Assumption of the risk is a bar to claims of negligence in New York for injuries a skier receives at the ski area because of his experience as an expert skier.
Schorpp et al., Respondents, v Oak Mountain, LLC, et al., 143 A.D.3d 1136; 39 N.Y.S.3d 296; 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6784; 2016 NY Slip Op 06932
State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, Third Department
Plaintiff: Ron W. Schorpp and his wife
Defendant: Oak Mountain, LLC, et al.
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence
Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk
Holding: For the Defendant ski area
The plaintiff was a self-described expert skier who had been skiing at the defendant resort weekly and had been skiing for decades. This was the plaintiff’s first time on the particular black diamond run however. The ski run had been recommended to the plaintiff ha by an employee of the defendant.
While skiing the recommended run the plaintiff skied into a depression causing him to flip over and out of his skis suffering injury.
The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on assumption of the risk, which the trial court denied. The defendant appealed that ruling resulting in this decision.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The appellate court reviewed the definition of assumption of the risk under New York law.
Under the assumption of risk doctrine, a person who elects to engage in a sport or recreational activity “consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation
That assumption of the risk definition when applied to skiing had been defined by another court to include the risk “caused by ruts, bumps or variations in the conditions of the skiing terrain.” Further, assumption of risk is measured against the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff. In this case the plaintiff had decades of experience.
Although this was his first time on the particular black-diamond trail, Schorpp had “decades of skiing experience” and had skied at Oak Mountain on a weekly basis prior to his accident. Taking into account his experience and skill level, Schorpp was aware of the risk of injury that could be caused by the depression on the ski slope
As such the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries. The appellate court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on assumption of the risk.
So Now What?
Assumption of the risk is making a comeback. Once gone when it was merged into contributory negligence, courts are bringing it back to eliminate claims prior to trial. If you assume the risk of your injuries you should not have the opportunity to go to trial.
One argument that was not raised was negligent information or detrimental reliance on the statement or recommendation of the particular run by the ski area employee. The plaintiff did not argue he was injured because he followed the negligent advice of the employee of the defendant
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Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576
Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., Defendant.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576
September 26, 2016, Decided
September 26, 2016, Filed
CORE TERMS: trail, summary judgment, exculpatory, recklessness, equine, stirrup, stable, immunity, genuine, horse, horseback riding, recreational, animal, material fact, skiing, ride, assumption of risk, faulty, broken, ski, rider, inherent risk, exculpatory clause, riding, sport, skier, enumerate, counter, rental, entity
COUNSEL: [*1] For Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, Counterclaim Defendant: Robin A. Feeney, LEAD ATTORNEY, FINE & STAUD LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
For Happy Trails and Riding Center, Incorporated, Defendant, Counterclaim Plaintiff: Dennis M. Marconi, Barnaba & Marconi, LLP, Trenton, NJ.
JUDGES: Robert D. Mariani, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Robert D. Mariani
I. Introduction and Procedural History
On September 30, 2014, Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, filled a one count Complaint with this Court against Defendant, Happy Trails and Riding Center, lnc.1 (Doc. 1). The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff suffered injury as a result of Defendant’s negligence in its operation of a business which rented horses and equipment to the public for recreational horseback riding. After the conclusion of fact discovery, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) and supporting brief (Doc. 20) on October 29, 2015. Plaintiff filed a Brief in Opposition (Doc. 22) and Defendant filed a Reply. (Doc. 23). Oral argument on the matter was held on April 4, 2016.
1 Defendant points out that the business is owned and operated by Randolph Bennett, d/b/a Happy Trails Stables, and was incorrectly pleaded as Happy Trails Riding [*2] Center, Inc. For the purposes of this motion, the error, if any, is immaterial and the opinion will refer to Defendant as “Defendant” or “Happy Trails.”
The motion is now ripe for decision. For the reasons set forth below the Court will deny Defendant’s motion in its entirety.
II. Statement of Undisputed Facts
In accordance with Local Rule 56.1, Defendant submitted a Statement of Material Facts in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 20), as to which it contends that there is no genuine dispute for trial. Plaintiff submitted a response, a Counter Statement of Facts, (Doc. 22), with the result being that the following facts have been admitted, except as specifically noted:
Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, went to Defendant’s stable on May 31, 2014, for the purpose of going horseback riding. (Doc. 20, ¶¶ 1, 2). After his group arrived, Plaintiff went into the stable’s office to register. (Id. at ¶ 5). Plaintiff was presented with a form (the “agreement”), which stated, in pertinent part:
AGREEMENT FOR PARTICIPATION AND\OR VOLUNTEERS [sic] I RELEASE AND DISCHARGE, ACCEPTANCE OF RESPONSIBILITY AND ACKNOWLEDGE [sic] OF RISK:
IN CONDERATION [sic] FOR BEING PERMITTED TO UTILIZE THE FACILITIES AND EQUIPMENT [*3] OF HAPPY TRAILS RIDING STABLES AND TO ENGAGE IN HORSEBACK RIDING, AND ALL RELATED ACTIVITIES.
1. I understand and acknowledge that the activity I am voluntarily engage [sic] in as a participant and/or [sic] bears certain know [sic] risk [sic] and unanticipated risks which could result in jury, [sic] death, illness, or disease, physical or mental, or damage to myself, to my property, or to spectators or other third parties. I understand and acknowledge those risk [sic] may result in personal claims against “HAPPY TRAILS STABLES” or claims against me by spectators or other third parties.
1. [sic] The nature of the activity itself, including the possible risks to you the rider.
A. The animal may be startled by unforeseen or unexpected noises from other animals, people, vehicles, activities and as a result you the rider may be hurt or injured should the animal react to said noises or activity, by running, bucking, rolling, or kicking, etc.
B. That you as the rider realizes [sic] that the animal is reacting to your physical instructions, conduct, and verbal instructions and commands, and therefore, the animal will respond in accordance with your reactions or commands. However, there are [*4] times when the animal may be confused or distracted during course [sic] of your instructions and/or commands.
C. You the rider understands [sic] that an animal may kick or bite you the rider, or you the pedestrian, and that other animals which may be on tour, could kick or bite you the rider and/or pedestrian.
D. You the rider are aware that physical conditions of the trails may cause injury or risk to you, should these physical conditions such as low tree limbs, bushes, or other type of natural growth come in contact with animal [sic] or yourself.
2. I hereby release and discharge Happy Trails Stables, instructors, trail guides, stable managers, employees, owners of the horses and related equipment and land utilized for Happy Trails Stables activities, hereinafter referred to as the “Released Parties,” from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I, or any of my heirs, successors or assigns, [sic] may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence of the released parties.
3. I further agree that I, my heirs, successors, or assigns, [sic] will not sue or make claim [*5] against the Released Parties for damage or other loses sustained as a result of my participation in Happy Trails activities.
4. I understand and acknowledge that Happy Trails activities have inherent dangers that no amount of cares, [sic] caution, instruction, or expertise can eliminate and I expressly and voluntarily assume all risk of personal injury or death sustained while participating in “Happy Trails Stables” activities weather [sic] or not caused by negligence of the Released Parties ….
6. I hereby expressly recognize that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence of the Released Parties. I also assume the risk of the equine activities pursuant to the [sic] Pennsylvania law.
(Id. at ¶¶ 5, 11; Doc. 20-7) (emphasis original). An employee of Happy Trails informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff must sign the agreement in order to go horseback riding. (Doc. 20, 5). Plaintiff signed the agreement. (Id. at ¶ 8). In addition to the agreement, there were signs posted inside the office, outside [*6] the office, and by the stable which read “You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania Law.” (See id. at ¶¶ 12-15; Doc. 20-8).
After completing the agreement, Plaintiff waited while a Happy Trails employee saddled up a horse. (Doc. 20, ¶ 17). Plaintiff then mounted the horse and participated in a guided group horseback ride for the next forty-five minutes without incident. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 21). On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. (Id. at ¶¶ 22, 23). Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail. (Id.). At the end of the ride, one of the guides brought Plaintiff away from the group so that Plaintiff could canter the horse. (Id. at ¶ 26). Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal. (id. at ¶¶ 27-29).
Plaintiff maintains that the stirrup Defendant provided him was faulty or defective and that this was the cause of his fall. (Doc. 22 at 1). Plaintiff further maintains that this fall resulted in fractured ribs and pneumothorax. (Id. at 3).
III. Standard of Review
Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those [*7] claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “As to materiality, ….[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).
The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Once such a showing has been made, the non-moving party must offer specific facts contradicting those averred by the movant to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990). Therefore, the non-moving party may not oppose summary judgment simply on the basis of the pleadings, or on conclusory statements that a factual issue exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing to particular parts of materials in the record…or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). In evaluating whether summary judgment should be granted, “[t]he court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). “Inferences [*8] should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied 507 U.S. 912, 113 S. Ct. 1262, 122 L. Ed. 2d 659 (1993).
However, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine’ dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). If a party has carried its burden under the summary judgment rule,
its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact. When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.
Id. (internal quotations, citations, and alterations omitted).
IV. Analysis [*9]
Plaintiffs complaint alleges that Defendant was negligent in providing broken or defective equipment–the stirrup–to Plaintiff, which directly resulted in his injury. (Doc. 1, ¶ 20). Defendant puts forth two arguments that it maintains are separate and independent grounds for summary judgment. First, Defendant argues that the agreement that Plaintiff signed prior to the horseback ride insulates Defendant from liability under these facts. (Doc. 20 at 9). Second, Defendant argues that, pursuant to 4 P.S. §§ 601-606 (hereinafter “Equine Activities Immunity Act,” “EAIA,” or “the Act”), Happy Trails is immune from liability as a provider of equine activities. (Id.).
A. Exculpatory Agreement
An exculpatory clause is valid if (1) the clause does “not contravene public policy”; (2) the contract is “between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs”; and (3) each party is “a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (Pa. 2010) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993)). However, a valid exculpatory clause will nevertheless be unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Contracts immunizing a [*10] party against liability for negligence are not favored by law and therefore established standards must be “met before an exculpatory provision will be interpreted and construed to relieve a person of liability for his own or his servants’ acts of negligence.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (Pa. 1963). Thus, Pennsylvania courts have established several standards governing the enforceability of exculpatory clauses:
1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.
Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (Pa. 2012) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Further, exculpatory clauses may not immunize a party for intentional or reckless behavior. Id. at 1202-03.
Defendant contends that the agreement Plaintiff signed is valid, enforceable, and encompasses broken equipment. (Doc. 20 at 13-16). Therefore, Defendant argues, Plaintiffs negligence [*11] claim is barred and Happy Trails is entitled to summary judgment. (Id. at 16).
Plaintiff does not appear to argue that the agreement is not valid on its face. Nor should he, considering that the agreement easily satisfies the validity requirements under Chepkevich. First, the agreement does not violate any public policy of Pennsylvania. In light of the Equine Activities Immunity Act–discussed in the next section–and similar statutes addressing other recreational activities, it is the policy of the state to encourage participation in those activities, despite their inherent danger, and assign the risk of loss to those who choose to participate in them. Cf. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (finding that, in light of a statute that preserves the assumption of risk defense in the context of downhill skiing, it is “the clear policy of this Commonwealth . . .to encourage the sport and to place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier.”). Further, Pennsylvania courts have held as valid similar exculpatory agreements in the context of a variety of other inherently dangerous recreational activities. See, e.g., id. (downhill skiing); Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 2007 PA Super 283, 933 A.2d 110, 113-14 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007) (snow tubing); Valeo v. Pocono Int’l Raceway, Inc., 347 Pa. Super. 230, 500 A.2d 492, 492-93 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985) (auto racing); Nissley v. Candytown Motorcycle Club, Inc., 2006 PA Super 349, 913 A.2d 887, 889-91(Pa. Super. Ct. 2006) (motorcycle riding).
Second, the agreement was between two private [*12] parties, Happy Trails and Mr. Melendez, concerning the purely private matter of renting a horse for recreational purposes. Finally, this is not a contract of adhesion. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1190-91 (“The signer I is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”). Thus, the agreement is facially valid.
Turning to enforceability, Plaintiff contends that Defendant has failed to meet its burden to show either that defective equipment is an inherent risk of horseback riding, or that the language of the agreement shows that Plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 11). Plaintiff points out that the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk. (Id.). Further, Plaintiff argues that a broken stirrup is not an inherent risk of horseback riding as demonstrated by the testimony of both Happy Trails’ owner and a Happy Trails’ employee who both stated they had never seen a stirrup break before. (Id. at 12-13). Thus, Plaintiff argues, because the risk was not foreseeable and was not expressly in the agreement, Plaintiff could [*13] not appreciate the risk and could therefore not assume it. (Id. at 13).
Plaintiffs argument essentially states that the second element from Tayar –that “the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties”–is not met in this case because the agreement did not specifically enumerate the risk of defective equipment. Pennsylvania courts, however, have rejected this argument before. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193-94.
In Chepkevich, a skier, Lori Chepkevich, sued a ski resort after she fell from a ski lift and was injured. Id. at 1175-76. She claimed her injury occurred because an employee promised to stop the ski lift briefly to allow Chepkevich to help a child board the lift and then the employee failed to do so. Id. Prior to the accident, Chepkevich had signed a document titled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY” which stated, in pertinent part,
Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowblading, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks which include but are not limited to [certain enumerated risks]…. I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley [*14] Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part.
Id. at 1176. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court first rejected Chepkevich’s argument that she did not assume the specific risk that caused her injury and instead found that a fall from a ski lift was an inherent risk in the sport of skiing. Id. at 1188. Therefore, the Court found that the suit was barred by the Skier’s Responsibility Act, 42 PA. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7102(c), which preserves the common law assumption of the risk defense in the context of downhill skiing. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88.
Turning to an alternative ground for summary judgment–the release–the Chepkevich Court held that the term “negligence” did not require any definition or illustration to be given effect. Id. at 1193. Indeed, reversing the court below on that point, the Court found “no reason to require the drafters of exculpatory releases to provide definitions and context for commonly used terms such as ‘negligence.”‘ Id. The Court then found that the plain language of the release encompassed Chepkevich’s claim for negligence and therefore barred the claim. Id. at 1194-95. Because the Court had already found that the risk involved was inherent, the Court found it unnecessary to address the merits of Chepkevich’s [*15] final argument “that the Release exempted Hidden Valley from liability only when its negligence gave rise to a risk otherwise inherent to the sport of skiing.” Id. at 1193-94.
Concerning the case at hand, while this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the provision of defective equipment is not an inherent risk in the sport of horseback riding, this point is not dispositive. As one Pennsylvania court explained, “the assumption of the risk doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering in tort for risks inherent to a certain activity. In contrast, the explicit, broad, and valid language of the exculpatory clause bars all claims, regardless of whether they arise from an inherent risk.” Nissley, 913 A.2d at 892 (footnote and internal citations omitted). Thus, as long as the language of the exculpatory agreement applies, any inherent risk analysis is superfluous. The fact that the court in Chepkevich found it unnecessary to its holding to address the plaintiffs argument that non-inherent risks cannot be released in exculpatory agreements does not affect this analysis. As that court saw no need to overturn the language in Nissley, this Court sees no reason not to follow it.
As for enforceability of the agreement, in the realm of recreational [*16] activities, Pennsylvania has upheld expansive language in exculpatory agreements. See, e.g., Nissley, 913 A.2d at 890-91 (upholding motor cycle club’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that plaintiff “hereby give[s] up all my rights to sue or make claim”); Zimmer v. Mitchell & Ness, 385 A.2d 437, 440 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1978), aff’d per curiam, 416 A.2d 1010 (1980) (upholding ski rental shop’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that skier released defendant from “any liability”); Valeo, 500 A.2d at 492-93 (upholding race track’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action where race car driver signed an agreement releasing “defendants ‘from all liability …for all loss or damage'”).
Here, Plaintiff signed an agreement that he knew to be a waiver. (Doc. 20-2 at 51-53; Doc. 20-7). Paragraph two of the agreement stated that Plaintiff released Happy Trails “from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I…may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence.” Further, paragraph six states that Plaintiff “hereby expressly recognize[s] that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the [*17] Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence.” Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant was negligent in providing him defective equipment during his trail ride. The plain language of the agreement signed by Plaintiff releases Defendant from “all claims” including those “caused by negligence.” Thus, Plaintiffs claim, in as much as it is alleging that Defendant acted negligently, is encompassed by the exculpatory language of the agreement and therefore barred.2
2 This Court notes that there is some language in Chepkevich that seems to support Plaintiffs argument. As an aside, the Chepkevich Court states that “the risk [in this case] was not so unexpected, or brought about in so strange a manner, as to justify placing this injury beyond the reach of the plain language of the Release.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. Plaintiff has pointed out that a broken stirrup is a very uncommon, and therefore unexpected, occurrence. (Doc. 22 at 12-13). Nevertheless, because Chepkevich does not give any standards for what type of risks fall beyond the realm of the plain language of an exculpatory agreement, this Court must turn to other cases. This Court finds [*18] Zimmer v. Mitchell and Ness instructive.
In Zimmer, a skier, Joseph Zimmer, sued a ski rental company after the bindings on the skis he rented failed to release as they were supposed to during a fall, causing him substantial injury. Zimmer, 385 A.2d at 438. Zimmer argued that the rental company was negligent in renting him skis without testing and fitting the bindings. Id. at 440. The court granted the ski rental company’s motion for summary judgment based on an exculpatory agreement that Zimmer signed when he rented the skis that released the rental company “from any liability for damage and injury to myself or to any person or property resulting from the use of this equipment.” Id.
Thus, while the specific issue of a broken stirrup may be very uncommon, Pennsylvania courts have enforced exculpatory agreements in the case of a released party negligently providing the releasing party with defective or broken equipment.
Plaintiff advances a more narrow reading of the agreement and argues that because the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk, he did not expressly assume it. The Chepkevich Court, however, was clear that no illustrations or examples are required to give common terms effect in an exculpatory [*19] agreement. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193. “All claims” and “negligence” are commonly used terms and Pennsylvania law does not require drafters of exculpatory clauses to enumerate every possible contingency that is included in broader language they choose to use. Plaintiff agreed to release Defendant from “all claims” including those that arose from Defendant’s negligence. Plaintiff cannot now protest that he did not know what “all claims” included.3
3 At oral argument, Plaintiff advanced a slightly different argument. Plaintiff argued, in effect, that because paragraph one of the agreement enumerates risks associated with horseback riding, the rest of the agreement is limited to those enumerated lists. This argument was also advanced in Chepkevich. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. There, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that “by enumerating risks inherent to downhill skiing and then requiring the skier to accept those risks, the Release only bars suits that arise out of the listed risks.” Id. The court found that the release, which stated that skiing “is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks,” was not limited to the enumerated the risks, but clearly included “other risks.” Here, as in Chepkevich, Plaintiff’s argument [*20] fails on textual grounds. It is true that the agreement, in paragraph one, lists some risks inherent to horseback riding. However, in paragraph two and six, the agreement states that Plaintiff relinquishes “any and all claims.” There is no limiting language in paragraph two or six that would indicate that Plaintiff was only relinquishing claims arising out of the enumerated risks in paragraph one.
Plaintiff finally argues that Defendant’s conduct amounts to recklessness and exculpatory agreements cannot immunize reckless conduct. (Doc. 22 at 14); see Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1202-03. Defendant concedes that the agreement only releases it from suits for negligence, not recklessness, and counters that its “conduct at most amounts to ordinary negligence.” (Doc. 23 at 10). “Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200.
The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable [*21] man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.
Id. at 1200-01 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500).
Defendant’s bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. The record shows that Happy Trails provided a saddle for Plaintiffs ride, that a stirrup on that saddle broke during the ride, and that Plaintiff fell from a horse when the stirrup broke. (Doc. 22-5 at 35-36, 39-40). It was the responsibility of Happy Trails, not the customer, to inspect the equipment, but no records of inspections or repairs were kept, nor was the Happy Trails’ owner able to say if any inspection of the specific stirrup occurred on the day of the accident. (Id. at 13, 53-55, 58, 60). Happy Trails’ owner testified that he bought used saddles on the internet and also from individuals who walk into his business. (Id. at 18). He was unable to say where he procured the saddle in question, how long he had had it, or how old it was. (Id. at 18-19, 58, 60). Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards [*22] safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal. (Id. at 32-33). Viewing the record in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains as to whether Defendant’s action rose to the level of recklessness.
Defendant goes on to argue that Plaintiff failed to plead recklessness and that if “recklessness is the standard to apply in this case, plaintiffs compliant must be dismissed with prejudice.” (Doc. 23 at 10). This argument, however, runs counter to the holding in Archibald v. Kemble, 2009 PA Super 79, 971 A.2d 513 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009).
Archibald involved a lawsuit stemming from Robert Archibald’s participation in a “no-check” adult hockey league. Id. at 515. In his complaint, Archibald alleged that another player, Cody Kemble, checked him into the boards of the ice hockey rink. Id. The complaint went on to say that
Cody Kemble’s negligence consisted of the following:
a. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was aware and/or warned that the check was going to be attempted before checking him into the boards;
b. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was willing [*23] to be checked;
c. checking Robert Archibald when not safe to do so;
d. failing to understand and learn the rules, prohibition and limitation on any checking prior to participating in the non-checking league and game.
Id. at 516. First determining that Archibald would only be able to recover if he showed that Kemble acted recklessly, the Court went on to hold that recklessness “may be averred generally.” Id. at 517, 519. Thus, “merely determining the degree of care is recklessness does not give rise to a separate tort that must have been pled within the applicable statute of limitations.” Id. at 519. Instead, “Archibalds’ cause of action was…subsumed within the negligence count pled in their Complaint.” Id.; see also M.U. v. Downingtown High Sch. E., 103 F. Supp. 3d 612, 629 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (construing a separately pleaded recklessness claim “simply as a mechanism to recover punitive damages under [the] negligence claim” because “[t]here is no cause of action for recklessness under Pennsylvania law” and “recklessness is a heightened standard of care required to potentially recover punitive damages”).
Consequently, under Archibald, the fact that Plaintiff did not specifically plead recklessness in his Complaint is not fatal to his claim. In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleged that, among other things, [*24] Defendant “provid[ed] equipment or tack that defendant knew or should have known was faulty.” This statement encompasses the allegation that Defendant recklessly provided Plaintiff with defective or faulty equipment. The fact that Plaintiffs Complaint does not contain the word “reckless” is immaterial.
In sum, because the agreement that Plaintiff signed is only enforceable to immunize Defendant for its negligence, and not for its recklessness, and because there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether Defendant acted recklessly in this case, the Court finds that the agreement is not a sufficient basis for summary judgment.
B. Equine Activities Immunity Act
Defendant next points to the Equine Activities Immunity Act, 4 P.S. §§ 601-606, as an alternative, independent basis for summary judgment. The EAIA limits the liability of certain providers of equine activities if specific requirements are met. Defendant argues that, as a provider of a qualifying equine activity who has complied with the EAIA’s statutory requirements, it is entitled to immunity from suit. (Doc. 20 at 10-11). Plaintiff counters that Defendant’s negligent provision of defective or faulty equipment puts the suit outside of the EAIA’s [*25] protections. (Doc. 22 at 4).
The issue of whether a covered entity is immunized from liability under the EAIA for providing defective or faulty equipment is a question of first impression. As such, this Court must engage in statutory interpretation. For this Court to interpret state law, it “must determine how the highest court of the State would decide an issue.” Baker ex rel. Thomas v. Gen. Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 249, 118 S. Ct. 657, 139 L. Ed. 2d 580 (1998). Pennsylvania interprets statutes according to the Statutory Construction Act of 1972, 1 Pa.Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 1501-1991. “When interpreting statutory language, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is guided by the ‘plain meaning’ rule of construction.” Hofkin v. Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co., 81 F.3d 365, 371 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Commonwealth v. Stanley, 498 Pa. 326, 446 A.2d 583, 587 (Pa. 1982)). “The object of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly. Every statute shall be construed, if possible, to give effect to all its provisions.” 1 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1921(a). “When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit.” Id. at § 1921(b).
The EAIA provides immunity for “an individual, group, club or business entity that sponsors, organizes, conducts or provides the facilities for an equine activity” including “[r]ecreational rides or drives which involve riding or other activity [*26] involving the use of an equine.” 4 P.S. §§ 601, 602(b)(6). The EAIA, however, only provides immunity where signs of at least a certain size are “conspicuously posted on the premises…in two or more locations, which states the following: You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania law.” Id. at § 603. For covered entities in compliance with the signs requirement, “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven with respect to damages due to injuries or death to an adult participant resulting from equine activities.” Id. at § 602(a). Finally, the Act is clear that “[t]he immunity provided for by this act shall be narrowly construed.” Id. at § 606.
Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant, as a provider of recreational horseback riding activities, is not a covered entity under the statute. Additionally, Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant did not have the appropriate signs as prescribed under the EAIA. Plaintiffs sole argument is that the Act does not bar actions for the negligent provision of faulty or defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 6). Stated otherwise, Plaintiff argues that because he did not know he might be given defective or faulty [*27] equipment, he could not knowingly assume the risk of such. Defendant counters that “[o]nce plaintiff entered the stables property and took part in recreational horse riding, he assumed the risk of harm associated with such activities.” (Doc. 20 at 11).
The EAIA states that “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven.” 4 P.S. § 602(a). The Act, therefore, appears to preserve the common law assumption of risk doctrine in the context of equine activities. In delineating the contours of this doctrine, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has looked to the Restatement Second of Torts. See Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 341-42 (Pa. 2000). The Restatement outlines four varieties of the doctrine, the first two of which are of interest in this case. See Restatement (second) of Torts § 496A cmt. c. The first, express assumption of risk occurs when lithe plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. (emphasis added). This is the type of assumption of risk examined above in respect to the agreement signed by Plaintiff. The second, implied assumption of risk, occurs when lithe plaintiff has [*28] entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.” Id. (emphasis added).
It is self-evident that a person “cannot be found to have implicitly assumed a risk of which he had no knowledge.” Rutter v. Ne. Beaver Cty. Sch. Dist., 496 Pa. 590, 437 A.2d 1198, 1204 (Pa. 1981) (plurality opinion). As such, lithe defense of assumption of the risk requires that the defendant show that the plaintiff was subjectively aware of the facts which created the danger and…must have appreciated the danger itself and the nature, character and extent which made it unreasonable.”‘ Berman v. Radnor Rolls, Inc., 374 Pa. Super. 118, 542 A.2d 525, 532 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988) (alteration in original) (quoting Crance v. Sohanic, 344 Pa. Super. 526, 496 A.2d 1230, 1232 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985)); See also Restatement (second) of Torts § 496D.4 Thus, for a defendant to prevail on a summary judgment motion based on the assumption of risk defense, it must be “beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.” Barrett v. Fredavid Builders, Inc., 454 Pa. Super. 162, 685 A.2d 129, 131 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1996) (citing Struble v. Valley Forge Military Acad., 445 Pa. Super. 224, 665 A.2d 4 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1995)). Finally, “[t]he mere fact one engages in activity that has some inherent danger does not mean that one cannot recover from a negligent party when injury is subsequently sustained.” Bullman v. Giuntoli, 2000 PA Super 284, 761 A.2d 566, 572 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2000).
4 Of course, a plaintiff’s own assertion about whether he knew of and understood [*29] the risk is not conclusive.
There are some risks as to which no adult will be believed if he says that he did not know or understand them. Thus an adult who knowingly comes in contact with a fire will not be believed if he says that he was unaware of the risk that he might be burned by it; and the same is true of such risks as those of drowning in water or falling from a height, in the absence of any special circumstances which may conceal or appear to minimize the danger.
Restatement (Second) of Torts §496D cmt. d.
In short, to preclude Plaintiffs negligence action under the EAIA, Defendant must show that Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge. Only then can Plaintiff be said to knowingly assume the risk. Defendant, however, has made no such showing. Defendant has failed to point to anything in the record to show that Plaintiff decided to use the equipment with the knowledge that the stirrup or any other equipment Plaintiff was provided with might break. Nor is this a case where the risk is so obvious that the knowledge could be inferred. The owner of Happy Trails testified that, in the approximately ten years he operated [*30] the stable, he never remembered a single stirrup breaking. (Doc. 20-3 at 20-21). Given that it is not a common occurrence, it strains credibility to argue that a recreational participant would know that being provided broken equipment was likely.
Therefore, because there has been no showing that Plaintiff knew of the risk and voluntarily disregarded it, the EAIA provides no relief for Defendant.5
5 At oral argument, counsel for the Defendant conceded that, even under the broad interpretation of the Act that Defendant argued for, the Act would not immunize a covered entity for acts of recklessness or gross negligence. As this Court has already found that there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether the Defendant acted recklessly, this provides an alternative ground for the finding that the Act does not provide immunity under these facts.
For the reasons stated above, the Court will deny Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19). A separate Order follows.
/s/ Robert D. Mariani
Robert D. Mariani
United States District Judge
AND NOW, THIS 26th DAY OF SEPTEMBER, 2016, upon consideration of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19), IT IS HEREBY ORDERED [*31] THAT:
1. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) is DENIED.
2. A telephone scheduling conference will be held on Wednesday, October 5, 2016, at 4:00 p.m. Counsel for Plaintiff is responsible for arranging the call to (570) 207-5750, and all parties should be ready to proceed before the undersigned is contacted.
/s/ Robert D. Mariani
Robert D. Mariani
United States District Judge
Schorpp et al., Respondents, v Oak Mountain, LLC, et al., 143 A.D.3d 1136; 39 N.Y.S.3d 296; 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6784; 2016 NY Slip Op 06932Posted: June 6, 2017
Schorpp et al., Respondents, v Oak Mountain, LLC, et al., 143 A.D.3d 1136; 39 N.Y.S.3d 296; 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6784; 2016 NY Slip Op 06932
Ron W. Schorpp et al., Respondents, v Oak Mountain, LLC, et al., Appellants.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, THIRD DEPARTMENT
143 A.D.3d 1136; 39 N.Y.S.3d 296; 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6784; 2016 NY Slip Op 06932
October 20, 2016, Decided
October 20, 2016, Entered
COUNSEL: [***1] Roemer Wallens Gold & Mineaux LLP, Albany (Matthew J. Kelly of counsel), for appellants.
Horigan, Horigan & Lombardo, PC, Amsterdam (Peter M. Califano of counsel), for respondents.
JUDGES: Before: Peters, P.J., McCarthy, Garry, Clark and Aarons, JJ. Peters, P.J., McCarthy, Garry and Clark, JJ., concur.
OPINION BY: Aarons
[*1136] [**296] Aarons, J.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Appeal from an order of the Supreme Court (Sise, J.), entered November 5, 2015 in Fulton County, which denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.
Plaintiff Ron W. Schorpp, a self-described “expert skier,” was [*1137] injured while skiing down a trail at defendant Oak Mountain Ski Center (hereinafter Oak Mountain), which is operated by defendant Oak Mountain, LLC in the Village of Speculator, Hamilton County. Schorpp testified that an Oak Mountain employee recommended [**297] a black-diamond trail to him. Schorpp and his daughter planned to ski down this trail and meet his wife and other children at a subsequent juncture of trails. Approximately three quarters of the way down the trail, Schorpp skied into a “depression” that was filled with snow. The skis got caught in the depression causing Schorpp to flip over and fall out of his skis. Schorpp, and [***2] his wife derivatively, subsequently commenced this negligence action against defendants. Following joinder of issue and discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment. Supreme Court denied the motion and defendants now appeal. We reverse.
Under the assumption of risk doctrine, a person who elects to engage in a sport or recreational activity “consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 ; see Martin v State of New York, 64 AD3d 62, 63-64, 878 N.Y.S.2d 823 , lv denied 13 NY3d 706, 915 N.E.2d 1181, 887 N.Y.S.2d 3 ; Youmans v Maple Ski Ridge, Inc., 53 AD3d 957, 958, 862 N.Y.S.2d 626 ). Regarding downhill skiing, an individual “assumes the inherent risk of personal injury caused by ruts, bumps or variations in the conditions of the skiing terrain” (Ruepp v West Experience, 272 AD2d 673, 674, 706 N.Y.S.2d 787 ; see General Obligations Law § 18-101; Hyland v State of New York, 300 AD2d 794, 794-795, 752 N.Y.S.2d 113 , lv denied 100 NY2d 504, 793 N.E.2d 411, 762 N.Y.S.2d 874 ; Dicruttalo v Blaise Enters., 211 AD2d 858, 859, 621 N.Y.S.2d 199 ). The application of the assumption of risk doctrine must be measured “against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff” (Maddox v City of New York, 66 NY2d 270, 278, 487 N.E.2d 553, 496 N.Y.S.2d 726 ; see Sharrow v New York State Olympic Regional Dev. Auth., 307 AD2d 605, 607, 762 N.Y.S.2d 703 ).
We conclude that defendants satisfied their moving burden by demonstrating that Schorpp assumed the risk of injury associated with downhill skiing (see Jordan v Maple Ski Ridge, 229 AD2d 756, 757, 645 N.Y.S.2d 598 ). Although this was his first time on the particular black-diamond trail, Schorpp had “decades of skiing experience” and had skied at Oak Mountain on a weekly basis prior to his accident. [***3] Taking into account his experience and skill level, Schorpp was aware of the risk of injury that could be caused by the depression on the ski slope (see Painter v Peek’N Peak Recreation, 2 AD3d 1289, 1289-1290, 769 N.Y.S.2d 678 ; Ruepp v West Experience, 272 AD2d at 674; Giordano v Shanty [*1138] Hollow Corp., 209 AD2d 760, 761, 617 N.Y.S.2d 984 , lv denied 85 NY2d 802, 648 N.E.2d 792, 624 N.Y.S.2d 372 ; Calabro v Plattekill Mt. Ski Ctr., 197 AD2d 558, 559, 602 N.Y.S.2d 655 , lv denied 83 NY2d 754, 634 N.E.2d 979, 612 N.Y.S.2d 378 ). In opposition, plaintiffs failed to raise an issue of fact as to whether defendants concealed or unreasonably increased the risks to which Schorpp was exposed (see Sontag v Holiday Val., Inc., 38 AD3d 1350, 1351, 832 N.Y.S.2d 705 ; Ruepp v West Experience, 272 AD2d at 674). Accordingly, Supreme Court erred in denying defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Peters, P.J., McCarthy, Garry and Clark, JJ., concur.
ORDERED that the order is reversed, on the law, with costs, and motion granted.
New York Federal Magistrate in a Motion in Limine, hearing holds the New York Skier Safety Statute allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.Posted: May 15, 2017
This is not enough law to rely on, but it is a start to build upon to argue that a parent can sign a release for a minor for skiing activities, and the minor cannot sue.
State: New York, United States District Court for the Western District of New York
Plaintiff: Bryan DiFrancesco as father and natural guardian of the infant minor, LD,
Defendant: Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc.,
Plaintiff Claims: allege negligent instruction and supervision
Defendant Defenses: Child assumed the risk and release
Holding: Decision was mixed concerning the evidentiary issues
This is a motion in limine decision. That means it was the judge’s response to motions by both sides to include or exclude evidence. Meaning one party files a motion in limine to prevent the other party from introducing a document, testimony or in some cases witnesses at trial.
This answer covered numerous motions for both parties. The analysis here will only cover issues relevant to the outdoor industry in general and not cover the purely legal arguments.
The case is about a five-year-old girl who suffered injuries when she fell out of the chairlift while taking a ski lesson from the defendant. The suit was filed in Federal District Court in New York because the plaintiffs are from Canada.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The first issue that the court reviewed was whether a five-year-old could assume the risk of her injury. Each state has different age groups that have been determined over the years for when a child can assume the risks of their injuries. In New York, a child cannot assume the risk of their injury under the age of 5. Children 5 and above, the issue has not been determined to set a real standard a court could rely upon. If there was a set age, a jury would still have to determine if the child assumed the risk.
The plaintiffs were arguing the plaintiff was too young to assume the risk.
Over the age of four, the status of a child is a question of fact regarding the particular child’s ability to comprehend danger and care for herself, younger than four years of age, “an infant . . . may be so young that he is unable to apprehend the existence of danger, take precautions against it and exercise any degree of care for his own safety.
The plaintiff argued that assumption of the risk should not be a defense in the case because the injured child was 5. Since the child had been skiing in the past, the defense wanted to bring the defense of assumption of the risk. The child has skied, been injured skiing previously and had written chairlifts before, although always with an adult. The court found it was a subject the jury had the right to determine.
One factual element in this case is the maturity and knowledge of LD as to whether she assumed the risk of riding the chairlift here despite being five years old. LD testified at her deposition that prior to the 2010 incident she rode chairlifts two or three other times, each time with her father plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco who assisted her getting on and off the lift his ski pole over LD’s lap until it was time to get off the chairlift. Whether LD in her circumstances could assume the risk of riding and disembarking from the chairlift by herself is an issue of fact and evidence regarding her maturity, age, experience, intelligence, literacy, and mental capacity to understand the risks she faced is relevant and admissible. As a result, plaintiffs’ motion precluding evidence of LD assuming the risk is denied.
The next argument the plaintiff made was the release was void as against public policy in New York. This was confusing because no release was presented or explained. However, it appears that the New York Safety in Skiing code allows for releases in the statute. By the end of the discussion, it seems the uncle of the injured child signed a release on her behalf.
The plaintiff argued that the New York law that voided releases in general applied and should void this release, New York General Obligations Law § 5-326. However, the court agreed with the defendant that the New York Safety in Skiing code authorized the release and over ruling New York General Obligations Law § 5-326.
The plaintiff’s also argued that since the injured plaintiff has never read or signed the release, she could not be held to it.
The court broke down its analysis of the issue first by looking at whether the injured five-year-old disaffirmed the release. In this case, disaffirmance means the child can argue a release signed on their behalf is invalid. In New York that is normally the case. However, the legislature has created exceptions to that rule.
“The exception from this common law power of the infant to disaffirm written consents made on her behalf is where the New York State Legislature either abrogates this common law right or makes particular infant agreements binding upon the infant,….
While conceding that at common law an infant could disaffirm written consent made for her, the Court of Appeals in Shields recognized that the State Legislature could abrogate that right or create a right upon infants to enter into binding contracts. “Where a statute expressly permits a certain class of agreements to be made by infants that settles the question and makes the agreement valid and enforceable….
The court then looked at the New York Safety in Skiing code and found the statute specifically created that exception.
The Safety in Skiing Code and its regulations provide an abrogation of the common law right of an infant skier to disaffirm the release signed on her behalf. First, the State Legislature used the term “skier” without expressly distinguishing the age of skier. Second, the State Legislature authorized and directed the Commissioner of Labor to enact necessary rules and regulations. Pursuant to that authority, the Commissioner enacted 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.1 to have the regulations under the Safety in Skiing Code apply to “all skiers,” again without distinction due to the age of the skier.
The court held that a minor could be held to a release signed by a parent or in this case, a temporary guarding uncle.
The Safety in Skiing Code statutory and regulatory scheme including “all skiers” makes releases signed by adults bind infant skiers and removes the infants’ common law right to disaffirm the releases executed in their minority. On this basis, plaintiffs’ motion in limine to exclude the Holiday Valley release is denied.
However, this was not a blanket decision saying the release eliminated all claims of the plaintiff. The court found the uncle had to have read the release to the injured plaintiff. Whether she understood its contents, and the risks outlined there was a question to be determined at trial.
This release itself raises factual issues, such as whether Uncle Dean DiFrancesco actually read the release to LD and whether she understood its contents, including the risks stated therein (particularly, the risks in riding and dismounting a chairlift).
The court then reviewed the defense’s motions in limine which were mostly legal in their scope and not of value here.
This case as of March 2017 is proceeding to trial.
So Now What?
First, this decision was made by a Federal District Court magistrate applying New York State law. The New York courts can ignore the law and until the New York Supreme court rules on the issues, this is not binding to any major degree on other courts. However, it is a start and quite interesting in the analysis of the issues.
The first is assumption of the risk is a valid defense in New York possibly applies to children as young as five. You can develop ways for five year olds to understand the risk; you can use that defense against claims. Probably the easiest way is a video, or maybe two videos. The first video is shown to the children which shows them the risk of the activity they are about to undertake. The second video is of the children watching the video.
This should always be backed up with as many other options as you can create. Have your release state the parent has explained the risks to the child and that the parent, and the child accept them. Put those risks in the release and have the parent state they reviewed the release with the child. Place the risks on your website in different ways and have the parent state they have reviewed the risks on the website with the child and agree to that in the release.
Any way you can show that the child knew of the risks, can create a defense for you for a claim by an injured minor.
The second issue is actually more interesting. 1.) that an adult can sign away a minor’s right to sue in New York and 2.) that adult does not have to be a parent as long as the adult reviews the release with the minor.
Again, this was a preliminary motion hearing in a Federal district court; however, the ruling was explained and supported by case law. As such, it may have some validity and lead to further decisions like this.
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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DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695
Bryan DiFrancesco as father and natural guardian of the infant minor, LD, Plaintiffs, v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., Defendants.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695
March 20, 2017, Decided
March 20, 2017, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24784 (W.D.N.Y., Feb. 22, 2017)
COUNSEL: [*1] For Bryan DiFrancesco, as father and natural guardian of the infant minor, LD, Bryan DiFrancesco, Individually, Plaintiffs: Philip L. Rimmler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Russell T. Quinlan, Paul William Beltz, P.C., Buffalo, NY.
For Win-Sum Ski Corp, Holiday Valley, Inc., Defendants: Maryjo C. Zweig, Steven M. Zweig, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Cheroutes Zweig, PC, Hamburg, NY.
JUDGES: Hon. Hugh B. Scott, United States Magistrate Judge.
OPINION BY: Hugh B. Scott
The parties then consented to proceed before the undersigned as Magistrate Judge, including presiding over a jury trial (Docket No. 37). Presently before the Court are the parties’ first round of motions in limine in preparation for a jury trial. Defendants first submitted their motion in limine (Docket No. 53). Plaintiffs’ then filed their motion in limine (Docket No. 56). Defendants then supplemented their motion in limine (Docket No. 58). As scheduled in the Final Pretrial Order (Docket No. 40), these initial motions in limine were due by January 3, 2017 (id.), later extended at the parties’ request to January 6, 2017 (Docket No. 42); responses initially were due by January 17, 2017, and they were to be argued with the Final Pretrial Conference on January 18, [*2] 2017, and then be deemed submitted (Docket No. 40). Responses to these motions were postponed then and were due by February 3, 2017 (Docket No. 63), which defendants submitted (Docket No. 65) and plaintiffs submitted (Docket No. 66); and reply by February 10, 2017 (Docket No. 63), which defendants submitted (Docket No. 67) and plaintiffs submitted (Docket No. 68); and argument was held on February 16, 2017 (Docket Nos. 63, 69 (minutes)). These motions were deemed submitted at the conclusion of oral argument. During that argument, scheduling for the Pretrial Conference and jury selection and trial were discussed with the trial reset for July 17, 2017 (Docket No. 69; see Docket Nos. 70, 71). The jury selection and trial of this case was scheduled for February 1, 2017 (Docket No. 40, Final Pretrial Order), but was later adjourned (Docket Nos. 63, 64).
Separately, this Court addressed plaintiffs’ motion for a protective Order and to quash two subpoenas (Docket Nos. 43 (motion), 70, Order of February 22, 2017), familiarity with which is presumed.
This is a diversity personal injury action. Plaintiffs are a Canadian father and daughter, while defendants are New York corporations [*3] which operate Holiday Valley. Plaintiff LD (hereinafter “LD,” cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2) was a five-year-old in 2010 who skied at Holiday Valley. Plaintiffs allege that LD was injured falling when from a chairlift at Holiday Valley (Docket No. 1, Compl.; see Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. B).
According to plaintiffs’ earlier motion, LD was participating in a ski lesson at Holiday Valley on February 15, 2010, under the supervision of defendants’ employee, a ski instructor, when she fell from the chairlift sustaining injuries to her left leg and left hip. Plaintiffs allege negligent instruction and supervision during the course of that lesson resulting in LD’s fall. (Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 3, 9, Ex. E; see id., Pls. Memo. at 1-2.)
The Scheduling Order (after extensions, see Docket Nos. 14-15, 20, 23, 25, 27) in this case had discovery conclude on April 30, 2015 (Docket No. 27; see Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. D). No motions to compel were filed and the parties reported on October 5, 2015, readiness for trial (Docket No. 30). Plaintiffs’ motion to quash subpoenas and for a protective Order led to the parties exchanging supplemental discovery, which was to be completed by April 5, [*4] 2017 (Docket No. 70, Order of Feb. 22, 2017, at 21, 22). Defendants’ First Motion in Limine (Docket No. 53)
Pursuant to the Final Pretrial Order (Docket No. 40), defendants filed their motion in limine, seeking preclusion of portions of the opinions of plaintiffs’ expert, Dick Penniman; evidence of defendants’ subsequent remediation; and evidence of prior and subsequent incidents similar to the accident at issue (Docket No. 53). Plaintiffs’ response and defendants’ reply will be addressed below at each particular item. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine (Docket No. 56)
Plaintiffs also filed their timely motion in limine (Docket No. 56), seeking to preclude evidence that infant LD assumed the risk of riding the chairlift, evidence from LD’s injury at Holimont in 2015, and evidence of a disclaimer that plaintiffs argue is against public policy (id.).
Defendants argue that plaintiffs’ motion in limine is in fact an untimely motion for summary judgment and that issues of fact exist, hence there is no basis to preclude evidence as to plaintiffs’ assumption of the risk or comparative negligence (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 5-6). They contend that the registration form with the release signed by [*5] LD’s uncle is admissible because the release tracks the “Warning to Skiers” required by New York General Obligations Law § 18-106(1)(a) and regulations under 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.5(l)(1) (id. at 7). They fault plaintiffs for not addressing Vanderwall v. Troser Management, Inc., 244 A.D.2d 982, 665 N.Y.S.2d 492 (4th Dep’t 1997), leave to appeal denied, 91 N.Y.2d 811, 694 N.E.2d 883, 671 N.Y.S.2d 714 (1998) (id.). That case charged the jury there with express assumption of the risk for exposure to drainage ditches even though those risks were not enumerated in “Warning to Skiers,” Vanderwall, supra, 244 A.D.2d at 982, 665 N.Y.S.2d at 493 (id.). Defendants’ Supplemental Motion in Limine (Docket No. 58)
Defendants later supplemented their motion in limine seeking preclusion of undisclosed expert testimony and to limit as expert testimony from LD’s parents as to her treatment (both past and future) and LD’s physical therapist testifying as to causation and diagnosis (Docket No. 58).
Plaintiffs’ respond that they did provide disclosure of future medical expenses; alternatively, they contend that defendants waived any objection to an omitted response by not moving to compel or for preclusion (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 16-18).
During oral argument of plaintiffs’ motion for a protective Order and to quash the two subpoenas (Docket No. 69), the parties submitted on their respective papers for these motions in limine (id.). They also discussed the need to supplement [*6] their disclosure, especially LD’s future medical treatment and needs (id.).
I. Applicable Standards
In a diversity jurisdiction action, this Court initially must apply the substantive law of our forum state, New York, see Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1983); Ocean Ships, Inc. v. Stiles, 315 F.3d 111, 116 n.4 (2d Cir. 2002), including its choice of law regime, Klaxon v. Stentor, 313 U.S. 487, 61 S. Ct. 1020, 85 L. Ed. 1477 (1941). This Court has to apply New York law as construed by the highest court of the state, the New York State Court of Appeals, not the local intermediate appellate court. When the New York State Court of Appeals has not ruled on the particular question, this Court then has to predict the direction the Court of Appeals would go if given that issue, see Gasperini v. Center for Humanities, Inc., 66 F.3d 427, 430 (2d Cir. 1995).
In personal injury actions, New York generally applies the law of the jurisdiction in which the injury occurred. See Cooney v. Osgood Machinery, Inc., 81 N.Y.2d 66, 612 N.E.2d 277, 595 N.Y.S.2d 919 (1993); Neumeier v. Kuehner, 31 N.Y.2d 121, 286 N.E.2d 454, 335 N.Y.S.2d 64 (1972). “New York’s current choice-of-law rules require the court to consider the following three elements: the domicile of the plaintiff, the domicile of the defendant, and the place where the injury occurred.” Lucas v. Lalime, 998 F. Supp. 263, 267 (W.D.N.Y. 1998) (Heckman, Mag. J., R&R, adopted by Arcara, J.). Where more than one element is in the same state, that state’s law should apply. Id.; Datskow v. Teledyne Continental Motors, 807 F. Supp. 941, 943 (W.D.N.Y. 1992) (Larimer, J.). Under these choice of law rules “the first step in any case presenting a potential choice of law is to [*7] determine whether there is an actual conflict between the laws of the jurisdiction involved.” Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. (Stolarz), 81 N.Y.2d 219, 223, 613 N.E.2d 936, 597 N.Y.S.2d 904, 905 (1993).
Here, the accident and defendants are in New York, plaintiffs are from Ontario. As a second1 Neumeier situation, New York law would apply, Neumeier, supra, 31 N.Y.2d at 128, 335 N.Y.S.2d at 70; Cooney v. Osgood Machinery, Inc., 81 N.Y.2d 66, 72, 612 N.E.2d 277, 595 N.Y.S.2d 919, 922 (1993) (conduct-regulating laws, the law of the jurisdiction where the tort occurs applies while loss allocation laws have additional factors to determine which jurisdiction applies, citations omitted). In addition, the parties in effect have stipulated to apply forum (New York) law to this case. Both sides cite New York law and made no reference to any other jurisdiction’s law having application. Neither side has presented any law that conflict with New York law. New York courts enforce stipulations to choice of law, see Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, 47 F. Supp.2d 330, 343 (E.D.N.Y. 1999) (citing, among other cases, Tehran-Berkeley Civil & Envtl. Eng’rs v. Tippetts-Abett-McCarthy-Stratton, 888 F.2d 239, 242 (2d Cir. 1989) (parties briefed New York law, court applies New York law based upon implied consent of parties)); Roginsky v. Richardson-Merrell, Inc., 378 F.2d 832, 834 n.2 (2d Cir. 1967) (Friendly, J.); Klein v. Jostens, Inc., No. 83 Civ. 5351, 1985 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18115, at *6 n.1 (S.D.N.Y. July 9, 1985). As a result New York law applies and the legal issues surrounding these evidentiary disputes will be resolved under New York law.
1 The second Neumeier situation is the defendant is from state A, plaintiff from state B, state A is where tort occurs; state A allows recovery, defendant cannot invoke state B’s law, similarly if state A does not allow recovery, defendant is not liable, thus state A’s law applies; or, as stated in New York Jurisprudence Conflict of Laws § 57, 19A N.Y. Jur., where local law favors respective domiciliary, the law of the place of injury generally applies, Neumeier, supra, 31 N.Y.2d at 128, 335 N.Y.S.2d at 70.
A. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine, Docket No. 56
1. Preclude Evidence of LD’s Assumption of Risk
The heart of [*8] this case is whether this five-year-old child can assume the risk inherent with riding and dismounting from a chairlift under New York law. Cases from New York State courts leave as an issue of fact for the jury whether a particular infant (regardless of the child’s age) was capable of assuming the risk of his or her activities. New York courts do not create a bright line rule that minors at five years or older are incapable of assuming risk, but cf. Smith v. Sapienza, 115 A.D.2d 723, 496 N.Y.S.2d 538 (2d Dep’t 1985) (holding, as matter of law, that three and a half year old child victim of dog attack was incapable of being held responsible for his actions for contributory negligence). New York common law “has long disclaimed any per se rule with regard to the age at which a child cannot legally assume a risk and thereby not be responsible for comparative fault for his or her injury,” Clark v. Interlaken Owners, Inc., 2 A.D.3d 338, 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d 58, 60 (1st Dep’t 2003) (Tom, J., dissent). The majority of Clark court held that assumption of risk doctrine did not apply to a five-year-old playing around exposed construction equipment, “where the danger was even more accessible [than another case cited] and the risk at least as unappreciated by this five-year-old plaintiff,” 2 A.D.3d at 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d at 60 (emphasis supplied), citing Roberts v. New York City Hous. Auth., 257 A.D.2d 550, 685 N.Y.S.2d 23 (1st Dep’t), leave to appeal denied, 93 N.Y.2d 811, 716 N.E.2d 698, 694 N.Y.S.2d 633 (1999), concluding [*9] that instructing the jury on assumption of the risk was error as a matter of law, Clark, supra, 2 A.D.3d at 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d at 60. In Roberts, the Appellate Division held a “six-year old under these circumstances” that is, a child exposed to a steam line fenced off by an easily breached fence next to the lawn where children played, did not have the doctrine of assumption of risk apply, 257 A.D.2d at 550, 685 N.Y.S.2d 23, 23. Roberts provided an opportunity for establishing an age-based bright line rule but the court decided on the specific facts of that case; hence the standard plaintiffs are in effect arguing was not adopted by New York courts.
Plaintiff argues that LD was just days away from being one year older than the non sui juris status of age four and being incapable as a matter of law being culpable (Docket No. 66, Pls. Opp. Memo. at 4-5). Assumption of risk is a distinct defense from contributory negligence, see Arbegast v. Board of Educ. of S. New Berlin Cent. School, 65 N.Y.2d 161, 165, 480 N.E.2d 365, 490 N.Y.S.2d 751, 754-55 (1985), but both defenses are subject to the doctrine of non sui juris, see M.F. v. Delaney, 37 A.D.3d 1103, 1104-05, 830 N.Y.S.2d 412, 414 (4th Dep’t 2007) (assumption of risk and culpable conduct by plaintiffs should have been dismissed because plaintiffs were 2 and 3 years old and hence were non sui juris). Plaintiffs point to the concept of non sui juris that absolves children of a certain age or younger from culpability since (as [*10] a matter of law) they are incapable of comprehending danger to be negligent or responsible for her actions, Republic Ins. Co. v. Michel, 885 F. Supp. 426, 432-33 (E.D.N.Y. 1995) (Azrack, Mag. J.). Over the age of four, the status of a child is a question of fact regarding the particular child’s ability to comprehend danger and care for herself, id. at 432; younger than four years of age, “an infant . . . may be so young that he is unable to apprehend the existence of danger, take precautions against it and exercise any degree of care for his own safety. The law calls such a child, non sui juris,” id. at 433; see also id. at 433 n.8 (literal translation of Latin phrase is “not his own master,” quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1058 (6th ed. 1990)). The non sui juris child is incapable of committing negligence, id. at 433. “Where an infant is older than four years of age, the status of that child as sui juris or non sui juris is to be determined by the trier of fact,” id. (citing cases), with factors of the child’s intelligence and maturity dictating that status, id. One federal court, applying New York contributory negligence doctrines, held that the status of a child over the age of four was a question of fact addressing “the particular child’s ability to comprehend danger and care for himself,” [*11] Republic Ins. Co., supra, 885 F. Supp. at 432 (see Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 5-6). If there is a bright-line rule under New York law, the age is four years old, not five as was LD when she was injured.
The age of the plaintiff is a factor in determining whether they are capable of assuming risk of their actions, see Trupia v. Lake George Cent. Sch. Dist., 14 N.Y.3d 392, 396, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127, 130 (2010); Clark, supra, 2 A.D.3d at 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d at 60 (error to instruct on assumption of risk for five-year-old on construction vehicle) (Docket No. 54, Pls. Tr. Memo. at 6); Roberts, supra, 257 A.D.2d 550, 685 N.Y.S.2d at 24; Trippy v. Basile, 44 A.D.2d 759, 354 N.Y.S.2d 235, 236 (4th Dep’t 1974) (error to instruct jury that five and half year old child contributorily negligent, and could be so charged only if he had the age, experience, intelligence development and mental capacity to understand the meaning of the statute violated and to comply therewith) (Docket No. 54, Pls. Tr. Memo. at 5-6). As noted by the Court of Appeals in Trupia, supra, 14 N.Y.3d at 396, 901 N.Y.S.2d at 130, in an almost 12-year-old child’s claim from sliding down a bannister, that court states that children often act impulsively or without good judgment, “they do not thereby consent to assume the consequently arising dangers” for assumption of risk. Plaintiffs distinguish DeLacy v. Catamount Dev. Corp., 302 A.D.2d 735, 755 N.Y.S.2d 484 (3d Dep’t 2003), due to the plaintiffs in that case being two years older than LD was in 2010 (Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply Memo. at 5; see also Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 4; but cf. Docket No. [*12] 65, Defs. Memo. at 5-6). But the New York Court of Appeals has not ruled on this question, but the consensus of other New York courts do not recognize a bright line rule that at age five or six a child is incapable of having the requisite knowledge and maturity to assume the risks of their actions; non sui juris status is applicable to four years old and that age or older is an issue of fact.
Courts in New York have concluded that assumption of the risk is a question of fact for the jury, Moore v. Hoffman, 114 A.D.3d 1265, 1266, 980 N.Y.S.2d 684, 685 (4th Dep’t 2014), in particular, riding and dismounting a chairlift has risks that raises questions of fact, DeLacy, supra, 302 A.D.2d at 736, 755 N.Y.S.2d at 486 (questions of fact whether a seven-year-old novice skier fully appreciated the risks associated with using a chairlift) (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 6). One factual element in this case is the maturity and knowledge of LD as to whether she assumed the risk of riding the chairlift here despite being five years old. LD testified at her deposition that prior to the 2010 incident she rode chairlifts two or three other times, each time with her father plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco who assisted her getting on and off the lift (Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 18, Ex. C, LD EBT Tr. at 9), even to having Bryan hold [*13] his ski pole over LD’s lap until it was time to get off the chairlift (id., Tr. at 9). Whether LD in her circumstances could assume the risk of riding and disembarking from the chairlift by herself is an issue of fact and evidence regarding her maturity, age, experience, intelligence, literacy, and mental capacity to understand the risks she faced is relevant and admissible. As a result, plaintiffs’ motion precluding evidence of LD assuming the risk is denied.
This is notwithstanding defendants’ argument that plaintiffs’ motion in limine here is in fact an untimely motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 5-6; Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 2-3). As plaintiffs rebut (Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply at 2-4), they are not seeking entry of judgment to dismiss a defense, instead they properly seek preclusion of evidence. But the factual issues in this case under New York law require production of evidence of LD’s capacity to assume risk.
2. Preclude Evidence of LD’s 2015 Snowboarding Incident
Plaintiffs next seek excluded evidence from an accident LD had at Holimont in 2015 resulting in injuries to her clavicle, contending that the evidence is prejudicial and would be admitted [*14] to show her to be accident prone (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 7-10). LD’s injuries in 2010 were to her left leg and hip and not to her clavicle (id. at 8). As argued in the motion to quash the subpoena to Holimont (Docket No. 43, Pls. Memo. at 7), LD did not waive the physician-patient privilege for LD’s treatment of the 2015 injuries (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 8, 9-10). Plaintiffs conclude that LD’s subsequent snowboarding accident is not relevant to her 2010 injuries (id. at 9).
Defendants contend that LD’s injuries are not limited to her leg and hip, but also include loss of enjoyment of life and emotional injuries (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 12, citing Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. H, Response to Defs. Interrog. No. 1). Again, as argued to defend the subpoena upon Holimont, defendants contend that Second Department law provides that LD put her physical condition at issue, justifying admissibility of her 2015 injuries (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 13).
But as noted in deciding plaintiffs’ earlier motion (Docket No. 43), this Court in diversity is bound by the common law of New York as settled by the New York State Court of Appeals or this Court’s prediction of how the New York Court [*15] of Appeals would decide the issue if brought to it (see Docket No. 70, Order of February 22, 2017, at 13). This Court has held that the Court of Appeals, if it addressed the waiver of physician-patient privilege, would limit that waiver to so much of LD’s physical or mental condition placed in controversy here (id. at 17; see id. at 16-17 (holding that plaintiffs have standing to object to the subpoena based upon the unwaived privilege)). This case is about LD’s injuries from the 2010 incident, with physical injuries to her lower body. Discussion of LD’s accident five years later and to an unrelated body part is not relevant to her claims and would prejudice plaintiffs, see Fed. R. Evid. 403. Admitting evidence of the 2015 accident would introduce character evidence that LD acted in accordance with a particular trait (clumsiness), see Fed. R. Evid. 404(a)(1). Defendants have other means of establishing the limits on LD’s loss enjoyment of life and limitations on her activities after the 2010 accident (such as her father’s deposition testimony as to her activities, see Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. C, Bryan DiFrancesco EBT Tr.10-21, 23, 95-96)).
This Court ordered plaintiffs to produce for in camera inspection the Holimont medical records [*16] from the 2015 incident for this Court to determine if there is anything applicable to this case, such as distinguishing 2010-caused injuries from 2015 injuries or the effects of the 2015 incident on LD’s 2010 injuries (Docket No. 70, Order of Feb. 22, 2017, at 17-18). This in camera inspection was for this Court to determine if there is anything applicable to this case, such as discussion of LD’s 2010 injuries or distinguishing 2010-caused injuries from 2015 injuries or the effects of the 2015 incident had on LD’s 2010 injuries (Docket No. 70, Order of Feb. 22, 2017, at 17-18). This Court received those in camera medical records (received March 6, 2017)2 and reviewed them and find that the following documents should be produced and those that should not. Below is Table 1, a spreadsheet listing the reviewed documents and their production status.
2 These documents were not Bates numbered or otherwise identified or paginated. Thus, this Court described the reviewed documents by their date and generic type, to avoid disclosure of contents.
[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]
The documents ordered to be produced are those relevant to LD’s 2010 injuries, namely to her left leg and hips. Excluded are those documents that refer only to her 2015 clavicle injury. The documents that plaintiffs are to produce are the April 1, 2017, memorandum; the January 4, 2015, consultation report; notes from July 30, 2015; and the July 30, 2015, notes from Hamilton Health Sciences. The remaining documents exclusive involve the 2015 incident and injury and there was not connection made to LD’s 2010 injuries.
Thus, so much of plaintiffs’ motion (Docket No. 56) to preclude evidence from LD’s 2015 Holimont accident is granted in part, denied in part, with plaintiffs only to produce the documents identified above.
3. Preclude [*18] Evidence as Against Public Policy
Plaintiffs point to General Obligations Law § 5-326 that render defendants’ disclaimers as the operator of a place of amusement void as against public policy (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 4-5), see Rogowicki v. Troser Mgmt., 212 A.D.2d 1035, 623 N.Y.S.2d 47 (4th Dep’t 1995). Defendants counter that the statutory and regulatory scheme under the Safety in Skiing Code, N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106; Labor Law §§ 202-c (use of ski tows), 867 (Safety in Skiing Code), authorized the release warning given in the form signed by LD’s uncle (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 7), see Vanderwall, supra, 244 A.D.2d at 982, 665 N.Y.S.2d at 493.
Plaintiffs also argue that any release here would be ineffective as to LD since she never read or signed it, hence it could not serve as a waiver of liability for her injuries (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 5), see Franco v. Neglia, 3 Misc. 3d 15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 690 (N.Y. App. Term 2004) (release invalid against 14-year-old participant, who signed release, in first kickboxing class); Kaufman v. American Youth Hostels, Inc., 6 A.D.2d 223, 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d 587, 593 (2d Dep’t 1958) (release signed by father invalid for child’s injuries) (id.). Plaintiffs’ reply that defendants fail to address how LD’s uncle can bind LD on the registration form waiver (Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply Memo. at 4), by not distinguishing Franco, supra, 3 Misc. 3d 15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 690 (N.Y. App. Term 2004), or Kaufman, supra, 6 A.D.2d 223, 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d 587, 593 (2d Dep’t 1958) (id.). They note that General Obligations Law § 18-106(1)(a) lists the risks inherent in skiing but do not mention the risks inherent in riding a chairlift (id.). Specifically, [*19] none of those risks include having a second child obey a sign to open the chairlift bar prematurely and the negligent location of that sign (see id. at 4-5). Plaintiffs argue that assumption of risk is not automatic for every personal injury case that a novice (regardless of their age) cannot as a matter of law assume a risk (id. at 6, citing Corrigan v. Musclemakers Inc., 258 A.D.2d 861, 863, 686 N.Y.S.2d 143, 145 (3d Dep’t 1999) (injured 49-year-old woman who never been on treadmill)).
But in Franco the infant fourteen-year-old plaintiff signed the release, 3 Misc. 3d at 16, 776 N.Y.S.2d at 691. The Supreme Court, Appellate Term, held that an infant is not bound by releases which exculpate defendants from damages for personal injury “since they lack the capacity to enter into such agreements,” id., at 16, 776 N.Y.S.2d at 691 (citing Kaufman, supra, 6 A.D.2d 223, 177 N.Y.S.2d 587). The plaintiff’s decedent fifteen-year-old child in Kaufman, supra, 6 A.D.2d at 229, 225, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593, 589, signed the release with her father. The Appellate Division, applying Oregon law, see id. at 225, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 589, held that the effect of the father’s signature was ambiguous, id. at 229, 225, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593, 589. The decedent’s capacity there to sign the release by reason of her infancy “was effectively exercised by [her] by the act of commencing this action,” id., at 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593. The Appellate Division upheld striking the defense of decedent’s release because she disaffirmed “the agreement by reason of her infancy” exercised by her father’s commencement [*20] of this action but reversed regarding striking that defense for the father’s separate action against the hostel, id. at 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593. Neither case held that the signature of the parent or guardian alone of a release was binding upon the infant for whom the guardian signed. Thus, these cases do not go as far as plaintiffs contend to render ineffective a release signed by a guardian on behalf of an infant participating in a risky activity.
a. Infant Disaffirmance of Release
“A minor is not bound by a release executed by his parent,” Alexander v. Kendall Cent. Sch. Dist., 221 A.D.2d 898, 899, 634 N.Y.S.2d 318, 319 (4th Dep’t 1995); I.C. ex rel. Solovsky v. Delta Galil USA, 135 F. Supp. 3d 196, 209 (S.D.N.Y. 2015); Shields v. Gross, 58 N.Y.2d 338, 344, 448 N.E.2d 108, 461 N.Y.S.2d 254, 257 (conceding that infant, Brooke Shields, could under common law disaffirm consent executed by another on her behalf), rehearing denied, 59 N.Y.2d 762, 450 N.E.2d 254, 463 N.Y.S.2d 1030 (1983). The exception from this common law power of the infant to disaffirm written consents made on her behalf is where the New York State Legislature either abrogates this common law right or makes particular infant agreements binding upon the infant, Shields, supra, 58 N.Y.2d at 344-45, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257.
While conceding that at common law an infant could disaffirm written consent made for her, the Court of Appeals in Shields recognized that the State Legislature could abrogate that right or create a right upon infants to enter into binding contracts, id., 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257. “Where a statute expressly permits a [*21] certain class of agreements to be made by infants, that settles the question and makes the agreement valid and enforceable,” id., 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257, with that statute being construed strictly, id., 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257 (citing McKinney’s Consol. Laws of N.Y., Book 1, Statutes § 301(b)).
Here, the Safety in Skiing Code had as part of its legislative purpose
“(3) that it is appropriate, as well as in the public interest, to take such steps as are necessary to help reduce the risk of injury to downhill skiers from undue, unnecessary and unreasonable hazards; and (4) that it is also necessary and appropriate that skiers become apprised of, and understand, the risks inherent in the sport of skiing so that they may make an informed decision of whether or not to participate in skiing notwithstanding the risks. Therefore, the purpose and intent of this article is to establish a code of conduct for downhill skiers and ski area operators to minimize the risk of injury to persons engaged in the sport of downhill skiing and to promote safety in the downhill ski industry,”
N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-101. The act establishing this Code empowered the New York State Commissioner of Labor to promulgate “any and all rules and regulations necessary to the timely implementation [*22] of the provisions of this act,” 1988 N.Y. Laws ch. 711, § 4. These regulations “applies to all skiers and ski areas” and owners and operators of ski areas to which the Code applied to, N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & R. tit. 12, § 54.1 (2017) (hereinafter cited as “12 N.Y.C.R.R.”), without special provision or exception for juvenile skiers. That same act authorized the Commissioner of Labor to make rules to guard “against personal injuries to employees and the public in the use and operation of ski tows, other passenger tramways and downhill ski areas,” N.Y. Labor Law § 202-c.
The Code also imposed on skiers the additional duties “to enable them to make informed decisions as to the advisability of their participation in the sport,” to
“seek out, read, review and understand, in advance of skiing, a ‘Warning to Skiers’ as shall be defined pursuant to subdivision five of section eight hundred sixty-seven of the labor law [N.Y. Labor L. § 867(5)], which shall be displayed and provided pursuant to paragraph a of subdivision one of this section [N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106(1)(a)]; and . . . to obtain such education in the sport of skiing as the individual skier shall deem appropriate to his or her level of ability, including the familiarization with skills and duties necessary to reduce [*23] the risk of injury in such sport,”
N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106(2), (a), (b); see N.Y. Labor Law § 867(5); 12 N.Y.C.R.R. §§ 54.5(l)(1), 54.4(c)(1); see also N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106(1)(a) (ski are operator’s duty to post conspicuously “Warning to Skiers”). “Unless otherwise specifically provided in this article, the duties of skiers, passengers, and ski area operators shall be governed by common law,” N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-107.
The Safety in Skiing Code and its regulations provide an abrogation of the common law right of an infant skier to disaffirm the release signed on her behalf. First, the State Legislature used the term “skier” without expressly distinguishing the age of skier. Second, the State Legislature authorized and directed the Commissioner of Labor to enact necessary rules and regulations. Pursuant to that authority, the Commissioner enacted 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.1 to have the regulations under the Safety in Skiing Code apply to “all skiers,” again without distinction due to the age of the skier. The definitions under these regulations for “skier,” 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.3(h) (“Skier means any person wearing a ski or skis and any person actually on a ski slope or trail located at a ski area, for the purpose of skiing”), or “passenger,” 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.3(d) (“Passenger means a person in or on or being transported by a tramway”), riding a “passenger tramway,” see 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.3(e) (“Passenger [*24] tramway means a mechanical device intended to transport skiers for the purpose of providing access to ski slopes and trails as defined by the Commissioner of Labor pursuant to Section two hundred two-c or eight hundred sixty-seven of the Labor Law [N.Y. Labor Law §§ 202-c, 267]”), also do not create a separate infant category. Although the Court of Appeals refers to the State Legislature either abrogating the infant’s common law right of disaffirmance or conferring upon the infant a recognized right to make binding contracts, Shields, supra, 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257, the State Legislature here enacted the code that delegated to the Commissioner of Labor the authority to enact rules and regulations necessary to implement the Code. The Commissioner, by requiring regulations to apply to “all skiers” either abrogated an infant’s common law right of disaffirmance or authorized infant skiers to enter into binding contracts with ski area operators, including the warning and release to authorize the infant skier to engage in the risky activities of skiing and the related, risky activities leading up to skiing.
The Safety in Skiing Code statutory and regulatory scheme including “all skiers” makes releases signed by adults bind infant skiers and removes the [*25] infants’ common law right to disaffirm the releases executed in their minority. On this basis, plaintiffs’ motion in limine to exclude the Holiday Valley release (Docket No. 56) is denied.
b. Effect of General Obligations Law § 5-326
As an alternative grounds for its decision, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department in Vanderwall, supra, 244 A.D.2d at 982-83, 665 N.Y.S.2d at 493, narrowed the scope of the general provisions for amusement or recreation sites under General Obligations Law § 5-326 to exclude ski resorts from that statute, with those resorts being governed by the Safety in Skiing Code and its Warning to Skiers codified in General Obligations Law § 18-106(1)(a) (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 7), see also N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 18-107 (“unless otherwise specifically provide in this article, the duties of skiers, passengers, and ski area operators shall be governed by common law”). Part of the Safety in Skiing Code includes use of a ski tow, N.Y. Labor Law § 202-c.
The Holiday Valley registration form (Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. G) signed by LD’s uncle, Dean DiFrancesco, had the adult signer agree that he acknowledged (among other things)
“that I have read and understand the information contained in the brochure for the Holiday Valley Mountain Adventure Children’s Ski and Snowboard Program, and also understand [*26] and am aware that there are inherent and other risks involved in participating in ski and snowboard lessons, skiing/riding, and use of lifts, which could cause death or serious injury to the registrant(s). This includes use of chairlifts and or tows or boardwalks with or without an instructor.
“[C]hildren may be required to ride chairlifts with other children in the class, ski patrol/hosts, or other persons in the lift line while loading assistance may be given by chairlift attendants. Riding a chairlift can be a hazardous activity for your child(ren). By allowing the registrant(s) to ride a chair lift, you acknowledge the dangers involved and accept any and all risks of injury to the registrant(s). Other risks include, but are not limited to, . . . boarding, riding and disembarking from moving chairlifts, rope tows or boardwalks. With full knowledge of the danger involved, I voluntarily request that the registrant(s) participate in the program. I have read this agreement to the registrant(s) and he/she has acknowledged that he/she understands its contents. On behalf of the registrant(s) and myself, I expressly assume all risks inherent in the sport of skiing and riding and any and all damages, [*27] injury, illness, or harm which may result directly or indirectly from said risks.”
(Id., paragraphs 5, 6, emphasis added.) This release itself raises factual issues, such as whether Uncle Dean DiFrancesco actually read the release to LD and whether she understood its contents, including the risks stated therein (particularly, the risks in riding and dismounting a chairlift).
The statutory scheme for ski resorts provided in the Safety in Skiing Code provides a more specific regime that the General Obligations Law § 5-326 for other recreational facilities including the basis for the release executed by LD’s uncle. New York public policy carved out ski resorts from the general ban on releases by recreational facility operators. On this alternative ground, plaintiffs’ motion to exclude that release (Docket No. 56) is denied.
B. Defense Motions in Limine, Docket Nos. 53, 58
1. Excluding Evidence of Subsequent Remediation
In their initial motion in limine, defendants seek to exclude evidence of their subsequent remediation in changing signage at the chairlift (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 2-4). Federal Rule of Evidence 407 precludes admission of evidence of subsequent remedial measures to prove negligence, culpable conduct, or [*28] a need for a warning (id. at 2). They also contend that evidence as a warning should be excluded under Rule 403 since the probative value is exceeded by its prejudice to them (id.). Plaintiffs counter that this evidence is admissible for impeachment or to contest the feasibility of relocating the sign to a safer location (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 1-3; see also Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply Memo. at 8), see Fed. R. Evid. 407; Pitasi v. Stratton Corp., 968 F.2d 1558 (2d Cir. 1992). Defendants reply that the impeachment exception to Federal Rule of Evidence 407 should be narrowly read, that it could only be used to avoid the jury being misled (Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 8-9). They conclude that plaintiffs also should be precluded from introducing evidence regarding the red light/green light system used by another ski resort, Holimont, arguing that Holimont installed this system four years after the 2010 incident at issue here (id. at 10; see also Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 3-4; Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl., Ex. C).
The questions here under Rule 407 are at what point (if ever) may plaintiffs impeach defendants with the change in the sign location, and whether the sign location can be introduced by them as to feasibility. As for impeachment, whether plaintiffs can discuss relocation of the sign will depend [*29] upon what defense witnesses testify about to the warnings provided on site on the chairlift. Rulings on this point will await trial testimony.
As for feasibility, plaintiffs may introduce sign location and alternative locations if defendants’ witnesses testify as to the feasible location for warning signs.
As to the probative/prejudice balance under Rule 403, evidence inadmissible under Rule 407 “would also likely lead to prejudice and confusion under Rule 403,” Bak v. Metro North R.R., No. 12 Civ. 3220 (TPG), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60736, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. May 8, 2015), but remedial evidence may be admitted for rebuttal or impeachment evidence, id., without affecting the probative/prejudice balance of Rule 403.
Finally, Holimont currently uses a red light/green light on its chairlifts to advise skiers when to disembark from the chairlift. But that system was implemented years after this incident (Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. C, Aff. of David Riley ¶¶ 1, 4-8 (Holimont general manager); Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. 3-4). Holimont general manager David Riley stated that he had not seen this light warning system in United States slopes prior to his tour of Europe in 2014 (Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. C, Riley Aff. ¶ 8). Thus, it was not feasible in 2010 to have such a light warning system and admission of evidence [*30] of the Holimont lighting system would be prejudicial. Plaintiffs are precluded from introducing evidence of this system as a feasible alternative.
Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on this ground is granted in part, with some issues to be decided at trial upon the proffer or introduction of evidence at issue.
2. Prohibit Plaintiffs’ Liability Expert, Dick Penniman,
Defendants next seek to preclude testimony from plaintiffs’ expert, Dick Penniman, on various subjects. Plaintiffs globally respond that Penniman is a forty-year veteran of the ski industry, performing various duties as a member of ski patrol, lift operator, ski lift maintenance man, and “mountain manager/assistant operations manager” of a number of ski areas (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 11; Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 27-29, Ex. Q (Penniman curriculum vitae)). Penniman testified as an expert in Whitford v. Mt. Baker Ski Area, Inc., Case No. C11099112RSM, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166 (W.D. Wash. Mar. 23, 2012) (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 11), opining in that case about the lift attendant’s duties and whether a catch net used at that resort was adequate, id., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *4. Plaintiffs conclude that defense objections to Penniman goes to the weight, not the admissibility, [*31] of his expert testimony (id. at 10, 11). Plaintiffs do not provide a point-for-point refutation of defense objections to Penniman as an expert.
As noted by the court in Whitford, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *3, “the trial court must act as a ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure that proffered expert testimony is both relevant and reliable,” id. citing Kumho Tire Co. Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147, 119 S. Ct. 1167, 143 L. Ed. 2d 238 (1999). Where expert testimony is technical rather than purely scientific, “the Court must ensure that it ‘rests on a reliable foundation and is relevant to the task at hand,'” id. (quoting United States v. Hermanek, 289 F.3d 1076, 1093 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting in turn Daubert v. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 597, 113 S. Ct. 2786, 125 L. Ed. 2d 469 (1993))). As gatekeeper, this Court has to “make certain that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterize the practice of an expert in the relevant field,” Kumho, supra, 526 U.S. at 152; Whitford, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *3-4. The Whitford court, in considering testimony for other specialized knowledge, construed Federal Rule of Evidence 702 liberally, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *4 (citing 9 th Circuit case and Fed. R. Evid. 702 advisory committee note, 2000 amendment, rejection of an expert is the exception rather than the rule).
From Penniman’s curriculum vitae (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. Q), his expertise is ski patrol (including lift operation and hazard evaluation and mitigation), avalanche safety, and slope preparation. [*32] He worked for two years supervising lift operations in Chile (id.). Since 1983, Penniman has been a consultant and expert witness; he was qualified as an expert in safe skiing including lift operations and ski instruction (id.). As a threshold matter, Penniman’s expert testimony comes from decades of performing various tasks at several ski resorts and evaluating skiing hazards.
Next, this Court turns to the specific defense objections to Penniman’s expert testimony.
a. Prohibit Penniman from Opining Regarding Relocation of Unload Sign
First, defendants seek to bar Penniman’s opinion about the proper location of signage for unloading or discharging skiers from the chairlift (the “unload/open restraint bar”) and changes in the text of the registration form (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 4-5, 6-7). As for Penniman opining on sign location, his expertise as a ski lift operator and evaluator of skiing accidents informs his opinions about such things. Penniman lists in his curriculum vitae experience in signage at two ski resorts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. Q), but does not specify if this includes the location of chairlift instructions or warning signage. The bulk of his stated expertise and [*33] experience involves avalanches, so the signage Penniman is familiar with appears to be for ski trails. In his deposition regarding signage, Penniman testified that applicable New York State regulations when the Creekside lift was erected in 2003 were based on the American National Standards Institute (“ANSI”) standards from 19993 , with a 20064 amendment of ANSI standards expressly calling for sign placement (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Penniman EBT Tr. at 23). The 2006 ANSI amendments grandfathered pre-2006 construction to be governed by earlier standards (id., Tr. at 25), but the 2006 standard for sign location called for signs to be ahead of the off load point (id., Tr. at 25-26), while the 1999 standard did not require signage at all (id., Tr. at 24, 39). Penniman noted that one ski resort, White Pine, had its raise bar signs in front of shacks near the unload points (id., Tr. at 28), while at other resorts, Penniman observed these signs either on chairlift towers 20-30 feet before the unload area or as close to the unload area as possible (id., Tr. at 32-34; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. P, Tr. at 33-34). Penniman concluded that defendants violated New York State standards for the location [*34] of Holiday Valley’s signs, violating ANSI 1999 and 2003 standards that signage be ahead of the offload area (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 37-38). Penniman did not know if New York State inspected the location of these signs (id., Tr. at 40-41). Penniman noted that New York law also required use of the restraint bar on chairlifts; requiring a rider to not use a restraint bar for 50 yards, Penniman opined, would require the rider to violate New York law (id., Tr. at 38).
3 Pls. Ex. 67.
4 Pls. Ex. 68; Defs. Exs. 56, 65.
From review of Penniman’s deposition testimony, the issue is whether placement of the offload warning sign should be at the offload area or in advance of that area (e.g., id., Tr. at 39). Penniman’s experience seems to be from his observations at various resorts, without knowing the written policies for sign placement at those areas. A foundation, therefore, will need to be established that Penniman has sufficient expertise in sign location of chairlift instructions to credit Penniman’s opinion as an expert. Penniman’s testimony also is limited regarding subsequent changes in the sign location, as indicated above. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No 53) on these grounds is granted.
b. Prohibit Plaintiffs’ Expert [*35] Penniman from Opining on Risk of Chairlift Not Being Inherent to Skiing
Next, defendants seek to preclude Penniman’s opinion on the risk of using a chairlift not being inherent to skiing (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 5-6). Plaintiffs argue that the New York Court of Appeals decision in Trupia, supra, 14 N.Y.3d 392, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127, changed the standards for primary assumption of the risk that coincides with Penniman’s opinion that use of a chairlift is distinct from the sport of skiing (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 6-7).
There is a preliminary question whether this is an evidentiary issue or a matter requiring an expert opinion at all. New York cases recognize that use of a chairlift is an inherent part of skiing, with distinct risks from the sport of skiing. There are separate, but related, duties of care with operating a chairlift and downhill skiing, Morgan v. Ski Roundtop, Inc., 290 A.D.2d 618, 620, 736 N.Y.S.2d 135, 137 (3d Dep’t 2002) (hereinafter “Ski Roundtop”) (inherent risk in skiing and “some risk of injury inherent in entering, riding and exiting from a chairlift”); see Morgan v. New York State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 485, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421, 427 (1997); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 1707, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 787-88 (4th Dep’t 2011); see also Tone v. Song Mtn. Ski Ctr., 113 A.D.3d 1126, 1127, 977 N.Y.S.2d 857, 858 (4th Dep’t 2014) (claim from chairlift, assumption of risk applied for “athletic activity,” quoting Ski Roundtop, supra, 290 A.D.2d at 620, 736 N.Y.S.2d at 137). As defendants note (Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 4), riding and disembarking a chairlift is inherent in Alpine downhill skiing, [*36] see also Litz v. Clinton Cent. Sch. Dist., 126 A.D.3d 1306, 5 N.Y.S.3d 636 (4th Dep’t 2015) (assumption of risk for playing hockey applied to injury suffered in rink locker room).
Factually, Trupia involved horseplay on a bannister by a twelve-year-old, rather than engaging in a sporting activity or the steps leading to that activity (with the inherent risks of those steps), supra, 14 N.Y.3d at 393, 396, 901 N.Y.S.2d at 128, 129. Again, this is more akin to the ancillary dangers in the locker room preparing for participation in a sport, e.g., Litz, supra, 126 A.D.3d 1306, 5 N.Y.S.3d 636; but for the sporting activity, a participant would not be injured in the locker room or on the chairlift, each is necessary to prelude to athletic participation. This participant is only in these places to engage in a sport with its own inherent dangers and risks.
As noted in Whitford, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *9, wherein Penniman was accepted as an expert, he “is not required to be an expert in the law; he is only required to be an expert in the subject matter of his testimony,” id. Thus, as a matter of law, there are risks, distinct from those in alpine skiing, to riding a chairlift that are related to those of skiing. This does not require an expert opinion one way or the other. Defense motion in limine on this point (Docket No. 53) is granted.
c. Prohibit Penniman from Opining on the Registration Form
Defendants [*37] next contend that Penniman lacked any foundation to make an opinion about the registration form used by Holiday Valley (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 6-7; Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. E, Penniman’s Supp’al Expert Report at 5; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. L, at 5). They object to Penniman’s supplemental opinion that noted defendants’ changes to the registration form to require a parent to initial the form at paragraph 6 on chairlift use (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 4-5; Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. E, at 5; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. L, at 5). Plaintiffs do not respond specifically to this objection. Penniman opined that the sentence about a child riding the chairlift without adult supervision was vaguely written (Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. E, at 5; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. L, at 5; Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 6).
Again, looking at the actual registration form quoted above (at pages 19-20, supra), participants are warned that children may ride with other children on the chairlift, followed by a warning that riding the chairlift “can be a hazardous activity for your child(ren)” (Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. [*38] G, paragraph 6). That text implies that children may ride together without an adult. As noted in detail by defendants (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 7), Penniman lacks expertise in developing ski school policies, drafting registration forms, or have expertise in human factors, engineering, or psychology. Thus, his opinion on the text of the registration form is a little more informed than that of a layperson. Penniman’s opinion in this area is excluded; defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on this ground is granted.
As for Penniman’s observation of the post-accident changes in the form (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. E, at 5; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. L, at 5), this also goes to proof of subsequent remediation and, unlike the impeachment use plaintiffs propose for the relocation of signs or feasibility of change, Penniman’s opinion on the changes in the registration form would only come as part of his direct testimony. Such introduction violates Rule 407 and its prejudice outweighs its probative value under Rule 403. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) as to Penniman’s opinion in this area is granted.
d. Prohibit Penniman from Opining on Human Factor
Defendants next argue that Penniman lacks [*39] the qualifications to opine on the impact of the human factor in this incident (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 7-8). Penniman testified that generally an infant should have been accompanied by an adult on a chairlift based on “best practices.” Penniman based these best practices on his experience, observations, and involvement in ski schools and he concludes that a majority of ski areas “are concerned about small children riding up chairs alone, or with other kids without an adult accompanying them. There are some I have observed where they don’t care. But the majority do, and I call that best practices.” (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Penniman EBT Tr. at 65-67, 66; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. P, excerpts of Penniman EBT Tr. at 65-67, 66.) Penniman testified that, from the age of 8, he had observed ski schools recruit adults to ride up with unaccompanied children, that the “vast majority [of resorts] do,” or so Penniman found (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 67; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. P, Tr. at 67). He noted that other ski areas do not let small children on chairlifts and “the majority of ski resorts, when it’s not an instruction situation, leave that decision up to the parents” (Docket [*40] No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 67; Docket No. 66, Ex. P, Tr. at 67). But Penniman had not investigated the policies of individual ski resorts in New York whether they require adult accompaniment on chairlifts and he could not testify to written policies of ski resorts (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 67; Docket No. 66, Ex. P, Tr. at 67). Penniman, however, admitted that he was not familiar with Holimont’s policies regarding adult accompaniment or the policies of other Western New York ski resorts on this issue (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 18-19).
Penniman’s opinion on how small children react on chairlifts may be informed by his experience operating ski lifts, observing at ski resorts, and investigating skiing accidents, but this expertise does not rise to the level that it should be credited as an expert. Similar to the registration form objection, Penniman’s expertise is in ski resort operations and not on how patrons will react. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on this ground is granted.
e. Prohibit Penniman from Opining about the Operation of a Ski School
Defendants contend that Penniman cannot render an opinion about how to operate a ski school due to lack of qualifications [*41] on how to operate such a program and not knowing Holiday Valley’s policies (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 9). Defendants point out that Penniman testified that he was only at level one (of three levels) as a certified ski instructor by the Professional Ski Instructors of America (or “PSIA”) (id.; Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, at 11) and that Penniman was never employed as a ski instructor at any resort where he worked (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, at 12), but he later stated that he taught skiing informally and once at a resort as a ski patroller (id. at 41-42). Penniman also admitted that he never developed policies for a ski school (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, at 13). According to plaintiffs’ retort, Penniman performed several different tasks in the ski industry for forty years (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 10-11), including experiences with ski schools and policies of the White Pine Ski Area related to children riding chairlifts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 29.d., Ex. P, Penniman EBT Tr. at 19-20 (being familiar with policies of resorts regarding children on chairlifts), membership in the PSIA (id., Ex. Q), and as a private ski instructor (id., ¶ 29.e., Ex. P, Penniman EBT Tr. at 42-44). [*42] He was qualified as an expert on skiing safety including chairlift operations and ski instruction (id.).
Reviewing his experience and stated expertise, Penniman essentially provided private ski lessons, “step[ped] in once at White Pine” ski resort as an instructor while a ski patroller and provided instruction, and instructed ski patrollers (Docket No. 53, Ex. F, at 42-43). He admits to never developing policies for a ski school. Given that the focus of Penniman’s expertise is more on trails (such as avalanches); his experience is only slightly more than a layperson regarding ski school policies. This is despite the fact that Penniman has testified as an expert in Whitford (but cf. Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 11); in that case he testified about the lift attendant’s duties and the adequacy of the chairlift’s safety netting, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *4. Penniman there was not asked to opine on ski school policies (see Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 7).
Thus, defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on Penniman rendering his opinion on ski school policies is granted.
f. Prohibit Penniman from Opining on the Custom for Chairlift Signage
Defendants next argue that Penniman should not be allowed to testify about customary [*43] chairlift signage or sign location (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 9-10). Again, plaintiffs apparently rely upon Penniman’s forty years of experience operating ski lifts and in the ski industry generally and do not point to specifics as to his expertise regarding the customary location of warning signage (see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 29.e., h., Ex. P, Penniman EBT Tr. at 33-34, 68-69). Penniman’s experience as to the location of unloading signage is at three North America ski areas and his 40 years of seeing where signs have been located at those and other ski resorts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 29, e. h.). Again, Penniman lists experience in “signing” at two ski resorts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. Q) without specifying what signage he positioned. Continuing to review Penniman’s stated experience, most of his training focused on ski patrol, avalanches, and ski safety, with attendance at a congress for transportation by wire rope in 1999 and ski lift maintenance. He is affiliated with the International Society of Skiing Safety and the PSIA. These could be sources for Penniman’s opinion about the national or continental safety standards, but a foundation needs to be established [*44] to confirm this before Penniman’s opinion on this subject is admissible. As noted above, the basis for Penniman’s opinions are from his observation of practices at ski areas and what he believes to be best practices. But he extrapolates this experience to conclude continental practices regarding where these signs are placed and should be placed without additional foundation. Absent such a foundation for a broader opinion, Penniman can only testify to his observations of what he observed at other ski resorts. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 56) on this issue is granted in part.
3. Exclude Prior and Subsequent Incidents at Holiday Valley
Finally in the initial motion in limine, defendants argue that evidence of prior and subsequent incidents of youths falling from chairlifts at Holiday Valley should not be admitted (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 10-17; Docket No. 56, sealed Exs. G-S). They argue that introducing all of these incidents would be prejudicial to them, Fed. R. Evid. 403 (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 15, 11-15). Defendants argue that the Creekside open restraint bar sign was moved to Tower 6 after LD’s accident. Therefore, subsequent incidents would allow plaintiffs, by the [*45] “back door,” to introduce evidence of subsequent remediation (id. at 16). Further, only one incident (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. Q) involved Creekside chairlift, while other post-2010 incidents (id., Defs. Exs. R-S) are not substantially similar to LD’s incident (see Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 16).
Plaintiffs argue that defendants did not cite federal cases on the admissibility of subsequent accidents (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 14). They claim one subsequent incident was similar (id. at 15; Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 35, Ex. X) (four-year-old fell from Mardi Gras chairlift on February 26, 2012).
Plaintiffs argue that evidence of prior incidents is admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 401 to show the existence and notice of the dangerous condition (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 12). They also claim that proof of subsequent accidents also is admissible to show the existence of the dangerous condition (id.). They reviewed defendants’ reports of similar incidents both before and after LD’s 2010 accident and argue that several of them are admissible since they present examples of youth slightly older than five-year-old LD (ages six to ten years old before the 2010 accident, and a four-year-old after5) opening the restraining [*46] bar prematurely due to the location of the signs instructing them to open that bar (id. at 12-14; Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 34, Exs. S, T, U, V, W; ¶ 35, Ex. X). Plaintiffs argue that pictures after 2010 showing relocation of the signs would be admissible only to rebut testimony regarding feasibility, impeaching the defense of culpable conduct (id. at 14). Their claim is that “very young children were needlessly exposed to serious injury by having the ‘open restraint bar’ sign posted too far away from the unload point, and resulting in the restraint bar being lifted at a point when the chairlift is too far above the ground,” hence it was unnecessary for plaintiffs to allege that the chairlift itself was defective (id. at 15); if there was any defect, it was in the location of the signage relative to the height of the chairlift.
5 According to the report for that accident, Feb. 26, 2012, the injured four-year-old was sitting next to his father on the chairlift when he fell, Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 35.a., Ex. X.
a. Prior Incidents
As for prior incidents at Holiday Valley, they are admissible in this case provided they are “substantially similar” to the 2010 accident on trial here, Bellinger v. Deere & Co., 881 F. Supp. 813, 817 (N.D.N.Y. 1995) (case citations omitted); see Sawyer v. Dreis & Krump Mfg. Co., 67 N.Y.2d 328, 336, 493 N.E.2d 920, 502 N.Y.S.2d 696, 701 (1986) (under New York law, similar prior accidents are admissible to show dangerousness of conditions and notice) (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 11). Defendants note (id.) that New York [*47] law allows admission of proof of similar incidents to show dangerousness of conditions and notice, Sawyer, supra, 67 N.Y.2d at 336, 502 N.Y.S.2d at 701. The parties differ here on whether the prior incidents are substantially similar to LD’s 2010 accident. As defendants concede that one incident of the eleven prior incidents at Holiday Valley identified by defendants is substantially similar to LD’s situation (id.; see Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. A, Pls.’ Response to Interrogatories, Interrogatory No. 11), that a five-year-old novice skier riding a chairlift unaccompanied by an adult fell between Towers 5 and 6 of the Creekside chairlift. The conceded incident is admissible. The ten other prior incidents (Docket No. 56, Defs. Atty. Exs. G-P) had one or two distinguishing facts that defendants conclude makes them not sufficiently similar to be admissible.
Table 2 below lists the factors defendants argue distinguish these ten prior incidents from LD’s 2010 incident, listing the youths as they were identified by defendants (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 12-15), cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2.
[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]
6 Injured youth #3 rode with a brother whose name was redacted by defendants, Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 12; Docket No. 56, Ex. I. The report does not give the brother’s age; thus, it is presumed that he is a minor as well.
7 Defendants claim that this incident occurred at Creekside, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S, but defendants argue that it did not occur at a similar location, Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 12. They distinguish this incident since there is no reference to use of a restraint bar, Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 11. The lift operator’s description of that incident, however, said that the restraint bar was up, Docket No. 56, Ex. H, at 2.
Two of the prior incidents are also distinct due to the greater expertise of the youth skier (#8, Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 14-15; Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. N) and the age of the skier as compared with LD’s age in 2010 (#10, 16 year old, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. P) who was involved in horseplay that led to the fall (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 15; Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. P).
Plaintiffs argue that whether these prior incidents were during a ski lesson is immaterial to whether they are similar to LD’s 2010 experience (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 12). But one factor here is that LD was a relative novice in 2010 and had not ridden on a chairlift unaccompanied by an adult. Also, plaintiffs’ claim is for inadequate supervision by the ski instructor while LD was on the chairlift (Docket No. 1, Compl. ¶ 15); that inadequacy would not occur in prior incidents that were not ski lessons. Therefore, to be sufficiently similar to LD’s circumstances, the prior instances must factor in the experience of the youth involved, shown by defendants from whether the incidents [*49] occurred during a ski lesson (as was for LD) as well as a review of the incident reports showing whether these youths were identified as being “novices” in the ability and days skied portions of the Holiday Valley incident reports.
To plaintiffs, “the similar circumstances at issue in this case are a very young child falling off a chair lift when the restraint bar was lifted at the point indicated by the ‘open restraint bar’ sign” (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 13). The prior incidents occurred at various chairlifts at Holiday Valley and the records for each incident does not indicate either where the “open restraint bar” signs were relative to where the youths fell or the distance they were from the appropriate discharge point. At least one youth, #3 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. I) appears to have fallen shortly after boarding the chairlift. Another prior incident occurred at Tower 4 of School House chairlift, well before Towers 5 and 6 of Creekside where LD fell (Incident #5, Docket No. 56, Ex. K). Thus, it is difficult to determine if these falls at other chairlifts were similar to LD’s fall at Creekside.
Plaintiffs next point to five prior instances that they claim were substantially [*50] similar to LD’s in which the restraint bar was opened prematurely and each child fell (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 13-14; Incident #2, 4, 6, 7, 9 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H, J, L, M, O; see also Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. Exs. S, T, U, V, W). Defendants reply that plaintiffs’ parsing of these prior incidents focus on singular favorable points and did not meet the burden of establishing that any of these incidents were substantially similar to LD’s 2010 incident (Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 10-11). They again distinguish these five incidents from the 2010 incident (id. at 11-12).
Incidents where the child was riding with a parent or other adult are not substantially similar to LD riding without an adult. The location of the fall also has to be similar to the 2010 Creekside incident; one of the issues is the location of the warning signage and where the restraining bar was lifted or the youth attempted to dismount (see also Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 11, on Incident #4, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. J; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. T). While not considered by the parties, the age as well as the experience of the youth involved (shown by whether use of the lift was during a ski lesson [*51] and the identified skiing ability on the Holiday Valley incident reports) is an important factor to determine if a prior incident was substantially similar to LD’s incident.
The next table (Table 3) lists the prior incidents at issue, the defense and plaintiffs’ exhibits identifications, the age of the youth, and their skiing experience (novice or not).
[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]
Reviewing these prior incidents, the five identified by plaintiffs are not sufficiently similar to LD’s 2010 experience to admit them into evidence. These incidents each had an adult present (#2, 4, 7, 9, Docket No. 56, Defs. Exs. H, J, M, O; Docket No. 66, Pls. Exs. S, T, V, W); or were not during a ski lesson (#2, 4, 6, 7, 9, Docket No. 56, Defs. Exs. H, J, L, M, O; Docket No. 66, Pls. Exs. S, T, U, V, W); or were not at the Creekside chairlift or the youths did not fall at a point similar to where LD fell from the Creekside chairlift [*52] (id.). But the child in Incident #9 was a six-year-old novice who skied for two days, describing the incident as lifting the safety bar “at prescribed point” (rather than earlier), slipped forward and left the lift (#9, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. O; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. W). Finally, LD is younger than any of the youth in the prior incidents.
One incident defendants attempt to distinguish, Incident #2, involves a fall by a seven-year-old novice skier (with two to nine days skied) at Creekside where the chairlift stopped thirty feet from the unloading ramp and the lift operator reported that the restraint bar was up (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S). The lift operator went to the child and “waited for parents” prior to ski patrol arriving (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H, at 2; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S, at 3). It is unclear where defendants got the impression that the parents were with that child on the chairlift. This incident is similar to LD’s experience and thus is admissible.
Therefore, Incident #2 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S), and the incident conceded by defendants to be similar are admissible, but the other prior incidents identified [*53] by defendants are not similar and are inadmissible. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) as to the admission of evidence of prior incidents substantially similar to LD’s 2010 incident is granted in part, save for the conceded prior incident.
b. Subsequent Incidents
As for subsequent incidents (Docket No. 56, Defs. Exs. Q-S; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. X (Feb. 26, 2012, incident), Table 4 lists these incidents, with this Court continuing the incident numbering scheme the parties used for the prior incidents.
[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]
Plaintiffs argue that one incident, #13 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. S; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. X) is similar to LD’s 2010 (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 35). There, a four-year-old youth was riding with his father on February 26, 2012, and was on a different chairlift, Mardi Gras, approximately 32 yards from the bull wheel (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. S; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. X). According to the eight-year-old sister of that youth, that child wiggled in the chairlift seat and fell from it (id.). These differences [*54] distinguish this incident from LD’s by the later child riding with a parent and no mention of the restraint bar having a role in the incident. This incident is distinct from LD’s.
As for the other two incidents, the youths were older than LD and had more skiing experience. Incident #11 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. Q) is the closest to LD’s 2010 experience; that incident had a 6 1/2 year old youth fall from the Creekside chairlift 62 feet above Tower 5. That youth claimed he “never really got on chair” and the chair stopped and he fell (id. at 1). Witnesses reported that the restraint bar was down as other skiers held the youth until losing their grip (id. at 7). But this incident is sufficiently distinct from what LD experienced to not admit that subsequent incident into evidence.
Thus, the subsequent incidents are inadmissible. Defendants’ motion in limine on this ground (Docket No. 53) is granted as discussed above.
4. Defense Supplemental Motion (Docket No. 58), Exclude Non-Disclosed Expert Testimony
In their supplemental motion in limine (Docket No. 58), defendants next ask that undisclosed plaintiffs’ expert testimony be excluded (id., Defs. Memo. at 2-3). Plaintiffs contend that they did disclose regarding [*55] future medical expenses; alternatively, they argue that defendants waived any objection to that disclosure by not moving to compel further disclosure (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 16-18; see also Docket No. 68, Pls. Atty. Reply Decl.¶ 3, Ex. A (supplementing plaintiffs’ discovery). Plaintiffs also argue that defendants overstate the scope of the witnesses defendants claim are plaintiffs’ experts (plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco, wife Natascha DiFrancesco, and brother Dean DiFrancesco); for example, uncle Dean DiFrancesco would not testify as an expert regarding inadequate supervision but would testify as to his expectation regarding supervision of youth (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 36). During oral argument, plaintiffs offered to supplement evidence of LD’s future medical requirements (see Docket No. 69). The parties reserved the right to file a new round of motions in limine regarding this supplementation (as well as other supplemented discovery).
Plaintiffs do not list the DiFrancescos as expert witnesses in their pretrial submissions (see Docket No. 54, Pls. Pretrial Memo. at 14-15), only expressly identifying Penniman as their expert witness (id. at 21). Defendants’ supplemental motion [*56] in limine (Docket No. 58) on this ground is deemed moot, but subject to renewal upon receipt of the supplemental discovery.
5. LD’s Mother Is Not Qualified as an Expert to Opine on LD’s Future Treatment
Defendants next contend that LD’s mother, Natascha DiFrancesco is not qualified as an expert to render an opinion as to LD’s need for future treatments (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 3), since Mrs. DiFrancesco has degrees in sociology and physical therapy and lacks the medical qualification to opine as to LD’s physical care needs (id. at 3; id., Defs. Atty. Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. C, EBT Tr. Natascha DiFrancesco).
Plaintiffs respond that the parents would testify to medical expenses incurred but health care provider witnesses would testify to the medical necessity for future treatment of LD (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 37). They also point out Dr. Bryan and Natascha DiFrancesco are both “health care professionals and have had extensive contact and conversations with the infant plaintiff’s health care providers, an understanding of immediate health care surveillance she requires and the fact that they have been informed that the infant plaintiff is a candidate for require [sic] future [*57] medical surveillance, treatment, injections, surgery and imaging” (id.). Both parents discussed LD’s care and future medical needs with treating orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Devin Peterson (id. ¶¶ 40, 41).
Plaintiff Bryan and Natascha DiFrancesco can testify to the facts of LD’s past treatment and the recommended follow up, with health care providers testifying as to the necessity of future medical care. Plaintiffs, however, are not holding them out as “experts,” they claim that Natascha DiFrancesco would testify as to the necessity for LD having future medical care (see Docket No. 54, Pls. Trial Memo. at 15). Thus, they cannot invoke Dr. and Mrs. DiFrancesco’s respective experience in health care professions (according to defense moving papers, Natascha DiFrancesco has degrees in occupational therapy and sociology, Docket No. 58, Defs. Atty. Decl. ¶ 8) to bolster their factual testimony as to LD’s care that any other layperson could testify to their injured daughter or son. As refined, defendants’ supplemental motion (Docket No. 58) is granted in part.
6. Physical Therapist Emily Wray Cannot Offer an Expert Opinion on Causation or Diagnosis
Defendants caution that plaintiffs’ physical therapist, [*58] Emily Wray, is not an expert as to the cause or diagnosis for LD’s injuries (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 3-4). Defendants produced a copy of plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco’s business website for the Active Body Clinic. This website listed among the staff of that clinic Ms. Wray (Docket No. 58, Defs. Atty. Decl., Ex. B). Plaintiffs, however, offer Ms. Wray’s testimony as to her observations in treating LD in 2015 (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 38, Ex. AA; see also Docket No. 54, Pls. Memo. at 23-24). Thus, she is being called as a treating witness rather than an expert. This Court notes that Wray’s employment with Bryan’s Active Body Clinic raises issues of bias but this goes to her ultimate credibility and not to the admissibility of her testimony. Again, as modified to restrict her testimony to her factual observations, defendants’ motion (Docket No. 58) is granted.
7. Plaintiff Father Dr. Bryan DiFrancesco Cannot Opine on Fractures, Surgical Procedures on LD
Finally, defendants move to preclude plaintiff Dr. Bryan DiFrancesco from testifying as an expert on LD’s fractures and surgical procedures (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 4). Defendants contend [*59] that plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco is a chiropractor, acupuncturist, and physical therapist and thus lacks the expertise to render an opinion as to LD’s treatment of her fractured femur (id.; Docket No. 58, Defs. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 3, 8, Ex. B). Defendants point out that plaintiffs have not provided disclosure of the nature and extend of future treatments that LD requires (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 4).
Again, plaintiffs are not holding Dr. Bryan out as an “expert,” his anticipated testimony is regarding LD’s condition before and after the accident, including the necessity for future treatment (Docket No. 54, Pls. Trial Memo. at 14); thus, they cannot invoke his expertise in health care professions as a chiropractor, acupuncturist and physical therapist to bolster factual testimony as to LD’s care that any other parent not in a health care profession could testify for their injured daughter or son. It is unclear in this record the extend of Dr. Bryan DiFrancesco’s medical training that he received in obtaining his chiropractic and physical therapy degrees in Canada. As refined, defendants’ supplemental motion (Docket No. 58) is granted in part.
For the reasons stated [*60] above, plaintiffs’ motion in limine (Docket No. 56) is granted in part, denied in part as specified above. Plaintiffs’ motion to exclude evidence of infant LD’s assumption of the risk is denied, as well as evidence of the release (as being contrary to New York State public policy) is denied but on different grounds; their motion to preclude evidence of LD’s 2015 clavicle injury at Holimont is granted in part with medical records first subject to this Court’s in camera review.
Defendants’ first motion in limine (Docket No. 53) is granted in part, denied in part as provided in detail above. Their supplemental motion in limine (Docket No. 58) is granted in part, denied in part as specified above.
Jury selection and trial is set for Monday, July 17, 2017, commencing at 9:30 am (Docket Nos. 69, 71), with a Final Pretrial Conference to be scheduled and a further Pretrial Order to be separately issued. The Interim Pretrial Conference (Docket Nos. 71, 63), remains set for Wednesday, April 19, 2017, 10:30 am (Docket No. 72).
/s/ Hugh B. Scott
Hon. Hugh B. Scott
United States Magistrate Judge
Dated: Buffalo, New York
March 20, 2017
“Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case, the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labelsPosted: March 20, 2017
Cornell and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment used in a gym at Cornell were being sued by an injured student who used the equipment. The court definitely was leaning towards the student; however, the student had come to court prepared, (and backed by a lot of money I’m guessing.)
State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau
Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak
Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability, Failure to Warn, requesting punitive damages
Holding: No duty, Failure to state a claim, Assumption of Risk & Release?
This case spent four years getting to this point, and it is obvious the court is a little tired of the litigation. Consequently, the facts are difficult to determine.
It seems the plaintiff was a beginning gymnast and injured himself on a piece of equipment at the Cornell University gym called the Tumbletrak. The extents of his injuries are never clear, but based on the number of experts the plaintiff hired and the lengthy fight; I guess his injuries were extensive.
This case was being heard in a Pennsylvania Federal Court with a Michigan and a New York Defendant. That fact alone is confusing.
The decision is based on motions for summary judgment filed by both Cornell and the manufacturer Tumbletrak.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first examines the manufacture’s motion for summary judgment. The first issue the manufacturer claimed the plaintiff failed to establish the minimum facts necessary to go to trial; the plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages, and the plaintiff assumed the risk. The court first looked at what was required to establish a failure to warn case. Meaning a manufacturer has a duty to warn users of the product of the risks and failed to do so.
Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage.
The burden is on the plaintiff to prove the failure to warn of the risk by the manufacturer was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.
This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded a warning had one been given. Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.”
Failure to warn can be denied both by proving the plaintiff read and heeded the risk or knew of the risk prior to using the equipment. The manufacturer argued the risk was open and obvious, which does not require proof because the plaintiff should have seen the risk.
T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding
In a footnote at this point, the court states the plaintiff signed a release stating he understood the risks; however, nothing else is mentioned about the release in the rest of the decision.
One way to defend against a motion for summary judgment is to argue there are enough facts or issues that make the facts relied upon by the defendant an issue. Meaning if enough facts are in dispute, the motion for summary judgement cannot be granted. This is what the plaintiff did through his experts.
Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. [Emphasize added]
Here the manufacturer shot his defense down before the product left the assembly plant by confusing risk management and marketing. Teddy bears doing the activities unspotted that the warning allegedly warns against eliminated the warning in the court’s eyes. (And rightfully so!) If the manufacturer shows cartoons doing the act without regard for safety, then the act must be safe, no matter what the warning says. If the warning can be located.
In a scary statement, the court held that failure to read the warnings on the product is not an issue in a failure to warn case.
However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.”
The court based this analysis on the many different statements by witnesses who seemed to go in every direction, but all stated they never saw the warning.
Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter.
A warning does not exist unless the consumer can’t miss it. Meaning the warning must be in the consumer’s face every time they go to use a product. On top of that the warning must be in the manual, in some states on the packaging and maybe on a hangtag with the product.
The failure to warn claim was sustained and would be decided at trial.
The court then looked at the assumption of the risk defense brought by the defendant manufacturer. The court started this analysis looking at the requirements to prove a negligence claim in a product case.
To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff.
However, assumption of the risk in a product’s case is a little more stringent then in a recreation case. “Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events.” In sporting or recreation cases, the risk is clear and understood by all involved and to be effective the risk was not altered or enhanced by the defendant. In a product’s case the requirements are slightly different.
Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. To establish assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk.
Again, the case goes back to did the plaintiff know of the risks. Where the risks open and obvious or can you prove under the law the plaintiff knew of the risk. Because no one ever saw the warning, the warning had no value. That left it up to a jury to decide if the plaintiff knew the risk of the sport or activity.
The next argument was a motion to eliminate a punitive damages claim by the manufacturer arguing the case should be tried under Michigan’s law because the manufacturer was based in Michigan. Michigan does not allow punitive damages, unless they are expressly authorized by statute.
There has been a prior argument about the jurisdiction and venue of the case decided by a prior judge. (Which is alone confusing since none of the defendants are located in Pennsylvania where the court sits, however, the court is applying New York law?) Because of the prior decision, this court followed it and ruled that New York law would be applied to the facts of the case, and punitive damages were going to be at issue.
Cornell University was then giving a shot at its motions starting with the punitive damages issue. Cornell claimed the plaintiff had not presented any evidence that could support a punitive damages claim. The plaintiff responded arguing facts that could prove a punitive damages claim against the university.
(1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.”
The court defined the requirements to prove a punitive damages claim.
As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.”
The court found there was sufficient evidence to support a possible punitive damages claim.
There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.
Cornell next argued that the plaintiff assumed the risk and there was no evidence proving causation. Cornell was arguing a breach of a duty was not related to the injury. There was no causation between the two which is required to prove negligence.
The court found that Cornell’s case law did not apply correctly to the facts of this case. That means the case law facts were sufficiently different from the facts of this case, that the law could not be interpreted the same way. “Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here.”
On the causation issues the judge found the plaintiff had presented enough evidence that there could be an issue leading to punitive damages against the college.
Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.
Both defendants failed in their motion for summary judgment, and the decision was to allow the case to proceed to trial.
So Now What?
I have not been able to find the outcome of this case. Meaning it probably settled. The entire issue was the warning on the product; it was not clear; it was not visible, and it could not be seen in normal use.
If you manufacture products and your product poses a risk to the user, then you need to notify the consumer as often and as many were possible that you can. User manuals, hangtags, the container or bag the product is shipped in and on the product itself. It is also not enough that you can say the label or warning is there; the user must be able to see the warning……every time.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412
Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.
CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412
July 31, 2012, Decided
July 31, 2012, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)
CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure
COUNSEL: [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.
For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II
Jones, II, U.S.D.J.
Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1
1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).
T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment
T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.
Failure to Warn
Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).
2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.
Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).
T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:
o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.
o Plaintiff [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.
o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.
o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.
Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.
However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).
Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611. [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.
3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.
4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.
In sum, this evidence of record establishes [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.
Assumption of Risk
T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A., F. Supp. 2d , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.
5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).
Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.
6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).
Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed, [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).
Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7
7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.
Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.
Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages
Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.
As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).
Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.
III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment
Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9
8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.
9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.
Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.
10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.
11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s [*25] apparent invitation.
Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.
12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.
Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product. [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.
An appropriate Order follows.
AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:
- Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
- Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
- Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
- The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.
In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.
13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II
- DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.