Allowing a climber to climb with harness on backwards on health club climbing wall enough for court to accept gross negligence claim and invalidate the release.

Whether or not the employee was present the entire time, is irrelevant, anytime any employee had the opportunity to see the harness on incorrectly was enough to be gross negligence.

Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

State: Michigan, Court of Appeals of Michigan

Plaintiff: David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez

Defendant: LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

Facts

The facts are difficult to determine because the interpretation of the court in its opinion does not follow the normal language used in the climbing industry.

The plaintiff was injured when he leaned back to descend after climbing a climbing wall. Because he was not hooked in properly, something broke, and he fell. The plaintiff claims an employee of the defendant watched him put the harness on and hook into the belay system. The employee alleges she was not present for that. The plaintiff allegedly put the harness on backwards.

The harness allegedly had a red loop that should have been in front. No one either knew how the harness was to be worn or that the harness was on incorrectly.

Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, and attempted to lower himself back down via the automatic belay system. However, because David’s harness was on backwards and incorrectly hooked to the belay system, it broke and he fell to the ground suffering multiple injuries.

The plaintiff argued the employee was grossly negligent. The trial court granted the defendants motion to dismiss based on the release, and this appeal ensued.

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

The court first started by defining gross negligence under Michigan’s law. Michigan law is similar if not identical to many other states. Gross negligence requires proof the defendant engaged in reckless conduct or acted in a way that demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for the plaintiff.

To establish a claim for gross negligence, it is incumbent on a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant acted or engaged in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” “Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient under Michigan law, because, with the benefit of hindsight, a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result.” However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]”

Although the issue debated in the appeal was the location of the employee when the plaintiff was putting on the harness and climbing. It was undisputed the defendant’s employee was instructing the plaintiff while he was climbing. Eventually, the court found this not to be a real issue since any opportunity to see the harness was on incorrectly would have allowed the defendants employee to resolve the issue.

Thus, plaintiffs’ testimony allows the inference that Agredano did not simply have the ability to do more to assure David’s safe climb. Instead, accepting plaintiffs’ testimony as true, evidence exists that Agredano ignored the red loop in David’s harness–a clear visible indication that David was climbing the rock wall in an unsafe manner–and took no steps to avoid the known danger associated with climbing the rock wall with an improperly secured harness.

Failure then, to spot the problem or resolve the problem was proof of gross negligence, or a failure to care about the safety and welfare of the plaintiff.

Thus, Agredano’s alleged failure to affirmatively instruct David on the proper way to wear the harness before he donned it himself, coupled with her alleged disregard for the red loop warning sign that David had his harness on backwards, and instructing him to push off the wall, could demonstrate to a reasonable juror that she “simply did not care about the safety or welfare of” Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence.

Because the court could determine the acts of the defendant employee were possibly gross negligence, it was enough to determine what occurred and if gross negligence occurred.

So Now What?

This is pretty plane on its face. You allow a person to use a piece of equipment incorrectly who is then injured there is going to be a lawsuit. You allow a person to use a piece of safety equipment, equipment needed for the safe operation of your business incorrectly you are going to lose no matter how well written your release.

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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Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellants, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe, Defendant. David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellees, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellant, Jane Doe, Defendant.

No. 328221, No. 328985

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

November 29, 2016, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO. Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO.

CORE TERMS: harness, climbing, gross negligence, rock, climb, belay, incorrectly, backwards, walked, deposition testimony, loop, red, putting, front, genuine issue, material fact, reasonable minds, precautions, favorable, watched, donned, order granting, rock climbing, grossly negligent, adjacent, facing, matter of law, conduct constituted, ordinary negligence, evidence submitted

JUDGES: Before: M. J. KELLY, P.J., and MURRAY and BORRELLO, JJ.

OPINION

Per Curiam.

In Docket No. 328221, plaintiffs, David Alvarez and his wife Elena Alvarez, appeal as of right the trial court’s order granting summary disposition in favor of defendant, LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center (Lifetime). In Docket No. 328985, Lifetime appeals as of right the order denying its request for case evaluation sanctions and for taxation of costs. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the trial court’s order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings.

This litigation arises from David’s fall from a rock climbing wall at Lifetime’s facility in Novi. Plaintiffs were at Lifetime, where they are members, with their minor daughter to allow her the opportunity to use the rock climbing wall. Neither the plaintiffs, nor their daughter, had previously attempted to use the rock climbing wall. After David signed the requisite forms, Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, [*2]  and attempted to lower himself back down via the automatic belay system. However, because David’s harness was on backwards and incorrectly hooked to the belay system, it broke and he fell to the ground suffering multiple injuries.

Plaintiffs argued that, as an employee of Lifetime, Agredano was grossly negligent1 in failing to ascertain whether David had properly attached his harness and the belay system before permitting him to climb the rock wall or descend. Defendant filed a motion for summary disposition arguing the assumption of risk and waiver of liability provision within the paperwork David signed barred plaintiffs’ claims because Agredano’s asserted conduct constituted only ordinary negligence and not gross negligence. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary disposition finding plaintiffs failed to “present any evidence establishing that defendant was grossly negligent in failing to take precautions for plaintiff’s safety.”

1 Plaintiffs had signed a waiver of any negligence based liability.

Plaintiffs assert that the trial court erred in dismissing their claim of gross negligence against Lifetime, arguing a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether Agredano [*3]  was grossly negligent. We agree.

The trial court granted summary disposition in accordance with MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (10). This Court reviews “de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition.” In re Mardigian Estate, 312 Mich App 553, 557; 879 NW2d 313 (2015). Specifically:

When considering a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a court must view the evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Summary disposition is appropriate under MCR 2.116(C)(10) if there is no genuine issue regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence submitted might permit inferences contrary to the facts as asserted by the movant. When entertaining a summary disposition motion under Subrule (C)(10), the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence. [Id. at 557-558, quoting Dillard v Schlussel, 308 Mich App 429, 444-445; 865 NW2d 648 (2014) (quotation marks omitted).]

In addition:

In determining whether a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7), a court must accept as true a plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations, affidavits, or other [*4]  documentary evidence and construe them in the plaintiff’s favor. Where there are no factual disputes and reasonable minds cannot differ on the legal effect of the facts, the decision regarding whether a plaintiff’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo. [Terrace Land Dev Corp v Seeligson & Jordan, 250 Mich App 452, 455; 647 NW2d 524 (2002) (citation omitted).]

To establish a claim for gross negligence, it is incumbent on a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant acted or engaged in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 269; 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (citations omitted). “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” Woodman v Kera, LLC, 280 Mich App 125, 152; 760 NW2d 641 (2008), aff’d 486 Mich 228 (2010). “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” Id. “Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient under Michigan law, because, with the benefit of hindsight, a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result.” Tarlea v Crabtree, 263 Mich App 80, 90; 687 NW2d 333 (2004). However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]” Id.

As [*5]  evidence of Agredano’s gross negligence, plaintiffs offered their deposition testimony. In his deposition testimony, David indicated that Agredano provided him with a harness and was present as he put it on and prepared to climb the wall:

  1. Q. And where was [Agredano] when you were placing the harness on yourself?
  2. A. She was in front of us. We were here. She was in front of us.
  3. Q. So she’s staring directly at your as you’re putting the harness on?
  4. A. She was, yeah, in front of us. We were here, and she was — I mean, we could show the picture if you want.
  5. Q. But I want to know if she was facing you when you were putting this harness on?
  6. A. Yes.

* * *

  1. Q. How much time elapsed between the time that you had your harness on and began climbing from the time when your wife began climbing?
  2. A. Okay. So they walked over to the wall, and then, as soon as I put on my harness, I walked over to the wall adjacent to [Agredano], and I watched my wife. She was already up the So whatever time it took for her to get up the eight feet, which is probably a couple minutes. I mean, a minute maybe.
  3. Q. All right. And when you walked over to the wall, was [Agredano] standing to your right?
  4. A. When I walked over to [*6] the wall, she was on my right.
  5. Q. And would you say she was within three or four feet of you?
  6. A. I could touch her. She was right there.

Further, David stated that Agredano spoke to him after he had inadvertently placed the harness on backwards and directed him to a climbing area, but did not warn him that the red loop on his harness should be on his front before he began to climb the wall:

  1. Q. When were you told to hook into something between your legs?
  2. A. Sure. So I had trouble putting on the harness, right? They walked over to the I followed . . . . I was next to — adjacent to [Agredano] . . . . As my wife started to come down [the rock wall], I asked — I asked, where should I go climb? [Agredano] pointed me over to the other adjacent valet or belay.
  3. Q. Belay
  4. A. Belay. Then somewhere between there I asked — or I don’t know if I asked, but she said, Hook it between your legs. . . .

David also stated that Agredano was present in the climbing wall area during the whole incident and watched him climb the rock wall while wearing the harness incorrectly:

  1. Q. And was [Agredano] facing you when you began climbing?
  2. A. She was facing both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. What I want to know is were [sic] you and [*7] your wife on the climbing, and she was behind you looking at the two of you?
  2. A. Yeah. She was looking at both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. Was there any point in time, while you were putting on your harness or after you put on your harness, where [Agredano] was inside the wall, through this door?
  2. A. No.
  3. Q. So she was outside in the climbing wall area with you the entire time?
  4. A. Correct.

In Elena’s deposition testimony, she testified that Agredano also spoke to David after he reached the top of the rock wall, gave him instructions regarding how to descend, and instructed David to let go of the wall despite his incorrectly worn harness:

  1. Q. What happened at that point?
  2. A. And he said — he asked her twice how to go down. And he asked her two times, because I remember, like, why he’s asking her? . . . So then, when he asked her two times, she said, just let go, and it will bring you down, the automatically thing will bring you down. And she said, I think, you know, push, let go. She said, just let go. Just let go. . . .

While Agredano claimed that she was not in the room when David incorrectly donned his harness and ascended the wall, we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs and [*8]  accept their testimony as true. Terrace Land Dev Corp, 250 Mich App at 455. David and Elena’s deposition testimony was that Agredano was present when David donned his harness and ascended the wall, that she had ample opportunity to determine that David had put his harness on incorrectly, but that she failed to correct his mistake. Further, plaintiffs testified that Agredano watched David climb the wall in an unsafe harness, and directed David to let go of the wall to repel back down to the ground despite the red loop on David’s harness indicating that his harness was on backwards. Thus, plaintiffs’ testimony allows the inference that Agredano did not simply have the ability to do more to assure David’s safe climb. Instead, accepting plaintiffs’ testimony as true, evidence exists that Agredano ignored the red loop in David’s harness–a clear visible indication2 that David was climbing the rock wall in an unsafe manner–and took no steps to avoid the known danger associated with climbing the rock wall with an improperly secured harness. Thus, Agredano’s alleged failure to affirmatively instruct David on the proper way to wear the harness before he donned it himself, coupled with her alleged disregard for the red loop warning sign [*9]  that David had his harness on backwards, and instructing him to push off the wall, could demonstrate to a reasonable juror that she “simply did not care about the safety or welfare of” David. Tarlea, 263 Mich App at 90. Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence. Thus, the trial court erred in granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition.

2 Agredano testified that if someone was standing below a rock climber, that person would be readily able to see if a harness was on backwards.

Because we have concluded that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition to defendant, it is unnecessary for us to address in Docket No. 328985 whether the decision to deny the case evaluation award would otherwise have been appropriate if the grant of summary disposition had been proper.

We reverse the order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

/s/ Michael J. Kelly

/s/ Christopher M. Murray

/s/ Stephen L. Borrello

 


New Hampshire court upholds release and defines the steps under NH law to review a release.

Release law is stretched in New Hampshire court to cover injuries from snowmobile driven by employee hitting the plaintiff on the ski slopes.

McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc. 2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45

State: New Hampshire, Superior Court of New Hampshire, Hillsborough County

Plaintiff: Marcella McGrath f/k/a Marcella Widger

Defendant: NH Development, Inc. and John Doe

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2008

The defendant is the owner of Crotched Mountain Ski Area in New Hampshire. The plaintiff signed an application for a season pass which included release language in the application. While skiing one day the plaintiff was hit by an employee of the defendant driving a snowmobile.

The defendants moved for summary judgment based on the release. The plaintiff objected stating the release violated public policy. The plaintiff also argued the parties, when the release was signed, did not contemplate the release would cover negligence claims.

The phrase “did not contemplate” is another way of saying there was no meeting of the minds. For a contract to be valid, the parties to the contract must understand the basic nature of the contract. There must be a meeting of the minds to the contract. This does not mean that all aspects of the contract must be contemplated by both parties, just that the major issues and purpose of the contract are understood.

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

The court reviewed the requirements for a release to be valid under New Hampshire law, which requires the release to:

…(1) do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims were within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.

Then the court looked at each of the three requirements. The first, Public Policy in New Hampshire, means the parties did not have a special relationship and were not of disparity in bargaining power. This definition is the original definition of public policy.

Special relationship means where one party had no choice but to deal with the other party to obtain a necessary good or service.

A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy i.e that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.”

A special relationship exists “[w]here the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service….” Id. The plaintiff contends that a special relationship existed between the parties because any person operating a snowmobile has a statutory duty to yield the right of way

Specifically, a special relationship exists between common carriers, innkeepers or public utilities and the public. A Monopoly that supplies goods or services that a person must have is an example of a defendant this definition would fit. Transportation, a place to stay and gas and electric providers have special relationships with the people they serve. This is the original definition of relationship that creates unequal bargaining power where releases are void.

The theory behind public policy was the state must step in to protect the common public from unscrupulous, overbearing or overreaching companies when the public had no choice but to deal with them. This relationship is based on the practical necessity of the goods or services they provide. Without them, life would not be possible or as possible.

Skiing in New Hampshire is not a practical necessity. You can live your life and never ski, in fact, many people do. On top of that the defendant was not the only ski area. Meaning the plaintiff could have gone to any number of other ski areas; the defendant did not force her to visit its ski area nor was she compelled to visit the defendant’s ski area. Consequently, there was no disparity of bargaining power because the plaintiff could have bargained with someone else or not gone skiing and still lived on.

The plaintiff also argued the release was a violation of public policy because it relieved the defendant of statutory compliance with a New Hampshire statute governing the use of snowmobiles. However, the court found the release did not affect the enforcement of the statute. The statute was one outlining the requirements for a state commissioner to make and enforce laws concerning snowmobiles. The release did not alter the commissioner’s ability to do so and would not alter any law or regulation made or the law or regulations affect.

If the release does not violate public policy, then the requirement two requires a review of whether or not the plaintiff or a reasonable person would have understood the exculpatory provisions in the release. For the plaintiff to argue that she did not understand the release, she would have to prove the language in the release was not understandable.

…therefore examine[s] the language of the release to determine whether “a reasonable person in [the plaintiff’s] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence….”

The plaintiff did not deny she understood the release; she argued that the release did not cover the precise occurrence that gave rise to here injuries. Meaning the release did not cover injuries from being hit by a snowmobile being driven by an employee of the defendant. However, the law does not require a release to be specific in its language to cover the injury the plaintiff may later claim.

Thus, in order to effectively release a defendant from liability for his own negligence, “the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” There is no requirement that the term “negligence” or any other magic words appear in the release as long “as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.”

The release language was broadly written to cover all types of injuries that could occur while skiing. New Hampshire also does not require “magic words” such as negligence to make the release valid or convey a specific risk to the signor.

In reviewing the language the court found the language was broad enough to cover the injury the plaintiff received.

As noted above, the parties need not have contemplated a negligence claim arising from a snowmobile accident. Rather, it is sufficient that the parties adopted language to cover a broad range of accidents. The application releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence,” and the Liability Release Agreement releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in from negligence.”

The final argument made by the plaintiff was the release did not contemplate a snowmobile accident because snowmobiles are not an inherent part of skiing.

In this case, the release did not refer to the inherent risks of skiing, but stated that skiing was a hazardous sport and that injuries are commonplace.

Here, however, the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not mention the inherent hazards of skiing. Rather, the application and the Liability Release Agreement note that skiing is a hazardous sport and that injuries are a common occurrence and then, without using the term “therefore,” release the defendants from any and all liability. Because the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not use the phrase “inherent hazards of skiing” or the term “therefore,” this case is distinguishable from Wright. A reasonable person would have contemplated that the application and the Liability Release Agreement would release the defendants from a negligence claim, whether nor not that claim arouse from an inherent hazard of skiing.

Consequently, the restrictions that the term inherent would have identified were not there, the language was broad enough to cover the accident the plaintiff complained of.

The case was dismissed based upon the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

Use of the narrowing term inherent in the release when referring to the risks might have allowed the plaintiff to continue with her claim. Remember inherent is a restricting word and if used in this release, it might have excluded a snowmobile accident from the pool of possible claims. As the release was worded the snowmobile accident was covered.

The bigger issue is the attempt to spread the definition of Public Policy board enough that it would void this release. However, the court did not do that and kept the definition to the original definition that a release cannot protect those monopolies that provide a necessity to the public cannot use a release to limit their liability.

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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New Hampshire does not recognize more than one type of negligence, simple or ordinary negligence. Claims for gross negligence, say to void a release, do not exist.

Supreme Court outlines requirements for releases. to be successful including public policy and failure to read the release requirements.

Barnes & a. v. New Hampshire Karting Association, Inc, 128 N.H. 102; 509 A.2d 151; 1986 N.H. LEXIS 254

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: John E. and Virginia A. Barnes

Defendant: New Hampshire Karting Association (NHKA), David E. Whitesell, Midway Raceway, Inc. d/b/a Bryar Motorsport Park (Bryar), the World Karting Association (WKA) and International Insurance Company (International)

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 1986

The plaintiff went to a go kart event. He signed a pit pass which contained a release. While driving he hit another kart on the track that was disabled. There was no indication or warning of the disabled go-kart before the plaintiff hit it.

The plaintiff sued for ordinary and gross negligence. The lower court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, and the plaintiff appealed.

New Hampshire has three courts; however, the lower two, Circuit and Superior handle different matters. Both the Circuit court and the Superior courts are trial courts so any appeal is to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

The plaintiff claimed the release was barred by public policy; the release was ambiguous and did not apply to the risks, not inherent in the sport. The plaintiff also argued the release did not cover gross negligence.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court first looked at releases in New Hampshire.

Exculpatory agreements call into conflict two tenets of the law.  First, a party should be liable for the consequences of the negligent breach of a duty owed another.  As this court stated in a recent case involving an amusement ride accident, the owner of a place of public amusement “must exercise that degree of care which, under the same or similar circumstances, would be exercised by an ordinarily careful or prudent individual.” Failure to do so will result in liability for injuries proximately caused by the breach of duty.

However, parties may eliminate tort liability by contract.

Contraposed against this basic rule of tort law is the principle that, as a matter of efficiency and freedom of choice, parties should be able to contract freely about their affairs. Under this rule, parties may bargain for various levels of risk and benefit as they see fit. Thus, a plaintiff may agree in advance that the defendant has no legal duty toward him and thereby assume the risk of injury arising from the defendant’s conduct.

Under New Hampshire law, a defendant must show the release does not contravene public policy, that no special relationship existed between the parties and there was no disparity of bargaining power.

A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power. Where the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service, the defendant cannot by contract rid itself of its obligation of reasonable care.

Public policy, not identified as such, is held to include common carriers, innkeepers and public utilities. A go-kart operation is not a commercial transport for hire, a place to sleep or a public utility providing gas, electricity or such.

Disparity in bargaining power occurs when the defendant is a monopoly or where the plaintiff has no alternative but to deal with the defendant. “Where there is a disparity in bargaining power, the plaintiff may not be deemed to have freely chosen to enter into the contract; accordingly, courts refuse to enforce the agreement.”

Again, a go-kart facility is not a necessity such that the plaintiff had to negotiate for its life or substance.

Once the public policy argument is out of the way, the issue then becomes whether the plaintiff understood the basics of the agreement.

Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.  Furthermore, the plaintiff’s claims must have been within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement.

This contemplation must not cover the exact issues the plaintiff complains about, but covers a broad range of accidents or injuries the plaintiff may suffer.

Contracts are generally construed against the writer, in the case of a release, construed against the defendant.

…the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence. As long as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.

The plaintiff argued he did not read the entire release; however, that does not invalidate the release. The court found he could have if he wanted, therefore, his argument failed based on his own actions.

There was no evidence, however, that Barnes was denied the opportunity to read the body of the release.  “[H]aving failed to avail himself of that opportunity, yet gaining the admission to which his signature was a condition precedent, he cannot now complain that he had no notice of the import of the paper . . . he signed.”

Summing up the public policy argument made by the plaintiff failed as stated by the court

With these principles in mind, we now consider whether the release bars the plaintiff’s claims in this case.  The first question is whether the release is contrary to public policy. The defendants do not fall within any of the commonly-recognized classes of persons charged with a duty of public service. The record indicates that the 1981 Enduro kart races at Bryar were organized by the NHKA, which is associated with the WKA and which manages its races in accordance with WKA rules and regulations.  Although the defendants serve a segment of the public, we cannot say that Enduro kart racing is affected with a public interest.  Provision of racing facilities is not a service of great importance to the public, nor is racing a matter of practical necessity.

Moreover, there was no substantial disparity in bargaining power among the parties, despite the fact that Barnes was required to sign the release in order to use the racetrack. The plaintiff was under no physical or economic compulsion to sign the release.  Since the defendants’ service is not an essential one, the defendants had no advantage of bargaining strength over Barnes or others who sought to participate in Enduro kart racing.

Thus the release was not barred by public policy arguments in New Hampshire.

The plaintiff then argued that the actions against the defendant were grossly negligent and cited cases from other jurisdictions to support its claim. The court simply stated:

These cases are inapposite because New Hampshire law does not distinguish causes of action based on ordinary and gross negligence. “[T]he doctrine of definitive degrees of negligence is not recognized as a part of our common law.

There is only one claim in New Hampshire for negligence no matter egregious the defendants’ actions.

The plaintiff then argued the release was only valid for a restricted area of the facility. However, applying the common meaning to the language in the release the court found the language covered the area where the accident occurred.

We find that participation in practice laps on the racing surface comes within the terms of the release.  The restricted areas are defined in terms of physical spaces, not in terms of function, and the reference to “enter[ing] for any purpose” contemplates that the racing surface is a restricted area during practice runs and during the actual race.  Although the plaintiff testified that he had practiced on occasion without signing a release, he signed the release prior to taking a practice lap on the day in question.  One can contemplate that racers are exposed to a variety of hazards while in the racing arena regardless of whether the actual race is taking place.  We believe that the practice run taken by Barnes in preparation for the race later that day may reasonably be construed as part of “participat[ion] in the event.” We therefore uphold the master’s conclusion that the language of the agreement was not ambiguous and that the release applied to practice laps.

A final argument was made that the release was an “illegal tying arrangement.” Meaning the release and the insurance coverage were illegally tied together the plaintiff could not take one without taking the other. The court found this was not the case because no evidence was presented that insurance was a separate charge after admissions.

The trial court decision was affirmed.

So Now What?

New Hampshire law is fairly standard on how it looks at release law, even though the particular language used might vary. What is significant is the Supreme Court has held that New Hampshire does not recognize gross negligence.

Not being able to plead gross negligence limits the ability of the plaintiff to void a release or argue for greater damages. Normally a jury finding the defendant acted grossly negligent includes greater damages, sometimes punitive damages.

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

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Barnes and a. v. New Hampshire Karting Association, Inc, 128 N.H. 102; 509 A.2d 151; 1986 N.H. LEXIS 254

Barnes & a. v. New Hampshire Karting Association, Inc, 128 N.H. 102; 509 A.2d 151; 1986 N.H. LEXIS 254

John E. Barnes & a. v. New Hampshire Karting Association, Inc. & a.

No. 85-204

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

128 N.H. 102; 509 A.2d 151; 1986 N.H. LEXIS 254

May 12, 1986

COUNSEL: David J. KillKelley, of Laconia, by brief and orally, for the plaintiffs.

Sulloway Hollis & Soden, of Concord (Edward M. Kaplan and Robert J. Lanney on the brief, and Mr. Kaplan orally), for the defendants.

JUDGES: King, C.J.  All concurred.

OPINION BY: KING

OPINION

[*104]   [**152]  The plaintiffs, John E. and Virginia A. Barnes, sued the New Hampshire Karting Association (NHKA), David E. Whitesell, Midway Raceway, Inc. d/b/a Bryar Motorsport Park (Bryar), the World Karting Association (WKA) and International Insurance Company (International) for damages arising from injuries sustained by John Barnes (Barnes, or the plaintiff) in an Enduro kart collision at Bryar in 1981.  Defendants Whitesell, NHKA, WKA and Bryar moved for summary judgment, claiming that the release executed by Barnes barred him from seeking recovery.  Following a hearing, the Master (Louie C. Elliott, Jr., Esq.) recommended that the defendants’ motion for summary judgment be granted as to all counts asserted by John Barnes against Whitesell, NHKA, WKA and Bryar.  The master recommended denial of the motion for summary judgment as to the [***2]  claims asserted by Virginia Barnes and ruled that the release did not bar claims against International.  The Superior Court (DiClerico, J.) approved the master’s recommendations.  We affirm.

On August 29, 1981, before entering the pit area at the Bryar Motorsport Park, John Barnes signed a “pit pass” containing the release at issue.  The pass comprised three parts; the participant was given the top portion, which stated “THE HOLDER ACKNOWLEDGES SIGNING WAIVER & RELEASE FROM LIABILITY BEFORE ENTERING TRACK AREA.” The middle section, which each participant was required to sign in order to receive a number for the race, provided:

“RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT

IN CONSIDERATION of being permitted to enter for any purpose any RESTRICTED AREA (herein defined as including but not limited to, the racing surface, pit areas, infield, burn out area, approach area, shut down area, and all walkways, concessions and other areas appurtenant to  [*105]  any area where any activity related to the event shall take place), or being permitted to compete, officiate, observe, work for, or for any purpose participate in any way in the event, EACH OF THE UNDERSIGNED [***3]  . . .

  1. HEREBY RELEASES, WAIVES, DISCHARGES AND COVENANTS NOT [**153] TO SUE . . . from all liability to the undersigned . . . for any and all loss or damage, and any claim or demands therefor on account of injury to the person or property or resulting in death of the undersigned, whether caused by the negligence of the releases [sic] or otherwise while the undersigned is in or upon the restricted area, and/or competing, officiating in, observing, working for, or for any purpose participating in the event;

. . .

  1. HEREBY ASSUMES FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR AND RISK OF BODILY INJURY, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGE due to the negligence of releasees or otherwise while in or upon the restricted area and/or while competing, officiating, observing, or working for or for any purpose participating in the event.

EACH OF THE UNDERSIGNED expressly acknowledges and agrees that the activities of the event are very dangerous and involve the risk of serious injury and/or death and/or property damage.  . . .

THE UNDERSIGNED HAS READ AND VOLUNTARILY SIGNS THE RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT, and further agrees that no oral representations, statements of inducements [sic]  [***4]  apart from the foregoing written agreement have been made.”

The master found that Barnes did not read the release portion before signing the pit pass on this occasion or on the previous occasions he had raced at the track. Nonetheless, Barnes admitted that he had read the top portion and understood that the document he was signing was “[s]ome sort of waiver or release.”

Barnes proceeded to take a practice run.  As he rounded a blind turn, his kart collided with a disabled kart on the track. No flagman was present to warn drivers of hazards out of view beyond that turn.  John Barnes and his wife, Virginia, sued the defendants for injuries and loss of consortium, respectively, alleging liability for ordinary and gross negligence.

[*106]  The question presented for review is whether the plaintiff’s causes of action are barred by the release and waiver of liability and indemnity agreement he signed.  Barnes contends that the release does not bar his claims because it violates public policy, is ambiguous, and does not apply to risks not inherent in the sport, which were not within the contemplation of the parties.  He further argues that the release does not cover gross negligence,  [***5]  and that it is void because it involves an illegal tying arrangement.

[HN1] Exculpatory agreements call into conflict two tenets of the law.  First, a party should be liable for the consequences of the negligent breach of a duty owed another.  As this court stated in a recent case involving an amusement ride accident, the owner of a place of public amusement “must exercise that degree of care which, under the same or similar circumstances, would be exercised by an ordinarily careful or prudent individual.” Siciliano v. Capitol City Shows, Inc., 124 N.H. 719, 730, 475 A.2d 19, 25 (1984). Failure to do so will result in liability for injuries proximately caused by the breach of duty.

Contraposed against this basic rule of tort law is the principle that,  [HN2] as a matter of efficiency and freedom of choice, parties should be able to contract freely about their affairs.  ABA Special Committee on the Tort Liability System, Towards a Jurisprudence of Injury: The Continuing Creation of a System of Substantive Justice in American Tort Law § 5-27 (Nov. 1984); Morrow v. Auto Championship Racing Ass’n, Inc., 8 Ill. App. 3d 682, 685, 291 N.E.2d 30, 32 (1972). Under this rule, parties may bargain [***6]  for various levels of risk and benefit as they see fit.  Thus, a plaintiff may agree in advance that the defendant has no legal duty toward him and thereby assume the risk of injury arising from the defendant’s conduct.  See W. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton, D. Owen,  [**154]  Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, at 480-81 (5th ed. 1984) (hereinafter cited as Prosser & Keeton).

In New Hampshire, exculpatory contracts are generally prohibited.   [HN3] A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power. Where the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service, the defendant cannot by contract rid itself of its obligation of reasonable care.  Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B, comment g (1965); Restatement of Contracts § 575 (1932); see Wessman v. Railroad, 84 N.H. 475, 152 A. 476 (1930).

[*107]  Courts have refused to uphold such agreements because one party is at an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power. Prosser [***7]  & Keeton, supra § 68, at 482.

“The disparity in bargaining power may arise from the defendant’s monopoly of a particular field of service, from the generality of use of contract clauses insisting upon assumption of risk by all those engaged in such a field, so that the plaintiff has no alternative possibility of obtaining the service without the clause; or it may arise from the exigencies of the needs of the plaintiff himself, which leave him no reasonable alternative to the acceptance of the offered terms.”

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B, comment j (1965).  Cf.  Cailler v. Humble Oil & Refining Co., 117 N.H. 915, 919, 379 A.2d 1253, 1256 (1977). Where there is a disparity in bargaining power, the plaintiff may not be deemed to have freely chosen to enter into the contract; accordingly, courts refuse to enforce the agreement.  See Shaer Shoe Corporation v. Granite State Alarm, Inc., 110 N.H. 132, 135, 262 A.2d 285, 287 (1970).

[HN4] Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position [***8]  would have known of the exculpatory provision.  Furthermore, the plaintiff’s claims must have been within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement.  Arnold v. Shawano County Agr. Society, 106 Wis. 2d 464, 470, 317 N.W.2d 161, 164 (1982), aff’d, 111 Wis. 2d 203, 330 N.W.2d 773 (1983). The parties need not, however, have contemplated the precise occurrence that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries.  They may adopt language to cover a broad range of accidents, as they did in this case by specifying injuries involving negligence on the part of the defendants.

Nonetheless, since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.  Prosser & Keeton, supra § 68, at 483-84.  As long as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.  Cf.  Commercial Union Assurance Co. v. Brown Co., 120 N.H. 620, 623, 419 A.2d 1111, 1113 (1980).

[*108]  As a preliminary [***9]  matter, we note that the plaintiff’s failure to read the entire release does not preclude enforcement of the agreement.  Barnes testified that he was in a line of people waiting to pay money and obtain numbers for the race and that the workers wanted to “get [them] on [their] way.” There was no evidence, however, that Barnes was denied the opportunity to read the body of the release.  “[H]aving failed to avail himself of that opportunity, yet gaining the admission to which his signature was a condition precedent, he cannot now complain that he had no notice of the import of the paper . . . he signed.” Lee v. Allied Sports Associates, Inc., 349 Mass. 544, 550, 209 N.E.2d 329, 332 (1965).

[**155]  With these principles in mind, we now consider whether the release bars the plaintiff’s claims in this case.  The first question is whether the release is contrary to public policy. The defendants do not fall within any of the commonly-recognized classes of persons charged with a duty of public service. The record indicates that the 1981 Enduro kart races at Bryar were organized by the NHKA, which is associated with the WKA and which manages its races in accordance with WKA [***10]  rules and regulations.  Although the defendants serve a segment of the public, we cannot say that Enduro kart racing is affected with a public interest.  Provision of racing facilities is not a service of great importance to the public, nor is racing a matter of practical necessity.  Winterstein v. Wilcom, 16 Md. App. 130, 138, 293 A.2d 821, 825 (1972).

Moreover, there was no substantial disparity in bargaining power among the parties, despite the fact that Barnes was required to sign the release in order to use the racetrack. The plaintiff was under no physical or economic compulsion to sign the release.  Since the defendants’ service is not an essential one, the defendants had no advantage of bargaining strength over Barnes or others who sought to participate in Enduro kart racing. Cailler, 117 N.H. at 919, 379 A.2d at 1256; Schlessman v. Henson, 83 Ill. 2d 82, 86-87, 413 N.E.2d 1252, 1254 (1980). Barnes wished to compete and voluntarily agreed not to hold others liable for his injuries.  Hence, we conclude that the release was not barred by public policy and may be upheld.

The plaintiff cites a number of cases from other jurisdictions that hold on public policy grounds [***11]  that an exculpatory agreement does not release defendants from liability for gross negligence. These cases are inapposite because New Hampshire law does not distinguish causes of action based on ordinary and gross negligence. “[T]he doctrine of definitive degrees of negligence is not recognized as a part of our common law.  . . .” Lee v. Chamberlin, 84 N.H. 182, 188,  [*109]  148 A. 466, 469 (1929). The plaintiff advances no reasons for abandoning this rule and we decline to create an exception to allow him to pursue his claims of gross negligence.

We now examine the language of the release to determine the extent of its coverage.  Barnes contends that the accident did not occur in a “restricted area” because, although he was on the racing surface, the area did not become restricted until numbers were given and racing had begun, and he was merely taking a practice lap at the time of the accident.  In interpreting this contract, we will give language used by the parties its common meaning, Murphy v. Doll-Mar, Inc., 120 N.H. 610, 611-12, 419 A.2d 1106, 1108 (1980), and will give the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.  [***12]  Kilroe v. Troast, 117 N.H. 598, 601, 376 A.2d 131, 133 (1977).

The first paragraph of the release states that the release is given “IN CONSIDERATION of being permitted to enter for any purpose any RESTRICTED AREA . . . or being permitted to compete . . . or for any purpose participate in any way in the event . . . .” The agreement defines “restricted area” as including “the racing surface, pit areas, infield, burn out area, approach area, shut down area, and all walkways, concessions and other areas appurtenant to any area where any activity related to the event shall take place.” Finally, the agreement states that the defendants are released “from all liability to the undersigned . . . whether caused by the negligence of the releases [sic] or otherwise while the undersigned is in or upon the restricted area, and/or competing . . . or for any purpose participating in the event.”

We find that participation in practice laps on the racing surface comes within the terms of the release.  The restricted areas are defined in terms of physical spaces, not in terms of function, and the reference to “enter[ing] for any purpose” contemplates that the racing surface is a restricted area [***13]   [**156]  during practice runs and during the actual race.  Although the plaintiff testified that he had practiced on occasion without signing a release, he signed the release prior to taking a practice lap on the day in question.  One can contemplate that racers are exposed to a variety of hazards while in the racing arena regardless of whether the actual race is taking place.  We believe that the practice run taken by Barnes in preparation for the race later that day may reasonably be construed as part of “participat[ion] in the event.” We therefore uphold the master’s conclusion that the language of the agreement was not ambiguous and that the release applied to practice laps.

[*110]  Barnes contends that the release is unenforceable because it involves an illegal tying arrangement. He asserts that, in violation of RSA 417:4, XIII, the pit pass and certain insurance coverage were offered at a single price, without an option to take one “product” and not the other.   [HN5] RSA 417:4, XIII provides that it is an unfair method of competition and an unfair and deceptive act and practice in the business of insurance to:

“Arrang[e] or participat[e] in any plan to offer [***14]  or effect in this state as an inducement to the purchase or rental by the public of any property or services, any insurance for which there is no separate charge to the insured.  . . .”

Although it appears that no separate charge was made for the insurance, we find that the insurance was not offered as an inducement to the purchase of the pit pass or the use of the Bryar Motorsport Park.

Affirmed.

 


Under Indiana’s law, you cannot sue based on a product liability claim for what is actually a service. Meaning Wind tunnels and Climbing Walls provides a service in Indiana, they are not products sold to the public.

Product liability claims are difficult to defend against because they have fewer or more limited defenses. Product Liability claims also award more damages than simple negligence claims. Consequently, if you provide a service and thus are not subject to a product liability claim your risk, and exposures are much lower.

That issue saved the defendant in this case because the release used by the defendant was written poorly and did not protect the defendant from the claims.

Marsh v. Dixon, 707 N.E.2d 998; 1999 Ind. App. LEXIS 372; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P15, 479

State: Indiana, Court of Appeals of Indiana, Fifth District

Plaintiff: Jason C. Marsh and Rhonda Marsh

Defendant: Kirk Dixon, Dyna Soar Aerobatics, Inc.,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence (or gross negligence) and product liability

Defendant Defenses: Release and the Indiana Product Liability statute

Holding: for the plaintiff on the release and the defendant on the product liability claim.

Year: 1999

The plaintiff paid to ride in the defendant’s wind tunnel. The wind tunnel was owned by Dyna Soar Aerobatics, Inc., which was owned by Kirk Dixon. Kirk Dixon was the sole owner and officer of Dyna Soar, Inc.

Before riding the plaintiff was told when turned on he would soar 3-4 feet upward in the air. The plaintiff also signed a release before riding the wind tunnel. When the wind tunnel was turned on he shot 15’ in the air and broke his ankle when he landed.

The plaintiff sued for negligence and product liability claims. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the release, and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The first issue the court tackled was a procedural issue. The plaintiff sued for gross negligence and not simple negligence. The defendant argued that because they did not plead negligence and appealed a negligence claim and plead gross negligence but did not appeal a gross negligence claim they should be stopped from arguing a negligence claim of any type.

However, the court found through various arguments that those issues were moot and not at issue.

The next argument was the plaintiff’s claim the release was not sufficient under Indiana’s law to prevent a negligence claim. The court agreed.

Indiana generally supports releases, but requires the language of the release be sufficient to deny the claims being made.

It is well settled in Indiana that exculpatory agreements are not against public policy. Generally, parties are permitted to agree that a party owes no obligation of care for the benefit of another, and thus, shall not be liable for consequences that would otherwise be considered negligent. Id. In Powell, however, this court held that an exculpatory clause will not act to absolve the drafting party from liability unless it “specifically and explicitly refers to the negligence of the party seeking release from liability.”

The language in the release must clearly and unequivocally state what the release is preventing and who is being protected for those claims.  Meaning the release is void if it does not clearly and unequivocally states the release is to protect the defendant from the defendant’s negligence.

This rule is based on the principle that an agreement to release a party from its own negligence “clearly and unequivocally manifest a commitment by [the plaintiff], knowingly and willing [sic] made, to pay for damages occasioned by [the defendant’s] negligence.” We note, however, that an exculpatory clause not referring to the negligence of the releasee may act to bar liability for those damages incurred which are inherent in the nature of the activity, or, as Powell stated, the exculpatory clause is void only to the extent it purports to release a defendant from liability caused by its own negligence. The requirement of specificity is only necessary when the risk of harm is a latent danger, i.e. the defendant’s own negligence.

The release stated the plaintiff “fully discharged and released” the defendant from all “liability, claims, demands, actions, and causes of action.” Nowhere did it state the release, released D S from its own negligence. Nor would the court interpret the language of the release to cover that. The specific language was needed for the release to work.

We conclude that the release is not sufficient to release Dyna-Soar because the release did not specifically and explicitly refer the Dyna-Soar’s “own negligence.” While this exculpatory clause may act to bar some types of liability, it cannot act to bar liability arising from Dyna Soar’s own negligence. Therefore, the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment in favor of Dyna Soar based on the release.

The next issue was the product liability claim. The Indiana Products Liability Act defines a manufacturer as the seller of a product, “a person engaged in the business of selling or leasing a product for resale, use, or consumption.”

Ind. Code § 33-1-1.5-2(5). 2 A product is defined as follows:

Product” means any item or good that is personalty at the time it is conveyed by the seller to another party. It does not apply to a transaction that, by its nature, involves wholly or predominantly the sale of a service rather than a product.

Personality is another name for something owned that is not attached to the land.

The plaintiff argued that the defendant created a machine, which was a product and sold what the machine did. However, the court found that what the plaintiff bought was a service.

A service is not subject to the Indian Product Liability Act.

The case was sent back to the trial court to go forward on the negligence claim of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

Simply put this lawsuit is based on a poorly written release. I repeat myself, but have someone who understands you and your business or program write a release based upon the law where the release will be applied.

Let me put it another way. Unless you wrote a check or paid money for your release, you would probably end up in court. Attorneys provide free releases not as a service, but knowing there are flaws in the document that will allow them to make a lot more money defending against the lawsuit.

If you got your release from a competitor, how do you know, the competitor gave you a good release? If you got your release from the Internet, how do you know it is for your activity, in your state and covers your law?

And if you think, it is not worth your money; figure that you will lose thirty (30) days of work the first year you are sued, 15-30 days each year until trial and probably 45-days the year of the trial. A good release can keep you at work and out of depositions and courtrooms.

The defendant got lucky on the product’s liability claim. Most states have a broader definition of a product. Put in the release that you are providing a service not selling a product if you have any doubts.

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

clip_image002What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Marsh v. Dixon, 707 N.E.2d 998; 1999 Ind. App. LEXIS 372; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P15,479

Marsh v. Dixon, 707 N.E.2d 998; 1999 Ind. App. LEXIS 372; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P15,479

Jason C. Marsh and Rhonda Marsh, Appellant-Plaintiffs, vs. Kirk Dixon, Dyna Soar Aerobatics, Inc., Appellee-Defendants.

No. 49A05-9803-CV-146

COURT OF APPEALS OF INDIANA, FIFTH DISTRICT

707 N.E.2d 998; 1999 Ind. App. LEXIS 372; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P15,479

March 12, 1999, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] APPEAL FROM THE MARION SUPERIOR COURT. The Honorable Richard H. Huston, Judge. Cause No. 49D10-9610-CT-1378.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed in part and reversed in part.

COUNSEL: For APPELLANT: JAMES F. LUDLOW, Indianapolis, Indiana.

For APPELLEE: MICHAEL A. ASPY, Landau, Omahana & Kopka, Carmel, Indiana.

JUDGES: ROBB, Judge. BAKER, J., and GARRARD, J., concur.

OPINION BY: ROBB

OPINION

[*999] OPINION

ROBB, Judge

Case Summary

Appellants-Plaintiffs, Jason C. Marsh and Rhonda Marsh (collectively referred to as “Marsh”), appeal the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Appellees, Kirk Dixon and Dyna Soar Aerobatics, Inc. (collectively referred to as “Dyna Soar”) on Marsh’s gross negligence and products liability claim. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

Issues

Marsh raises two issues for our review which we restate as:

I. Whether the trial court erred by entering summary judgment in favor of Dyna Soar when it determined that the release signed by Marsh was valid; and

II. Whether the trial court erred by entering summary judgment in favor of Dyna Soar when it determined that the facts of this case do not support a products liability claim.

Facts and Procedural [**2] History

The facts most favorable to the judgment show that on October 9, 1994, Marsh decided to ride in a wind tunnel (“Dyna Soar Machine”) constructed by Kirk Dixon (“Dixon”) for Dyna Soar Aerobatics, Inc. Dixon is the sole officer of this company. The Dyna Soar Ride simulates the experience of free-fall by projecting columns of air through a cable trampoline upon which patrons of the ride levitate. Marsh signed a release which discharged Dyna Soar, its director, and its employees from liability in the event of an accident. While on the Dyna Soar ride, Marsh fell off of a column of air and fractured his ankle. Marsh sued Dyna Soar, bringing both a negligence claim and a products liability claim. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Dyna Soar finding that “the facts do not support a products liability claim or a misrepresentation claim.” (R. 159). This appeal ensued.

Discussion and Decision

Before we reach Marsh’s first issue, we note that Dyna Soar argues in their brief that Marsh waives the issue regarding the validity of the release for two reasons. First, Dyna Soar argues that Marsh failed to make a negligence claim in his original complaint. In [**3] his original complaint, Marsh filed a claim under a gross negligence theory. Second, Marsh failed to raise the same issue in his Motion to Correct Errors.

First, we find that Dyna Soar has waived their argument regarding the fact that Marsh made a gross negligence claim rather than a negligence claim. In their brief, they cite no cases and outline no argument developing this position. [HN1] Ind. Appellate Rule 8.3 requires Dyna Soar to support each contention with an argument, including citations to the authorities, statutes, and record for support. App.R. 8.3(A)(7); Burnett v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 690 N.E.2d 747, 749 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998). Failure of a party to [*1000] present a cogent argument in his or her brief is considered a waiver of that issue. Id.

Second, we conclude that a party does not waive their right to appeal a claim by omitting the same from its Motion to Correct Errors. Marsh raised two issues in its Motion to Correct Errors. He argued that he presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Dyna Soar was grossly negligent, and he argued that he had a viable products liability claim. He did not raise the issue of whether the release [**4] was valid. Indiana Trial Rule 59(A) provides that only two issues must be addressed in a Motion to Correct Errors before they may be appealed to this court: newly discovered material evidence and claims that a jury verdict is excessive or inadequate. T.R. 59(A)(1) and (2). The trial rule states that any other issues that are “appropriately preserved during trial may be initially addressed in the appellate brief.” Id. Trial Rule 59(D) states that a Motion to Correct Errors “need only address those errors found in Trial Rule 59(A)(1) and (2). Id. Based on the plain language of Trial Rule 59, therefore, we conclude that [HN2] a party does not waive its right to appeal a trial court’s decision if it fails to raise an issue in its Motion to Correct Errors which was properly preserved at trial. Dyna Soar’s claims to the contrary are based on cases referring to Trial Rule 59 before it was amended. Accordingly, we conclude that the following issue is properly before this court.

I.

Marsh argues that the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment on his negligence claim. In particular, he argues that the release he signed exculpating Dyna Soar was not sufficient to release [**5] Dyna Soar for its own negligence. We agree.

[HN3] It is well settled in Indiana that exculpatory agreements are not against public policy. Powell v. American Health Fitness Center, 694 N.E.2d 757, 760 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998). Generally, parties are permitted to agree that a party owes no obligation of care for the benefit of another, and thus, shall not be liable for consequences that would otherwise be considered negligent. Id. In Powell, however, this court held that an exculpatory clause will not act to absolve the drafting party from liability unless it “specifically and explicitly refers to the negligence of the party seeking release from liability.” 694 N.E.2d at 761. In Powell, the clause at issue stated that Powell released the defendant “from ‘any damages’ and placed the responsibility on Powell for ‘any injuries, damages or losses.” Id. The Powell court concluded:

As a matter of law, the exculpatory clause did not release [the defendant] from liability resulting from injuries she sustained while on its premises that were caused by its alleged negligence. Therefore, the exculpatory clause is void to the extent it purported to release [the defendant] from [**6] liability caused by its own negligence.

694 N.E.2d at 761-62 (emphasis added). This rule is based on the principle that an agreement to release a party from its own negligence “clearly and unequivocally manifest a commitment by [the plaintiff], knowingly and willing [sic] made, to pay for damages occasioned by [the defendant’s] negligence.” Indiana State Highway Commission v. Thomas, 169 Ind. App. 13, 346 N.E.2d 252, 260 (Ind. Ct. App. 1976) (emphasis in original). We note, however, that [HN4] an exculpatory clause not referring to the negligence of the releasee may act to bar liability for those damages incurred which are inherent in the nature of the activity, or, as Powell stated, the exculpatory clause is void only to the extent it purports to release a defendant from liability caused by its own negligence. See Powell, 694 N.E.2d at 761-62. The requirement of specificity is only necessary when the risk of harm is a latent danger, i.e. the defendant’s own negligence. See 694 N.E.2d at 761.

In this case, we are presented with a similar exculpatory clause as in Powell. The release states in pertinent part:

I hereby fully and forever discharge and release [**7] . . . Dyna-Soar Aerobatics, Inc. and all of the partners, directors, officers, employees, and agents for the aforementioned companies from any and all liability, claims, demands, actions, and causes of action whatsoever arising out of any damages, [*1001] both in law and in equity, in any way resulting from personal injuries, conscious suffering, death or property damage sustained while flying Dyna-Soar.

(R. 275). Obviously, the release fails to specifically and explicitly refer to Dyna Soar’s own negligence. The injury sustained by Marsh was not allegedly derived from a risk which was inherent in the nature of the ride. Dixon instructed Marsh that he would only levitate three to four feet from the ground. When the ride started, however, Marsh was allegedly shot fifteen feet in the air and subsequently dropped to the ground. Such a risk is not inherent in the nature of a wind tunnel ride. Thus, if, indeed, the accident occurred as Marsh describes, the injury must have resulted from the negligence of Dyna-Soar. We conclude that the release is not sufficient to release Dyna-Soar because the release did not specifically and explicitly refer the Dyna-Soar’s “own negligence.” While this [**8] exculpatory clause may act to bar some types of liability, it cannot act to bar liability arising from Dyna Soar’s own negligence. Therefore, the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment in favor of Dyna Soar based on the release.

Dyna Soar argues that the Powell decision should not be applied retroactively. In support of this argument, Dyna Soar cites Sink & Edwards, Inc. v. Huber, Hunt & Nichols, Inc., 458 N.E.2d 291 (Ind. Ct. App. 1984). In Sink, the court held that ” [HN5] pronouncements of common law made in rendering judicial opinions of civil cases have retroactive effect unless such pronouncements impair contracts made or vested rights acquired in reliance on an earlier decision.” Id. at 295 (emphasis added). Dyna Soar argues that Powell changed the common law, and therefore, it should not apply to exculpatory agreements made prior to said decision. We disagree. Before the Powell decision, Indiana courts had never decided whether an exculpatory clause required specific language. In fact, in Powell, this court was careful to distinguish other cases which have upheld exculpatory clauses similar to the clause used by Dyna Soar:

Although [**9] we have upheld exculpatory clauses which have used similar language, those cases can be distinguished. In Shumate [v. Lycan, 675 N.E.2d 749 (Ind.Ct.App.1997), trans. denied] and Terry v. Indiana State University, 666 N.E.2d 87 (Ind.Ct.App.1996), the nonspecificity of the language in the exculpatory clauses was not put at issue nor addressed. In Marshall [v. Blue Springs Corp., 641 N.E.2d 92 (Ind.Ct.App.1994)], the focus of the appeal was that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the releases were signed “willingly” or under economic or other compulsion. The nonspecificity of the language used to effect release for the defendant’s own negligence was not presented as an issue nor addressed. In LaFrenz [v. Lake Cty. Fair Bd., 172 Ind. App. 389, 360 N.E.2d 605 (1977)], we noted “the form and language of the agreement explicitly refers to the appellees’ [party released] negligence.” Therefore, had the issue been raised, the language contained the specific and explicit reference to negligence we now hold to be necessary.

Powell, 694 N.E.2d at 762 (citations omitted). From the language of the Powell decision itself, we [**10] conclude that Powell did not change Indiana common law. Thus, Dyna Soar can not show that they relied on earlier Indiana decisions when drafting its exculpatory agreement.

II.

Marsh also argues that the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment on his products liability claim. In particular, he argues that the Dyna Soar machine is a product for purposes of the Indiana Products Liability Act. 1 We disagree.

1 The Indiana Products Liability was codified at Ind. Code § 33-1-1.5-1 et seq. Since the inception of this litigation, however, the Act has been recodified at Ind. Code § 34-20-1-1 et seq. Hereinafter, we shall refer to the Indiana Products Liability Act using its former citation.

[HN6] In order to be subject to liability under the Indiana Products Liability Act, Dyna Soar must be defined as the seller of a product. The Act defines a seller as “a person engaged in the business of selling or leasing a product for resale, use, or consumption.” [*1002] Ind. Code § 33-1-1.5-2(5). 2 A product [**11] is defined as follows:

” [HN7] Product” means any item or good that is personalty at the time it is conveyed by the seller to another party. It does not apply to a transaction that, by its nature, involves wholly or predominantly the sale of a service rather than a product.

Ind. Code § 33-1-1.5-2(6). 3 Marsh claims that Dixon created a machine, a product, and provided a service. He argues that his claim should not be barred just because a service was provided in this case. In support of his argument, he points this court to Ferguson v. Modern Farm Systems, Inc., 555 N.E.2d 1379 (Ind. Ct. App. 1990). In Ferguson, a worker fell off of a ladder that was attached to a grain bin. The plaintiffs sued the manufacturers of the grain bin and its component parts under a products liability theory. In determining that the Indiana Products Liability Act applied to the plaintiffs’ claims, the Ferguson court stated: “the legislature did not contemplate a distinction between movable and nonmovable property, but rather sought to exclude transactions which relate primarily to the act of providing a service, such as that provided by an accountant, attorney, or physician.” 555 N.E.2d at 1384-85. [**12] Marsh claims that no such service was provided in his case. We do not find Ferguson dispositive. The crucial issue in Ferguson concerned whether the real estate improvement statute of limitations or the products liability statute of limitations applied to the plaintiffs’ products liability claim. Thus, the Ferguson court discussed whether property affixed to real estate constitutes a product. Such is not the issue in the present case.

2 See now Ind. Code § 34-6-2-136

3 See now Ind. Code § 34-6-2-114

We find Hill v. Rieth-Riley Const. Co., Inc., 670 N.E.2d 940 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996) more applicable to the set of facts presented here. In Hill, the defendants removed and reset guardrails to facilitate the resurfacing of U.S. 31. The plaintiff struck one of these guardrails and brought suit against the defendants under the Indiana Products Liability Act. This court held that the contract between the Indiana Department of Transportation and the plaintiffs was predominantly a contract for [**13] services. The Hill court stated: “even if it were true that 31 new concrete plugs were installed and some rusted rails replaced, the [plaintiffs] have presented no evidence that this contract was not “for the most part” about the service of resurfacing the roadway.” 670 N.E.2d at 943. In this case, the transaction between Marsh and Dyna Soar wholly involved a service. By purchasing a ticket from Dyna Soar, Marsh received the limited right to ride the Dyna Soar machine. He did not receive an interest in any property. In fact, Dyna Soar retained all rights to operate and control the machine in question. We conclude that the trial court did not err by entering summary judgment against Marsh on his products liability claim.

Affirmed in part and reversed in part.

BAKER, J., and GARRARD, J., concur.