasors, because their actions could not have occurred simultaneously. Florida law clearly states:

“[O]riginal tortfeasor is liable to victim not only for original injuries received as result of initial tort, but also for additional or aggravated injuries resulting from subsequent negligence of health care providers, even though original tortfeasor and subsequently negligent health care providers are independent tortfeasors. Ass’n for Retarded Citizens-Volusia, Inc. v. Fletcher, 741 So.2d 520, 526 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1999).

Therefore, Defendants’ sixth affirmative defense is dismissed. [*11] Defendants are not entitled to include Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services on the verdict form for the jury’s consideration, but Defendants are permitted to argue that Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services were the sole cause of the injuries and harm alleged by Plaintiff as it relates to causation.

VI. CONCLUSION

IT IS ORDERED:

1. Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the Affirmative Defenses of Release (Doc. 46) is denied.

2. Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 79) is denied.

3. Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Dismissal or for Partial Summary Judgment on the Defendants’ Sixth Affirmative Defense, Alleging Comparative Fault of Bay County Emergency Medical Services (Doc. 86) is granted.

4. Plaintiff’s Motion in Limine to Exclude Reference of any Fault on the part of Bay County EMS or any other Non Party (Doc. 125) is denied as moot.

5. Plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to File Reply (Doc. 144) is denied as moot.

ORDERED on June 26, 2009.

/s/ Richard Smoak

RICHARD SMOAK

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al., 244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al., 244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

Robert David Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al.

Record No. 911395

Supreme Court of Virginia

244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

June 5, 1992

COUNSEL: Bernard S. Cohen (Sandra M. Rohrstaff; Cohen, Dunn & Sinclair, on brief), for appellant.

Joseph D. Roberts (Slenker, Brandt, Jennings & Johnson, on brief), for appellees.

JUDGES: Justice Keenan delivered the opinion of the Court.

OPINION BY: KEENAN

OPINION

[*192]   [**894]  The primary issue in this appeal is whether a pre-injury release from liability for negligence is void as being against public policy.

Robert D. Hiett sustained an injury which rendered him a quadriplegic while participating in the “Teflon Man Triathlon” (the triathlon) sponsored by the Lake Barcroft  [**895]  Community Association, Inc. (LABARCA).  The injury occurred at the start of the swimming event when Hiett waded into Lake Barcroft to a point where the water reachedhis [***2]  thighs, dove into the water, and struck his head on either the lake bottom or an object beneath the water surface.

Thomas M. Penland, Jr., a resident of Lake Barcroft, organized and directed the triathlon. He drafted the entry form which all participants were required to sign.  The first sentence of the form provided:

In consideration of this entry being accept[ed] to participate in the Lake Barcroft Teflon Man Triathlon I hereby, for myself, my heirs, and executors waive, release and forever discharge any and all rights and claims for damages which I may have or  [*193]  m[a]y hereafter accrue to me against the organizers and sponsors and their representatives, successors, and assigns, for any and all injuries suffered by me in said event.

Evelyn Novins, a homeowner in the Lake Barcroft subdivision, asked Hiett to participate in the swimming portion of the triathlon. She and Hiett were both teachers at a school for learning-disabled children.  Novins invited Hiett to participate as a member of one of two teams of fellow teachers she was organizing.  During a break between classes, Novins presented Hiett with the entry form and he signed it.

Hiett alleged inhis [***3]  third amended motion for judgment that LABARCA, Penland, and Novins had failed to ensure that the lake was reasonably safe, properly supervise the swimming event, advise the participants of the risk of injury, and train them how to avoid such injuries.  Hiett also alleged that Penland and Novins were agents of LABARCA and that Novins’s failure to direct his attention to the release clause in the entry form constituted constructive fraud and misrepresentation.

In a preliminary ruling, the trial court held that, absent fraud, misrepresentation, duress, illiteracy, or the denial of an opportunity to read the form, the entry form was a valid contract and that the pre-injury release language in the contract released the defendants from liability for negligence.  The trial court also ruled that such a release was prohibited as a matter of public policy only when it was included: (1) in a common carrier’s contract of carriage; (2) in the contract of a public utility under a duty to furnish telephone service; or (3) as a condition of employment set forth in an employment contract.

Pursuant to an agreement between the parties, the trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing in whichit determined [***4]  that there was sufficient evidence to present to a jury on the issue of constructive fraud and misrepresentation. Additionally, the trial court ruled that as a matter of law Novins was not an agent of LABARCA, and it dismissed her from the case.

The remaining parties proceeded to trial solely on the issue whether there was constructive fraud and misrepresentation by the defendants such as would invalidate the waiver-release language in the entry form.  After Hiett had rested his case, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion to strike the evidence.  This appeal followed.

[*194]  Hiett first argues that the trial court erred in ruling that the pre-injury release provision in the entry form did not violate public policy. He contends that since the decision of this Court in Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond and Danville R.R. Co., 86 Va. 975, 11 S.E. 829 (1890), the law in Virginia has been settled that an agreement entered into prior to any injury, releasing a tortfeasor from liability for negligence resulting in personal injury, is void because it violates public policy. Hiett asserts that the later cases of this Court have addressed only therelease of liability [***5]  from property damage or indemnification against liability to third parties. Thus, he contends that the holding in Johnson remains unchanged.  In response, LABARCA and Novins argue that the decisions of this Court since Johnson have established  [**896]  that pre-injury release agreements such as the one before us do not violate public policy. We disagree with LABARCA and Novins.

The case law in this Commonwealth over the past one hundred years has not altered the holding in Johnson.  In Johnson, this Court addressed the validity of a pre-injury release of liability for future negligent acts.  There, the decedent was a member of a firm of quarry workers which had entered into an agreement with a railroad company to remove a granite bluff located on the company’s right of way.  The agreement specified that the railroad would not be liable for any injuries or death sustained by any members of the firm, or its employees, occurring from any cause whatsoever.

The decedent was killed while attempting to warn one of his employees of a fast-approaching train. The evidence showed that the train was moving at a speed of not less than 25 miles per hour, notwithstanding the [***6]  railroad company’s agreement that all trains would pass by the work site at speeds not exceeding six miles per hour.

[1] In holding that the release language was invalid because it violated public policy, this Court stated:

[T]o hold that it was competent for one party to put the other parties to the contract at the mercy of its own misconduct . . . can never be lawfully done where an enlightened system of jurisprudence prevails.  Public policy forbids it, and contracts against public policy are void.

 [*195]  86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829. This Court emphasized that its holding was not based on the fact that the railroad company was a common carrier.  Rather, this Court found that such  [HN1] provisions for release from liability for personal injury which may be caused by future acts of negligence are prohibited “universally.” 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 830.

[2] As noted by Hiett, the cases following Johnson have not eroded this principle.  Instead, this Court’s decisions after Johnson have been limited to upholding theright to contract for the release of liability for property damage, as well as indemnification from liability to [***7]  third parties for such damage.

[3] In C. & O. Ry. Co. v. Telephone Co., 216 Va. 858, 224 S.E.2d 317 (1976), this Court upheld a provision in an agreement entered into by the parties to allow the telephone company to place underground cables under a certain railway overpass.  In the agreement, the telephone company agreed to release the C & O Railway Company from any damage to the wire line crossing and appurtenances.  In upholding this property damage stipulation, this Court found that public policy considerations were not implicated.  216 Va. at 865-66, 224 S.E. at 322.

This Court upheld another property damage release provision in Nido v. Ocean Owners’ Council, 237 Va. 664, 378 S.E.2d 837 (1989). There, a condominium unit owner filed suit against the owners’ council of the condominium for property damage to his unit resulting from a defect in the common area of the condominium. This Court held that, under the applicable condominium by-laws, each unit owner had voluntarily waived his right to bring an action againstthe owners’ council for such property damage. 237 Va. at 667, 378 S.E.2d at 838. 1

1 Although the by-law at issue attempted to release the owners’ council for injury to both persons and property, the issue before the Court involved only the property damage portion of the clause.

 [***8]  [4] Other cases decided by this Court since Johnson have upheld provisions for indemnification against future property damage claims.  In none of these cases, however, did the Court address the issue whether an indemnification provision would be valid against a claim for personal injury.

In Richardson – Wayland v. VEPCO, 219 Va. 198, 247 S.E.2d 465 (1978), the disputed claim involved property damage only, although  [**897]  the contract provided that VEPCO would be indemnified against both property damage and personal injury claims.  This  [*196]  Court held that the provision for indemnification against property damage did not violate public policy. In so holding, this Court emphasizedthe fact that the contract was not between VEPCO and a consumer but, rather, that it was a contract made by VEPCO with a private company for certain repairs to its premises.  219 Va. at 202-03, 247 S.E.2d at 468.

This Court also addressed an indemnification clause covering liability for both personal injury and property damage in Appalachian Power Co. v. Sanders, 232 Va. 189, 349 S.E.2d 101 (1986). However, this Court was not required [***9]  to rule on the validity of the clause with respect to a claim for personal injury, based on its holding that the party asserting indemnification was not guilty of actionable negligence.  232 Va. at 196, 349 S.E. at 106.

Finally, in Kitchin v. Gary Steel Corp., 196 Va. 259, 83 S.E.2d 348 (1954), this Court found that an indemnification agreement between a prime contractor and its subcontractor was not predicated on negligence.  For this reason, this Court held that there was no merit in the subcontractor’s claim that the agreement violated public policy as set forth in Johnson.  196 Va. at 265, 83 S.E.2d at 351.

[5] We agree with Hiett that the above cases have notmodified or altered the holding in Johnson.  Therefore, we conclude here, based on Johnson, that the pre-injury release provision signed by Hiett is prohibited by public policy and, thus, it is void. Johnson, 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829.

[6] Since we have held that the pre-injury release agreement signed by Hiett is void, the issue whether Novins acted as LABARCA’s agent in procuring Hiett’s signature will not be before the trial court in [***10]  the retrial of this case.  Nevertheless, Hiett argues that, irrespective of any agency relationship, Novins had a common law duty to warn Hiett of the dangerous condition of the uneven lake bottom. We disagree.

[7] The record before us shows that Lake Barcroft is owned by Barcroft Beach, Incorporated, and it is operated and controlled by Barcroft Lake Management Association, Incorporated.  Further, it is undisputed that the individual landowners in the Lake Barcroft subdivision have no ownership interest in the Lake. Since Novins had no ownership interest in or control over the operation of Lake Barcroft, she had no duty to warn Hiett of any dangerous condition therein.  See Busch v. Gaglio, 207 Va. 343, 348, 150 S.E.2d 110, 114 (1966).Therefore, Hiett’s assertion that Novins had a duty to warn him of the condition of the lake bottom, fails as a matter of  [*197]  law, and we conclude that the trial court did not err in dismissing Novins from the case.

Accordingly, we will affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the trial court, and we will remand this case for further proceedings consistent with the principles expressed in this opinion. 2

2 Based on our decision here, we do not reach the questions raised by the remaining assignments of error.

[***11]  Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

 


Pennsylvania wrongful death statute is written in a way that a split court determined the deceased release prevented the surviving family members from suing.

Plaintiff argued that because she did not sign the release, the release did not apply to her. However, the court found that the release was written broadly enough that it covered the plaintiff’s suit as well as finding that the release included enough assumption of risk language that the deceased knowingly assume the risk.

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in her Own Right,

Defendant: Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees, outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages.

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2016

This is an interesting case, because the Pennsylvania, wrongful death statute is written in a way that almost prevented a release from stopping a claim by a widow. The decision was also in front of the entire court of appeals and was a split decision.

This case centers on the Philadelphia triathlon. The deceased signed up for the triathlon electronically in January. While signing up for the triathlon, he signed a release to enter the race electronically.

At the start of the triathlon the deceased entered the water and never finished the swim part of the race. His body was found the following day by divers.

On June 26, 2010, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Mr. Valentino entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first part of the Triathlon. He never completed the swimming portion of the competition or any other part of the race. The following day, on June 27, 2010, divers retrieved his body from the Schuylkill River.

The widow of the deceased, the plaintiff, filed a complaint under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. Most states have a wrongful-death  statute. The wrongful-death  statute is the specific ways that the survivors can sue the person who caused the death of a loved one.

After filing the original complaint the plaintiff then filed an amended complaint. The defendant filed objections which the trial court upheld arguing that the complaint failed to state facts, which would allow the court or jury to reach a claim of outrageous acts, gross negligence or recklessness and thus award punitive damages.

The defendant filed an additional motion for summary judgment which the court granted dismissing all the claims of the plaintiff. The plaintiff then appealed the dismissal of her claims.

Most appellate courts may have anywhere from 3 to 15 or more judges sitting on the appellate court. When appeals are filed, judges are then assigned to these cases. Not all judges are assigned to every case. The majority the time a case is heard by three Appellate Ct. judges.

The decision in this case was split. Three judges affirmed the trial court’s order concerning some motions. However, two of the members of the appellate court concluded that the release executed by the deceased did not apply to his widow, the plaintiff, because she was not a signor release.

…however, two of the three members of the petite panel concluded that the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino did not apply to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the agreement.

The defendant then petitioned the court for hearing en banc. En banc means in front of the entire panel of the appellate court. The entire panel agreed to hear the case again specifically looking at five specific issues set forth below. In this case en banc meant in front of nine judges.

Consequently, this Court vacated summary judgment in favor of Appellee as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.5 Thereafter, both Appellant and Appellee requested reargument en banc. By order filed on March 11, 2016, this Court granted en banc reargument and withdrew our opinions of December 30, 2015. We now address the following questions:

1. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] where, when the material facts set forth in the [a]mended [c]omplaint, as well as all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, are accepted as true, it cannot be said with certainty that [Appellee’s] actions were not sufficiently reckless, outrageous and/or egregious to warrant an award of punitive damages?

2. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred [*8]  in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] and striking para-graph[s] 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) of the [a]mended [c]omplaint where these averments, and the [a]mended [c]omplaint in general, were sufficiently specific to enable [Appellee] to respond and prepare a defense?

3. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] second [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the issue of waiver and release was previously decided in the [o]rder of January 29, 2013 that denied [Appellee’s] first [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment, and the [c]ourt was precluded by the coordinate jurisdiction rule from revisiting the question?

4. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where, when the record is viewed in the light most favorable to [Appellant], questions of fact remain as to whether the purported release in question was effectively executed by the decedent and, if it was, whether it was enforceable?

5. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the report issued by Mark Mico fully and adequately addressed the questions of duty, breach of duty and causation and, in addition, he was fully qualified to render opinions in these regards?

Only the fourth and fifth issues that the court identified, are relevant to us. The first is whether or not the decedent effectively executed an electric agreement and whether not the case should be dismissed because of the release.

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

The court first looked at the issue punitive damages and defined punitive damages were under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania like most of the states, defines punitive damages for acts that are outrageous because of an evil motive or recklessness or an indifference towards the rights of others.

In Pennsylvania, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” As the name suggests, punitive damages are penal in nature and are proper only in cases where the defendant’s actions are so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton or reckless conduct.” To support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk. “Ordinary negligence, involving inadvertence, mistake or error of judgment will not support an award of punitive damages.”

The plaintiff argued in her amended complaint that the defendant was inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect and maintain the course, failed to warn or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards and failed to properly train and supervise its employees.

…inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees

The court looked at these allegations and held that they simply argued simple negligence, and none of the allegations rose to the level to be outrageous, evil or showing an indifference the welfare of others. The court sustained, upheld, dismissal of the gross negligence claims against the defendant.

These allegations, however, averred nothing more than ordinary negligence arising from inadvertence, mistake, or error in judgment; they do not support a claim involving outrageous behavior or a conscious disregard for risks confronted by Triathlon participants. Hence, the trial court correctly dismissed

The next issue important to us, is whether or not the plaintiff can contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct.

Appellant next maintains that a plaintiff cannot contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct and that, as a result, the liability waiver executed in this case is incapable of extinguishing such claims. Appellant also asserts that, pursuant to our prior decision in Pisano, a decedent’s liability waiver is ineffective as to non-signatory third-party wrongful death claimants. Lastly, Appellant claims that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation.

The first major argument made by the plaintiff was there were two different releases presented to the court in different motions filed by the defendant. One was two pages long I will was 2 ½ pages long.

Appellant draws our attention to differences between the version of the liability waiver introduced in support of Appellee’s first motion for summary judgment and the version submitted in support of its second motion. Appellant notes that the second version was two and one-half pages in length while the first version was only two pages. Appellant also notes that the second version bore the date “2011” while the event occurred in 2010. Lastly, the second version included the words “Yes, I agree to the above waivers” above the signature line while the first version did not.

However, the court found that this was not an issue, and both pieces of evidence were the same release. The defendant hired  a third-party firm to administer the sign up for the event and the execution of the release by the participants. The principle of the third-party firm testified that once the release is signed it is stored electronically and in storing the document it is shrunk so that when it is presented a second time it is actually a different size but the identical document.

The record shows that Appellee retained the services of ACTIVE Network (ACTIVE) to implement the online registration process for the Triathlon. ACTIVE implemented the required specifications for online registration, including guidelines for specific waiver and assumption of the risk language, supplied by Appellee and USA Triathlon (USAT), the national governing body of the sport of triathlon. USAT sanctioned the Triathlon because Appellee followed USAT registration guidelines.

According to Mr. McCue’s affidavit, “ACTIVE’s computer system condenses older registration and waiver documents for storage purposes, making any printed version of the older retained registration and waiver documents appear smaller than when they were viewed online by the reader/registrant.”

The third-party also demonstrated that there was no way the participant could’ve entered the race without a bib. The only way to get a bib was to sign the release.

Appellee also demonstrated that no one could participate in the Triathlon without registering online, a process that could not be completed without the execution of a liability waiver.

The plaintiff next argued that the release is unenforceable against claims of reckless or intentional conduct. However, the court quickly dismissed this, by referring to its earlier ruling that the complaint did not allege facts to support a claim of reckless or intentional conduct.

The next issue centered on the definition and wording of the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. To be successful in the plaintiff’s Pennsylvania wrongful death claim, the plaintiff must show that the actions of the defendant were tortious. Because the release was validly executed by the deceased, and it showed that he knowingly and voluntarily assume the risk of taking part in the competition, the deceased assumed of the risk and eliminated the tortuous act of the defendant.

Here, Mr. Valentino, in registering online for the Triathlon, executed a detailed liability waiver under which he expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon and agreed to indemnify Appellee for liability stemming from his involvement in the event. The valid liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino was available to support Appellee’s claim that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of taking part in the competition and that, therefore, Appellee’s actions were not tortious. Since Appellant’s wrongful death claims required her to establish that Appellee’s conduct was tortious, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee.

The plaintiff argued that a prior decision by the court had invalidated releases for wrongful-death  claims. The court distinguished that prior decision from this one because the prior decision required arbitration of the claims and that the decedent in that case had not signed the actual agreement. In that case the husband of the deceased when putting her in a nursing home signed  all the paperwork. The deceased did not sign a release or arbitration agreement.

A liability waiver, however, operates quite differently from an arbitration clause. By executing a liability waiver, the decedent signatory acknowledges and assumes identified risks and pledges that the defendant will not be held liable for resulting harms. If the decedent executes the waiver in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner (as here), the waiver is deemed valid and it shifts the risk of loss away from the defendant and onto the decedent. In effect, an enforceable waiver under which the decedent assumes specified risks transforms the nature of the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the decedent from tortious to non-tortious.

The court held that a release stops a claim under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute when it is signed by the deceased.

Our conclusion that Appellee may rely on a liability waiver signed only by the decedent to defeat Appellant’s wrongful death claims is undiminished by Pennsylvania case law holding that a settlement and release agreement does not bind non-signatories.

Consequently, the court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the claims against the plaintiff based upon the release.

So Now What?

Wrongful-death  statutes are quite specific in how they must operate and how they are to be interpreted by the courts. You should look at your wrongful-death  statute or have your attorney look at the wrongful-death  statute for the state where your release will be argued to make sure that it passes or succeeds in stopping a wrongful-death  claim. It would be extremely rare to find a release that did not stop the claims, absent proof of misrepresentation or fraud.

The second thing you need to do you always make sure you that your release covers not only all the defendants if you want to protect from any lawsuit but also includes all the possible plaintiffs who might sue you. This includes the deceased obviously but also a spouse and any children of the deceased. If the deceased is single, you want to make sure it includes any siblings or parents who may have a legal claim upon the deceased death.

The outcome would be pretty forgone in most states. However, nothing is ever set in stone in the law.

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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Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in her Own Right, Appellant v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, Appellee

No. 3049 EDA 2013

SUPERIOR COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

November 15, 2016, Decided

November 15, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] Appeal from the Order Entered September 30, 2013. In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Civil Division at No(s): April Term, 2012 No. 1417.

Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 2015 PA Super 273, 2015 Pa. Super. LEXIS 862 (Pa. Super. Ct., 2015)

JUDGES: BEFORE: GANTMAN, P.J., FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., BENDER, P.J.E., BOWES, PANELLA, SHOGAN, LAZARUS, OLSON and OTT, JJ. OPINION BY OLSON, J. Gantman, P.J., Bender, P.J.E., Bowes, Shogan and Ott, JJ., join this Opinion. Ford Elliott, P.J.E., files a Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in which Panella and Lazarus, JJ. join.

OPINION BY: OLSON

OPINION

OPINION BY OLSON, J.:

Appellant, Michele Valentino (in her own right and as administratrix of the estate of Derek Valentino), appeals from an order entered on September 30, 2013 in the Civil Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County granting summary judgment on behalf of Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC (Appellee). After careful consideration, we affirm.

In 2010, Appellee organized an event known as the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon Sprint (the Triathlon). Three events comprised the Triathlon: a one-half mile swim, a 15.7 mile bicycle race, and a three and one-tenth mile run. Trial Court Opinion, 8/14/14, at 2. The swimming portion of the competition occurred in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [*2]

To compete in the Triathlon, each participant was required to register for the event. As part of the registration process, participants paid a fee and electronically executed a liability waiver form.1 Each participant also completed and submitted a registration form to obtain a number and a bib to wear on the day of the race. Mr. Valentino electronically registered as a participant in the Triathlon on January 24, 2010.

1 Among other things, the lengthy form stated that Mr. Valentino “underst[ood] and acknowledge[d] the physical and mental rigors associated with triathlon,” “realize[d] that running, bicycling, swimming and other portions of such [e]vents are inherently dangerous and represent[ed] an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits,” and, “underst[ood] that participation involves risks and dangers which include, without limitation, the potential for serious bodily injury, permanent disability, paralysis and death [as well as] dangers arising from adverse weather conditions, imperfect course conditions, water, road and surface hazards, equipment failure, inadequate safety measures, participants of varying skill levels, situations beyond the immediate control of [Appellee], and other presently unknown risks and dangers[.]” Appellee’s Motion [*3]  for Summary Judgment Ex. G, 8/5/13. The form further provided that Mr. Valentino “underst[ood] that these [r]isks may be caused in whole or in part by [his] actions or inactions, the actions or inactions of others participating in the [e]vent, or the acts, inaction or negligence of [Appellee]” and that he “expressly assume[d] all such [r]isks and responsibility for any damages, liabilities, losses or expenses” that resulted from his participation in the event. Id. The liability waiver form also included a provision stating as follows: “[Mr. Valentino] further agree[s] that if, despite this [a]greement, he, or anyone on [his] behalf, makes a claim of [l]iability against [Appellee], [he] will indemnify, defend and hold harmless [Appellee] from any such [l]iability which [it] may [] incur[] as the result of such claim.” Id.

In block capital lettering above the signature line, the liability waiver provided that Mr. Valentino’s acceptance of the agreement confirmed that he read and understood its terms, that he understood that he would surrender substantial rights (including the right to sue), and that he signed the agreement freely and voluntarily. Id. Lastly, the form states that acceptance of the agreement constituted “a complete and unconditional release of all liability [*4]  to the greatest extent allowed by law.” Id.

On June 26, 2010, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Mr. Valentino entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first part of the Triathlon. He never completed the swimming portion of the competition or any other part of the race. The following day, on June 27, 2010, divers retrieved his body from the Schuylkill River.

Appellant (Mr. Valentino’s widow) filed her original complaint on April 12, 2012, asserting wrongful death and survival claims against various defendants, including Appellee. Thereafter, she amended her complaint on June 22, 2012. All of the defendants filed preliminary objections on June 22, 2012. On July 27, 2012, the trial court sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections and struck all references in Appellant’s amended complaint that referred to outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages. The court concluded that these allegations were legally insufficient since the alleged facts showed only ordinary negligence. In addition, the court struck paragraphs 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) in the amended complaint on grounds that those averments lacked sufficient specificity. The defendants answered the amended complaint [*5]  and raised new matter on August 9, 2012.

Shortly after discovery commenced, the defendants moved for summary judgment in December 2012. The trial court denied that motion on January 29, 2013. Eventually, Appellant stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants except Appellee. At the completion of discovery, Appellee again moved for summary judgment on August 5, 2013. The trial court granted Appellee’s motion on September 30, 2013.2 Appellant sought reconsideration but the trial court denied her request. Appellant then filed a timely notice of appeal on October 23, 2013. Pursuant to an order of court, Appellant filed a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal in accordance with Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b). Subsequently, the trial court explained its reasons for sustaining Appellee’s preliminary objections in an opinion issued on March 18, 2014. In a separate opinion issued on August 14, 2014, the trial court set forth its rationale for granting Appellee’s motion for summary judgment.3

2 Because the trial court previously sustained preliminary objections to Appellant’s claims of outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages, we read the trial court’s summary judgment order as dismissing [*6]  claims of ordinary negligence that comprised Appellant’s survival and wrongful death actions. In reaching this decision, the court relied upon the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino.

3 This Court filed its decision in Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 2013 PA Super 232, 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 2890, 189 L. Ed. 2d 838 (2014) on August 12, 2013, holding that  [HN1] a non-signatory wrongful death claimant was not bound by an arbitration agreement signed by a decedent. Owing to our decision in Pisano, the trial court in its Rule 1925(a) opinion urged this Court to vacate the order granting summary judgment as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.

On December 30, 2015, a divided three-judge panel of this Court affirmed, in part, and reversed, in part, the rulings issued by the trial court. Specifically, the panel unanimously affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining Appellee’s preliminary objections. In addition, the panel unanimously agreed that: (1) the completion of discovery and the further development of the factual record defeated application of the coordinate jurisdiction rule and eliminated factual issues surrounding Mr. Valentino’s execution of the liability waiver; (2) Appellant’s failure to state viable claims involving recklessness, outrageousness, and intentional [*7]  misconduct on the part of Appellee mooted Appellant’s argument that a contractual waiver of such claims would be ineffective; and, (3) there was no basis to consider the sufficiency of the testimony of Appellant’s expert since the trial court did not address that issue. Citing Pisano, however, two of the three members of the petite panel concluded that the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino did not apply to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the agreement.4 Consequently, this Court vacated summary judgment in favor of Appellee as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.5 Thereafter, both Appellant and Appellee requested reargument en banc. By order filed on March 11, 2016, this Court granted en banc reargument and withdrew our opinions of December 30, 2015. We now address the following questions:

1. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] where, when the material facts set forth in the [a]mended [c]omplaint, as well as all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, are accepted as true, it cannot be said with certainty that [Appellee’s] actions were not sufficiently reckless, outrageous and/or egregious to warrant an award of punitive damages?

2. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred [*8]  in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] and striking paragraph[s] 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) of the [a]mended [c]omplaint where these averments, and the [a]mended [c]omplaint in general, were sufficiently specific to enable [Appellee] to respond and prepare a defense?

3. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] second [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the issue of waiver and release was previously decided in the [o]rder of January 29, 2013 that denied [Appellee’s] first [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment, and the [c]ourt was precluded by the coordinate jurisdiction rule from revisiting the question?

4. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where, when the record is viewed in the light most favorable to [Appellant], questions of fact remain as to whether the purported release in question was effectively executed by the decedent and, if it was, whether it was enforceable?

5. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the report issued by Mark Mico fully and adequately addressed the questions of duty, breach of duty and causation and, in addition, he was fully qualified to render opinions in these regards?

Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 7-8.

4 Distinguishing the arbitration clause at issue in Pisano, the dissent found that Appellant’s claims were subject [*9]  to the liability waiver under which Mr. Valentino expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon since Appellant’s wrongful death action required her to demonstrate that Mr. Valentino’s death resulted from tortious conduct on the part of Appellee.

5 Our ruling did not purport to alter the trial court’s reliance on the liability waiver as grounds for entering summary judgment as to Appellant’s survival claims.

In the first issue, Appellant asserts that the trial court erred in sustaining the preliminary objections and striking all references to outrageous acts, gross negligence, and reckless conduct. Appellant also asserts that the trial court erred in dismissing her claims for punitive damages. The basis for these contentions is that, when the allegations set forth in the amended complaint are taken as true, the pleading asserts a claim that, “[Appellee] intentionally created a situation where swimmers [went] into a river with inadequate supervision and no reasonable means of rescue if they got into trouble.” Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 22 (emphasis in original).

The standard of review we apply when considering a trial court’s order sustaining preliminary objections is [*10]  well settled:

 [HN2] [O]ur standard of review of an order of the trial court overruling or [sustaining] preliminary objections is to determine whether the trial court committed an error of law. When considering the appropriateness of a ruling on preliminary objections, the appellate court must apply the same standard as the trial court.

 [HN3] Preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer test the legal sufficiency of the complaint. When considering preliminary objections, all material facts set forth in the challenged pleadings are admitted as true, as well as all inferences reasonably deducible therefrom.  [HN4] Preliminary objections which seek the dismissal of a cause of action should be sustained only in cases in which it is clear and free from doubt that the pleader will be unable to prove facts legally sufficient to establish the right to relief. If any doubt exists as to whether a demurrer should be sustained, it should be resolved in favor of overruling the preliminary objections.

HRANEC Sheet Metal, Inc. v. Metalico Pittsburgh, Inc., 2014 PA Super 278, 107 A.3d 114, 118 (Pa. Super. 2014).

[HN5] In Pennsylvania, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” Hutchison v. Luddy, 582 Pa. 114, 870 A.2d 766, 770 (Pa. 2005), quoting, Feld v. Merriam, 506 Pa. 383, 485 A.2d 742, 747 (Pa. 1984).  [HN6] “As the name suggests, [*11]  punitive damages are penal in nature and are proper only in cases where the defendant’s actions are so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton or reckless conduct.” Hutchison, 870 A.2d at 770.  [HN7] To support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk. Id. at 772.  [HN8] “Ordinary negligence, involving inadvertence, mistake or error of judgment will not support an award of punitive damages.” Hutchinson v. Penske Truck Leasing Co., 2005 PA Super 179, 876 A.2d 978, 983-984 (Pa. Super. 2005), aff’d, 592 Pa. 38, 922 A.2d 890 (Pa. 2007).

Appellant’s amended complaint alleges that Mr. Valentino died while swimming in the Schuylkill River during the Triathlon. The amended complaint alleges further that Appellee was inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees. These allegations, however, averred nothing more than ordinary negligence arising from inadvertence, mistake, or error in judgment; they do not support a claim involving outrageous [*12]  behavior or a conscious disregard for risks confronted by Triathlon participants. Hence, the trial court correctly dismissed Appellant’s allegations of outrageous and reckless conduct and properly struck her punitive damage claims.

In the second issue, Appellant asserts that the trial court erred in sustaining the preliminary objections and striking paragraphs 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) from her amended complaint. Appellant maintains that these averments are sufficiently specific to enable Appellee to respond to Appellant’s allegations and to formulate a defense in this case.

Contrary to Appellant’s argument, we agree with the trial court’s assessment that the challenged portions of the amended complaint are too vague and ambiguous to satisfy the requirements found in Pa.R.C.P. 1019. [HN9]  Under Rule 1019, “[t]he material facts on which a cause of action or defense is based shall be stated in a concise and summary form.” Pa.R.C.P. 1019.  [HN10] “Pennsylvania is a fact-pleading state; a complaint must not only give the defendant notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, but the complaint must also formulate the issues by summarizing those facts essential to support the claim.” Feingold v. Hendrzak, 2011 PA Super 34, 15 A.3d 937, 942 (Pa. Super. 2011).

The challenged provisions of [*13]  Appellant’s amended complaint referred only to “dangerous conditions” (¶ 22(a)), “warnings” (¶ 22(c)), “failures to reasonably plan, operate, supervise, and organize the event” (¶ 22(e)), and “failures to employ adequate policies, procedures, and protocols in conducting the event” (¶ 22(m)) as the basis for her claims. Upon review, we concur in the trial court’s determination that this boilerplate language was too indefinite to supply Appellee with adequate information to formulate a defense.

Appellant cites the decision of the Commonwealth Court in Banfield v. Cortes, 922 A.2d 36 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007) as supportive of her contention that the amended complaint set forth material facts with sufficient specificity. Banfield, however, is distinguishable. In that case, a group of electors filed suit alleging that the Secretary of the Commonwealth, in certifying the use of certain electronic systems in elections, failed to adopt uniform testing procedures that addressed the security, reliability, and accuracy of voting systems. The Secretary requested an order directing the plaintiffs to re-plead their allegations with greater specificity. In rejecting this request, the Commonwealth Court explained that in challenging the adequacy of the testing [*14]  features inherent in the newly adopted electronic voting systems, the plaintiffs provided sufficient facts to enable the Secretary to prepare a defense. Id. at 50.

Here, in contrast, Appellant referred vaguely, and without elaboration, to unspecified dangerous conditions, indefinite warnings, and generic failures to reasonably plan and employ adequate policies in carrying out the Triathlon. Moreover, even if Appellee possessed some knowledge of the facts around which Appellant’s allegations centered, this alone would not relieve Appellant of her duty to allege material facts upon which she based her claims. See Gross v. United Engineers & Constructors, Inc., 224 Pa. Super. 233, 302 A.2d 370, 372 (Pa. Super. 1973). Thus, Appellant’s reliance on Banfield is unavailing and we conclude that the trial court committed no error in striking paragraphs 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) from the amended complaint.

The final three claims challenge the entry of summary judgment in favor of Appellee. Our standard of review over such claims is well settled.

 [HN11] Th[e] scope of review of an order granting summary judgment is plenary. Our standard of review is clear: the trial court’s order will be reversed only where it is established that the court committed an error of law or clearly abused its discretion.  [HN12] Summary judgment is [*15]  appropriate only in those cases where the record clearly demonstrates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The reviewing court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, resolving all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact against the moving party. When the facts are so clear that reasonable minds cannot differ, a trial court may properly enter summary judgment.

Atcovitz v. Gulph Mills Tennis Club, Inc., 571 Pa. 580, 812 A.2d 1218, 1221-1222 (Pa. 2002).

Appellant advances several arguments in support of her contention that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. First, Appellant asserts that the coordinate jurisdiction rule precluded the trial court from addressing Appellee’s motion since a prior summary judgment motion was denied. Second, Appellant contends that genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Mr. Valentino actually executed a liability waiver form barred the entry of summary judgment in Appellee’s favor. Appellant next maintains that a plaintiff cannot contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct and that, as a result, the liability waiver executed in this case is incapable of extinguishing [*16]  such claims. Appellant also asserts that, pursuant to our prior decision in Pisano, a decedent’s liability waiver is ineffective as to non-signatory third-party wrongful death claimants. Lastly, Appellant claims that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation. We address these contentions in turn.

We begin with Appellant’s claim alleging that the coordinate jurisdiction rule precluded consideration of Appellee’s motion for summary judgment since the trial court denied a prior summary judgment motion.  [HN13] The coordinate jurisdiction rule holds that, “upon transfer of a matter between trial judges of coordinate jurisdiction, a transferee trial judge may not alter resolution of a legal question previously decided by a transferor trial judge.” Zane v. Friends Hospital, 575 Pa. 236, 836 A.2d 25, 29 (Pa. 2003). An exception to this rule applies, however, “when there has been a change in the controlling law or where there was a substantial change in the facts or evidence.” Id. We agree with the trial court that the completion of discovery and the development of a more complete record defeated application of [*17]  the coordinate jurisdiction rule in this case. Hence, this contention merits no relief.

Appellant next advances a claim asserting that genuine issues of fact surrounding Mr. Valentino’s execution of the liability waiver preclude summary judgment in favor of Appellee. In developing this contention, Appellant draws our attention to differences between the version of the liability waiver introduced in support of Appellee’s first motion for summary judgment and the version submitted in support of its second motion. Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 37-41. Appellant notes that the second version was two and one-half pages in length while the first version was only two pages. Appellant also notes that the second version bore the date “2011” while the event occurred in 2010. Lastly, the second version included the words “Yes, I agree to the above waivers” above the signature line while the first version did not.

There is ample support for the trial court’s finding that Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver when he electronically registered for the Triathlon. See Trial Court Opinion, 8/14/14, at 4 (“In the second motion for summary judgment, it is undisputed that a waiver was among the [*18]  decedent’s possessions, prior to being discovered in the Schuykill River.”). The record shows that Appellee retained the services of ACTIVE Network (ACTIVE) to implement the online registration process for the Triathlon. ACTIVE implemented the required specifications for online registration, including guidelines for specific waiver and assumption of the risk language, supplied by Appellee and USA Triathlon (USAT), the national governing body of the sport of triathlon. USAT sanctioned the Triathlon because Appellee followed USAT registration guidelines.

Appellee also demonstrated that no one could participate in the Triathlon without registering online, a process that could not be completed without the execution of a liability waiver. It is not disputed that Mr. Valentino registered online by completing the required process. He paid his registration fee with a credit card issued in his name and for which he retained exclusive possession.

Appellee also offered the affidavit of Eric McCue, the general manager of ACTIVE, to explain why the appearance of the liability waiver varied between the submission of the first and second motions for summary judgment. According to Mr. McCue’s affidavit, [*19]  “ACTIVE’s computer system condenses older registration and waiver documents for storage purposes, making any printed version of the older retained registration and waiver documents appear smaller than when they were viewed online by the reader/registrant.” Appellee’s Motion for Summary Judgment Ex. L at ¶ 9, 8/5/13. Mr. McCue also stated that “the reader/registrant would view the online registration for the subject event exactly as it appears on Exhibit B [of Appellee’s August 5, 2013 motion for summary judgment] on his or her computer screen.” Id. at ¶ 10. Appellant offered no evidence to dispute Mr. McCue’s affidavit testimony.

Lastly, Appellee relied upon the deposition testimony of witnesses to demonstrate that Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver during the electronic registration process. At her deposition, Appellant admitted she had no reason to believe that Mr. Valentino did not read and understand the liability waiver or that he did not sign it during the registration process. In addition, Appellee pointed to the deposition testimony of Andrea Pontani, Mr. Valentino’s friend. Ms. Pontani testified that Appellant and Mr. Valentino were aware of the liability waiver because [*20]  they spoke with her about it before the competition, stating that Mr. Valentino signed the form and presented it in order to obtain his competitor’s bib during the registration process on the day of the event. Based upon the forgoing, we agree with the trial court that Appellant presented no evidence raising a genuine issue of fact as to whether Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver at issue in this case.

We turn next to Appellant’s position that, even if Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver, the agreement is unenforceable with regard to claims asserting reckless or intentional conduct. Here, however, we have previously affirmed the trial court’s determination that Appellant did not state viable claims involving reckless or intentional conduct. See infra. As such, Appellant’s contention cannot serve as a basis for disturbing the trial court’s summary judgment order, which dismissed allegations of ordinary negligence comprising Appellant’s wrongful death and survival actions.6

6 Appellant does not challenge the substantive validity of the liability waiver as a bar to her claims of ordinary negligence. Consequently, we need not address the validity of the exculpatory provisions [*21]  in the context of this case.

Appellant forwards a claim that our decision in Pisano bars Appellee’s reliance on a liability waiver to defend wrongful death claims asserted by a non-signatory statutory claimant. See Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 45-47; see also Trial Court Opinion, 8/14/14, at 5. In Pisano, a nursing home resident signed a contract agreeing to submit all claims against the home to binding arbitration. When the resident died, the administrator of the resident’s estate asserted wrongful death claims against the home and the home invoked the arbitration clause. The trial court denied the home’s petition to compel arbitration. On appeal, this Court affirmed, concluding that the arbitration clause was not binding against wrongful death claimants who did not sign the agreement because they possessed a separate and distinct right of action. Pursuant to this holding, Appellant maintains that since she did not sign the liability waiver executed by her late husband, the contractual waiver cannot be asserted as a bar to her wrongful death claims. We disagree.

The statute authorizing wrongful death claims in Pennsylvania provides as follows:

§ 8301. Death action

(a)General rule.– An [*22]  action may be brought [for the benefit of the spouse, children or parents of the deceased], under procedures prescribed by general rules, to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another if no recovery for the same damages claimed in the wrongful death action was obtained by the injured individual during his lifetime and any prior actions for the same injuries are consolidated with the wrongful death claim so as to avoid a duplicate recovery.

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8301 (emphasis added) (sometimes referred to as “Wrongful Death Act”). Eight decades ago, our Supreme Court interpreted a prior, but similar, version of the statute. The Court made clear that the statute contemplated that a claimant’s recovery required a tortious act on the part of the defendant:

[W]e have held that  [HN14] a right to recover must exist in the party injured when he died in order to entitle[] those named in the act to sue. We have therefore held, in order that the death action impose no new and unjust burden on the defendant, that where the deceased would have been barred by contributory negligence, or by the statute of limitations, the parties suing for his death [*23]  are likewise barred. We have announced the principle that the statutory action is derivative because it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action. Its derivation, however, is from the tortious act, and not from the person of the deceased, so that it comes to the parties named in the statute free from personal disabilities arising from the relationship of the injured party and tort-feasor.

Kaczorowski v. Kalkosinski, 321 Pa. 438, 184 A. 663, 664 (Pa. 1936) (internal citations omitted; emphasis added).

Our decision in Pisano limited a decedent’s authority to diminish or alter a non-signatory third-party claimant’s procedural election to pursue a claim in the forum of his or her choice. That decision, however, did not purport to undermine the fundamental principle that  [HN15] both an estate in a survival action, and a statutory claimant in a wrongful death action, shoulder the same burden of proving that tortious conduct on the part of the defendant caused the decedent’s death. Under Pisano,  [HN16] “wrongful death actions are derivative of decedents’ injuries but are not derivative of decedents’ rights.” Pisano, 77 A.3d at 659-660. Thus, while a third party’s wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s right of action, [*24]  a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.

As suggested above,  [HN17] Pennsylvania case law has long held that a wrongful death claimant’s substantive right to recover is derivative of and dependent upon a tortious act that resulted in the decedent’s death. Our reasoning in Sunderland v. R.A. Barlow Homebuilders, 2002 PA Super 16, 791 A.2d 384 (Pa. Super. 2002), aff’d, 576 Pa. 22, 838 A.2d 662 (Pa. 2003) illustrates this point:

 [HN18] A wrongful death action is derivative of the injury which would have supported the decedent’s own cause of action and is dependent upon the decedent’s cause of action being viable at the time of death. [Moyer v. Rubright, 438 Pa. Super. 154, 651 A.2d 1139, 1143 (Pa. Super. 1994)].  [HN19] “As a general rule, no action for wrongful death can be maintained where the decedent, had he lived, could not himself have recovered for the injuries sustained.” Ingenito v. AC & S, Inc., 430 Pa. Super. 129, 633 A.2d 1172, 1176 (Pa. Super. 1993). Thus, although death is the necessary final event in a wrongful death claim, the cause of action is derivative of the underlying tortious acts that caused the fatal injury. Id.

Sunderland, 791 A.2d at 390-391 (emphasis added; parallel citations omitted).

Applying these settled principles in the present case, we conclude that  [HN20] a decedent may not compromise or diminish a wrongful death claimant’s right of action without consent. Nevertheless, a third-party wrongful death claimant is subject to substantive defenses supported by the decedent’s [*25]  actions or agreements where offered to relieve the defendant, either wholly or partially, from liability by showing that the defendant’s actions were not tortious. Here, Mr. Valentino, in registering online for the Triathlon, executed a detailed liability waiver under which he expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon and agreed to indemnify Appellee for liability stemming from his involvement in the event. The valid liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino was available to support Appellee’s claim that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of taking part in the competition and that, therefore, Appellee’s actions were not tortious. Since Appellant’s wrongful death claims required her to establish that Appellee’s conduct was tortious, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee.

Appellant construes Pisano as holding that a wrongful death claimant’s rights are wholly separate, in all contexts and for all purposes, from not just the “rights” of a decedent but also the injuries sustained by a decedent. This reading of Pisano conflates the concept of a right of action under Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Act, referring [*26]  to the non-derivative right of a statutory claimant to seek compensation, with the principle that a claimant’s substantive right to obtain a recovery always remains, even in the wake of Pisano, “depend[ant] upon the occurrence of a tortious act.” Pisano, 77 A.3d at 654 (emphasis added). The issue in Pisano was whether a wrongful death claimant should be bound by an arbitration clause that he did not sign. This is a uniquely procedural issue that differs greatly from the enforcement of a valid liability waiver such as the one at issue in the present case. An arbitration clause dictates the forum where a litigant may present his claim. The terms of such a clause do not fix substantive legal standards by which we measure a right to recovery. Because the decedent signatory agreed to submit his claim to arbitration, his claim is subject to the compulsory provisions of the agreement.  [HN21] A non-signatory wrongful death claimant, on the other hand, cannot be compelled to present his claim to an arbitrator since he has not consented to arbitration and since he possesses an independent, non-derivative right to air his claim in the forum of his choice.

A liability waiver, however, operates quite differently from an arbitration clause. [*27]  By executing a liability waiver, the decedent signatory acknowledges and assumes identified risks and pledges that the defendant will not be held liable for resulting harms. If the decedent executes the waiver in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner (as here), the waiver is deemed valid and it shifts the risk of loss away from the defendant and onto the decedent. In effect, an enforceable waiver under which the decedent assumes specified risks transforms the nature of the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the decedent from tortious to non-tortious. Since Pisano retains the requirement that the decedent’s death result from a tortious act, even non-signatory wrongful death claimants remain subject to the legal consequences of a valid liability waiver.

Appellant also overinflates the importance of the presence of a wrongful death claimant’s signature when evaluating the enforceability of a liability waiver. Under Pisano, a wrongful death claimant possesses an independent, non-derivative right of action that cannot be subject to compulsory arbitration in the absence of consent. Thus, to enforce an arbitration clause in the wrongful death context, the claimant’s signature is necessary [*28]  to demonstrate that she agreed to submit her claim to binding arbitration. The same is not true for a liability waiver, however. As explained above,  [HN22] a valid waiver signed only by the decedent transfers the risk of harm from the defendant to the decedent, effectively rendering the defendant’s conduct non-tortious. Since the wrongful death claimant’s substantive right of recovery presupposes tortious conduct on the part of the defendant, the claimant’s signature on the waiver is unnecessary.

Although we have uncovered no recent Pennsylvania case law that discusses the application of a valid waiver in a subsequent wrongful death action, several decisions from California are instructive on this point. These cases illustrate that,  [HN23] while a valid waiver does not bar a wrongful death claim, it can support a defense asserting that the alleged tortfeasor owed no duty to the decedent:

 [HN24] Although a wrongful death claim is an independent action, wrongful death plaintiffs may be bound by agreements entered into by decedent that limit the scope of the wrongful death action. Thus, for example, although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his heirs’ wrongful [*29]  death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk.

Ruiz v. Podolsky, 50 Cal. 4th 838, 114 Cal. Rptr. 3d 263, 237 P.3d 584, 593 (Cal. 4th 2010). Hence,  [HN25]

where a decedent executes a valid waiver:

the express contractual assumption of the risk, combined with the express waiver of defendants’ negligence, constitute[s] a complete defense to the surviving heirs’ wrongful death action. This is different than holding th[at the wrongful death] action is barred.

Scroggs v. Coast Community College Dist., 193 Cal.App.3d 1399, 1402, 239 Cal. Rptr. 916 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 1987); Eriksson v. Nunnink, 233 Cal. App. 4th 708, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2015); Madison v. Superior Court 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 250 Cal. Rptr. 299 (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. 1988).

These cases align with Pennsylvania law in a way that the decisional law of other states does not. For example, in Gershon v. Regency Diving Center, Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720 (N.J. Super. 2004), the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court rejected the rationale in Madison and the other California cases, noting that the California approach was “internally inconsistent” since it allowed claimants to file a lawsuit that ultimately would not succeed. This reasoning constitutes a one-dimensional view of the issue. Take, for example, a case in which the decedent executes a valid liability waiver, as here. Thereafter, the defendant raises a successful assumption of the risk defense against the decedent’s estate in a survival action. Under the holding in Gershon, the defendant cannot raise the defense in a companion wrongful death action. [*30]  Gershon thus trades one “inconsistency” for another since it allows a wrongful death action to proceed in the face of a valid waiver that precludes a related survival action. Since the same underlying conduct by the defendant is the focus of scrutiny in this hypothetical situation, it is entirely consistent to reject a wrongful death claim where a valid waiver precludes recovery in a related survival action.7

7 This Court recently required consolidation of related wrongful death and survival actions since wrongful death beneficiaries cannot be compelled to arbitrate wrongful death claims. Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 2015 PA Super 64, 113 A.3d 317 (Pa. Super. 2015), appeal granted, 122 A.3d 1036 (Pa. 2015). However, our Supreme Court overruled our decision in Taylor, concluding that the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 2, preempted application of Pa.R.C.P. 213(e) (requiring consolidation of survival and wrongful death actions at trial) and required arbitration of survival claims where a valid and enforceable arbitration clause exists. Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 2016 Pa. LEXIS 2166, 2016 WL 5630669 (Pa. 2016).

Our conclusion that Appellee may rely on a liability waiver signed only by the decedent to defeat Appellant’s wrongful death claims is undiminished by Pennsylvania case law holding that a settlement and release agreement does not bind non-signatories. See, e.g., Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (Pa. 1989). In Buttermore [*31] , James Buttermore sustained injuries in an automobile accident. Eventually, he resolved his claims against the tortfeasor in exchange for the sum of $25,000.00 and executed a release and settlement agreement in which he agreed to release any and all persons from liability, whether known or unknown. Later, Buttermore and his wife initiated an action against Aliquippa Hospital and certain physicians claiming that treatment he received aggravated the injuries he sustained in the accident. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the strength of the release. Our Supreme Court held that the release barred Buttermore’s claims against all tortfeasors, including those who were unnamed. The Court further held, however, that Buttermore’s wife had an independent cause of action for loss of consortium, which was not barred by the release since she did not sign the agreement.

A pair of examples illustrates the distinction between the situation in Buttermore and the situation presently before us. In the first example, the driver of car A operates his vehicle on a public highway. He is injured after a rear-end collision caused by the driver of car B. Litigation ensues between the two drivers and, [*32]  eventually, the driver of car A resolves his claims against the driver of car B for the sum of $30,000.00. At that time, the driver of car A executes a release and settlement agreement, releasing all persons from liability — whether known or unknown — for claims stemming from injuries and losses he sustained in the accident. His spouse does not sign the release. As in Buttermore, the release signed by the driver of car A bars all claims he initiates in the future but does not bar loss of consortium claims or wrongful death claims (should he succumb to his injuries) brought by his spouse, who possesses independent causes of action. In this scenario, the execution of the release manifests the driver of car A’s agreement to forgo all future claims but does not establish his assumption of the risk of operating his vehicle. Nothing in the release suggests that the driver of car A intended to shift the risk of loss away from the driver of car B and onto himself. Indeed, the execution of the release after the injury-causing accident leaves no room for the inference that he assumed this risk of negligence on the part of the driver of car B. Since nothing in the release precludes a finding [*33]  that the driver of car B acted tortiously, the release has no preclusive effect on the spouse’s right to seek damages in the context of a subsequent loss of consortium or wrongful death action.

In the second example, the driver of car A decides to participate in a demolition derby. As a condition of entry, he voluntarily executes a liability waiver under which he assumes the risk of participation in the event and waives all potential claims against other participants and event organizers. Again, the spouse of the driver of car A does not sign the liability waiver. During the demolition derby, the driver of car A sustains injuries and eventually dies as a result of a collision with another participant. In this scenario, loss of consortium and wrongful death claims asserted by the spouse of the driver of car A are subject to the liability waiver. This is because the driver of car A expressly manifested his intent to assume the risk of participating in the demolition derby, thereby shifting the risk of loss or injury away from other participants and event organizers. Unlike the release and settlement agreement in the first example that said nothing about assumption of the risk or any other [*34]  substantive basis to oppose tort liability, the liability waiver in this hypothetical supports a complete bar to financial responsibility for injury and losses and bears directly on the formula by which we assess whether a defendant acted tortiously in causing damages. Because even non-signatory wrongful death claimants bear the burden of proving that tortious conduct caused the decedent’s death, their claims are subject to liability waivers under which the deceased assumed the risk of engaging in a particular activity.8 As the circumstances before us more closely reflect this second example, the instant appeal calls for application of the principles alluded to in prior Pennsylvania cases and specifically articulated in the California line of authority. See infra. Thus, we are not persuaded that Pennsylvania case law construing the applicable scope of release and settlement agreements undermines our conclusion that Appellant’s wrongful death claims are subject to the liability waiver signed by Mr. Valentino.

8  [HN26] Although strictly construed, Pennsylvania law recognizes the enforceability of valid liability waivers, particularly in cases where the injured party elects to engage in activities [*35]  that entail an obvious risk of injury or loss. See, e.g., Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738 (Pa. Super. 2016) (en banc) (gym membership), appeal denied, 2016 Pa. LEXIS 1407, 2016 WL 3910827 (Pa. 2016). We would substantially reduce the utility of liability waivers if we were to hold that they are enforceable only against signatories, but not against non-signatory wrongful death claimants. Moreover, it would be extremely impractical to expect defendants to acquire signatures from all such potential plaintiffs. Indeed, it should almost go without saying that event organizers and hosts of activities that entail a risk of injury would likely cease operations if valid liability waivers could not be enforced against non-signatory statutory claimants such as Appellant.

For related reasons, we conclude that the decision in Brown v. Moore, 247 F.2d 711 (3rd Cir. 1957), cert. denied, 355 U.S. 882, 78 S. Ct. 148, 2 L. Ed. 2d 112 (1957) is also unpersuasive. In that case, Brown, a neurotic, entered a sanitarium for treatment which included electrical shock therapy. While in the sanitarium, Brown fell down a flight of stairs. After the fall, sanitarium employees picked Brown up by his extremities, causing paralysis. Upon entry into the sanitarium, Brown and his wife signed a release relieving the sanitarium and its employees from liability for injuries resulting from his mental health [*36]  treatment, including electro-shock therapy or similar treatments. As Brown’s widow and the executrix of his estate, Brown’s wife brought claims under the Wrongful Death Act on behalf of herself and her three minor children, as well as a Survival Act claim. The court’s opinion in Brown suggested that the release was sufficient to alleviate the defendants’ liability under the Survival Act and to defeat Brown’s widow’s claims under the Wrongful Death Act since the decedent and Brown’s wife signed the agreement. Nevertheless, the court opined that Brown’s children could recover on their wrongful death claims since they were non-signatories. We find it significant, however, that immediately before reaching this conclusion, the court concluded that Brown’s treatment following his fall down the stairs was unrelated to his treatment for his mental health issues, which was the subject of his release. In essence, then, the court held that while Brown may have assumed the risk of electro-shock therapy or similar treatments, he did not assume the risk of faulty medical treatment for injuries sustained during his fall. Accordingly, Brown does little to support Appellant’s claim before us.9

9 As our [*37]  analysis suggests,  [HN27] courts must exercise great care and caution to differentiate between an agreement that addresses only the procedural rights of a signatory (i.e., an arbitration agreement) or a signatory’s right to pursue further claims (i.e., a release and settlement agreement) from an agreement that goes further and unambiguously manifests a signatory’s intent to assume the risk of involvement in a particular event or activity (i.e., a liability waiver). This is because the former binds only the parties to the agreement while the latter extends to non-signatory third-parties. We accord broader reach to liability waivers under which the signatory assumes a particular risk because, where valid, such agreements support a complete bar to tort liability and therefore form an important part of the assessment of whether tortious conduct brought about injury, loss, or death. A court’s examination of this issue necessarily will involve the nature and purpose of the agreement, as expressed in the exculpatory language of the instrument, together with the circumstances under which the parties entered the contract. The analysis should not be limited simply to the label applied to the agreement [*38]  and, occasionally, will ask whether the signatory expressly assumed the precise risk that resulted in his injury. In Brown, for example, we doubt whether the release should have been given preclusive effect at all since the precise injury sustained in that case fell outside the scope of the exculpatory waiver.

The learned Dissent rejects the conclusion that assumption of the risk and the liability waiver support the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of Appellee. The Dissent instead argues that, “Pisano is clear that a wrongful death action is an independent cause of action, created by statute, and is not derivative of the decedent’s rights at the time of death.” Dissenting Opinion at 8. This position overlooks settled Supreme Court precedent and over eight decades of Pennsylvania case law holding that wrongful death actions are derivative of “the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action.” Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (noting that wrongful death action would be barred by affirmative defenses such as contributory negligence or statute of limitations); see also Sunderland, 791 A.2d at 390-391; Moyer, 651 A.2d at 1143; Ingenito, 633 A.2d at 1176. Not only does the Dissent ignore binding Pennsylvania precedent, the premise of the Dissent’s [*39]  conclusion is unavailing.

Citing Pisano, the Dissent asserts that Appellant is not “bound” by the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino and, therefore, the agreement does not bar her from bringing a wrongful death action. Respectfully, these contentions miss the point. First, Appellant filed a wrongful death action in the venue of her choosing and no one asserts that the liability waiver precluded her from doing so. Second, since it is undisputed that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily executed the liability waiver, the issue of whether Appellant was “bound” by the waiver agreement is irrelevant to whether Appellee was entitled to an order granting summary judgment as to the negligence claims asserted in Appellant’s wrongful death action. We explain.

The record undeniably contains a valid waiver agreement. As such, the agreement itself constitutes tangible and, indeed, overwhelming proof that Mr. Valentino intelligently and willingly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon. This is so regardless of whether Appellant was “bound” by the agreement. The law is clear that a wrongful death claimant’s recovery must derive from a tortious actious act. Sunderland, 791 A.2d at 390-391. As even the Dissent [*40]  concedes, “[a] wrongful death claimant [must] prove negligence.” Dissenting Opinion at 8, fn.6. The law is also clear that [HN28]  the doctrine of assumption of the risk is a function of the duty analysis required in any negligence action and that summary judgment may be entered where the record discloses an absence of general issues of material fact. Thompson v. Ginkel, 2014 PA Super 125, 95 A.3d 900, 906-907 (Pa. Super. 2014), appeal denied, 630 Pa. 745, 108 A.3d 36 (Pa. 2015). Since assumption of the risk serves as a complete bar to tort recovery, Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2(2) permitted Appellee to seek summary judgment based upon Mr. Valentino’s voluntary and knowing assumption of the hazards attendant to triathlon participation. See Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc., 2000 PA Super 87, 749 A.2d 522, 527 (Pa. Super. 2000).10

10 In Staub, this Court explained:

 [HN29] For summary judgment purposes, affirmative defenses are generally decided under Pa.R.Civ.P. 1035.2(1), where it is the moving party’s burden to establish the defense as a matter of law. Under [Howell v. Clyde, 533 Pa. 151, 620 A.2d 1107 (Pa. 1993) and Hardy v. Southland Corp., 435 Pa. Super. 237, 645 A.2d 839 (Pa. Super. 1994), appeal denied, 539 Pa. 679, 652 A.2d 1324 (Pa. 1994)], however, assumption of risk is now considered part of a “no-duty” analysis. As such, the doctrine now falls under the second type of summary judgment motion, described in Pa.R.Civ.P. 1035.2(2). Under Rule 1035.2(2), a party may obtain summary judgment by pointing to the adverse party’s lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim. . . .  [HN30] One of the essential elements of a negligence claim is that [*41]  the defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care. Under Rule 1035.2(2), the defendant’s method for pointing to a lack of evidence on the duty issue is to show that the plaintiff assumed the risk as a matter of law. This process will entail gathering and presenting evidence on the plaintiff’s behavior, and attempting to convince the court that the plaintiff knew the risk and proceeded to encounter it in a manner showing a willingness to accept the risk. Thus, for all practical purposes, the process for showing “no-duty” assumption of the risk under Rule 1035.2(2) is indistinguishable from showing assumption of the risk as an affirmative defense under Rule 1035.2(1).

Staub, 749 A.2d at 527. For purposes of proving negligence, the only legal duty referred to in this case is the one allegedly owed by Appellee to Mr. Valentino. The Dissent identifies no source and no proof of a separate and independent legal duty owed by Appellee to Appellant.

More broadly, we note that the Dissent places great weight on its contention that Appellant’s wrongful death action is not derivative of Mr. Valentino’s injuries. Notwithstanding, even a brief review of Appellant’s amended complaint and the submissions of the parties reveals that all of the allegations of negligence [*42]  underpinning Appellant’s wrongful death claims involve legal duties, alleged breaches, proximate causation, and harms that focus exclusively upon Mr. Valentino. Thus, in substantive terms, the conclusion that Appellant’s wrongful death claims are derivative of the injuries sustained by Mr. Valentino is inescapable.

In this case, Appellant does not dispute that the liability waiver constituted an express assumption of the risk by Mr. Valentino. This confirms that Appellee owed no legal duty to Mr. Valentino and, therefore, Appellee cannot be found to be negligent. It follows, then, that the waiver agreement not only defeated the negligence claims asserted in the context of Appellant’s survival action, but also the negligence claims asserted in the context of Appellant’s wrongful death action. Appellee’s right to summary judgment simply did not depend upon Appellant’s execution of the agreement.11

11 The Dissent also makes the point that wrongful death claims are intended to compensate for the loss of the decedent. Wrongful death claims, however, were not intended to place new and unjust burdens on defendants and compensation is due only when tortious conduct results in death. In the present [*43]  case, the trial court properly entered summary judgment because Appellant cannot demonstrate that Appellee was negligent, as Appellee owed no duty to Mr. Valentino. Thus, the goal of compensation does not support reversal of the trial court’s order. This holding does not “eviscerate” but wholly aligns with our Wrongful Death Statute, which imposes liability only where the defendant’s tortious conduct causes death. Compare Dissenting Opinion at 5.

We turn now to Appellant’s claim that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation. Here, Appellant relies on Mark Mico, an experienced triathlete, race director, and race management consultant. Mr. Mico concluded that Appellee’s negligence caused Mr. Valentino to drown in the Schuylkill River. Among other things, Mr. Mico stated in his report that Appellee failed to provide a sufficient number of lifeguards and allowed too many swimmers into the water during wave launches. He also stated that contestants were not permitted to wear buoyant wetsuits and that Appellee failed to provide to lifeguards [*44]  appropriate instruction and training in open water safety. Mr. Mico opined that swimmers were given black swimming caps that offered poor visibility in open water. Finally, Mr. Mico stated that most lifeguards were familiar only with conditions in swimming pools, not open water.

In this case, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Appellee based upon the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino. The trial court did not consider the contents of Mr. Mico’s report and did not discuss the issue in its Rule 1925(a) opinion. Nonetheless, since our scope of review is plenary, we may and must examine Mr. Mico’s report to determine if it precludes the entry of summary judgment based on the liability waiver. We conclude that it does not.

Assuming for purposes of argument that Mr. Mico’s expert report establishes a prima facie case of negligence, the liability waiver operated to release Appellee from liability for negligence, and Appellant does not challenge the validity of the release on that basis. Furthermore, Mr. Mico’s conclusory opinion that Appellee’s “conduct was to such a degree of carelessness that it amounts to reckless disregard for the safety of its participants[,]” does not permit [*45]  Appellant to avoid the liability waiver. Report of Michael Mico, 6/30/13, at unnumbered 7. As we previously determined, the trial court properly held that the facts alleged in the amended complaint did not support claims that Appellee acted outrageously, recklessly, or intentionally, and dismissed such claims with prejudice. Expert opinion to the contrary cannot alter that legal assessment. In particular, Mr. Mico’s report did not identify specific actions or omissions that rose to the level of reckless disregard.  [HN31] Reckless disregard requires a different state of mind and a substantially greater knowledge of impending risks than ordinary negligence, not simply a higher degree of carelessness, a distinction the expert failed to appreciate.12 See Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1200 (Pa. 2012) ( [HN32] “Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.”) Consequently, nothing in Mr. Mico’s expert report alters our determination that the liability waiver is dispositive of Appellant’s wrongful death and survival claims.

12 Section 500 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts defines reckless disregard of safety as follows:

 [HN33] The actor’s [*46]  conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500.

In sum,  [HN34] Pennsylvania law distinguishes a wrongful death claimant’s non-derivative right to bring an action from her derivative right to recover damages based upon a defendant’s tortious conduct. This distinction allows a defendant, like Appellee, to assert an express, contractual assumption of risk based upon a valid liability waiver against a wrongful death claimant, even where the claimant does not sign the liability waiver agreement. Applying these settled principles to the case at hand, the order granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee fully comports with prevailing Pennsylvania law. Thus, we affirm the court’s summary judgment order dismissing Appellant’s wrongful death and survival claims.

Order affirmed.

Gantman, P.J., Bender, P.J.E., Bowes, Shogan [*47]  and Ott, JJ., join this Opinion.

Ford Elliott, P.J.E., files a Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in which Panella and Lazarus, JJ. join.

Judgment Entered.

Date: 11/15/2016

Because I conclude that Derek Valentino’s release agreement did not bind appellant and did not preclude her from bringing a wrongful death action, I must respectfully dissent from that part of the Majority’s Opinion. I join the Opinion in all other respects.

While the Majority attempts to distinguish Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (Pa. 1989), and Brown v. Moore, 247 F.2d 711 (3rd Cir. 1957), cert. denied, 355 U.S. 882, 78 S. Ct. 148, 2 L. Ed. 2d 112 (1957), I find those cases to be instructive. In Buttermore, James Buttermore was involved in an automobile accident, sustaining injuries. Buttermore, 561 A.2d at 734. He signed a release in settlement of his claim against the tortfeasor for the sum of $25,000, agreeing to release from liability any and all persons, known or unknown. Id. Subsequently, Buttermore and his wife instituted suit against Aliquippa Hospital and the treating physicians alleging that the treatment he received aggravated the injuries he sustained in the accident, worsening his condition. Id. at 734-735. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of Buttermore’s release. Id. at 735.

After first holding that the release applied to all tortfeasors, including the defendants, [*48]  whether specifically named or not, the court in Buttermore turned to the matter of Buttermore’s wife’s loss of consortium claim: “That is not to say, however, that parties may bargain away the rights of others not a party to their agreement. That question rises here because a spouse not a party to the agreement seeks to sue in her own right for loss of consortium.” Id. at 735. The Buttermore court held that the wife had an independent cause of action for loss of consortium regardless of her husband’s release and settlement agreement: “The question is, does the wife, not a signatory to the agreement, have an independent right to sue for the injury done her. We answer that she does.” Id. at 736. See also Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 2013 PA Super 232, 77 A.3d 651, 658 (Pa.Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014), cert. denied, 134 S.Ct. 2890,     U.S.    , 189 L. Ed. 2d 838 (2014), citing Pennsylvania Railroad Co. v. Henderson, 51 Pa. 315, 317, 23 Legal Int. 284, 13 Pitts. Leg. J. 561 (1866) (“This suit is brought by the widow, and her right of action cannot be affected by any discharge or release of [husband] in his lifetime.”).

Similarly, in Brown v. Moore, the plaintiff, the widow and executrix of George Brown, brought a cause of action under the Wrongful Death Act for the benefit of herself and her three minor children, as well as a Survival Act claim. Id. at 714. Brown, a neurotic, was admitted to a sanitarium for treatment including electrical shock therapy, [*49]  following which he fell down a flight of stairs. Id. at 715. After the fall, Brown was picked up by his extremities, with his head hanging down, resulting in paralysis. Id. Brown had signed a release agreeing to release the sanitarium and its employees from liability for any injury resulting from his treatment as a neurotic while at the sanitarium, including electro-shock therapy or treatment of a similar nature. Id. at 722. After concluding that Brown’s treatment following his fall down the stairs was unrelated to his treatment as a neurotic by electro-shock therapy or other similar therapeutic means, the Brown court stated,

[S]ince this case may well come before the reviewing Court we point out that even if the release were deemed sufficient to relieve the defendants of liability under the Pennsylvania Survival Act is [sic] could scarcely relieve them of liability under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act for that Act provides benefits not only for the widow of a deceased person but also for his children. Even assuming that the release was effective as to the plaintiff, who executed it as did Brown, nonetheless Brown’s children would be entitled to a recovery.

Id. (emphasis added).1

1 Brown was disapproved of by [*50]  Grbac v. Reading Fair Co., 688 F.2d 215 (3rd Cir. 1982). However, Grbac was criticized by this court in Pisano:

In Grbac, the court of appeals held that a liability release executed by decedent was binding on the widow’s wrongful death claim. Id. at 217-218. Erroneously following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s holding in [Hill v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 178 Pa. 223, 35 A. 997, 39 Week. Notes Cas. 221 (Pa. 1896)], the court of appeals misinterpreted Pennsylvania law in holding that a “wrongful death action is purely derivative” in Pennsylvania. Id. at 217. The Grbac Court cites no further cases in support of its holding, and no binding Pennsylvania authority exists with a similar holding. In fact, the limited authority on this subject indicates the opposite conclusion of Grbac.

Pisano, 77 A.3d at 658.

Relying on California law, including Madison v. Superior Court, 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 250 Cal. Rptr. 299 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 1988), the Majority concludes that even if appellant can bring the wrongful death action, appellee had no duty to the decedent because of his complete waiver. According to the Majority, the decedent agreed to waive liability and assume all risks inherent to the dangerous activity of sprint triathlon; therefore, appellee owed the decedent no duty to protect him from injury. Therefore, even assuming appellant can sue for wrongful death, she cannot possibly recover where appellee has a complete defense based on the decedent’s assumption of the risk. [*51]

I view the Madison line of cases as creating a distinction without a difference, i.e., a wrongful death claimant can bring suit but will inevitably lose on summary judgment because of the decedent’s waiver of liability, to which the wrongful death claimant was not a party. Such a holding would effectively eviscerate the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute which creates an independent and distinct cause of action, not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death.2 I believe the better approach is outlined by the New Jersey Superior Court in Gershon v. Regency Diving Center, Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720 (N.J.Super. 2004), which explicitly rejected Madison and its progeny, aptly describing Madison’s holding as “paradoxical” and “internally inconsistent.” Id. at 725.3

2 The Pisano court explained that a wrongful death action is “derivative” of the original tort in the same way that a loss of consortium claim is derivative, in that both arise from an injury to another person. Pisano, 77 A.3d at 659. However, unlike, e.g., a stockholder’s derivative lawsuit or a subrogation action, loss of consortium and wrongful death claims are separate and distinct causes of action. Id. at 660.

3 “Although we acknowledge that the pronouncements of sister states are not binding authority on our courts, such decisions may be [*52]  considered as persuasive authority.” Shedden v. Anadarko E&P Co., L.P., 2014 PA Super 53, 88 A.3d 228, 233 n.3 (Pa.Super. 2014), affirmed, 136 A.3d 485 (Pa. 2016).

In Gershon, the decedent was a scuba diver and signed up for advanced diving training. Id. at 723. As a condition of his participation, he executed a release agreement. Id. The decedent expressly waived liability, including for wrongful death, and assumed all risk. Id. The lower court held that while the exculpatory release signed by the decedent barred any survivorship claim which could have been asserted by his estate, it did not preclude an independent wrongful death action where the decedent’s heirs had not signed the agreement. Id. at 724. Relying on Madison, supra, the defendant, Regency Diving Center, argued that the release operated as a complete bar to all claims. Id.

On appeal, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, affirmed, holding that the decedent did not have the legal authority to bargain away his heirs’ statutory right to bring a wrongful death action:

The release agreement here was signed by decedent and defendants. It can therefore only bind these parties. On its face the release only manifests decedent’s intention to waive defendants’ duty of care pertaining to his personal safety. In order for such a waiver to also apply to decedent’s [*53]  heirs, the agreement must manifest the unequivocal intention of such heirs to be so bound. The public policy underpinning the Wrongful Death Act requires that we narrowly construe any attempt to contractually limit or, as in this case, outright preclude recovery. Decedent’s unilateral decision to contractually waive his right of recovery does not preclude his heirs, who were not parties to the agreement and received no benefit in exchange for such a waiver, from instituting and prosecuting a wrongful death action.

Id. at 727.

The Gershon court also rejected the Madison line of cases as against the public interest4 intended to be protected by the Wrongful Death Act:

[T]he intended beneficiaries of the Act are deprived of their statutorily authorized remedy merely to provide defendants with an environment from which to operate their business, apparently free from the risk of litigation. Such a prospect would directly undermine the remedial purpose of the Act. Stated differently, even if decedent had the legal authority to bargain away the statutory right of his potential heirs, society’s interest in assuring that a decedent’s dependents may seek economic compensation in a wrongful death action outweighs [*54]  decedent’s freedom to contract.

Id. at 728.5

4 As in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, exculpatory agreements are not favored by the law and must not contravene public policy. Id. at 726-727; Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190 (Pa. 2012).

5 As in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, the purpose of the wrongful death statute is to create a right of recovery for economic loss caused by the death of a family member, including children who were dependent upon the decedent for economic support. See Pisano, 77 A.3d at 658-659 (“In contrast [to a survival action], wrongful death is not the deceased’s cause of action. An action for wrongful death may be brought only by specified relatives of the decedent to recover damages in their own behalf, and not as beneficiaries of the estate. . . . This action is designed only to deal with the economic effect of the decedent’s death upon the specified family members.”) (citations omitted); see also Amato v. Bell & Gossett, 2015 PA Super 83, 116 A.3d 607, 625 (Pa.Super. 2015), appeal granted in part on other grounds, 130 A.3d 1283 (Pa. 2016) (“The purpose of the Wrongful Death Statute . . . is to compensate the decedent’s survivors for the pecuniary losses they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death. This includes the value of the services the victim would have rendered to his family if he had lived. A wrongful death action does not compensate the decedent; [*55]  it compensates the survivors for damages which they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death.” (citations omitted)).

The Majority contends that allowing third-party claims including wrongful death where the decedent expressly assumed the risk of injury would expose insurers to increased liability, and that it is impractical to expect defendants to obtain releases from all potential plaintiffs. The court in Gershon addressed those concerns as follows:

We recognize that our decision today may prevent insurance carriers from obtaining complete releases from all possible wrongful death claims, except perhaps by the inclusion in any such agreement of all persons who subsequently are determined to be wrongful death beneficiaries under N.J.S.A. 2A:31-4. The policy favoring settlement and finality of claims, cannot defeat statutory rights created for the protection of survivors of one wrongfully killed.

Id. at 728-729, quoting Alfone v. Sarno, 87 N.J. 99, 432 A.2d 857 (N.J. 1981) (citations omitted).6

6 Presumably, there are still triathlons, road races, and similar events held in the State of New Jersey, despite the decision in Gershon. A wrongful death claimant would still have to prove negligence. I would also note that these liability waivers are contracts of adhesion, [*56]  and a participant cannot compete without executing the waiver and agreeing to assume all risk.

Following Pisano, I conclude that Derek Valentino’s release agreement did not bind appellant and did not preclude her from bringing a wrongful death action. Pisano is clear that a wrongful death action is an independent cause of action, created by statute, and is not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death. Furthermore, I reject the Majority’s position that the decedent’s waiver of liability and assumption of the risk can be used as a complete defense to appellant’s claims. The release agreement was only between the decedent and appellee and has no effect on the decedent’s non-signatory heirs including appellant.

For these reasons, I would remand the matter for further proceedings, including for the trial court to consider the issue of Mr. Mico’s expert report. As such, I am compelled to respectfully dissent.

Panella and Lazarus, JJ. join this Concurring and Dissenting Opinion.

 


Montreat College Virtuoso Series 2 Day Outdoor Recreation Management, Insurance & Law Program

2 packed Days with information you can put to use immediately. Information compiled from 30 years in court and 45 years in the field.get_outside_12066-2

Whatever type of Program you have, you’ll find information and answers to your risk management, insurance and legal questions.

CoverYou’ll also receive a copy of my new book Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management, and Law

Get these Questions Answered

What has changed in the law Concerning Releases? What states still allow releases and which ones do not. What changes have been made in how releases are written? How can you make sure your release is not as affected by these changes?

Everyone is excited about Certificates of Insurance. Why this excitement is not valid and why most of them don’t work. What must you do to make a certificate of insurance work for your program?

What is an assumption of risk document and why are they important. How can your website be used to prove assumption of the risk.

How should you write a risk management plan that does not end up being used against you in court?

How do you handle an accident so it does not become a claim or a lawsuit.

Put February 24 & 25th on your Calendar Now.

Course Curriculum

1.    Assumption of the Risk

1.1. Still a valid defense in all states

1.2. Defense for claims by minors in all states

1.3. Proof of your guests assuming the risk is the tough part.

1.3.1.   Paperwork proves what they know

1.3.1.1.       Applications

1.3.1.2.       Releases

1.3.1.3.       Brochures

1.3.2.   The best education is from your website

1.3.2.1.       Words

1.3.2.2.       Pictures

1.3.2.3.       Videos

2.    Releases

2.1. Where they work

2.1.1.   Where they work for kids

2.2. Why they work

2.2.1.   Contract

2.2.2.   Exculpatory Clause

2.2.3.   Necessary Language

2.2.4.   What kills Releases

2.2.4.1.       Jurisdiction & Venue

2.2.4.2.       Assumption of the Risk

2.2.4.3.       Negligence Per Se

2.2.4.4.        

3.    Risk Management Plans

3.1. Why yours won’t work

3.2. Why they come back and prove your negligence in court

3.2.1.   Or at least make you look incompetent

3.3. What is needed in a risk management plan

3.3.1.   How do you structure and create a plan

3.3.2.   Top down writing or bottom up.

3.3.2.1.       Goal is what the front line employee knows and can do

4.    Dealing with an Incident

4.1. Why people sue

4.2. What you can do to control this

4.2.1.   Integration of pre-trip education

4.2.2.   Post Incident help

4.2.3.   Post Incident communication

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A federal district court in Massachusetts upholds indemnification clause in a release.

All prior decisions have found that indemnification clauses in releases are not effective because it creates a conflict of interest within a family.

Angelo, v. USA Triathlon, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131759

State: Massachusetts, United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts

Plaintiff: Cheryl Angelo, Personal Representative of the Estate of Richard Angelo,

Defendant: USA Triathlon

Plaintiff Claims: wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering, and negligent infliction of emotional distress

Defendant Defenses: Release and indemnification

Holding: not a final ruling

Year: 2014

I cannot determine if this case is over, however, the ruling is quite interesting and worth the risk in having to reverse this post.

The deceased joined the USA Triathlon (USAT) and in doing so signed a Waiver and Release of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement. The deceased signed the document electronically. The deceased registered online for the National Age Group Championship in Vermont and again signed an “indemnity agreement” electronically. The two releases were identical.

The deceased died during the triathlon during the swim portion of the event. The deceased wife and personal representative of his estate brought this lawsuit in Federal District Court of Massachusetts.

The defendant USAT filed a motion for summary judgment, and this review is of the court’s ruling on that motion.

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

The motion for Summary Judgment was a partial motion on the counterclaim of the defendant based on the indemnity provisions in the two releases.

The court refers to the releases as “the indemnity agreements” which create a lot of confusion when reading the decision. The court first examined Massachusetts law relating to releases.

Under Massachusetts law, “[c]ontracts of indemnity are to be fairly and reasonably construed in order to ascertain the intention of the parties and to effectuate the purpose sought to be accomplished.”

And then Massachusetts law on indemnity agreements.

Indemnity contracts that exempt a party from liability arising from their own ordinary negligence are not illegal. Further, contracts of indemnity can survive a decedent’s death and become an obligation of a decedent’s estate.

The language in the indemnification agreement was deemed by the court to be broad. The plaintiff argued the release was ambiguous as to who the release applied to. However, the court disagreed finding the release:

…clearly states that “I . . . agree to Indemnify, Defend and Hold Harmless” the released parties from liability “of any kind or nature . . . which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the Event.” Both the scope of the indemnity and the party bound by the agreement are clear and unambiguous.

The court then looked at how the release affected the specific claims of the plaintiff. The first count in the complaint was based on wrongful death, and the third was for wrongful death because of gross negligence of the defendant and included a claim for punitive damages.

The court looked at the damages that might be recoverable under these two theories because how the money was identified would determine if the money could be recovered on the indemnification claim.

That means the indemnification claim is against the person who signed the release or in this case their estate. The deceased could not pledge his wife’s assets to the indemnification because he could not sign for her, only his assets. “The decedent, while having authority to bind his estate, lacked authority to bind his surviving family members who did not sign the indemnity agreements and are not bound thereby.” The wrongful-death claim money is not an asset of the state; it is held by the personal representative on behalf of the heirs to the estate. So any money recovered under the wrongful-death statute or claim would not be subject to indemnification.

That is because “w]rongful death is not, in any traditional sense, a claim of the decedent.”

Accordingly, to satisfy the indemnity obligation, USAT may look to the assets of the decedent’s estate. (noting that a contract of indemnity agreed to by a decedent became an obligation of the decedent’s estate). USAT may not, however, look to any recovery on the wrongful death claim for satisfaction, as that recovery would be held in trust for the statutory beneficiaries and would not become an asset of the estate.

Then the court looked to see if the release would stop gross negligence claims. The court found no “controlling authority” on this issue, but held that it would not stop a claim for gross negligence based on the law of appellate decisions in the state.

In the closely analogous context of releases, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has held that, for reasons of public policy, a release would not be enforced to exempt a party from liability for grossly negligent conduct, though otherwise effective against ordinary negligence.

So the court found the release would stop the negligence claims and dismissed count one of the complaints and found that the release would not stop a claim for gross negligence and allowed count three to proceed.

However, the court also stated the motion was denied if the indemnification provision in the release attempted to be satisfied from the wrongful-death proceeds. Alternatively, the indemnification clause would apply to any money’s received for any successful claim other than wrongful death.

The second claim was for conscious pain and suffering of the decedent. Under Massachusetts law, conscious pain and suffering is a claim of the decedent, brought on behalf of the decedent by his estate. The release barred this claim and would allow the defendant to be indemnified by it. “By executing the two agreements, the decedent both released his claim of conscious pain and suffering caused by USAT’s negligence and indemnified USAT for any losses occasioned by such a claim.”

Putting aside the release for a moment, if the personal representative of the decedent received any recovery for his conscious suffering, USAT would be able to reach that recovery to satisfy the decedent’s indemnity obligation. Thus, USAT’s Motion for Summary Judgment is ALLOWED insofar as the claim for conscious suffering caused by USAT’s negligence was both released and indemnified.

The fourth count was for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress, which was inflicted on the wife of the decedent who was present at the race. The original complaint was only brought in the name of the personal representative, not her name individually. Consequently, the court agreed to allow the plaintiff to amend her complaint to bring this claim.

However, the court also found that any money received by the plaintiff on her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress would also be subject to the indemnification claims of the defendant.

The indemnity language in those agreements is broad enough to reach a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress as a claim “aris[ing] out of” the decedent’s participation in the triathlon. Thus, USAT is entitled to indemnification on any losses resulting from such a claim.

However, the indemnification claim was only applicable to any money paid on this claim to the decedent, not the decedent’s wife. Again, the decedent could not pledge his wife’s assets by his signature.

The court looked at the defendants claim that the defense costs of the action should be paid based on the indemnification clause. The court agreed with the defendant’s argument for the costs to.

The language of the indemnity agreements does clearly obligate the decedent’s estate to make USAT whole on these losses. As with the claims discussed above, USAT may seek indemnity from the decedent’s estate for their defense costs, which predate this Motion as well as prospective costs to the extent that the plaintiff chooses to proceed on at least one claim, which is subject to indemnification.

So any money the lawsuit received that was payable to the estate was subject to the indemnification clause in the release, and that money could be received based on money paid or the cost of defending the lawsuit and recovering the money. Money held in trust, based on a wrongful-death claim was not subject to indemnification.

The release blocked all claims of the decedent and any claims of the wife that were derivative of the decedent’s claims.

Effectively, the case is over because there is no way to get any money, that would not be subject to indemnification. Then any other asset of the estate would be subject to the indemnification due to the cost of defending the lawsuit.

So Now What?

The reasoning for the motion for summary judgment is simple. If the defendant is able to act on the indemnification, any money received by the plaintiff will just turn around and go back to the defendant. Consequently, the damages are reduced to about zero and the chances of settling sky rocket.

However, the importance of the motion is the court upheld the indemnification clause! Normally courts through these out as being a violation of the doctrine or parental immunity, or because they create a conflict of interest between members of a family.

I have never seen an indemnification clause upheld in a recreational release.

See Indemnification agreements? What are you signing?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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Angelo, v. USA Triathlon, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131759

Angelo, v. USA Triathlon, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131759

Cheryl Angelo, Personal Representative of the Estate of Richard Angelo, Plaintiff, v. USA Triathlon, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 13-12177-LTS

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131759

September 18, 2014, Decided

September 19, 2014, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Cheryl Angelo, Plaintiff: Alan L. Cantor, LEAD ATTORNEY, Joseph A. Swartz, Peter J. Towne, Swartz & Swartz, Boston, MA.

For USA TRIATHLON, Defendant: Douglas L. Fox, Shumway, Giguere, Fox PC, Worcester, MA.

JUDGES: Leo T. Sorokin, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Leo T. Sorokin

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

SOROKIN, D.J.

This action arises from a tragic set of facts in which Richard Angelo died while participating in the swim portion of a triathlon organized by the defendant, USA Triathlon (“USAT”). Plaintiff Cheryl Angelo (“the plaintiff”), as personal representative of Richard Angelo (“Angelo” or “the decedent”), has brought claims of wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. USAT has counterclaimed for indemnity against any liability and legal costs associated with this action pursuant to indemnity agreements executed by the decedent prior to his participation in the triathlon. USAT has now moved for partial summary judgment on its claim for indemnity. Doc. No. 18. The plaintiff has opposed the Motion. Doc. No. 19. For the reasons stated below, USAT’s Motion is ALLOWED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

I. [*2] STATEMENT OF FACTS

The following facts are stated in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the nonmoving party, although the key facts for the purposes of this motion are not disputed. Angelo was a member of USAT since, at the latest, 2011. Doc. No. 18-1 at 1 ¶ 3. When Angelo last renewed his membership on August 12, 2011, he agreed to and electronically signed a “Waiver and Release of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement.” Id. at 1 ¶ 3, 4. That agreement only required the member to execute the document, and, accordingly, the plaintiff did not sign the form. Id. at 4-5. That document contained a provision that, in its entirety, reads as follows:

4. I hereby Release, Waive and Covenant Not to Sue, and further agree to Indemnify, Defend and Hold Harmless the following parties: USAT, the Event Organizers and Promoters, Race Directors, Sponsors, Advertisers, Host Cities, Local Organizing Committees, Venues and Property Owners upon which the Event takes place, Law Enforcement Agencies and other Public Entities providing support for the Event, and each of their respective parent, subsidiary and affiliated companies, officers, directors, partners, shareholders, members, agents, employees [*3] and volunteers (Individually and Collectively, the “Released Parties” or “Event Organizers”), with respect to any liability, claim(s), demand(s), cause(s) of action, damage(s), loss or expense (including court costs and reasonable attorneys [sic] fees) of any kind or nature (“Liability”) which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the Event, including claims for Liability caused in whole or in part by the negligence of the Released Parties. I further agree that if, despite this Agreement, I, or anyone on my behalf, makes a claim for Liability against any of the Released Parties, I will indemnify, defend and hold harmless each of the Released Parties from any such Liability which any [sic] may be incurred as the result of such claim.

Id. at 4.

USAT arranged to hold its National Age Group Championship on August 18, 2012, in Burlington, Vermont. Id. at 2 ¶ 5. On February 17, 2012, Angelo registered for the championship and, as part of his registration, electronically signed an indemnity agreement identical to the one excerpted above. Id. at 2 ¶ 6. As with the prior agreement, only Angelo as the participant was required to, and in fact did, sign the form. Doc. Nos. 18-1 at 33-34, 19-2 [*4] at 3. Angelo competed in that triathlon and died during his participation in the swim portion of that event or shortly thereafter. Doc. No. 18-2 at 11-12.

The plaintiff, the decedent’s wife and the personal representative of his estate, then brought this action in Essex Superior Court, alleging wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering by the decedent, gross negligence resulting in the decedent’s death, and negligent infliction of emotional distress suffered by the plaintiff, who was present at the site of the race. Doc. No. 6 at 12-16. USAT subsequently removed the action to this Court. Doc. No. 1.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows 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). Once a party “has properly supported its motion for summary judgment, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who ‘may not rest on mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but must set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Barbour v. Dynamics Research Corp., 63 F.3d 32, 37 (1st Cir. 1995) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). The Court is “obliged to []view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and to draw all reasonable inferences [*5] in the nonmoving party’s favor.” LeBlanc v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 6 F.3d 836, 841 (1st Cir. 1993). Even so, the Court is to ignore “conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation.” Prescott v. Higgins, 538 F.3d 32, 39 (1st Cir. 2008) (quoting Medina-Muñoz v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir. 1990)). A court may enter summary judgment “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 that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986).

III. DISCUSSION

USAT has moved for partial summary judgment on their counterclaim for indemnity.1 USAT asserts that the decedent’s execution of the two release and indemnity agreements (“the indemnity agreements”) released or indemnified, or both, all claims that arise from his participation in the National Age Group Championship, including all claims brought by the plaintiff in this action. The plaintiff counters that the indemnity agreements could not function to release her claims for wrongful death or negligent infliction of emotional distress, and that an indemnity agreement is not enforceable insofar as it exempts the indemnitee from liability for its own grossly negligent conduct.

1 The Court understands this motion for summary judgment to be limited to the scope of the release and indemnity agreement [*6] and its application to the plaintiff’s claims as raised in the Complaint and as amplified in the motion papers. Despite USAT’s argument to the contrary, the Court does not believe this motion to be an appropriate vehicle to address the substantive merits of the plaintiff’s pleadings or claims.

Under Massachusetts law,2 “[c]ontracts of indemnity are to be fairly and reasonably construed in order to ascertain the intention of the parties and to effectuate the purpose sought to be accomplished.” Post v. Belmont Country Club, Inc., 60 Mass. App. Ct. 645, 805 N.E.2d 63, 69 (Mass. App. Ct. 2004) (quoting Shea v. Bay State Gas Co., 383 Mass. 218, 418 N.E.2d 597, 600 (Mass. 1981)). Indemnity contracts that exempt a party from liability arising from their own ordinary negligence are not illegal. Id. at 70. Further, contracts of indemnity can survive a decedent’s death and become an obligation of a decedent’s estate. Id. at 71.

2 The parties do not contend that the law of any other state applies.

Here, the language in the indemnity provision is broad. The plaintiff argues, briefly, that the indemnity agreements are ambiguous as to who is bound by the agreements. The Court disagrees. The agreement clearly states that “I . . . agree to Indemnify, Defend and Hold Harmless” the released parties from liability “of any kind or nature . . . which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation [*7] in the Event.” Doc. No. 18-1 at 4. By the plain language of the provision, the signatory of the agreement agreed to indemnify USAT for any losses arising from his participation in the triathlon, including losses and damages associated with lawsuits arising from his participation. See Post, 805 N.E.2d at 70. Both the scope of the indemnity and the party bound by the agreement are clear and unambiguous. A close examination is required, however, to ascertain the applicability of the provision to the specific claims raised and the sources available to satisfy the indemnity.

A. Counts 1 and 3: Wrongful Death

The first count in the plaintiff’s Complaint alleges wrongful death due to USAT’s negligence. The third count alleges wrongful death due to USAT’s gross negligence and seeks punitive damages. Under Massachusetts law, an action for wrongful death is “brought by a personal representative on behalf of the designated categories of beneficiaries” set forth by statute. Gaudette v. Webb, 362 Mass. 60, 284 N.E.2d 222, 229 (Mass. 1972); see Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, §§ 1, 2. “The money recovered upon a wrongful death claim is not a general asset of the probate estate, but constitutes a statutory trust fund, held by the administratrix as trustee for distribution to the statutory beneficiaries.”3 Marco v. Green, 415 Mass. 732, 615 N.E.2d 928, 932 (Mass. 1993) (quoting Sullivan v. Goulette, 344 Mass. 307, 182 N.E.2d 519, 523 (Mass. 1962)). These [*8] aspects of Massachusetts law have led another judge of this Court to the conclusion that “[w]rongful death is not, in any traditional sense, a claim of the decedent.” Chung v. StudentCity.com, Inc., Civ. A. 10-10943-RWZ, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102370, 2011 WL 4074297, at *2 (D. Mass. Sept. 9, 2011).

3 The Massachusetts Legislature has created limited statutory exceptions whereby the recovery on a wrongful death claim may be reached to pay certain specified expenses. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, § 6A. None of those exceptions are implicated by the present Motion. See id.

As stated above, the indemnity agreements signed by the decedent, by their terms, clearly were intended to indemnify losses arising from an action for wrongful death as a claim “aris[ing] out of” the decedent’s participation in the triathlon. Thus, USAT is entitled to indemnity on losses resulting from that claim. That does not end the matter, however, because the parties raise the question of where USAT may look in order to satisfy the indemnity obligation. The decedent, while having authority to bind his estate, see Post, 805 N.E.2d at 71, lacked authority to bind his surviving family members who did not sign the indemnity agreements and are not bound thereby, see Chung, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102370, 2011 WL 4074297, at *2. Accordingly, to satisfy the indemnity obligation, USAT may look to the assets of the decedent’s estate. See [*9] Post, 805 N.E.2d at 71 (noting that a contract of indemnity agreed to by a decedent became an obligation of the decedent’s estate). USAT may not, however, look to any recovery on the wrongful death claim for satisfaction, as that recovery would be held in trust for the statutory beneficiaries and would not become an asset of the estate. See Estate of Bogomolsky v. Estate of Furlong, Civ. A. 14-12463-FDS, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86998, 2014 WL 2945927, at *2 (D. Mass. June 26, 2014).4 USAT concedes this outcome as to the plaintiff’s negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, Doc. No. 20 at 11-12, and given the structure of wrongful death claims in Massachusetts, there is no reason for a different result as to the wrongful death claims.5

4 In Estate of Bogomolsky, a recent decision of another session of this Court, Judge Saylor came to the same conclusion, finding that a judgment creditor of a decedent’s estate would not be able to restrain the proceeds of an insurance policy distributed pursuant to the wrongful death statute, as the proceeds of the policy were held in trust for the decedent’s next of kin and did not belong to the decedent’s estate. Estate of Bogomolsky, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86998, 2014 WL 2945927, at *2.

5 While the plaintiff notes that the Massachusetts Appeals Court has reserved the question of whether an indemnification provision would be [*10] enforced to effectively release the claims of people who were not signatories of such an agreement, see Post, 805 N.E.2d at 70-71, this case, as in Post, does not present that circumstance, as the indemnity agreements in this case do not purport to extinguish the plaintiff’s right to bring her claims nor her right to recover on those claims.

Count three of the plaintiff’s Complaint, alleging that the decedent’s death was a result of USAT’s gross negligence, raises the issue of whether Massachusetts courts would enforce an indemnity contract to the extent it functioned to indemnify a party’s own gross negligence. The Court has uncovered no controlling authority from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on this issue, nor any case of the Massachusetts Appeals Court on point. In such a case, “[w]here the state’s highest court has not definitively weighed in, a federal court applying state law ‘may consider analogous decisions, considered dicta, scholarly works, and any other reliable data tending convincingly to show how the highest court in the state would decide the issue at hand.'” Janney Montgomery Scott LLC v. Tobin, 571 F.3d 162, 164 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting N. Am. Specialty Ins. Co. v. Lapalme, 258 F.3d 35, 38 (1st Cir. 2001)).

In the closely analogous context of releases, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has held that, for reasons of public policy, [*11] a release would not be enforced to exempt a party from liability for grossly negligent conduct, though otherwise effective against ordinary negligence. Zavras v. Capeway Rovers Motorcycle Club, Inc., 44 Mass. App. Ct. 17, 687 N.E.2d 1263, 1265 (Mass. App. Ct. 1997). The Supreme Judicial Court, although not adopting that holding, has noted that public policy reasons exist for treating ordinary negligence differently from gross negligence when enforcing releases. Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 748 n.12 (Mass. 2002). Finally, Judge Saylor of this Court, examining this caselaw, has concluded that the Supreme Judicial Court would not enforce an indemnity agreement to the extent it provided for indemnification of a party’s own gross negligence. CSX Transp., Inc. v. Mass. Bay Transp. Auth., 697 F. Supp. 2d 213, 227 (D. Mass. 2010).

This Court, having studied the caselaw, agrees with and reaches the same conclusion as Judge Saylor: specifically that Massachusetts courts would not enforce an indemnity provision insofar as it relieved a party from liability stemming from its own gross negligence. Thus, the indemnity agreements executed by the decedent are not enforceable to the extent they would require the decedent’s estate to indemnify losses arising from USAT’s grossly negligent conduct.6

6 This conclusion would gain significance if the plaintiff were to be awarded punitive damages owing to USAT’s alleged gross negligence. Punitive damages [*12] awarded under the wrongful death statute, unlike compensatory damages under that statute, are considered general assets of the decedent’s estate. Burt v. Meyer, 400 Mass. 185, 508 N.E.2d 598, 601-02 (Mass. 1987). Any punitive damages, however, could not be reached in satisfaction of the indemnity obligation because gross negligence or more culpable conduct is the predicate upon which an award of punitive damages is based under the statute. See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, § 2.

Accordingly, USAT’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to the plaintiff’s claims of wrongful death is ALLOWED insofar as it seeks indemnity from the decedent’s estate for USAT’s allegedly negligent conduct. The Motion is DENIED insofar as it seeks to satisfy the indemnity obligation from any amounts recovered on the wrongful death claim and insofar as the agreement would require the decedent’s estate to indemnify liability arising from USAT’s grossly negligent conduct.

B. Count 2: Conscious Pain and Suffering

The second count of the plaintiff’s Complaint alleges that USAT’s negligence caused the decedent’s conscious pain and suffering. Under Massachusetts law, a claim for conscious pain and suffering is a claim of the decedent, which may be brought on the decedent’s behalf by his or her personal representative. [*13] Gaudette, 284 N.E.2d at 224-25; see Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, § 6. Any recovery on such a claim is held as an asset of the decedent’s estate. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, § 6. By executing the two agreements, the decedent both released his claim of conscious pain and suffering caused by USAT’s negligence and indemnified USAT for any losses occasioned by such a claim. Putting aside the release for a moment, if the personal representative of the decedent received any recovery for his conscious suffering, USAT would be able to reach that recovery to satisfy the decedent’s indemnity obligation. See Estate of Bogomolsky, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86998, 2014 WL 2945927, at *2. Thus, USAT’s Motion for Summary Judgment is ALLOWED insofar as the claim for conscious suffering caused by USAT’s negligence was both released and indemnified.

In response to this argument, however, the plaintiff has stated her intent to proceed on the conscious suffering count only on a theory of gross negligence, and not to proceed upon ordinary negligence. As noted above, both the release and the indemnity provisions of the agreements are unenforceable to exempt USAT from liability for their own grossly negligent conduct. See CSX, 697 F. Supp. 2d at 227; Zavras, 687 N.E.2d at 1265. Thus, insofar as the plaintiff chooses to proceed on the conscious pain and suffering count only on a theory of gross negligence, USAT’s Motion for Summary [*14] Judgment is DENIED. If she chooses to so proceed, the plaintiff shall amend her Complaint accordingly.

C. Count 4: Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

The fourth and final count of the plaintiff’s Complaint alleges USAT’s negligent infliction of emotional distress on the plaintiff, who was present at the race venue. As an initial matter, the plaintiff, as currently denominated in the Complaint, only brings claims as personal representative of the estate of the decedent. Negligent infliction of emotional distress, however, alleges a harm directly against the plaintiff in her individual capacity, see Cimino v. Milford Keg, Inc., 385 Mass. 323, 431 N.E.2d 920, 927 (Mass. 1982), and thus cannot be brought in a representative capacity.

In response, the plaintiff has indicated her intent to amend her Complaint to bring this claim in her individual capacity. The Court will allow the amendment, as it is not futile in light of the Court’s rulings on the indemnity agreements. The indemnity language in those agreements is broad enough to reach a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress as a claim “aris[ing] out of” the decedent’s participation in the triathlon. Thus, USAT is entitled to indemnification on any losses resulting from such a claim. As conceded by [*15] USAT, however, any recovery on the emotional distress claim would belong to the plaintiff individually, and thus USAT would not be able to use that recovery to satisfy the indemnity and may look only to the estate of the decedent. Doc. No. 20 at 11-12. Accordingly, the plaintiff may so amend her Complaint to perfect her claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress.

D. Defense Costs

USAT also claims an entitlement to defense costs arising from the provisions in the indemnity agreements obligating the signatory to defend and hold harmless USAT. The language of the indemnity agreements does clearly obligate the decedent’s estate to make USAT whole on these losses. As with the claims discussed above, USAT may seek indemnity from the decedent’s estate for their defense costs which predate this Motion as well as prospective costs to the extent that the plaintiff chooses to proceed on at least one claim which is subject to indemnification.7 See Mt. Airy Ins. Co. v. Greenbaum, 127 F.3d 15, 19 (1st Cir. 1997) (“[U]nder Massachusetts law, if an insurer has a duty to defend one count of a complaint, it must defend them all.” (citing Aetna Cas. & Surety Co. v. Continental Cas. Co., 413 Mass. 730, 604 N.E.2d 30, 32 n.1 (Mass. 1992)).

7 Should the plaintiff decide to proceed only on those claims that, following the reasoning of this Order, are not subject to the [*16] indemnity obligation, the parties may request leave to brief the issue of USAT’s entitlement to prospective defense costs at that time.

IV. CONCLUSION

In conclusion, USAT’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Doc. No. 18, is ALLOWED as set forth above insofar as USAT seeks to establish the release of the conscious pain and suffering claim and indemnity from the decedent’s estate for the claims wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering, and negligent infliction of emotional distress caused by USAT’s ordinary negligence. USAT’s Motion is DENIED, however, insofar as it argues for release of or indemnity on any claims caused by their own gross negligence and insofar as it seeks satisfaction of the indemnity obligation from any recovery on the wrongful death or emotional distress claims. The plaintiff shall amend the Complaint within seven days to more clearly specify the capacity in which each claim is brought and add the allegations of gross negligence, both as described in the plaintiff’s papers. The defendant shall respond to the Amended Complaint within seven days of its filing. The Court will hold a Rule 16 conference on October 21, 2014 at 1 p.m.

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Leo T. Sorokin

Leo T. Sorokin

United [*17] States District Judge


Making statements contrary to release can be barred by a release, maybe, but may be gross, wilful and wanton negligence which the release does not stop.

Plaintiff signed a release to participate in the Warrior Dash race. An employee of the race was encouraging participants to dive into a mud pit. Plaintiff dove into the mud pit rendering himself a quadriplegic.

Sa v. Red Frog Events, LLC, 979 F. Supp. 2d 767; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151355

State: Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan

Plaintiff: James Sa

Defendant: Red Frog Events, LLC, an Illinois corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct

Defendant Defenses: release and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted

Holding: for the defendant on the negligence claim because of the release, for the plaintiff on the gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct claims

Year: 2013

This case is possible still ongoing. How the final decision will evolve is unknown. However, the federal district court did arrive at some great analysis of the case.

This case comes out of the new fad, extreme obstacle racing. In these races participants run through live electrical wires, jump through fire and here, crawl through a mud pit. These races are known by various names, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder are the most well-known.

In this case, the plaintiff signed up for a Warrior Dash 5K race and signed a release. The release specifically warned against diving into the mud pit. The mud pit was right in front of the bleachers and the last obstacle on the course.

At the mud, pit was an employee of the defendant with a microphone, and loudspeaker “acting as an emcee” for the event.

Over the course of the event, this individual continually enticed, encouraged, and specifically told participants to dive into the mud pit. It was common knowledge among participants that diving into the mud pit was not only permitted, but encouraged.

So many people were diving into the mud pit that people were blogging about it and posting photos online.

The plaintiff followed the emcee’s “encouragement” and dove into the mud pit resulting in paralysis from the chest down. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant filed a motion to dismiss.

A motion to dismiss is usually filed by the defendant prior to filing an answer. The basis is the pleadings are so lacking in any facts or there is no law to support a claim. In reviewing the motion, the court must accept the allegations and facts in the complaint as true. It is unclear in reading this case when the motion to dismiss was filed. This opinion is the court’s response to the motion to dismiss.

Summary of the case

The court first looked at whether the release acted to stop the negligence claims of the plaintiff. Releases are valid in Michigan. Under Michigan law a release’s validity:

…turns on the intent of the parties. A release must be fairly and knowingly made to be valid. If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the intent of the parties is ascertained from the plain and ordinary meaning of the language.

Whether the release is valid is a question of law. The plaintiff did not argue that he signed the release. The court pointed out possible ways the plaintiff could void the release which the plaintiff did not use.

He does not argue, for example, that (1) he “was “dazed, in shock, or under the influence” when he signed the Waiver; (2) “the nature of the instrument was misrepresented, or (3) there was other fraudulent or overreaching conduct.

Ninety-nine percent of the time plaintiff’s attack the validity of the release based on their competence or understanding of the release. In not doing so, I would guess the plaintiff shocked the judge so he put in this language. The plaintiff’s first argued the release was invalid because:

…that “Red Frog fails to indemnify itself from its own negligent acts” because it “did not use the term ‘negligent’ and/or ‘negligence’ anywhere within the four corners of it’s (sic) Waiver & Release Agreement.

(This argument has been used endlessly and is so easily avoided. Use the word negligence in your release.)

Here the language used by the defendant met the requirements to put the plaintiff on notice that he was giving up his rights to sue for negligence. “…although an indemnity provision does not expressly state that the indemnitee will be shielded from its own negligence, such language is not mandatory to provide such indemnification.”

The release language under Michigan’s law is called the indemnity provision or clause. That translation of the phrase is different from most other states. Here, it is like saying, by signing the release the plaintiff agrees to indemnify himself for his injuries.

…the Waiver, titled as a “Waiver and Release of Claims, Assumption of Risk and Warning of Risk,” informed Plaintiff that he was relinquishing his right to sue Defendant for claims resulting from his participation in the Warrior Dash.

The next argument of the plaintiff’s is brilliant and if successful would bring down hundreds of releases across the United States. Releases written by attorneys or non-attorneys in an attempt to soften the blow will put statements in the release about how safe the activity is, how well run the operation is or that accidents rarely happen.

The plaintiff argued that other statements in the release gave the plaintiff the impression that the defendant would not be negligent in the operation of the race.

For support, Plaintiff points to the disclaimer portion of the Waiver stating that Red Frog: (1) “is committed to conducting its race and activities in a safe manner and holds the safety of participants in high regard;” and (2) “continually strives to reduce such risks and insists that all participants follow safety rules and instructions that are designed to protect the participants’ safety.

The court did not accept this argument because the paragraph this language was in went on stating there was a risk of injury entering the race.

The final argument by the plaintiff was also unique and if accepted would invalidate dozens of releases. The plaintiff argued that the statements by the employee of the defendant, the emcee, invalidated the release. In legal language, the statements of the emcee “constituted a waiver and modification of the release of liability.”

In sum, Plaintiff argues, “[t]his conduct led James [the plaintiff] to believe a waiver had occurred and it was okay and safe to dive into the mud pit. Red Frog failed to correct the actions of participants who dove into the mud pit or further instruct through the speaker system that this type of behavior was not permitted.”

Under Michigan’s law, any waiver of a written contract must be in writing unless the waiver language is consistent with the strict compliance language of the contract. Meaning the waiver language must be of the same type and of the same legal tone as the original contract.

Even assuming that Michigan law permits parties to orally modify a waiver and release, the most Plaintiff has alleged is that Defendant’s actions modified the provision prohibiting Plaintiff from diving into the mud pit head first. Defendant’s actions cannot be interpreted, as pled by Plaintiff, as an agreement to modify the Waiver such that Plaintiff could hold Defendant liable for negligence due to injuries arising out of his participation in the Warrior Dash. Therefore, the Waiver bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim.

The court upheld the validity of the release and held the release stopped the simple negligence claims of the plaintiff.

On the second and third claims, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct, a release under Michigan’s law does not work. The issue then becomes are there enough allegations to the facts in the complaint and documents filed with the court to this point to support the plaintiff’s claim of gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct.

Under Michigan’s law:

Gross negligence is “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether injury results.” M.C.L. § 600.2945(d); Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 269. “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.”

Under Michigan’s law, a release does not stop claims for gross negligence. So the gross negligence claim survives the defense of release. The issue then is whether the plaintiff as plead enough facts that a jury may find give rise to gross negligence.

…it is plausible that the act of encouraging Plaintiff — and other participants — to dive into the mud pit head first was so reckless to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result.

The court, based upon the statements of the emcee at the mud pit encouraging people to dive into the pit were enough to possibly support a claim for gross negligence.

Under Michigan’s law, Wilful and Want misconduct is different and distinct from gross negligence.

“[W]ilful and wanton misconduct . . . [is] qualitatively different from and more blameworthy than ordinary, or even gross, negligence.”). The elements of a willful and wanton misconduct claim are: “(1) knowledge of a situation requiring the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury to an-other, (2) ability to avoid the resulting harm by ordinary care and diligence in the use of the means at hand, and (3) the omission to use such care and diligence to avert the threatened danger, when to the ordinary mind it must be apparent that the result is likely to prove disastrous to another.”

…willful and wanton misconduct is made out only if the conduct alleged shows an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalent of a willingness that it does. Willful and wanton misconduct is not . . . a high degree of carelessness.

Here again, the court found the actions of the emcee in encouraging participants to dive into the mud pit might be found to be an intent to harm or an indifference.

Here, a reasonable jury might conclude that the act of encouraging participants to jump head-first into the mud pit despite knowing the risks, to the contrary — at the end of a grueling physical endurance challenge when participants are likely to be physically and mentally exhausted — could be interpreted as such “indifferen[ce] to the likelihood that catastrophe would come to a [race participant.]”

Consequently, the court granted the motion to dismiss on the negligence claims and denied the motion to dismiss on the claims of gross negligence and wilful and wanton misconduct.

Again, this case probably is not over yet.

So Now What? 

Don’t give an injured participant the opportunity to sue you. Don’t dance with the possibility that your language you use instead of the word negligence will meet the requirements of the law.

JUST USE THE WORD NEGLIGENCE IN YOUR RELEASE!

Second, don’t allow anyone who is an employee or may appear to participants to be an employee to encourage people to take actions that might injure them or is contrary to the rules of your activity.

It seems to be common sense; however, in the heat of the activity or an unfounded belief the release is ironclad, people get excited and might encourage a participant to take risks they are not expected or ready for.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Sa v. Red Frog Events, LlC, 979 F. Supp. 2d 767; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151355

Sa v. Red Frog Events, LlC, 979 F. Supp. 2d 767; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151355

James Sa, Plaintiff, vs. Red Frog Events, LlC, an Illinois corporation, Defendant.

No. 2:13-cv-10294

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN, SOUTHERN DIVISION

979 F. Supp. 2d 767; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151355

October 22, 2013, Decided

October 22, 2013, Filed

CORE TERMS: mud, dive, pit, own negligence, willful, wanton misconduct, obstacle, gross negligence, diving, indemnity, negligence claim, indemnitee, indemnify, negligent acts, indemnification, disclaim, pit head, risk of injury, citation omitted, unambiguous, encouraged, summary judgment, claim arising, recreational activities, reasonable care, encouraging, disclaimer, hazardous, choosing, ladder

COUNSEL: [**1] For James Sa, Plaintiff: Michael J. Behm, Behm and Behm, Flint, MI.

For Red Frog Events, LLC, Defendant: Brian T. McGorisk, Plunkett & Cooney, Flint, MI.

JUDGES: Hon. GERALD E. ROSEN, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: GERALD E. ROSEN

OPINION

[*769] OPINION AND ORDER PARTIALLY GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

I. INTRODUCTION

This action arises out of an unfortunate and tragic accident during a running race organized by Defendant Red Frog Events, resulting in Plaintiff James Sa’s paralysis from his chest down. On January 23, 2013, Plaintiff filed a three-count Complaint, asserting negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct. 1 Defendant has now moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint on the grounds that Plaintiff waived his negligence claim and that his two other claims fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 2 Having reviewed and considered the parties’ briefs and supporting documents and the entire record of this matter, the Court has determined that the pertinent allegations and legal arguments are sufficiently addressed in these materials and that oral [*770] argument would not assist in the resolution of these motions. Accordingly, the Court will decide Defendant’s [**2] motion “on the briefs.” See L.R. 7.1(f)(2). This Opinion and Order sets forth the Court’s ruling.

1 Michigan courts use “willful” and “wilful” interchangeably. For consistency, this Court uses the former, unless in the context of a direct quote.

2 Though captioned as a “Motion for Summary Judgment,” Defendant’s Motion makes clear that it seeks dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), or alternatively, pursuant to Rule 56. As discussed in more detail in footnotes 3 and 4, this Court applies Rule 12(b)(6) to this Motion.

II. PERTIENT FACTS

In July 2011, Plaintiff participated in a two-day event known as the “Warrior Dash” in Mt. Morris, Michigan. (Plf’s Compl., Dkt. # 1, at ¶¶ 5, 8). The Warrior Dash is a 5k running race with obstacles, including jumping over fire, wall climbing, and a mud pit. (Id. at ¶ 7). Plaintiff was injured as a result of diving head first into the mud pit. (Id. at ¶¶ 21-22).

Positioned directly across from bleachers and right before the finish line, the mud pit was the last obstacle of the race. (Id. at ¶¶ 13-14). One of Defendant’s employees or agents was stationed near the mud pit with a microphone and loudspeaker, acting as an emcee for the [**3] event. (Id. at ¶ 15). Over the course of the event, this individual continually enticed, encouraged, and specifically told participants to dive into the mud pit. (Id. at ¶¶ 16, 26, 27). It was common knowledge among participants that diving into the mud pit was not only permitted, but encouraged. (Id. at ¶ 17). As an example of this “common knowledge,” bloggers commented about mud diving online. (Id. at ¶ 18). One noted the following:

When I arrived at the Warrior Dash on Saturday morning I found out rather quickly that “mud diving” was rather popular on the last obstacle before the finish line. . . . A good mud dive at this point makes perfect sense since runners are tired from the grueling course yet rejuvenated as they see the last obstacle. I’m sure the spectator attention also gives a little more motivation for participants to bring their best mud dive as well. . . . Hopefully this joy is worth the pain they may have endured to make this happen since my brother-in-law had to go to the hospital after attempting a cannon ball.

(Id.). This same person also posted “sweet pictures of an assortment of some of the best mud dives” and requested that readers “vote” for their favorite. (Id.).

Before [**4] Plaintiff’s race wave began, he witnessed many participants dive into the mud pit, heard the emcee encourage others to dive into the mud pit, and never saw anyone tell participants not to dive into the mud pit. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 27). Defendant also did not post any signs instructing individuals not to dive into the mud pit. (Id. at ¶ 20). Accordingly, Plaintiff followed the emcee’s encouragement and the lead of other participants and dove into the mud pit, resulting in paralysis from the chest down. (Id. at ¶ 22).

Prior to participating in the Warrior Dash, Plaintiff — as well as all other participants — signed a “Waiver and Release of Claims” (Waiver). (Id. at ¶ 9). The Waiver provides, in no uncertain terms, that Plaintiff “agree[s] not to dive into or enter the mud pit head first.” (Ex. A. to Def’s Br., Dkt. # 4-1, at ¶ 17). 3 Other pertinent language includes:

1. I understand that entering Warrior Dash is a hazardous activity.

2. I understand that Warrior Dash presents extreme obstacles including, but not limited to: fire, mud [*771] pits with barbed wire, cargo climbs, junk cars, and steep hills.

* * *

7. I assume all risks associated with competing in Warrior Dash, including, but not limited [**5] to: falls, contact with other participants, negligent or wanton acts of other participants, completing all obstacles, any defects or conditions of premises, and the effects of weather including high heat and/or humidity, all such risks being known and appreciated by me.

* * *

DISCLAIMER

I understand that Red Frog Events, LLC is committed to conducting its race and activities in a safe manner and holds the safety of participants in high regard. I understand that Red Frog Events, LLC continually strives to reduce such risks and insists that all participants follow safety rules and instructions that are designed to protect the participants’ safety. I also understand, however, that participants . . . registering for the race, programs, and activities must recognize that there is an inherent risk of injury when choosing to participate in recreational activities and programs.

* * *

WAIVER & RELEASE OF ALL CLAIMS; ASSUMPTION OF RISK

I recognize and acknowledge that there are certain risks of physical injury to participants in Warrior Dash, and voluntarily assume the full risk of any and all injuries, damages, or loss, regardless of severity, that I . . . may sustain as a result of said participation. [**6] . . . I assume all risks and hazards incidental to such participation in Warrior Dash, and I hereby waive, release, absolve, indemnify, and agree to hold harmless . . . Red Frog Events, LLC . . . for any claim arising out of an injury to me . . . and from any and all claims, causes of action, obligations, lawsuits, charges, complaints, contracts, controversies, covenants, agreements, promises, damages, costs, expenses, responsibilities, of whatsoever kind, nature, or description, whether direct or indirect, in law or in equity, in contract or tort, or otherwise, whether known or unknown, arising out of or connected with my . . . participation in Warrior Dash.

(Id.) In accepting these terms, Plaintiff checked that he had read and fully understood the Waiver and signed with his own free act and deed. (Id.).

3 Defendant attached a signed copy of the Waiver in support of its Motion. This Court may consider this document without treating Defendant’s Motion as one for summary judgment because it is referred to in Plaintiff’s Complaint and is central to his claim. Weiner v. Klais and Co., Inc., 108 F.3d 86, 89 (6th Cir. 1997).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Applicable Standards

1. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

In [**7] deciding a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs and accept all well-pled factual allegations as true. League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Bredesen, 500 F.3d 523, 527 (6th Cir. 2007). To withstand a motion to dismiss, however, a complaint “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007). The factual allegations in the complaint, accepted as true, “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level,” and must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009). “The plausibility of [*772] an inference depends on a host of considerations, including common sense and the strength of competing explanations for defendant’s conduct.” 16630 Southfield Limited P’ship v. Flagstar Bank, F.S.B., 727 F.3d 502, 504 (6th Cir. 2013).

The Sixth [**8] Circuit has emphasized that the “combined effect of Twombly and Iqbal [is to] require [a] plaintiff to have a greater knowledge . . . of factual details in order to draft a ‘plausible complaint.'” New Albany Tractor, Inc. v. Louisville Tractor, Inc., 650 F.3d 1046, 1051 (6th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). Put another way, complaints must contain “plausible statements as to when, where, in what or by whom,” Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, Inc. v. Napolitano, 648 F.3d 365, 373 (6th Cir. 2011), in order to avoid merely pleading “unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

2. Application of Michigan law

This Court applies Michigan law as enunciated by the Michigan Supreme Court because subject matter jurisdiction in the matter is premised solely on diversity jurisdiction. See, e.g., Corrigan v. U.S. Steel Corp., 478 F.3d 718, 723 (6th Cir. 2007); Garden City Osteopathic Hosp. v. HBE Corp., 55 F.3d 1126, 1130 (6th Cir. 1995). “Where the Michigan Supreme Court has not addressed an issue, [courts] may look to opinions issued by the Michigan appellate courts and should follow their reasoning unless [they] are ‘convinced by other persuasive data that the [**9] highest court of the state would decide otherwise.'” Tooling, Mfg. & Technologies Ass’n v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co., 693 F.3d 665, 670 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Ziegler v. IBP Hog Market, Inc., 249 F.3d 509, 517 (6th Cir. 2001)).

B. The Waiver bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim (Count I)

In Michigan, “the validity of a release turns on the intent of the parties. A release must be fairly and knowingly made to be valid. If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the intent of the parties is ascertained from the plain and ordinary meaning of the language.” Batshon v. Mar-Que Gen. Contractors, Inc., 463 Mich. 646, 650 n.4, 624 N.W.2d 903 (2001). “The interpretation of [a] release [is] a question of law.” Cole v. Ladbroke Racing Michigan, Inc., 241 Mich. App. 1, 13, 614 N.W.2d 169 (2000).

Michigan law expressly permits “a party to contract against liability or damages caused by its own ordinary negligence.” Skotak v. Vic Tanny Intern., Inc., 203 Mich. App. 616, 617-18, 513 N.W.2d 428 (1994). Plaintiff does not dispute that he signed the Waiver and provides no factual support to avoid the consequences of the Waiver. He does not argue, for example, that (1) he “was “dazed, in shock, or under the influence” when he signed the Waiver; [**10] (2) “the nature of the instrument was misrepresented, or (3) there was other fraudulent or overreaching conduct.” Xu v. Gay, 257 Mich. App. 263, 273, 668 N.W.2d 166 (2003). 4 Rather, Plaintiff asserts [*773] that “Red Frog fails to indemnify itself from its own negligent acts” because it “did not use the term ‘negligent’ and/or ‘negligence’ anywhere within the four corners of it’s (sic) Waiver & Release Agreement.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 6). For this proposition, Plaintiff begins with a citation to an Eastern District of Michigan case, Buffa v. General Motors Corporation, 131 F. Supp. 478 (E.D. Mich. 1955), finding that “a contract of indemnity which purportedly indemnifies against the consequences of one’s own negligence is subject to strict construction and will not be so construed unless it clearly appears from the language used that it was intended to have that effect.” Id. at 482.

4 In response to Defendant’s Motion, Plaintiff submitted various materials outside the pleadings, including an unsigned and different version of the Waiver, an affidavit from Plaintiff, affidavits from two participants, a press release from Defendant regarding the Warrior Dash, and an excerpt from the above quoted blog picturing [**11] participants’ dives and requesting that readers vote for the best dive. To the unsigned Waiver, the Court notes that while slightly different, the material language at issue is the same — including that Plaintiff agreed to “not dive into or enter the mud pit head first,” that the Warrior Dash is a “hazardous activity,” that he “assum[ed] the full risk of any and all injuries,” and that he agreed to release Defendant from “any and all” claims. Plaintiff’s affidavit also fails to raise any issues challenging the factual circumstances of his signing of the Waiver. Finally, the remaining materials just supplement his Complaint assertions — namely, that Defendant’s agent encouraged participants to dive into the mud pit. Such materials “simply fill[] in the contours and details of the [P]laintiff’s complaint, and add[] nothing new.” Yeary v. Goodwill Indus.-Knoxville, Inc., 107 F.3d 443, 445 (6th Cir. 1997). In short, nothing in these materials provides the Court with any basis for finding that there would be any facts that could be developed through discovery that would provide a factual predicate to support Plaintiff’s negligence cause of action. Accordingly, the Court declines to consider [**12] these materials and therefore evaluates the sufficiency of Plaintiff’s Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

There is no doubt that Michigan courts have adopted this general proposition, but not in the manner in which Plaintiff suggests. See, e.g., Skinner v. D-M-E Corp., 124 Mich. App. 580, 586, 335 N.W.2d 90 (1983) (“It is universally recognized that a contract which purports to confer an express right to indemnification against the consequences of one’s own negligence is subject to strict construction and will not be so construed unless the contract language clearly evidences that such was the intended effect.”). Instead, Michigan courts hold that “indemnity clauses need not expressly mention the indemnitee’s own acts to provide coverage for them.” Badiee v. Brighton Area Sch., 265 Mich. App. 343, 353, 695 N.W.2d 521 (2005) (citing Sherman v. DeMaria Bldg. Co., Inc., 203 Mich. App. 593, 513 N.W.2d 187 (1994)). As the Sherman court explained:

Michigan courts have discarded the additional rule of construction that indemnity contracts will not be construed to provide indemnification for the indemnitee’s own negligence unless such an intent is expressed clearly and unequivocally in the contract. Instead, broad indemnity [**13] language may be interpreted to protect the indemnitee against its own negligence if this intent can be ascertained from “other language in the contract, surrounding circumstances, or from the purpose sought to be accomplished by the parties.”

Sherman, 203 Mich. App. at 596-97 (citation omitted); see also Chrysler Corp. v. Brencal Contractors, Inc., 146 Mich. App. 766, 771, 381 N.W.2d 814 (1985) (“Earlier cases imposed the additional rule of construction that indemnification contracts will not be construed to indemnify the indemnitee against losses from his own negligent acts unless such an intent is expressed in unequivocal terms. That rule of construction no longer applies.”) (internal citations omitted). Put another way, “although an indemnity provision does not expressly state that the indemnitee will be shielded from its own negligence, such language is not mandatory to provide such indemnification.” Fischbach-Natkin Co. v. Power Process Piping, Inc., 157 Mich. App. 448, 452-53, 403 N.W.2d 569 (1987); Harbenski v. Upper Peninsula Power Co., 118 Mich. App. 440, 454, 325 N.W.2d 785 (1982) (“The [*774] contention that the intent to indemnify an indemnitee against his own negligence must be expressly stated has been rejected.”) (citing Vanden Bosch v. Consumers Power Co., 394 Mich. 428, 230 N.W.2d 271 (1975)).

Plaintiff [**14] contends that Sherman does not so hold, and rather only stands for the narrow proposition that “if there is no unequivocal language in the agreement indemnifying defendant for its own negligent acts then the indemnity language may be interpreted to protect the indemnitee against its own negligence if this intent can be ascertained from other language in the contract, surrounding circumstances, or from the purpose sought to be accomplished by the parties.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 8) (citation and internal quotations omitted). For support, Plaintiff argues that the presence of an exclusionary clause in Sherman — excluding indemnification for claims based on the defendant’s sole negligence — “evince[d the] . . . intent to indemnify [defendant] against losses from its own negligence but not from loses caused solely by [defendant].” (Id.) (quoting Sherman, 203 Mich. App. at 598-99). 5 Though the Waiver here contains no such clause, Sherman cannot be read as requiring such juxtaposing language to either read in or read out coverage for a party’s own negligence. Instead, Sherman counsels that courts must examine, among other things, the contract’s “other language” in the absence of an [**15] unequivocal statement regarding a party’s own negligence.

5 Sherman also notes that the waiver referenced the “owner’s continuing operations, which indicated that the parties realized their employees would be on the job site at the same time . . . [t]hus, the possibility that an injury or damage could result from [the defendant]’s negligence was apparent at the time the parties entered the contract.” Sherman, 203 Mich. App. at 599. The Court addresses this language below.

Here, the Waiver’s “other language” “clearly expresses [D]efendant’s intention to disclaim liability for all negligence, including its own.” Skotak, 203 Mich. App. at 619. Michigan law plainly holds that the phrases “‘any’ and ‘all’ and of the phrase ‘any and all’ . . . include[s] one’s own negligence.” Paquin v. Harnischfeger Corp., 113 Mich. App. 43, 50, 317 N.W.2d 279 (1982). This is because “there cannot be any broader classification than the word ‘all.’ In ‘its ordinary and natural meaning, the word “all” leaves no room for exceptions.'” Id. (citation omitted).

In personal injury cases interpreting language nearly identical to the Waiver’s language, Michigan courts find that such phrases disclaim one’s own negligence. Take Skotak [**16] for example. There, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the scope of a waiver in a matter alleging negligence — failing to train staff to respond to a heart attack — against a health club after a club member suffered a fatal heart attack while sitting in a steam room. 203 Mich. App. at 617. In construing the waiver to include the defendant’s own negligence, the Skotak court noted that the waiver’s “inclusive language, ‘any and all claims, demands, damages, rights of action, or causes of action, . . . arising out of the Member’s . . . use of the . . . facilities,’ clearly expresses defendant’s intention to disclaim liability for all negligence, including its own.” Id. at 619 (alterations in original). The Skotak court also emphasized the breadth of the word “all,” rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that it covered certain kinds of negligence (slip and fall injuries resulting from use of exercise equipment), but not others (like negligent training and supervision):

[*775] We fail to see how such a line can be drawn. We do not believe that the risk that medical assistance might not be available is somehow less foreseeable than the danger of a slip and fall injury. In any event, there is no [**17] broader classification than the word “all.” In its ordinary and natural meaning, the word “all” leaves no room for exceptions. Therefore, assuming that defendant was negligent in failing adequately to train and supervise its employees, any claim arising out of that negligence would be barred by the release clause the decedent signed.

Id. (internal citation omitted).

Other personal injury cases — of which Defendant features prominently and Plaintiff avoids all together — also interpret similar waiver language to include one’s own negligence. 6 See Cole, 241 Mich. App. at 14 (release covering “all risks of any injury that the undersigned may sustain while on the premises . . . clearly expressed defendant’s intention to disclaim liability for all injuries, including those attributable to its own negligence”); Gara v. Woodbridge Tavern, 224 Mich. App. 63, 67, 568 N.W.2d 138 (1997) (“The language whereby the participant agreed to assume ‘any risks inherent in any other activities connected with this event in which I may voluntarily participate’ and to take responsibility for ‘any and all injuries (including death) and accidents which may occur as a result of my participation in this event . . . ‘ clearly [**18] expressed defendants’ intention to disclaim liability for all negligence, including their own.”).

6 None of the cases cited by Plaintiff discuss this line of cases. Instead, he relies upon older cases that do not hold that releases must include the magic words of “negligence” or “negligent acts” and do not substantively analyze whether “any” or “all” language covers negligence claims. See, e.g., Gen. Acc. Fire & Life Assur. Corp., Ltd. v. Finegan & Burgess, Inc., 351 F.2d 168 (6th Cir. 1965); Tope v. Waterford Hills Racing Corp., 81 Mich. App. 591, 265 N.W.2d 761 (1978). He also distinguishes this matter from a recent unpublished Sixth Circuit case, Fish v. Home Depot USA, Inc. 455 F. App’x 575 (6th Cir. 2012). There, the Sixth Circuit found that a ladder rental contract favored indemnification for several reasons: (1) the waiver included a rental “as is” provision; (2) the waiver had an acknowledgment that the plaintiff inspected the ladder; (3) the plaintiff had rented other equipment from the defendant before; and (4) because the plaintiff was renting and not purchasing the ladder, he was “undoubtedly aware” that others had used the ladder before him, and was therefore aware that there was a possibility [**19] that “latent equipment problems can be caused by ordinary wear and tear.” Id. at 580. Plaintiff distinguishes Fish, asserting that he did not agree to an “as is” provision,” had not dealt with Red Frog or the Warrior Dash before, did not inspect the course beforehand, and was not aware that the course would “become dangerous though the ‘wear and tear’ of other participants.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 10). Fish is not binding authority, and even if it was, it is not applicable to the instant matter because it still does not address the core issue of whether the Waiver’s “any” or “all” language covered Defendant’s own negligent conduct.

More recently, the Michigan Court of Appeals distinguished this line of cases in Xu v. Gay. In that matter, a man using a treadmill at a fitness center fell, hit his head, and died. 257 Mich. App. at 265. Distinguishing Skotak and Cole, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the notion that the parties intended to release the fitness center from liability stemming from its own negligence:

We find that the language in the alleged release is unambiguous, and clearly states that defendant would not assume responsibility for “any injuries and/or sicknesses [**20] incurred to [sic] me or any accompanying minor person as a result of entering the premises and/or using any of the facilities.” However, this provision does not inform the reader that he is solely responsible for injuries [*776] incurred or that he waives defendant’s liability by relinquishing his right to sue, nor does it contain the words “waiver,” “disclaim,” or similar language that would clearly indicate to the reader that by accepting its terms he is giving up the right to assert a negligence claim.

Id. at 275.

Here, as with Skotak, Cole, and Gara, the Waiver unambiguously covered Defendant’s own negligence. The Waiver warned Plaintiff that “enter[ing] Warrior Dash [was] a hazardous activity” and that it presented “extreme obstacles.” Plaintiff agreed to “assume all risks associated with competing in Warrior Dash” and acknowledged that there was “an inherent risk of injury when choosing to participate in recreational activities and programs.” Most critically, Plaintiff “voluntarily assume[d] the full risk of any and all injuries, damages or loss, regardless of severity, that [he] . . . may sustain as a result of . . . participation [in the Warrior Dash].” Likewise, he also agreed to “waive, [**21] release, absolve, indemnify, and agree to hold harmless . . . Red Frog Events, LLC . . . for any claim arising out of an injury to me and from any and all claims . . . [including] tort . . . arising out of or connected with [his] participation in Warrior Dash.” 7 The Waiver therefore unambiguously covered Defendant’s own negligence. Finally and unlike Xu, the Waiver, titled as a “Waiver and Release of Claims, Assumption of Risk and Warning of Risk,” informed Plaintiff that he was relinquishing his right to sue Defendant for claims resulting from his participation in the Warrior Dash.

7 Plaintiff’s argument that “[t]here was nothing in Red Frog’s indemnity provision that warned participants that Red Frog’s agents would be interfering with the actual race or to notify James that there was potential that the risks of the race would be or could be heightened by the presence of Red Frog’s agents, or that injury could result from the negligence of Red Frog or its agents” misses the mark. (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 9) (contrasting with Sherman, see footnote 5). Whether the indemnity provision warned of certain negligent acts or not, just as in Skotak, any claim arising out of negligence is [**22] barred given the Waiver’s express and unambiguous language.

Notwithstanding this clear language, Plaintiff claims other language contained in the Waiver “gave James the false impression that Red Frog would not be negligent in the operation and performance of this racing event.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 10). For support, Plaintiff points to the disclaimer portion of the Waiver stating that Red Frog: (1) “is committed to conducting its race and activities in a safe manner and holds the safety of participants in high regard;” and (2) “continually strives to reduce such risks and insists that all participants follow safety rules and instructions that are designed to protect the participants’ safety.” Plaintiff omits, however, the remainder of the disclaimer, which provides that “participants . . . registering for the race, programs, and activities must recognize that there is an inherent risk of injury when choosing to participate in recreational activities and programs.”

This argument is without merit. In Cole, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected a similar argument in a personal injury case arising out of an accident at a horse-racing facility. There, the plaintiff “acknowledge[d] [**23] that due to the unique combination of dangerous factors in the restricted area associated with the stabling, exercising and training of a large number of horses, and the presence of tradespeople, jockeys, owner and other personnel in the area, there are inherent dangers in the restricted area which [the defendant] cannot eliminate after exercising [*777] reasonable care.” 241 Mich. App. at 14. In rejecting the argument that the “which [the defendant] cannot eliminate after exercising reasonable care” language limited the scope of the release (to not cover negligent acts), the court reasoned that the language “specifically addressed the dangerous conditions and inherent dangers in the restricted area of the racetrack.” Id. The “reasonable care” language was, therefore, “an unambiguous emphasis of the fact that being in the restricted area entails dangers that cannot be eliminated by exercising reasonable care.” Id.

Just as in Cole, the Waiver’s language here regarding Defendant’s commitment to conducting the Warrior Dash in a safe manner and to reducing risks cannot be read to carve out Defendant’s negligence from the Waiver’s scope. The very next sentence expressly warns participants of the [**24] “inherent risk of injury when choosing to participate in recreational activities and programs.” The disclaimer language, read in toto, and pursuant to Cole, serves only as “an unambiguous emphasis” that participating in the Warrior Dash carries a risk of injury. This is especially true when, as discussed above, read in conjunction with the fact that the Waiver releases liability with respect to “any and all injuries” sustained as a result of participation in the Warrior Dash. Id. at 14-15.

In the alternative, Plaintiff presents an interesting theory with respect to the Waiver’s enforceability: Defendant’s conduct — the emcee’s statements encouraging participants to dive head first into the mud pit — “constituted a waiver and modification of the release of liability.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 14). In sum, Plaintiff argues, “[t]his conduct led James to believe a waiver had occurred and it was okay and safe to dive into the mud pit. Red Frog failed to correct the actions of participants who dove into the mud pit or further instruct through the speaker system that this type of behavior was not permitted.” (Id.)

To find an implied waiver, the conduct of the party against whom waiver is [**25] asserted must be inconsistent with strict compliance with the terms of the contract. H J Tucker & Associates, Inc. v Allied Chucker & Eng’g Co., 234 Mich. App 550, 564-65, 595 N.W.2d 176 (1999). Though Plaintiff does not articulate this theory as such, Plaintiff essentially argues a waiver by estoppel theory. “[A] waiver by estoppel implied from conduct focuses not on the intent or purpose of the waiving party but on the effect of its conduct on the other party.” 13 Williston on Contracts § 39:29 (4th ed). “To prove waiver by estoppel, a party need only show that it was misled to its prejudice by the conduct of the other party into the honest and reasonable belief that the latter was not insisting on, and was therefore giving up, some right.” Id.

Plaintiff’s argument, however, is untenable. Even assuming that Michigan law permits parties to orally modify a waiver and release, 8 the most Plaintiff has alleged is that Defendant’s actions modified the provision prohibiting Plaintiff from diving into the mud pit head first. Defendant’s actions cannot be interpreted, as pled by Plaintiff, as an agreement to modify the Waiver such that Plaintiff could hold Defendant liable for negligence due to injuries [**26] arising out of his participation in the Warrior Dash. Therefore, the Waiver bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim.

8 Neither Plaintiff nor Defendant briefed this issue. The Court also notes that the Waiver does not include an integration clause.

[*778] C. Plaintiff’s gross negligence (Count II) and willful and wanton misconduct (Count III) claims9

9 These claims are not within the Waiver’s scope as “a party may not insulate himself against liability for gross negligence or wilful and wanton misconduct.” Lamp v. Reynolds, 249 Mich. App. 591, 594, 645 N.W.2d 311 (2002).

1. Plaintiff has stated a claim for gross negligence

Gross negligence is “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether injury results.” M.C.L. § 600.2945(d); Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 269. “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.” Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 271. Taking Plaintiff’s allegations as true, Plaintiff’s gross negligence count states a claim for relief. As Plaintiff emphasizes, Defendant not only made participants acknowledge that the Warrior Dash is a “hazardous” activity and that it presents “extreme obstacles,” it expressly enumerated rules regarding how participants [**27] were to enter the mud pit without doing so for other obstacles. Simply, Plaintiff has adequately alleged that Defendant was aware of the dangers presented by the obstacles throughout the Warrior Dash and especially those presented by diving headfirst into the mud pit. Despite this awareness, it is plausible that the act of encouraging Plaintiff — and other participants — to dive into the mud pit head first was so reckless to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether injury would result. Cf. Kahn v. East Side Union High Sch. Dist., 31 Cal. 4th 990, 1012-13, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30 (2003) (finding issue of fact regarding swimming coach’s recklessness where a student broke her neck after diving into shallow water after the coach, among other things, allegedly “ignored her overwhelming fears and made a last-minute demand that she dive during competition, in breach of a previous promise that she would not be required to dive”); Falgoust v. Richardson Indus., Inc., 552 So. 2d 1348 (La. Ct. App. 1989) (affirming apportionment of fault to pool owner who “not only failed to warn or reprimand plaintiff [for diving into a non-diving pool], but [who also] encouraged diving by doing it himself”).

This is therefore [**28] distinguishable from the case relied upon by Defendant where the plaintiff just alleged that the defendant “acted in a grossly negligent manner.” See Thomas v. Rijos, 780 F. Supp. 2d 376, 380 (D.V.I. 2011). Moreover, that “there are no specific allegations that [Defendant] knew when Plaintiff approached the mud pit that he would dive into it or that he would be injured,” as Defendant asserts (Def’s Br., Dkt. # 4, at 19), is irrelevant to the present inquiry. Defendant’s knowledge of Plaintiff’s intent before he dove into the mud pit is immaterial as to whether the act of encouraging Plaintiff to dive head first demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for whether injury would result. 10

10 Defendant urges this Court to “take into account the undisputed fact that Plaintiff expressly acknowledged the danger prior to encountering it when he signed the Waiver . . . and was specifically instructed not to ‘dive or enter the mud pit head first.'” (Def’s Br., Dkt. # 4, at 19). Such an argument has no bearing on whether Defendant demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results with respect to Plaintiff’s claim that Defendant encouraged Plaintiff to dive head first into [**29] the mud pit. This is not to say that Defendant’s argument might not have some merit down the road as, for example, Michigan law requires the allocation of damages “in direct proportion to the person’s percentage of fault.” M.C.L. § 600.2957(1).

[*779] In sum, Plaintiff has stated a claim for gross negligence.

2. Plaintiff has stated a claim for willful and wanton misconduct

Willful and wanton misconduct is separate and distinct from gross negligence. Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 269 n.3 (citing Jennings v. Southwood, 446 Mich. 125, 138, 521 N.W.2d 230 (1994)); Burnett v. City of Adrian, 414 Mich. 448, 462, 326 N.W.2d 810 (1982) (Moody, J., concurring) (“[W]ilful and wanton misconduct . . . [is] qualitatively different from and more blameworthy than ordinary, or even gross, negligence.”). The elements of a willful and wanton misconduct claim are: “(1) knowledge of a situation requiring the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury to another, (2) ability to avoid the resulting harm by ordinary care and diligence in the use of the means at hand, and (3) the omission to use such care and diligence to avert the threatened danger, when to the ordinary mind it must be apparent that the result is likely to prove disastrous [**30] to another.” Miller v. Bock, 223 Mich. App. 159, 166, 567 N.W.2d 253 (1997) (citing Jennings, 446 Mich. at 137). Michigan’s Supreme Court has clarified that “willful and wanton misconduct is made out only if the conduct alleged shows an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalent of a willingness that it does. Willful and wanton misconduct is not . . . a high degree of carelessness.” Jennings, 446 Mich. at 138 (1994) (emphasis omitted). It is, therefore, “in the same class as intentional wrongdoing.” Boumelhem v. Bic Corp., 211 Mich. App. 175, 185, 535 N.W.2d 574 (1995).

The seminal Michigan case on point with respect to willful and wanton misconduct is Burnett v. City of Adrian. In that case, the City of Adrian created Lake Adrian to use as a reservoir for its water treatment facilities. 414 Mich. at 458. According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, a 14-year old boy drowned after walking off the edge of a submerged structure that the City of Adrian failed to destroy or level when it created the lake. Id. The boy drowned after being swept away by “an unnatural current” created by the submerged structure. Id. Finally, the complaint alleged that “that the city [**31] knew that the structure existed from maps at the time of flooding and from the fact that the structure is visible when the water level is low; that the city knew or had reason to know of the potential harm created for swimmers, including children, who used the area; and that it failed to avert the danger by destroying the structure, fencing the lake, or posting warnings.” Id. at 458-59. Taking these allegations as true, the Michigan Supreme Court found that the plaintiffs “barely” asserted enough facts to make out the claim that the City of Adrian “was indifferent to the likelihood that catastrophe would come to a member of the public using the lake, an indifference essentially equivalent to a willingness that it occur.” Id. at 456.

Applying this standard, it is plausible — though barely — that Defendant’s actions amounted to willful and wanton misconduct. The Michigan Supreme Court has often noted that “[i]t is most difficult to determine, in a particular case, where negligence ends and wilful and wanton begins.” Id. at 477 (Moody, J, concurring) (citing Goss v. Overton, 266 Mich. 62, 253 N.W. 217 (1934) and Finkler v. Zimmer, 258 Mich. 336, 241 N.W. 851 (1932)). “This caution is appropriate in the case at hand, [**32] because the [gross] negligence claim stands.” Bondie v. BIC Corp., 739 F. Supp. 346, 352 [*780] (E.D. Mich. 1990). Here, a reasonable jury might conclude that the act of encouraging participants to jump head first into the mud pit despite knowing the risks to the contrary — at the end of a grueling physical endurance challenge when participants are likely to be physically and mentally exhausted — could be interpreted as such “indifferen[ce] to the likelihood that catastrophe would come to a [race participant.]” Burnett, 414 Mich. at 456. The Court reaches this conclusion with some significant reservation as to whether discovery will produce such facts. However, giving Plaintiff the benefit of every doubt and knowing that he need only “nudge[ his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible” in order to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, it seems appropriate here to allow Plaintiff the opportunity to try to develop his case. This is particularly so given that the facts set forth in Burnett also “barely” stated a claim and that Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim also survives. Accordingly, Plaintiff has pled enough facts sufficient to plausibly [**33] state a claim for willful and wanton misconduct.

IV. CONCLUSION

For all of the foregoing reasons,

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. # 4) is partially granted. Accordingly, the Court dismisses Plaintiff’s Count I (negligence) with prejudice.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

Dated: October 22, 2013

/s/ Gerald E. Rosen

GERALD E. ROSEN

CHIEF, U.S. DISTRICT COURT


New York judge uses NY law to throw out claim for gross negligence because the facts did not support the claim. The release stopped the claims the plaintiff suffered running in a half marathon.

The plaintiff slipped and fell on ice while trying to leave the course to tie his shoe. He sued the City of New York, NYC Department of Parks, New York Road Runners, Inc. and Road Runners Club of America for his injuries. He alleged gross negligence for having him leave the course if he had a problem where he fell on ice.

Zuckerman v. The City of New York, 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 465; 2011 NY Slip Op 30410(U)

Plaintiff: Jonathan Zuckerman

Defendant: The City of New York, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, New York Road Runners, Inc. and Road Runners Club Of America

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendants

 

At the beginning of this half marathon that ran through Central Park in New York City, the plaintiff was instructed with other runners to leave the course if they had a problem. This was done so runners would not run into each other.

The plaintiff was an experienced runner who had participated in 100 events. During the race, he left the course to tie his shoe. He slipped on ice next to the course suffering this injury.

The release in this case was short; however, it was long enough to cover the important points according to the court. The release specifically mentioned “falls” as a risk of the activity and had the plaintiff agree to release claims due to negligence.

The release was signed by the plaintiff electronically. The signors had to elect to accept the terms or reject the terms. If they runner rejected the terms of the release, they could not register for the race.

Summary of the case

The court started by looking at the legal requirements in New York that affect the validity of a release.

Contractual agreements to waive liability for a party’s negligence, although frowned upon, are generally enforceable were not expressly prohibited by law.

Language relieving one from liability must be unmistakable and easily understood.

Agreements to indemnify for gross negligence or willful behavior, however, are void.

The court also defined the requirements to support a claim for gross negligence in an effort to overcome a release. “Gross negligence, when invoked to pierce an agreed-upon limitation of liability . . . must smack of intentional wrongdoing . . . that evinces a reckless indifference to the rights of others.”

It is refreshing to see the court recognize the claim as one trying to evade the release as a defense. The court stated, “I need only address whether there exist factual issues as to whether NYRR was grossly negligent and whether the accident was outside the scope of the waiver.”

The court reviewed the release and found the risk the plaintiff undertook was specifically identified in the release, a fall. The court also found the instructions the race official gave to the participants to leave the race course were reasonable. There was no greater liability attributed to the race promoter for having runners leave the course because to fail to do so would have runners running into each other on the course.

Having looked at the facts and the release, the court found that gross negligence could not reasonably be drawn from those facts.

City of New York’s Motions

The City of New York moved to amend its complaint to include the defense of Release. The city was named in the release as an entity to be protected by the release but had not pled the defense of release. As such the court had to grant the cities motion to amend its answer so it could plead the additional defense.

In another action that is rarely done in courts, the court reviewed the law on granting motions to amend and then granted the motion. The court then said since it had already ruled that a release stopped the plaintiff’s claims against the sponsor, it would also stop the plaintiff’s claims against the city and dismissed the city from the case.

So Now What?

It is rare to see a court take the initiative to do undertake these two actions. The first to throw out the gross negligence claims and the second to throw out the negligence claims of the city without a motion for summary judgment. Courts are reluctant to take such acts or the rules of civil procedure will not allow a court to do so.

The decision is also valuable because it defines what gross negligence is in New York.

Here an electronic release that was well written stopped the plaintiff’s claims against the race promoter and the entities the release also protected.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Zuckerman v. The City of New York, 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 465; 2011 NY Slip Op 30410(U)

Zuckerman v. The City of New York, 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 465; 2011 NY Slip Op 30410(U)

[**2] Jonathan Zuckerman, Plaintiff, -against- The City of New York, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, New York Road Runners, Inc. and Road Road Runners Club Of America, Defendants.

105044/2010

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY

2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 465; 2011 NY Slip Op 30410(U)

February 18, 2011, Decided

February 23, 2011, Filed

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: runner, marathon, gross negligence, affirmative defense, amend, enforceable, reply, factual issues, participating, oppose, ice, exit, nunc pro tunc, risks associated, reckless indifference, grossly negligent, collectively, spectators, humidity, website, weather, traffic, invoked, waive, heat, void, registration, disbursements, encompassed, registrant

COUNSEL: [*1] For Plaintiff: Frank Taubner, Esq., Jasne & Florio, LLP, White Plains, NY.

For defendant NYRR: Deborah Peters Jordan, Esq., Havkins, Rosenfeld et al, New York, NY.

For defendant City: Anthony Bila, ACC, Michael A. Cardozo, Corporation Counse, New York, NY.

JUDGES: Barbara Jaffe, JSC.

OPINION BY: Barbara Jaffe

OPINION

DECISION & ORDER

By notice of motion dated August 20, 2010, defendants New York Road Runners, Inc. and Road Runners Club of America (collectively, NYRR) move pursuant to CPLR 3212 for an order summarily dismissing the complaint, and defendant Road Runners Club of America, Inc. (RRCA) moves pursuant to CPLR 3211(c) for an order dismissing the complaint. Plaintiff opposes as to NYRR, and does not oppose as to RRCA. Defendants City and New York City Department of Recreation (collectively, City) move separately pursuant to CPLR 3025(c) for an order granting leave to amend their answer nunc pro tunc to add an affirmative defense, and pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) and (a)(7) for an order dismissing the complaint. Plaintiff opposes City’s motion.

[**3] I. FACTS

NYRR conducts more than 100 events a year, including the Manhattan Half Marathon (Half Marathon). (Affirmation of Kenneth L. Winell, Esq., dated Aug. 20, 2010 [Winell [*2] Aff.], Exh. D). Participants in the Half Marathon register through NYRR’s website which contains the following provision:

I know that participating in NYRR events is a potentially hazardous activity. I agree not to enter and participate unless I am medically able and properly trained. I agree to abide by any decision of an event official relative to my ability to safely complete the event. I am voluntarily entering and assume all risks associated with participating in the event, including, but not limited to, falls, contact with other participants, spectators or others, the effect of the weather, including heat and/or humidity, traffic and the conditions of the course, all such risks being known and appreciated by me. I grant to the Medical Director of this event and his designee access to my medical records and physicians, as well as other information, relating to medical care that may be administered to me as a result of my participation in this event. Having read this Waiver and knowing these facts, and in consideration of your acceptance of this application, I, for myself and anyone entitled to act of my behalf, waive and release New York Road Runners Club, Inc., Road Runners Club [*3] of America, USA Track & Field, the City of New York and its agencies and departments, the Metropolitan Athletics Congress, and all sponsors, and their representatives and successors, from present and future claims and liabilities of any kind, known or unknown, arising out of my participation in this event or related activities, even though such claim or liability may arise out of negligence or fault on the part of the foregoing persons or entities. I grant permission to the foregoing persons and entities to use or authorize others to use any photographs, motions pictures, recordings, or any other record of my participation in this event or related activities for any legitimate purpose without remuneration.

(Id., Exhs. C.F. [emphases added]). The registrant must then either select “I accept and agree to the above waiver,” or “I do not accept and do not agree to the above waiver.” (Id.) If the registrant selects the latter, he cannot register. (Id., Exh. C).

Plaintiff, a member of NYRR, is an experienced runner, having participated in over 100 NYRR events. (Affirmation of Frank Taubner, Esq., dated Oct. 11, 2010 [Taubner Aff.]). He registered for the 2009 Half Marathon online approximately [*4] one week earlier, and recalls seeing [**4] a waiver as part of the registration procedure. (Id.).

At approximately 8:00 a.m. on January 25, 2009, plaintiff arrived at the starting area of the Half Marathon in Central Park. (Id.). Snow banks flanked the course’s pathways. (Id.). An NYRR official orally instructed the participants that if they had to stop for any reason, they were to exit the course and proceed to the shoulder of the roadway so as not to block other participants. (Id.). While running, plaintiffs shoe became untied and seeing no designated exit areas, he stepped off the path as instructed and proceeded to what he believed to be a patch of dirt. (Id.). There, he slipped on ice that he had not seen, and fell backward, seriously injuring himself. (Id.).

II. NYRR’S MOTION

A. Contentions

NYRR contends that it is entitled to summary dismissal as plaintiff executed a valid and enforceable waiver of liability, and because it did not organize, supervise or control the half marathon. (Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, dated Aug. 2010 [NYRR Mem.]). In support, it annexes the affidavits of three of its employees, (id., Exhs. C, D, E), a copy of the waiver (id, [*5] Exh. F), and proof of plaintiffs registration (id., Exh. F).

Plaintiff argues that in light of defendants’ gross negligence and his compliance with the instructions given at the commencement of the half marathon that he exit the course if he needed to stop, the waiver is unenforceable. He also denies having assumed the risk of slipping on ice when exiting the course. (Taubner Aff.).

In reply, NYRR asserts that plaintiff’s injury is encompassed by the waiver and that plaintiff has failed to establish that NYRR’s conduct rises to the level of gross negligence. (Reply [**5] Affirmation of Deborah Peters Jordan, Esq., dated Nov. 18, 2010).

B. Analysis

Contractual agreements to waive liability for a party’s negligence, although frowned upon, are generally enforceable where not expressly prohibited by law. (Gross v Sweet, 49 NY2d 102, 105, 400 N.E.2d 306, 424 N.Y.S.2d 365 [1979]). Language relieving one from liability must be unmistakable and easily understood. (Id. at 107). Agreements to indemnify for gross negligence or willful behavior, however, are void. (Id. at 106). “Gross negligence, when invoked to pierce an agreed-upon limitation of liability . . . must smack of intentional wrongdoing . . . that evinces a reckless indifference [*6] to the rights of others.” (Sommer v Fed. Signal Corp., 79 NY2d 540, 554, 593 N.E.2d 1365, 583 N.Y.S.2d 957 [1992]; Abacus Fed. Sav. Bank v ADT Sec. Servs., Inc., 77 A.D.3d 431, 433, 908 N.Y.S.2d 654 [1st Dept 2010]).

As plaintiff does not deny that he agreed to the waiver or that it is generally enforceable and not void as a matter of law or public policy, I need only address whether there exist factual issues as to whether NYRR was grossly negligent and whether the accident was outside the scope of the waiver. That the waiver references the “conditions of the course” does not remove plaintiff’s accident from its scope as the waiver extends to “all risks associated with participating in the event, including, but not limited to, falls, contact with other participants, spectators or others, the effect of the weather, including heat and/or humidity, traffic and the conditions of the course.” The breadth of the provision permits the inference that plaintiff was aware that by executing the waiver, he assumed the risks of running through Central Park in the winter, where the presence of ice is reasonably anticipated, which risks are reasonably deemed part of the activity, and not just of the course. (See Bufano v Nat. Inline Roller Hockey Assn., 272 A.D.2d 359, 707 N.Y.S.2d 223 [**6] [2d Dept 2000] [*7] [plaintiff assumed risk of injury during fight while playing inline roller hockey]), Nothing in the provision precludes its application to accidents incurred by a participant who momentarily steps off the course.

And, although plaintiff acted in compliance with defendants’ instruction to leave the race course if he needed to stop, such an instruction constitutes a sensible means of protecting participants from colliding with one another, and neither invites nor would naturally lead to an accident sufficient to constitute reckless indifference. Consequently, an inference of gross negligence is not reasonably drawn therefrom. (See Lemoine v Cornell Univ., 2 AD3d 1017, 769 N.Y.S.2d 313 [3d Dept 2003], lv denied 2 N.Y.3d 701, 810 N.E.2d 912, 778 N.Y.S.2d 459 [2005] [plaintiff fell from wall after rock-climbing instructor told her where to place her hands and feet; waiver of liability enforced; not gross negligence]). And, assuming that NYRR had a duty to keep the park free of slippery substances, the failure to do so constitutes ordinary negligence at best.

Given this result, I need not address RRCA’s alternative argument that it did not organize, supervise, or control the half marathon.

III. CITY’S MOTION

A. Contentions

City argues that it should [*8] be granted leave to amend its answer to add an affirmative defense that the action is barred by plaintiffs execution of a written release. It observes that leave is freely granted, that plaintiff will no suffer no prejudice, and that, although this motion was served after joinder of issue, it is procedurally proper as City moves pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) as well as (a)(5). (Affirmation of Anthony Bila, ACC, dated Sept. 29, 2010).

Plaintiff asserts that City is not entitled to dismissal given the factual issues as to City’s [**7] gross negligence and whether plaintiff’s accident is encompassed by the waiver, and that the motion to amend should be denied because the affirmative defense is meritless and prejudicial. (Taubner Aff.).

In reply, City maintains that as it moves only pursuant to CPLR 3211, the existence of factual issues is immaterial. It contends that the amendment is meritorious and will not prejudice plaintiff, and that plaintiffs accident falls squarely within the scope of the waiver and that there is no evidence of gross negligence. (Reply Affirmation of Anthony Bila, ACC, dated Nov. 18, 2010).

B. Analysis

Although objections pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) are waived if not invoked [*9] in the movant’s answer (CPLR 3211 [e]), a motion to amend an answer may be granted in order that the affirmative defense be addressed on the merits. (Siegel, NY Prac § 274, at 435 [3d ed]; Marks v Macchiarola, 221 AD2d 217, 634 N.Y.S.2d 56 [1st Dept 1995]). Thus, and absent any discernible prejudice given plaintiffs having addressed the substance of the motion above (II. A.), leave is granted. (Cf Young v GSL Enter., Inc., 170 AD2d 401, 566 N.Y.S.2d 618 [1st Dept 1991] [Supreme Court properly addressed merits of proposed affirmative defense in motion to amend]; Scheff v St. John’s Episcopal Hosp., 115 AD2d 532, 534, 496 N.Y.S.2d 58 [2d Dept 1985] [same]).

Although plaintiff executed the waiver on NYRR’s website, City was expressly included therein. (See Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348 [2d Dept 2008], lv denied 11 N.Y.3d 704, 894 N.E.2d 1198, 864 N.Y.S.2d 807 [upholding waiver against NYRR and City]; cf Tedesco v Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Auth, 250 AD2d 758, 673 N.Y.S.2d 181 [2d Dept 1998] [bicycle tour waiver included party not specifically named in release]). Moreover, the waiver of liability is a release within the meaning [**8] of CPLR 3211(a)(5). (See Brookner, 51 AD3d 841, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348).

Having already determined that the waiver is enforceable as against plaintiff, and as NYRR’s [*10] conduct was not grossly negligent, the same result is reached as to City.

IV. CONCLUSION

Accordingly, it is hereby

ORDERED, that the motion for summary judgment by New York Road Runners, Inc. and Road Runners Club of America is granted, and the complaint dismissed against them with costs and disbursements to defendants as taxed by the Clerk upon the submission of an appropriate bill of costs; it is further

ORDERED, that the motion by City of New York and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation for leave to serve an amended answer is granted, and the annexed answer is deemed timely served, nunc pro tunc; and it is further

ORDERED, that the motion for dismissal as against City of New York and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is granted, and the complaint dismissed against them with costs and disbursements to defendants as taxed by the Clerk upon the submission of an appropriate bill of costs.

This constitutes the decision and order of the court.

/s/ Barbara Jaffe

Barbara Jaffe, JSC

DATED: February 18, 2011

New York, New York

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Chapple, Et Al., v. Ultrafit Usa, Inc., Et Al., 2002 Ohio 1292; 2002 Ohio App. LEXIS 1366

Chapple, Et Al., v. Ultrafit USA, Inc., Et Al., 2002 Ohio 1292; 2002 Ohio App. LEXIS 1366

Roger Chapple, Et Al., Plaintiffs-Appellants -vs- Ultrafit Usa, Inc., Et Al., Defendants-Appellees

Case No. 01-CAE-08037

COURT OF APPEALS OF OHIO, FIFTH APPELLATE DISTRICT, DELAWARE COUNTY

2002 Ohio 1292; 2002 Ohio App. LEXIS 1366

March 18, 2002, Date of Judgment Entry

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] CHARACTER OF PROCEEDING: Appeal from the Delaware County, Common Pleas Court, Case No. 00-CVC-06-270.

DISPOSITION: Trial court’s grant of defendants-appellees’ motion for summary judgment was affirmed.

COUNSEL: For Plaintiffs-Appellants: JOHN A. YAKLEVICH, Columbus, Ohio.

For Defendants-Appellees: MARK PETRUCCI, Columbus, Ohio.

JUDGES: Hon. Sheila G. Farmer, P.J., Hon. Julie A. Edwards, J., Hon. John F. Boggins, J. Boggins, J., Farmer, P.J., and Edwards, J. concur.

OPINION BY: John F. Boggins

OPINION

Boggins, J.

This is an appeal from a Summary Judgment ruling of the Delaware County, Court of Common Pleas.

STATEMENT OF THE FACTS AND CASE

The facts underlying this case are that appellant Roger Chapple was an employee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Recreation (O.D.N.R.). Appellee Ultrafit, Inc. through its president, appellee Jeffrey Sheard is engaged in organizing and promoting events such as triathlons. One of these contests was set for June 28, 1998 at Alum Creek State Park. Appellees had made application to the O.D.N.R. to use the facilities, including employees of O.D.N.R. on June 28, 1998 to conduct a triathlon. Appellant signed up per O.D.N.R. procedure to work the event. John Williamson, crew leader for O.D.N.R. set the work schedule which [*2] included appellant’s duties. (Appellant’s deposition at p.14). Appellant had no contact with appellees on 6/28/98 prior to his injury. Due to severe weather, the triathlon’s starting time was delayed until about 9:30a.m. when the weather had improved. Due to the late start, the race was shortened. Near the end of the shortened event, appellant Roger Chapple was rolling a hose on an abandoned leg of the race and was struck by lightning and injured. Appellant, Joyce Chapple, spouse of Roger Chapple is joined on a loss of consortium basis. The issues are whether appellees owed a duty to Roger Chapple, was he an employee of O.D.N.R. or other status, and if a duty of care existed, did it require a postponement or cancellation of the event. Appellees filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on April 11, 2000 which was set for a non-oral hearing with appellants memorandum in opposition filed May 8, 2000, and a reply subsequently filed. After careful consideration of all materials available to the trial court, it sustained appellee’s motion.

ASSIGNMENT OF ERROR

The sole Assignment of Error is:

I.

THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN RENDERING SUMMARY JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF THE DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES WHERE [*3] THE DEFENDANT-APPELLEES OWED A DUTY OF CARE TO PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS AND GENUINE ISSUES OF FACT EXISTED CONCERNING DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES’ BREACH OF THAT DUTY.

SUMMARY JUDGMENTS

Civ.R. 56(C) states, in pertinent part:

[HN1] Summary Judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, written admissions, affidavits, transcripts of evidence in the pending case, and written stipulations of fact, if any, timely filed in the action, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law…. A summary judgment shall not be rendered unless it appears from such evidence or stipulation and only therefrom, that reasonable minds can come to but one conclusion and that conclusion is adverse to the party against whom the motion for summary judgment is made, such party being entitled to have the evidence or stipulation construed most strongly in his favor.

[HN2] Pursuant to the above rule, a trial court may not enter a summary judgment if it appears a material fact is genuinely disputed. [HN3] In order to survive a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must produce evidence on any issue [*4] to which that party bears the burden of production at trial. Wing v. Anchor Media Ltd. of Texas (1991), 59 Ohio St. 3d 108, 570 N.E.2d 1095, citing Celotex v. Catrett (1986), 477 U.S. 317, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548. [HN4] Summary judgment proceedings present the appellate court with the unique opportunity of reviewing the evidence in the same manner as the trial court. Smiddy v. The Wedding Party, Inc. (1987), 30 Ohio St. 3d 35, 36, 506 N.E.2d 212. I. As to the Assignment of Error, even though appellants’ Complaint asserts negligence, gross negligence and wanton and wilful misconduct but his Brief relies solely on negligence. (Appellant’s brief at p. 8). Appellant acknowledges that no Ohio case strictly fits the fact pattern in the case sub judice. Other than the cases citing basic propositions of negligence law, none of the cases cited by either party to this appeal are particularly in point, therefore we must, as the trial court did, review the facts which would support or refute the decision from which the appeal is taken. The deposition of appellant, Roger Chapple, indicates that the weather had cleared by the delayed starting time and that [*5] lightning flashes were to the north of the park. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 26). In the reply brief appellant’s counsel attempts to blame a memory loss for the inability of Roger Chapple to remember that lightning was flashing in his vicinity prior to being struck. (Appellant’s reply brief at p. 2). This conclusion is not supported by appellant’s deposition which demonstrates a clear memory except for short term loss. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 46). The essential issue is whether alleged facts were presented to the trial court indicating a breach of duty of appellees to appellants. [HN5] The existence of a duty is an essential element of negligence action. Grover v. Eli Lilly and Company (1992), 63 Ohio St. 3d 756, 591 N.E.2d 696. [HN6] The foreseeability of injury is obviously a factor to consider under appropriate circumstances. An injury is foreseeable if a reasonably prudent person, under like or similar circumstance knew or should have known that an act or nonperformance of an act was likely to result in harm. Simmers v. Bentley Construction Co. (1992), 64 Ohio St. 3d 642, 597 N.E.2d 504. Here, appellants assert that, because appellee had authority to postpone [*6] or cancel the race, that a duty to appellant existed. The defect in this argument is that the weather had cleared considerably at starting time. Lightning flashes were to the north. Appellant did not believe that danger was present. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 47). Also, if such became a concern, he believed policy dictated that he go to a vehicle. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 40-41). Appellant argues that severe electrical storm activity was present, but his deposition does not support this conclusion. Appellee has reviewed certain theories and applicable cases such as injury to subcontractors, and inherently dangerous activity. These are not applicable under the facts and the appellant being a subcontractor has not been argued. The only aspect of appellant’s position which is close to the decisions in this line of cited cases is one of control by appellee. The control asserted is that appellant was included with the use of the facilities and appellees retained the exclusive ability to cancel or postpone the triathlon. However, no direction occurred. It can only be argued that appellee possessed a general authority to cancel or postpone. In this narrow regard the language of Wellman v. East Ohio Gas Co. (1953), 160 Ohio St. 103, 113 N.E.2d 629 [*7] is pertinent even though, it is a subcontractor case. It holds that active participation by the contractor as opposed to a general supervisory role is required. The facts in the case sub judice indicate that Roger Chapple chose to work outside and felt that no danger existed. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 41-42). Roger Chapple believed that park rules provided that he wait in a vehicle if a weather danger existed, (Appellant’s deposition at p. 40-41) even though Mr. Hart disputes the existence of such a policy in his deposition. As stated before, Roger Chapple had no contact with appellees and nothing in any deposition supports direction by appellees. It is asserted that lightning was present during the race and the affidavit of Mr. Williamson is relied on for this assertion. However, such affidavit also places the lightning to the north of the race event. It is also stated that appellees had no access to weather information. However, Mr. Sheard’s deposition indicated that amateur radio operators were at the race and would provide such data if such need arose. (Sheard deposition at p. 38). The facts which the trial court had available is that Mr. Chapple was employed by and paid by [*8] O.D.N.R. His worker’s compensation claim was filed as such rather than as a loaned employee to appellees. It is accurate, however, that [HN7] an employee may institute a third-party negligence action even though a worker’s compensation claim has been filed. George v. City of Youngstown (1942), 139 Ohio St. 591. The essence of appellant’s claim is that appellee had the authority to postpone or cancel the race and that the race was commenced under dangerous weather conditions. We must disagree with the Assignment of Error and conclude, as the trial court did, that there is insufficient support for the existence of a duty, control of the activities of appellant, nor negligence of appellee.

We therefore affirm the decision of the trial court.

By: Boggins, J. Farmer, P.J. and Edwards, J. concur.


Industry standards are proof of gross negligence and keep defendant in lawsuit even with good release

If the industry says you should and calls it a standard you better

Lautieri v. Bae, 17 Mass. L. Rep. 4; 2003 Mass. Super. LEXIS 290 (Mass. Sup 2003)

Plaintiff: Derek A. Lautieri

Defendant: Jorun G. Bae

Third Party Defendants: defendants USA Triathlon, Inc., William Fiske d/b/a Fiske Independent Race Management, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and court added gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Holding release released defendants who could not be held to gross negligence.

This decision is from a trial court in Massachusetts. It has limited value in Massachusetts and other states.

If you have read many of these articles, you understand that releases do not bar claims for gross negligence. In this case, the release did not bar the claim for gross negligence, even when the plaintiff did not plead gross negligence.

This is a car/bike accident case during a triathlon. The plaintiff was cycling in a triathlon with several other cyclists. The defendant Bae, driver pulled out in front of the cyclists resulting in a collision. The course was not closed to traffic.

The defendant car driver brought in as third party defendants the race organizer, William Fiske d/b/a Fiske Independent Race Management (Fiske), the race charity Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc. (BGC) and the triathlon association sanctioning body USA Triathlon, Inc., (USTA).

The third party defendants were brought in for “contribution.” Contribution is defined in Massachusetts as:

Where two or more persons become jointly liable in tort for the same injury to person or property, there shall be a right of contribution among them.” The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has consistently interpreted the language of this statute to mean that an “action for contribution is not barred if, at the time the accident occurred, the party for whom contribution is sought could have been held liable in tort.”

For the defendant, Bae to enable to enforce contribution against the third party defendants she must show that the third party defendants could be held liable at trial in tort. Any defenses available to the third party defendants against the original plaintiff will also be a defense to the contribution claim of the defendant Bae.

Therefore, in order for Bae to be able to enforce a right of contribution against any of the third-party defendants, she must be able to show that the particular third-party defendant could have been found tortiously liable to the plaintiff at the time the accident occurred.

Fiske was the person who put the triathlon together. Even though Fiske was operating as Fiske Independent Race Management, the court indicated that Fiske was not a corporation or company (LLC). USTA sanctioned the race, including providing liability insurance and standards, according to the court, on how the race should be run.

The defendant Bae argued that the third party defendants should be liable for failing to “a safe layout for the race course, failure to provide warning signs and directions, and failure to place volunteers and/or police personnel at the intersection where the incident occurred.”

The court determined that USTA was:

…the governing body of triathlon races and promulgates safety requirements for use by organizers of sanctioned triathlon races.

USTA is the governing body of triathlon races and promulgates safety requirements for use by organizers of sanctioned triathlon races.

In that position, USTA created regulations for running triathlons which the court quoted:

2. It is highly recommended to close the [bike race] road to traffic. If not possible, cone bike lanes with a minimum width of six feet from vehicles . . . 9. Control stoplights/stop sign intersections, traffic hazards and turnarounds with police and an ample amount of volunteers . . . 12. Use ‘Race in Progress’ or ‘Watch for Cyclists’ signs placed along the course to help warn motorists about conditions . . . 23. All turns, turn-arounds, traffic hazards and intersections must be monitored and marked with signs and volunteers. Any intersections with stop signs or stop lights must be controlled by police or professional traffic personnel.

Fiske did not follow any of the guidelines offered by the USTA.

…it does not appear that Fiske, as Race Director, heeded any of the guidelines described above for the triathlon at issue; rather, he left the intersection at which Lautieri collided with Bae open to traffic, uncontrolled by police or volunteers, unmarked with warnings, and unmonitored.

Summary of the case

The defense raised by the third party defendants was “release.” The plaintiff signed a release to join the USTA and receive a license. The plaintiff also signed an application which contained language similar to that of a release when she entered the race.

Under Massachusetts law, the enforceability of a release is a question (issue) of law to be decided by the court. “Massachusetts law favors the enforcement of releases.”

There can be no doubt . . . that under the law of Massachusetts . . . in the absence of fraud a person may make a valid contract exempting himself from any liability to another which he may in the future incur as a result of his negligence or that of his agents or employees acting on his behalf.” While any doubts about the interpretation of a release must be resolved in the favor of the plaintiff, an unambiguous and comprehensive release will be enforced as drafted.

Nor does the word negligence have to be found in the release. Releases, like all other states, do not bar claims of gross negligence. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant complained of any gross negligence. The court, however, stated that even though not pled, gross negligence could be found later against Fiske. If that was the case, then the releases signed by the plaintiff did not bar the claim against Fiske. “While these waivers are sufficient to release Fiske from all liability for harm caused by his own negligence, they do not release him from his own gross negligence.” The court found that the actions of Fiske could rise to the level of gross negligence.

The basis of that finding was Fiske did not follow the guidelines or regulations of the governing body, the USTA in running the race. “As this definition is necessarily vague, it is important to note that courts have found that “industry standards may be some evidence of negligence.”

To some extent, the court must have thought that Fiske’s failure to follow the standards of the USTA was very egregious to raise the issue of gross negligence in the case.

The court quoted the regulations cited above as evidence that what Fiske did when ignoring the industry standards was sufficient to void the release because it raised the possibility that Fiske was grossly negligent.

…it does not appear that Fiske, as Race Director, heeded any of the guidelines described above for the triathlon at issue; rather, he left the intersection at which Lautieri collided with Bae open to traffic, uncontrolled by police or volunteers, unmarked with warnings, and unmonitored.

The court further defined negligence and gross negligence under Massachusetts law.

Negligence, without qualification and in its ordinary sense, is the failure of a responsible person, either by omission or by action, to exercise that degree of care, vigilance and forethought which, in the discharge of the duty then resting on him, the person of ordinary caution and prudence ought to exercise under the particular circumstances. It is a want of diligence commensurate with the requirement of the duty at the moment imposed by the law.

Gross negligence is substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude than ordinary negligence. It is materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence. It is an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care. It is very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care. It amounts to indifference to present legal duty and to utter forgetfulness of legal obligations so far as other persons may be affected. It is a heedless and palpable violation of legal duty respecting the rights of others. The element of culpability which characterizes all negligence is in gross negligence magnified to a high degree as compared with that present in ordinary negligence. Gross negligence is a manifestly smaller amount of watchfulness and circumspection than the circumstances require of a person of ordinary prudence . . . It falls short of being such reckless disregard of probable consequences as is equivalent to a wilful and intentional wrong. Ordinary and gross negligence differ in degree of inattention, while both differ in kind from wilful and intentional conduct which is or ought to be known to have a tendency to injure.”

The court’s justification for not letting Fiske out of the case and for allowing the possibility of a claim for gross negligence was interesting.

While Bae has specifically pled negligence, and not gross negligence, this Court has considered the summary judgment motion as if a claim for gross negligence against the third-party defendants has been made.

Accordingly, because gross negligence may be considered an alternative theory of a standard negligence claim, Bae should be permitted to proceed with her claim of gross negligence against the third-party defendants.

The court then looked at the allegations against the USTA.

In order for Lautieri to establish that USTA owed him a duty of care at the time the accident occurred, Lautieri would have to establish that such a duty has a “source existing in social values and customs,” or that USTA voluntarily, or for consideration, assumed a duty of care to Lautieri. This is a burden that Lautieri–or, more appropriately, Bae, standing in Lautieri’s shoes–cannot meet.

There was no evidence that showed USTA participated or was supposed to participate in the planning, operation, supervision or running of the race. USTA did not even have a representative of USTA attend the race. Consequently, because there was no duty and USTA created no duty to the plaintiff the release barred the claims of the third party defendant.

The court’s discussion of the Boys and Girls Club was shorter.

A similar finding regarding the B&G Clubs is mandated. While there is evidence that the B&G Clubs provided volunteers for the triathlon, there is no evidence to support a claim of gross negligence against the B&G Clubs or any of its members.

USTA and the Boys and Girls Club were dismissed from the lawsuit.

So Now What?

The “release” or as identified by the court, application, was extremely weak. If the release had identified the course as being an open course, not closed to cars, this might have changed the outcome of the case for Fiske. No matter, the document was too weak not to create problems rather than resolve them in this case.

However, even if the release was stronger, it might not have gotten Fiske out of the case because of the court raised allegations of gross negligence. The USTA created regulations for running a race. By requesting and receiving sanctioning for the race, Fiske knowingly or unknowingly, became burdened or bound by those regulations. The court called them standards, regulations and guidelines throughout the decision, but the simple fact is they were a noose around the third party defendant’s neck.

You cannot look at your industry and not understand the standard of care in the industry or not find and follow the guidelines the industry is creating.

These “regulations” are fairly simple and appear to be commons sense. However, they substantially increase the cost of running an event. Closing a street requires government paperwork, government employees and usually help from law enforcement. All significantly increase the cost of running the event.

However, the regulations more importantly are proof that if an industry association creates regulations, standards, guidelines or rules, they are the standard of care against which members of the same industry will be judged in court.

For more articles on how standards created by an association are used to harm association members see:

ACA Standards are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp

Expert Witness Report: ACA “Standards” are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp

Plaintiff uses standards of ACCT to cost defendant $4.7 million

Trade Association Standards sink a Summer Camp when plaintiff uses them to prove Camp was negligent

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Lautieri v. Bae, 17 Mass. L. Rep. 4; 2003 Mass. Super. LEXIS 290

Lautieri v. Bae, 17 Mass. L. Rep. 4; 2003 Mass. Super. LEXIS 290

Derek A. Lautieri v. Jorun G. Bae 1

1 The Town of Hudson was also named as a third-party defendant in the complaint. Count IV against the Town has been dismissed. Memorandum of Decision, dated June 7, 2002 (Bohn, J.).

01-4078

SUPERIOR COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS, AT MIDDLESEX

17 Mass. L. Rep. 4; 2003 Mass. Super. LEXIS 290

October 29, 2003, Decided

October 29, 2003, Filed

DISPOSITION: Third party defendants’ motions for summary judgment allowed in part and denied in part.

JUDGES: [*1] Kenneth J. Fishman, Justice of the Superior Court.

OPINION BY: Kenneth J. Fishman

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Derek A. Lautieri (“Lautieri”), was injured during a triathlon held in Hudson, Massachusetts. Lautieri brought this action against the defendant/third-party plaintiff, Jorun G. Bae (“Bae”), claiming negligence for Bae’s failure to exercise reasonable care in the operation of her motor vehicle. Bae in turn brought an action against third-party defendants USA Triathlon, Inc. (“USAT”) (Count I of Third-Party Complaint), William Fiske (“Fiske”) d/b/a Fiske Independent Race Management (Count II) 2 and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc. (“B&G Clubs”) (Count III), seeking contribution in the event that the plaintiff recovers damages for his alleged injuries. 3 Specifically, Bae claims negligence on part of the third-party defendants for failure to provide a safe layout for the race course, failure to provide warning signs and directions, and failure to place volunteers and/or police personnel at the intersection where the incident occurred. This matter is before this Court on the third-party [*2] defendants’ motions for summary judgment as to all counts. For the reasons described below, the third party defendants’ motions are ALLOWED, in part, and DENIED, in part.

2 Bae’s complaint uses the spelling “Fisk” in the caption. As all the parties, including Bae, have since used the spelling “Fiske”, this Court will use the latter spelling.

3 Bae initially also claimed a duty of indemnification, but has since stipulated that no privity of contract existed between himself and any of the third-party defendants, and, therefore, that no right of indemnification exists.

BACKGROUND

On June 4, 2000, Lautieri participated in an organized triathlon, one leg of which was competitive bicycling. Bae, while operating a motor vehicle, came to the intersection of Main Street and Lewis Street in Hudson. Bae stopped, looked to her left, looked to her right, and then looked to her left again for approaching traffic. Seeing no vehicles approaching, Bae proceeded straight through the intersection. Lautieri, [*3] then approaching the intersection with four or five other bicyclists, turned to avoid Bae’s vehicle but did not have sufficient time to prevent a collision. Lautieri suffered significant injuries as a result of the accident.

On May 12, 2000, prior to the race, Lautieri completed and signed a “USA Triathlon Annual Licence Application Waiver.” That waiver contained the following language in the form duplicated below:

I acknowledge that a triathlon or bisport/duathlon event is an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits and carries with it the potential for death, serious injury and property loss. I HEREBY ASSUME THE RISKS OF PARTICIPATING IN TRIATHLONS OR BISPORT/DUATHLON EVENTS. I certify that I am physically fit and have sufficiently trained for participating in this event(s), and have not been advised against participating by a qualified health professional. I acknowledge that my statements in this AWRL are being accepted by the USAT in consideration for allowing me to become a member in USAT and are being relied upon by USAT and the various race sponsors, organizers and administrators in permitting me to participate in any USAT sanctioned event . . . (b) I AGREE that [*4] prior to participating in an event I will inspect the race course, facilities, equipment and areas to be used and if I believe they are unsafe I will immediately advise the person supervising the event activity or area; (c) I waive, release, AND DISCHARGE for any and all claims, losses or liabilities for death, personal injury, partial or permanent disability, property damage, medical or hospital bills, theft, or damage of any kid, including economic losses, which may in the future arise out of or relate to my participation in or my traveling to and from a USAT sanctioned event, THE FOLLOWING PERSONS OR ENTITIES: USAT, EVENT SPONSORS, RACE DIRECTORS, EVENT PRODUCERS, VOLUNTEERS, ALL STATES, CITIES, COUNTIES, OR LOCALITIES IN WHICH EVENTS OR SEGMENTS OR EVENTS ARE HELD, AND THE OFFICERS, DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, REPRESENTATIVES AND AGENTS OF ANY OF THE ABOVE, EVEN IF SUCH CLAIMS, LOSSES OR LIABILITIES ARE CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENT ACTS OF OMISSIONS OF THE PERSONS I AM HEREBY RELEASING OR ARE CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENT ACTS OR OMISSIONS OF ANY OTHER PERSON OR ENTITY; (d) I ACKNOWLEDGE that there may be traffic or persons on the course route, and I ASSUME THE RISK OF RUNNING, BIKING, SWIMMING [*5] OR PARTICIPATING IN ANY OTHER EVENT SANCTIONED BY USAT.

(e) I AGREE NOT TO SUE any of the persons or entities mentioned above in paragraph (c) for any of the claims, losses or liabilities that I have waived, released or discharged herein; (f) I INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS the persons or entities mentioned above in paragraph (c) for any and all claims made or liabilities assessed against them as a result of my acts or inactions (ii) the actions, inactions or negligence of others including those parties hereby indemnified (iii) the conditions of the facilities, equipment or areas where the event or activity is being conducted (iv) the Competitive Rules (v) any other harm caused by an occurrence related to a USAT event . . .

Prior to the race, Lautieri also completed and signed a “Wet ‘N’ Wild Triathlon Application,” which contained the following language:

In consideration of the entry being accepted, I do hereby forever waive and release Fiske Independent Race Management, the sponsoring organization, companies, agents, representatives, assigns and successors from all claims of action, which I at any time acquire as a result of participation in the event for which this entry relates.

[*6] USTA is the governing body of triathlon races and promulgates safety requirements for use by organizers of sanctioned triathlon races. The subject triathlon was sanctioned by USTA based upon an application submitted by Fiske. On that application, William Fiske is identified as the Race Director. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc. provided a number of volunteers for the event.

DISCUSSION

[HN1] A party is entitled to summary judgment, “if pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material facts and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The burden of the moving party “is not sustained by the mere filing of the summary judgment motion,” but “must be supported by one or more of the materials listed in rule 56(c) . . .” Kourouvacilis v. General Motors Corp., 410 Mass. 706, 714, 575 N.E.2d 734, citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 328, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). That party may satisfy this burden either by submitting affirmative evidence that negates an essential [*7] element of the opposing party’s case or by demonstrating that the opposing party has no reasonable expectation of proving an essential element of his case at trial. Flesner v. Technical Communications Corp., 410 Mass. 805, 809, 575 N.E.2d 1107 (1991); Kourouvacilis, 410 Mass. at 716. “If the moving party establishes the absence of a triable issue, the party opposing the motion must respond and allege specific facts which would establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact in order to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Pederson v. Time, Inc., 404 Mass. 14, 17, 532 N.E.2d 1211 (1989), citing O’Brion, Russell & Co. v. LeMay, 370 Mass. 243, 245, 346 N.E.2d 861 (1976).

General Laws c. 231B, § 1, [HN2] provides in pertinent part: “Where two or more persons become jointly liable in tort for the same injury to person or property, there shall be a right of contribution among them.” The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has consistently interpreted the language of this statute to mean that an “action for contribution is not barred if, at the time the accident occurred, the party for whom [*8] contribution is sought could have been held liable in tort.” McGrath v. Stanley, 397 Mass. 775, 781, 493 N.E.2d 832 (1986) (emphasis in original). See also, Correia v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 388 Mass. 342, 346-50, 446 N.E.2d 1033 (1983); Liberty Mutual Ins. Co. v. Westerlind, 374 Mass. 524, 526, 373 N.E.2d 957 (1978); O’Mara v. H.P. Hood & Sons, Inc., 359 Mass. 235, 238, 268 N.E.2d 685 (1971). 4 Therefore, in order for Bae to be able to enforce a right of contribution against any of the third-party defendants, she must be able to show that the particular third-party defendant could have been found tortiously liable to the plaintiff at the time the accident occurred. Each third-party defendant will be discussed separately below.

4 In McGrath, where a plaintiff’s failure to comply with the particular jurisdictional requirements of G.L.c. 258, § 4 was held not sufficient to bar a right of contribution, the SJC noted that the “contribution statute is aimed at eliminating the unfairness of allowing a disproportionate share of a plaintiff’s recovery to be borne by one of several joint tortfeasors.” 397 Mass. at 777-78. The third-party defendants in the instant case, however, are not claiming a lack of jurisdiction, but instead that the plaintiff’s signature on certain waivers releases them from all liability. The SJC has approved the denial of the right of contribution in similar cases. See O’Mara, 359 Mass. at 238 (denying contribution to defendant company from the driver of car in which plaintiff was a passenger when company truck hit driver’s car); Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 374 Mass. at 526 (denying contribution of plaintiff’s employer for work related injury on grounds that the employer’s contributions to workers’ compensation benefits released the employer from all tort claims that might have resulted from the accident).

[*9] A. William Fiske d/b/a/ Fiske Independent Race Management

Fiske argues that he was released from all liability regarding the Wet ‘N’ Wild Triathlon when Lautieri signed the USA Triathlon Annual Licence Application Waiver and the Wet ‘N’ Wild Triathlon Application. [HN3] Whether the waivers signed by the plaintiff are enforceable to bar any claims in tort against Fiske is a question of law to be decide by this Court.

[HN4] “Massachusetts law favors the enforcement of releases.” Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 105, 769 N.E.2d 738 (2002). “There can be no doubt . . . that under the law of Massachusetts . . . in the absence of fraud a person may make a valid contract exempting himself from any liability to another which he may in the future incur as a result of his negligence or that of his agents or employees acting on his behalf.” Id., quoting Schell v. Ford, 270 F.2d 384, 386 (1st Cir. 1959). While any doubts about the interpretation of a release must be resolved in the favor of the plaintiff, an unambiguous and comprehensive release will be enforced as drafted. Cormier v. Central Massachusetts Chapter of the National Safety Council, 416 Mass. 286, 288, 620 N.E.2d 784 (1993). [*10]

Thus, in Cormier, the SJC upheld summary judgment against a plaintiff who executed a waiver of liability prior to sustaining injuries while riding on a motorcycle safety course. The Court found the waiver sufficient to bar a claim in negligence, even though the word negligence never appeared in the document. Id. at 288. The SJC also rejected the plaintiff’s claim that she believed that she was only relieving the defendant for liability for any accidental injury, not for any injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, holding that her “subjective intent not to release any claim for negligence, does not furnish a basis for avoiding the release on the ground of mistake.” Id. at 289.

Upon examination of the two releases signed by Lautieri prior to the subject triathlon, it is evident that he executed an unambiguous release of the third-party defendant, William Fiske. The USA Triathlon Annual Licence Application Waiver clearly and unambiguously releases “RACE DIRECTORS” from “any and all claims, losses or liabilities . . .” Fiske is listed as the “Race Director” on the 2000 USA Triathlon Event Sanction Application submitted to USAT. Furthermore, [*11] the Wet ‘N’ Wild Triathlon Application releases “Fiske Independent Race Management, the sponsoring organization, companies, agents, representatives, assigns and successors from all claims of action . . .” To the extent that Bae argues that the phrase “agents, representatives, assigns and successors” might refer to the phrase “sponsoring organization,” and that Fiske Independent Race Management–while not a legal entity–does not actually refer to William Fiske, individually, such interpretations are not reasonable given the plain meaning of the waiver language. 5 Nevertheless, even if this Court were to hold that the Wet ‘N’ Wild Triathlon Application was sufficiently ambiguous to render the waiver unenforceable, the language of the USA Triathlon Annual Licence Application Waiver is unambiguous and releases Fiske from liability. Thus, Fiske’s motion for summary judgment, as it relates to Bae’s claim of negligence against him, is well founded.

5 William Fiske used the name “Fiske Independent Race Mgt.” and “F.I.R.M” on the 2000 USA Triathlon Event Sanction Application regarding the Wet ‘N’ Wild Triathlon. Since there is no evidence in the record that “Fiske Independent Race Mgt.” or “F.I.R.M” are incorporated entities, or that William Fiske filed a business certificate in Massachusetts under these names, William Fiske is not afforded any legal protection by virtue of the use of these fictional business entities. See Pedersen v. Leahy, 397 Mass. 689, 691, 493 N.E.2d 486 (1986).

[*12] This analysis, however, does not end the matter. [HN5] Both the SJC and the Appeals Court “have noted that releases are effective against liability for ordinary negligence.” Zavras v. Capeway Rovers Motorcycle Club, Inc., 44 Mass.App.Ct 17, 18, 687 N.E.2d 1263 (1997) (emphasis in original), citing Lee v. Allied Sports Associates, Inc., 349 Mass. 544, 551, 209 N.E.2d 329 (1965). In Zavras, the Appeals Court, citing reasons of public policy, held that the owner of a premises at which organized dirt bike races were held did not exempt itself from liability for gross negligence by requiring participants in races to sign a release as a condition of participating. 44 Mass.App.Ct. at 18-19. See also, Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 (1981) (“A term exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy”). The Zavaras court noted that there is “substantial authority . . . [for] the position that while a party may contract against liability for harm caused by its negligence, it may not do so with respect to its gross [*13] negligence.” 44 Mass.App.Ct. at 19.

The present case is indistinguishable from Zavras. Here, Lautieri signed two valid waivers releasing Fiske, among others, from any and all liability that might arise from his participation in the subject triathlon race. While these waivers are sufficient to release Fiske from all liability for harm caused by his own negligence, they do not release him from his own gross negligence.

Thus, for purposes of determining contribution, the question for this Court becomes whether a finder of fact could find Fiske liable to Lautieri for gross negligence. Based on the summary judgment record viewed in a light most favorable to Bae, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether the accident resulted from Fiske’s gross negligence.

[HN6] Gross negligence is defined as “very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care.” Zavras, 44 Mass.App.Ct. at 20, quoting Altman v. Aronson, 231 Mass. 588, 591, 121 N.E. 505 (1919). 6 As this definition is necessarily vague, it is important to note that courts have found that “industry standards may be some evidence of negligence. [*14] ” Fidalgo v. Columbus McKinnon Corp., 56 Mass.App.Ct. 176, 184, 775 N.E.2d 803 (2002), citing Poirier v. Plymouth, 374 Mass. 206, 211, 372 N.E.2d 212 (1978); Resendes v. Boston Edison Co., 38 Mass.App.Ct. 344, 358, 648 N.E.2d 757 (1995). Bae has submitted the USAT 2000 Event Sanctioning Guidelines & Requirements as evidence of the negligence of Fiske and the other third-party defendants. In the section entitled “Bike,” the USAT triathlon regulations state: “2. It is highly recommended to close the [bike race] road to traffic. If not possible, cone bike lanes with a minimum width of six feet from vehicles . . . 9. Control stoplights/stop sign intersections, traffic hazards and turnarounds with police and an ample amount of volunteers . . . 12. Use ‘Race in Progress’ or ‘Watch for Cyclists’ signs placed along the course to help warn motorists about conditions . . . 23. All turns, turn-arounds, traffic hazards and intersections must be monitored and marked with signs and volunteers. Any intersections with stop signs or stop lights must be controlled by police or professional traffic personnel.” Based on the record before this Court, [*15] it does not appear that Fiske, as Race Director, heeded any of the guidelines described above for the triathlon at issue; rather, he left the intersection at which Lautieri collided with Bae open to traffic, uncontrolled by police or volunteers, unmarked with warnings, and unmonitored. Therefore, this Court cannot say that there is no genuine dispute as to whether a failure to heed any of the triathlon industry guidelines regarding intersections, which left oncoming drivers totally unaware of the possible dangers that awaited them, constitutes gross negligence. See Chiacchia v. Lycott Environmental Research, Inc., 4 Mass. L. Rptr. 399, 1995 WL 1146824, *10 (Mass.Super.) (finding that the multiple ways in which the defendant’s investigation of certain property “failed to conform to established standards in the industry lead the court to conclude that [defendant’s] negligence in this matter [amounted] to gross negligence”).

6 [HN7] “Negligence, without qualification and in its ordinary sense, is the failure of a responsible person, either by omission or by action, to exercise that degree of care, vigilance and forethought which, in the discharge of the duty then resting on him, the person of ordinary caution and prudence ought to exercise under the particular circumstances. It is a want of diligence commensurate with the requirement of the duty at the moment imposed by the law.

[HN8] “Gross negligence is substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude than ordinary negligence. It is materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence. It is an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care. It is very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care. It amounts to indifference to present legal duty and to utter forgetfulness of legal obligations so far as other persons may be affected. It is a heedless and palpable violation of legal duty respecting the rights of others. The element of culpability which characterizes all negligence is in gross negligence magnified to a high degree as compared with that present in ordinary negligence. Gross negligence is a manifestly smaller amount of watchfulness and circumspection than the circumstances require of a person of ordinary prudence . . . It falls short of being such reckless disregard of probable consequences as is equivalent to a wilful and intentional wrong. Ordinary and gross negligence differ in degree of inattention, while both differ in kind from wilful and intentional conduct which is or ought to be known to have a tendency to injure.” Altman, 231 Mass. at 591-92.

[*16] While Bae has specifically pled negligence, and not gross negligence, this Court has considered the summary judgment motion as if a claim for gross negligence against all of the third-party defendants has been made. [HN9] “Under current Massachusetts State practice there is no requirement that a complaint state the correct substantive theory of the case.” Gallant v. Worcester, 383 Mass. 707, 709, 421 N.E.2d 1196 (1981), citing Mass.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2); Mass.R.Civ.P. 54 (c). Even though it is sound practice to state all possible claims, the SJC has held that “a complaint is not subject to dismissal if it would support relief on any theory of law.” Whitinsville Plaza, Inc. v. Kotseas, 378 Mass. 85, 89, 390 N.E.2d 243 (1979) (emphasis in original), citing Thompson v. Allstate Ins. Co., 476 F.2d 746, 749 (5th Cir. 1973). Thus, courts are generally “obligated to consider each of the alternative theories of law . . . on which [the complaining party’s] action might be maintained.” Id. Several courts in other jurisdictions have permitted a plaintiff to proceed with a claim for gross negligence after having only pled a claim for negligence. [*17] See, e.g., McTavish v. Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Co., 485 F.2d 510, 512 (4th Cir.1973) (holding that Kentucky law permitted a claim of gross negligence to flow from an allegation of “negligence and carelessness”); Smith v. Hill, 510 F. Supp. 767, 775 (D.Utah 1981) (upon review of pleading and briefs court assumed that plaintiff “intended to plead that the [defendants] were grossly negligent”). Accordingly, because gross negligence may be considered an alternative theory of a standard negligence claim, Bae should be permitted to proceed with her claim of gross negligence against the third-party defendants. See Altman, 231 Mass. at 593 (holding that a plaintiff has the right to insist that a jury be instructed on the distinction between negligence and gross negligence at trial).

Accordingly, Fiske may be held liable for contribution to any successful claim for gross negligence that Lautieri could have made against Fiske at the time of the accident.

B. USAT

USAT argues that no duty exists between itself and the individuals who choose to participate in the triathlon. [HN10] Neither the SJC nor the Appeals Court has specifically ruled [*18] on whether a duty of care is owned to participants in an athletic event by a sanctioning body of the subject sport when that race takes place on public property.

USAT argues that the reasoning in Gauvin v. Clark, 404 Mass. 450, 537 N.E.2d 94 (1989), compels the application of a recklessness standard in the present case. In Gauvin, the SJC held that “personal injury cases arising out of an athletic event must be predicted on reckless disregard of safety,” on grounds that “vigorous and active participation in sporting events should not be chilled by the threat of litigation.” Id. at 454, citing Kabella v. Bouschelle, 100 N.M. 461, 465, 672 P.2d 290 (1983). The Gauvin case is not controlling here. Bae is not seeking to hold another participant in the triathlon responsible for Lautieri’s injuries. Instead, he is seeking damages from those who organized and sanctioned the event.

[HN11] Whether a defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff is a question of law. O’Sullivan v. Shaw, 431 Mass. 201, 204, 726 N.E.2d 951 (2000). In order for Lautieri to establish that USAT owed him a duty of care at the time the accident [*19] occurred, Lautieri would have to establish that such a duty has a “source existing in social values and customs,” Yakubowicz v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 404 Mass. 624, 629, 536 N.E.2d 1067 (1989), or that USAT voluntarily, or for consideration, assumed a duty of care to Lautieri. Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. 47, 52-53, 449 N.E.2d 331 (1983). This is a burden that Lautieri–or, more appropriately, Bae, standing in Lautieri’s shoes–cannot meet. The only involvement of USAT with the subject triathlon was its approval of Fiske’s application, which, in essence, effectively permitted Fiske to be eligible for insurance coverage from the USAT Triathlon liability policy. There is no evidence in the record that suggests that USAT had any obligation or was expected to participate in the planning, operation, or supervision of the race, much less have a representative attend the Wet ‘N’ Wild triathlon. Accordingly, there is no basis on which to conclude that USAT owed Lautieri a duty of care. Assuming, arguendo, that USAT did owe a duty of care to Lautieri, the summary judgment record is devoid of any evidence that would permit a finder of fact [*20] to conclude that USAT acted with gross negligence with regard to Lautieri or the subject triathlon. Therefore, summary judgment in favor of third-party defendant USAT must be allowed.

C. Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc.

A similar finding regarding the B&G Clubs is mandated. While there is evidence that the B&G Clubs provided volunteers for the triathlon, there is no evidence to support a claim of gross negligence against the B&G Clubs or any of its members. Thus, the waivers are operative to release the B&G Clubs from liability. Accordingly, summary judgment for the third-party defendant B&G Clubs must also be allowed.

ORDER

For the foregoing reasons, USA Triathlon, Inc’s and Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc.’s motions for summary judgment are ALLOWED, and, accordingly, judgment shall enter for the third-party defendants on Counts I and III of the third-party complaint, as they relate to claims of contribution, and on Counts I, II, and III of the third-party complaint, as they relate to indemnification. William Fiske, d/b/a Fiske Independent Race Management’s motion for summary judgment on Count II of the third-party complaint is DENIED as it relates [*21] to a claim for contribution.

Kenneth J. Fishman

Justice of the Superior Court

Date: October 29, 2003

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