This is a confusing case concerning whether or not a person is an intendent contractor or employee, has the right to sue the employer and whether the insurance company for the employer must provide coverage because of the confusion

This is a long and complicated case because know one understood what was needed and no one read their insurance policy.

Atain Specialty Ins Co v Ne Mountain Guiding LLC D NJ 2020

State: New Jersey, US District Court for the District of New Jersey

Plaintiff: Atain Specialty Insurance Co.

Defendant: Northeast Mountain Guiding, LLC, et al.,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Mostly for the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

An employee or independent contractor was hurt, maybe working, and sued his employer over his injuries. The insurance company for the employer, mountain guiding company, denied coverage because he was not an employee and they did not provide coverage for independent contractors.

This case is still a mess, but the important part is make sure you are honest on your insurance applications and make sure you know what you are buying when you purchase a policy.

Facts

Vulpis is the founder and sole member of NMG, a limited liability company in the outdoor adventure and education industry Vulpis has significant training and experience, as well as multiple certifications, in the field in which NMG operates. Enberg provided administrative assistance to NMG, developed a search and rescue training for NMG to provide to clients, and served as a mountaineering guide for NMG. Manchester performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide.

Donald Pachner is the sole member of Pachner & Associates, LLC and Pachner Risk Management, LLC. Donald Pachner and Pachner & Associates, LLC possess insurance broker licenses under New Jersey law.

Vulpis retained Pachner to obtain general commercial liability insurance for NMG. As part of this process, Pachner and Vulpis worked together to fill out an application (the “Application”) for insurance. The Application required Vulpis to estimate NMG’s gross revenues for the coming year. On Pachner’s advice, Vulpis checked the “No” box when answering the Application’s question concerning whether NMG “hire[s] Concessionaires, Independent Contractors, or Subcontractors.” As part of the Application, Vulpis initialed next to a requirement NMG (1) obtain from all participants an Atain-approved waiver of liability form, and (2) maintain those forms for three years. In response to NMG’s Application, Atain issued an insurance quote (the “Quote”), which Vulpis reviewed with Pachner. Among other things, the Quote contains a summary of several of the terms the Policy would contain

Pachner procured insurance (the “Policy”) from Atain for NMG. The Policy limits coverage to “GUIDED MOUNTAINEERING INCLUDING TOP ROPE CLIMBING & RAPPELLING; GUIDED KAYAK TRIPS; GUIDED SNOWSHOEING; GUIDED HIKING/BACKPACKING INCLUDING CAMPING.” The Policy excludes coverage for injuries suffered “in the course of employment by or service to” NMG.

On November 21, 2015, Manchester suffered an injury (the “Injury”) while using certain equipment (the “Equipment”) to engage in a certain activity (the “Activity”). Much of the dispute in this case centers on the proper characterization of the Activity and the Equipment. The essence of the Activity is that the participant uses the Equipment to move between two points. The evidence conflicts concerning whether the Equipment is a “Tyrolean Traverse” or a “Clifftop Zipline.” Ziplines were derived from Tyrolean Traverses, but the differences are too fine for untrained individuals to differentiate between the two.

On November 21, 2015, three NMG guides—Christy DeMarco, Enberg, and Vulpis—went to Allamuchy State Park to test the Equipment NMG expected to offer in the future for its customers. Vulpis and the other three guides set up the Equipment. Manchester was present at the time, and engaged in the Activity by traveling on the Equipment. While engaged in the Activity, Manchester suffered the Injury.

Following his Injury, Manchester filed a state court negligence action against Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG. NMG made a claim for coverage with Pachner and Atain. When reporting the claim to Atain, Pachner described Manchester as an independent contractor for NMG.

Atain filed this coverage action against its Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG, and also joined Manchester as a defendant. Atain seeks declaratory judgments against Vulpis, Enberg, NMG, and Manchester, authorizing Atain to disclaim coverage Manchester’s Injury. Additionally, Atain seeks a declaratory judgment voiding the Policy under common law rescission principles and the New Jersey Insurance Fraud Prevention Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:33A-1 et seq.

Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG brought a third-party action against NMG’s insurance broker Pachner, alleging Pachner’s negligence caused any failure of coverage by Atain. Manchester brought a similar action against Pachner.

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

The is the second of two decisions so far in this case, and it is still on going. This decision is based on multiple motions to dismiss, and motions for summary judgment filed by everyone.

I’m not even going to cover every issue involved in this order, just a few to make some points.

Another issue is the language of mountaineering, rock climbing and guiding is not totally understood by the court, so in some cases the decisions are not made for that reason. That can be because the court was not made away of the issues or the attempt to educate the court failed on the part of the parties.

First Issue: The activity giving rise to the injury is not covered.

The first issue is whether the activity giving rise to the injury is one that is covered under the insurance policy. The injured employee/contractor was not on the trip to learn; he just tagged along. He had not paid to attend the training and was not required to be there.

Because the insurance policy is unclear as to how it is interpreting what occurred, and the court is unclear on what relationship employee/contractor had while on the trip, the court determined it could not decide the issues on a motion for summary judgement.

Second Issue: Worker’s comp exclusion

In every general liability policy, there is an exclusion, no coverage for claims that should be insured by worker’s compensation. In this case that exclusion was called Employer’s Liability Exclusion. Employees in all states must be covered by worker’s compensation for any injury they receive while on the job. Since this person was claiming, in some aspects of the case, to be an employee, the general liability insurance company based on this exclusion should not have to pay for the damages.

The court refused to rule on this saying several of the statements made by the injured employee/contractor indicate he was not an employee.

Manchester was a participant acting outside the scope of his NMG employment at the time of his Injury. Manchester testified he had come to participate in the Activity because he “thought it would be fun.” Vulpis testified similarly: Manchester “came just to travel along the Tyrolean traverse. He wanted to try it out.” Manchester testified he never informed NMG he would be attending the Activity and further testified NMG did not know he would be attending. Manchester did not consider himself an employee or representative of Vulpis or Enberg at the time of the Injury.

At the same time, the court found several issues that indicated the injured employee/contractor was an employee at the time of his injury.

Most importantly, Manchester acknowledged he performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide. Vulpis and Manchester both testified Manchester came to be at Allamuchy State Park on the date of his Injury because Vulpis posted an invitation to a Facebook group whose members consisted only of NMG guides and staff Enberg testified although Manchester was not involved in setting up the Equipment and mostly observed others do so, Manchester did help Enberg “pull tension once, so just pull on a rope for me.” Enberg also testified, “[A]s far as I know, we just there all volunteering and testing the system.”

Until a jury determines the legal classification for the injured plaintiff, what insurance coverage is available cannot be decided.

Issue three: recission of the policy

Recission of an insurance policy is a rarely seen legal argument. It is granted when there is proof of fraud when entering into the contract. When there is recission of a policy, the court places the parties back in the position they were before the policy was issued. The insured gets a full refund, and the insurance company does not have to pay a claim.

“In the field of insurance, rescission has long been recognized as an available and necessary remedy to combat fraudulent behavior by an insured” It is settled that a material factual misrepresentation made in an application for insurance may justify rescission [of the resulting insurance policy] if the insurer relied upon it to determine whether or not to issue the policy” Rescission voids the [insurance policy] ab initio, meaning that it is considered ‘null from the beginning’ and treated as if it does not exist for any purpose.”

Here the insurance company was requesting recission of the policy because of fraudulent misrepresentation.

Rescission of an insurance policy for fraudulent misrepresentation is appropriate if four conditions are satisfied: (1) the applicant must make an “untruthful” representation to the insurer, (2) the representation must be “material to the particular risk assumed by the insurer,” (3) the insurer must “actually and reasonably rel[y] upon [the representation] in the issuance of the policy,” and (4) if the “insurance application . . . calls for subjective information,” then “the insured [must] kn[o]w that the information was false when completing the application.”

Again, the court would not rule on this motion because recission takes more than a mere oversight or honest mistake. It must be based on a specific intentional act or acts to defraud the insurance company. Here the answers placed on the policy were done so with the help of the insurance agent. And the court was not sure the acts of the insured were intentional. The other issue was, did the insurance agent supply the answers or where the answers supplied by the insured.

Fourth Issue: Projected Revenues

Most insurance policies are issued based on the projected revenues of the company. In rare instances, some outdoor recreation policies are issued based on expected user days. User days are used when it is easy to verify the number of user’s days, as in a whitewater rafting company working on river controlled by a federal land management agency which is also tracking user days. User days are the number or days a client is on the river. A half day counts as a full user day.

So, an insurance policy application has a place for the applicant to enter an estimate of the projected revenues for the season or year. Your premium is based on that number. When you sign the application, in most cases, you are also agreeing to be audited to make sure the number you put on the application is what your sales or income is. In this case, those projections were lower than the prior year.

Atain argues the projected amount listed on the Application was substantially lower than NMG’s actual revenue for the year preceding the Application and disproportionately less than the revenue NMG actually received in the Policy year.

The court rejected this argument because the projection was based on several factors that made the insured believe that his income was going to be lower that year.

First, Vulpis was divorcing his spouse, which he believed would impact NMG’s ability to remain in business. Second, Vulpis had hired new guides, and expected revenues would be lower while his new guides gained experience. Third, “a chronic, life-threatening auto-immune disease” hospitalized Vulpis shortly before he filed the Application, and he was “not sure [he] would live through” the year, “much less have any revenues in NMG.” Even taking those factors into account, the revenue Vulpis projected on the Application was approximately equal to NMG’s annual revenue two years prior to the Application, and was slightly lower than the average of the revenue for the preceding three years. Taking these facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine NMG did not knowingly misrepresent its projected income.

Fifth Issue: use of independent contractors

The outfitter specifically stated on the insurance application that he did not use sub-contractors or independent contractors. Then after the accident it came to light that some people working for the outfitter might be independent contractors.

The court did not accept this motion because it was unclear what the people working for the outfitter were. Also, the outfitter had been told by the insurance agent to say no on the application about sub-contractors or independent contractors.

You had two conflicting issues that prevented the appellate court from deciding this issue. The first was further complicated because the court felt the insurance did not understand what an independent contractor was.

Sixth Issue: Knowing Misrepresentation

The insurance company argued that the policy should be rescinded because the outfitter made knowing misrepresentations, about whether or not he was hiring independent contractors or used only employees.

The court through this motion because it felt the outfitter really did not know the difference.

Given the issue’s complexity, the Court is not surprised Vulpis’s testimony suggests he had genuine difficulty distinguishing between employees and independent contractors. Vulpis’s testimony concerning his thinking at the time demonstrates his confusion. For instance, Vulpis described his guides as “1099 employees,” something of a misnomer. When completing the Application, Vulpis discussed how to answer the “independent contractor” question with Donald Pachner, whose less-than-illuminating explanation was to describe the meaning of independent contractor as a “gray area Even when answering interrogatories in this case—presumably with the assistance of counsel—Vulpis initially described his guides as independent contractors, then amended his answer to strike that characterization. The Application does not instruct the applicant on the meaning of “independent contractor,” nor does it suggest which (if any) of the legal tests an applicant should apply—missing an opportunity to dispel Vulpis’s confusion.

The court stated:

The variety of tests creates a “paradoxical truth that even when the same person performs the same acts at the same time in the same place under the same conditions,” the person “may be considered an employee for one purpose and an independent contractor for another.”

The court recognized the issue that whether or not a person working for you is an independent contractor or not is not only confusing and constantly litigated by the courts, not necessarily something a non-lawyer can understand.

Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine Vulpis merely failed to appreciate every nuance of the difference between employees and independent contractors when he wrote on the Application NMG did not use independent contractors or subcontractors. Such a misunderstanding would constitute an “honest mistake,” not a “lie” or a “willful” falsification.

Seventh Issue: Failure to Maintain Signed Liability Waivers

This next issue is a two-factor issue. If the employee/contractor signed a release, he was probably not an employee and was either a contractor or guest. A release was a factor required by the insurance company. If a release was signed it would stop the lawsuit by the injured employee/contractor. A release or liability waiver signed by all participants was a condition of coverage under the policy.

If there was no release signed, then the injured employee/contractor was probably an employee and covered by Worker’s Compensation. Either way, a signed release or no release provided an out for the insurance company.

New Jersey law permits an insurer to escape liability for its obligations under an insurance policy if the insured breaches a condition of coverage, but only if the insurance carrier suffers appreciable prejudice from the breach.

There is a two-factor test under New Jersey law the insurance company must meet to win on a coverage condition argument.

“[F]irst, ‘whether substantial rights have been irretrievably lost’ as a result of the insured’s breach, and second, ‘the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim’ had there been no breach.”

Since the insurance company wrote the policy, the insurance company has the burden of proving both factors of the test.

The motion for summary judgment was denied because the outfitter said that he misplaced the waiver. An even bigger reason for not granting the motion was:

Second, even if Atain cannot obtain Manchester’s waiver in time to rely on the waiver against Manchester in the underlying state court litigation, the absence of Manchester’s waiver will not necessarily reduce “the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim.”

The court is probably correct in this statement because the injured guide had signed several releases previously. There was just not one for the day of the accident.

NMG has provided Atain with Manchester’s signed acknowledgment of receipt of NMG’s employee handbook, which contains a waiver form. Moreover, while Vulpis acknowledged he could not locate the forms, Vulpis testified Manchester had previously signed a waiver (1) when Manchester initially became was a customer of NMG prior to serving as a guide, and (2) for the year 2015, when Manchester served as a guide. The only contrary evidence is Manchester did not sign a waiver on the day of the Injury. Atain points to no evidence contradicting Vulpis’s testimony concerning Manchester previously signing a waiver before the day of the Injury. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether NMG’s loss of Manchester’s waiver will appreciably prejudice Atain’s defense of Manchester’s underlying state court litigation.

At this point, the case is scheduled to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

1.    I’ve said dozens of times, every person on a trip has to be identified as either an employee or a participant. If the person is an employee, they have to be listed on the worker’s compensation insurance. Everyone else, paying customer, friend, independent contractor or your mother-in-law must sign a release.

2.    Independent contractors are a liability mess. Many companies attempt to use independent contractors because they believe it saves them state and federal taxes. It might. And it can be a good way to get a company started for the first several months. However, the issue of independent contractors has more traps than value.

There are no liability savings. As the outfitter or company, you are liable for any incident no matter if the person who caused the issues is an employee or independent contractor. If nothing else, you are liable for hiring an independent contractor who failed to do their job properly.

First contractors, especially in the outdoor industry, don’t have health insurance. So many, if injured, have no way to pay for their medical bills. Consequently, using independent contracts increases your chances of having a lawsuit, just like this one, because an independent contractor needs money to pay his or her medical bills and other bills when they can’t work.

On top of the other issues, proving someone is an independent contractor is very difficult. Many states have adopted the rule that says unless certain requirements are met, such a written contract, an independent contractor is an employee. An independent contractor has the right to show up at the job site at any time they want unless written differently in the contract. They should bring their own tools to work and have the freedom to make decisions. The only control the person hiring the contractor has over the independent contractor is to specify the job, the time frame, and how much they are going to pay for the job.

An even bigger issue for an employer is what is everyone else in the industry doing. If all of your competitors are using employees and not independent contractors, you face an insurmountable hurdle.

As the court stated:

Distinguishing independent contractors from employees is among the most contentiously litigated issues in courts today, arising in a host of different contexts, each with a different standard.

3.    UNDERSTAND your insurance application, do not lie on it. If there are issues or questions, then attach a supplemental letter to the broker or to the policy explaining the decisions or answers on the application.

4.    When you get your policy read it. You must know and understand all conditions of coverage. What must you do to make sure the policy covers you.

You also must know what you bought. Does the policy cover the activities that your company is doing? If in the summer you teach fishing at a pond and once in a while in the winter people ice skate on the same pond, you are more than a fishing guide and you better have coverage for ice skating.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

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Atain Specialty Ins. v. Ne. Mountain Guiding, LLC (D. N.J. 2020)

Atain Specialty Ins. v. Ne. Mountain Guiding, LLC (D. N.J. 2020)

ATAIN SPECIALTY INSURANCE CO. Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHEAST MOUNTAIN GUIDING, LLC, et al., Defendants.

Case No. 3:16-cv-05129-BRM-LHG

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

January 30, 2020

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

MARTINOTTI, DISTRICT JUDGE

Before this Court are Motions for Summary Judgment (ECF Nos. 70 & 73) filed by Plaintiff Atain Specialty Insurance Co. (“Atain”) and Third-Party Defendants Donald Pachner, Pachner & Associates, LLC, and Pachner Risk Management (collectively, “Pachner”). Defendant Michael Manchester (“Manchester”) opposes both motions. (ECF No. 80.) Defendants Northeast Mountain Guiding, LLC (“NMG”), Joseph Vulpis (“Vulpis”), and Bryan Enberg (“Enberg”) also oppose both motions. (ECF No. 86.) Pachner supports part and opposes part of Atain’s motion. (ECF No. 81.) Atain opposes part of Pachner’s motion and takes no position as to the remainder. (ECF No. 85.)

Having reviewed the parties’ submissions filed in connection with the motions and having declined to hear oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78(b), for the reasons set forth below and for good cause having been shown, Atain’s motion is DENIED and Pachner’s motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. Northeast Mountain Guiding and Its Guides

Vulpis is the founder and sole member of NMG, a limited liability company in the outdoor adventure and education industry. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 4.) Vulpis has significant training and experience, as well as multiple certifications, in the field in which NMG operates. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 5-7.) Enberg provided administrative assistance to NMG, developed a search and rescue training for NMG to provide to clients, and served as a mountaineering guide for NMG. (ECF No. 86-15 ¶ 3.) Manchester performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide. (ECF No. 70-8, at 16:6-20.)

B. Pachner Procures Insurance from Atain for Northeast Mountain Guiding

Donald Pachner is the sole member of Pachner & Associates, LLC and Pachner Risk Management, LLC. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 1.) Donald Pachner and Pachner & Associates, LLC possess insurance broker licenses under New Jersey law. (ECF No. 73-31, at 1-2.)

Vulpis retained Pachner to obtain general commercial liability insurance for NMG. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 7.) As part of this process, Pachner and Vulpis worked together to fill out an application (the “Application”) for insurance. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶¶ 8-10; ECF No. 73-33, at ATN000331-41.) The Application required Vulpis to estimate NMG’s gross revenues for the coming year. (ECF No. 73-33, at ATN000332.) On Pachner’s advice, Vulpis checked the “No” box when answering the Application’s question concerning whether NMG “hire[s] Concessionaires, Independent Contractors, or Subcontractors.” (ECF No. 73-33, at ATN 000334; ECF No. 73-12, at 221:11-222:11.) As part of the Application, Vulpis initialed next to a requirement NMG (1) obtain from all participants an Atain-approved waiver of liability form, and (2) maintain those forms for three years. (ECF No. 70-17, at ATN000339.) In response to NMG’s Application, Atain issued an insurance quote (the “Quote”), which Vulpis reviewed with Pachner. (ECF No. 72-1, at 233:24-234:23.) Among other things, the Quote contains a summary of several of the terms the Policy would contain. (ECF No. 73-37, at 2.)

Pachner procured insurance (the “Policy”) from Atain for NMG. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 12.) The Policy limits coverage to “GUIDED MOUNTAINEERING INCLUDING TOP ROPE CLIMBING & RAPPELLING; GUIDED KAYAK TRIPS; GUIDED SNOWSHOEING; GUIDED HIKING/BACKPACKING INCLUDING CAMPING.” (ECF No. 86-6, at Atain 47.) The Policy excludes coverage for injuries suffered “in the course of employment by or service to” NMG. (ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000402.)

C. Manchester’s Injury

On November 21, 2015, Manchester suffered an injury (the “Injury”) while using certain equipment (the “Equipment”) to engage in a certain activity (the “Activity”). Much of the dispute in this case centers on the proper characterization of the Activity and the Equipment. The essence of the Activity is that the participant uses the Equipment to move between two points. (ECF No. 73-12, at 16:2-7.) The evidence conflicts concerning whether the Equipment is a “Tyrolean Traverse” or a “Clifftop Zipline.” (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 33-36; ECF No. 73-12, at 75:1-10, 186:6-191:4.) Ziplines were derived from Tyrolean Traverses, but the differences are too fine for untrained individuals to differentiate between the two. (ECF No. 73-12, at 58:5-7.)

On November 21, 2015, three NMG guides—Christy DeMarco, Enberg, and Vulpis—went to Allamuchy State Park to test the Equipment NMG expected to offer in the future for its customers. Vulpis and the other three guides set up the Equipment. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 46.) Manchester was present at the time, and engaged in the Activity by traveling on the Equipment. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 46-47.) While engaged in the Activity, Manchester suffered the Injury. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 47.)

D. Litigation

Following his Injury, Manchester filed a state court negligence action against Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 12.) NMG made a claim for coverage with Pachner and Atain. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 51-52.) When reporting the claim to Atain, Pachner described Manchester as an independent contractor for NMG. (ECF No. 70-21, at 161:11-13.)

Atain filed this coverage action against its Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG, and also joined Manchester as a defendant. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 1-5.) Atain seeks declaratory judgments against Vulpis, Enberg, NMG, and Manchester, authorizing Atain to disclaim coverage Manchester’s Injury. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 31-51.) Additionally, Atain seeks a declaratory judgment voiding the Policy under common law rescission principles and the New Jersey Insurance Fraud Prevention Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:33A-1 et seq. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 52-65.)

Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG brought a third-party action against NMG’s insurance broker Pachner, alleging Pachner’s negligence caused any failure of coverage by Atain. (ECF No. 29 ¶¶ 28-34.) Manchester brought a similar action against Pachner. (ECF No. 28, at 3-7.)

II. LEGAL STANDARD

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.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is “a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party,” and it is material only if it has the ability to “affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. See id. at 248. “In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party’s evidence ‘is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'” Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, (1986); Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 276-77 (3d Cir. 2002). “Summary judgment may not be granted . . . if there is a disagreement over what inferences can be reasonably drawn from the facts even if the facts are undisputed.” Nathanson v. Med. Coll. of Pa., 926 F.2d 1368, 1380 (3rd Cir. 1991) (citing Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 340 (3d Cir.)); Ideal Dairy Farms, Inc. v. John Labatt, Ltd., 90 F.3d 737, 744 (3d Cir. 1996).

The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of showing the basis for its motion. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the moving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, summary judgment is appropriate only if the evidence is not susceptible to different interpretations or inferences by the trier of fact. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 553 (1999). On the other hand, if the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the non-moving party, the party moving for summary judgment may satisfy Rule 56’s burden of production by either (1) “submit[ting] affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the non[-]moving party’s claim” or (2) demonstrating “that the nonmoving party’s evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 330 (Brennan, J., dissenting). Once the movant adequately supports its motion pursuant to Rule 56(c), the burden shifts to the non-moving party to “go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324; see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Ridgewood Bd. of Ed. v. Stokley, 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999). In deciding the merits of a party’s motion for summary judgment, the court’s role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determinations are the province of the factfinder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

There can be “no genuine issue as to any material fact,” however, if a party fails “to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. “[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non[-]moving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 323; Katz v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 972 F.2d 53, 55 (3d Cir. 1992).

III. DECISION1

A. Coverage for “Guided Mountaineering”

Atain and Pachner both argue Manchester’s Injury is not covered under the Policy because the Policy covers only “guided mountaineering,” and Vulpis and Enberg both testified Manchester’s Injury did not occur during a “guided” activity. (ECF No. 72-1, at 221:4-10; ECF No. 70-7, at 115:19-116:6.) Conflicting evidence prevents the Court from granting summary judgment. First, Vulpis’s testimony was more nuanced than Atain and Pachner suggest. While Vulpis testified he would not consider the Activity to be “guided,” Vulpis did consider the Activity to be “part of guided mountaineering.” (ECF No. 72, at 115:22-116:2.) Second, Vulpis testified Manchester received training and instruction from both Vulpis and Enberg for the Activity immediately prior to Manchester’s Injury. (ECF No. 72, at 85:20-86:12.) A reasonable jury could conclude Vulpis’s and Enberg’s training and instruction “guided” Manchester, who had little previous experience with the Equipment. (ECF No. 72, at 28:7-10.)

The Court is unpersuaded by Atain’s and Pachner’s argument alleging Vulpis’s and Enberg’s testimonies demonstrate the parties’ “intent” the Policy not cover the Activity. “[W]hen interpreting an insurance contract, the basic rule is to determine the intention of the parties . . . .” Simonetti v. Selective Ins. Co., 859 A.2d 694, 698 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2004). While the contractual language is the Court’s primary tool, the Court may consider evidence of the parties’ intention beyond the four corners of the contract when, as here, the language of the insurance contract is ambiguous. See, e.g., Welcome v. Just Apts., No. L-9821-01, 2008 WL 2696252, at *3-4 (N.J. App. Div. July 11, 2008).

Vulpis’s and Enberg’s testimonies are two such pieces of evidence, but not the only evidence, of NMG’s intent when agreeing to the Policy. Other evidence suggests NMG did intend the Policy to cover the Activity. For instance, Vulpis testified he considered the Activity to be “part of guided mountaineering.” (ECF No. 72, at 115:22-116:2.) Enberg testified he understood a “guided” activity to be an activity in which there is “a guide who is leading the activity.”2 (ECF No. 70-7, at 115:17-18.) According to Vulpis’s testimony, this is exactly what happened. Vulpis and Enberg lead the Activity, instructing Manchester before Manchester participated. (ECF No. 72, at 85:20-86:12.) Manchester did not have the requisite training to serve as a guide on the Activity. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 11.) In light of this conflicting evidence, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether or not the parties intended for the Policy to cover the Activity. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground.

B. Injury “In the Course of Employment . . . or Service”

Atain next argues the Court should grant it summary judgment because the Employer’s Liability Exclusion precludes coverage for Manchester’s Injury because Manchester was acting “in the course of employment by or service to” NMG. (ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000402.) Pachner3 seeks summary judgment against Atain on this claim, arguing the Employer’s Liability Exclusion does not apply. Neither party is entitled to summary judgment concerning the effect of the Employer’s Liability Exclusion because the evidence conflicts concerning whether Manchester was, in fact, acting in the course of his NMG employment.

Several facts weigh in favor of finding Manchester was a participant acting outside the scope of his NMG employment at the time of his Injury. Manchester testified he had come to participate in the Activity because he “thought it would be fun.” (ECF No. 70-8, at 61:25-62:1.) Vulpis testified similarly: Manchester “came just to travel along the Tyrolean traverse. He wanted to try it out.” (ECF No. 72, at 85:13-14.) Manchester testified he never informed NMG he would be attending the Activity and further testified NMG did not know he would be attending. (ECF No. 70-8, at 62:18-20, 68:5-7.) Manchester did not consider himself an employee or representative of Vulpis or Enberg at the time of the Injury. (ECF No. 70-8, at 20:10-19.)

However, other factors weigh in favor of finding Manchester was acting within the scope of his employment or service to NMG. Most importantly, Manchester acknowledged he performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide. (ECF No. 70-8, at 16:6-20.) Vulpis and Manchester both testified Manchester came to be at Allamuchy State Park on the date of his Injury because Vulpis posted an invitation to a Facebook group whose members consisted only of NMG guides and staff. (ECF No. 72, at 56:11-57:14; ECF No. 70-8, at 162:8-21.) Enberg testified although Manchester was not involved in setting up the Equipment and mostly observed others do so, Manchester did help Enberg “pull tension once, so just pull on a rope for me.” (ECF No. 70-7, at 95:23-96:8.) Enberg also testified, “[A]s far as I know, we just there all volunteering and testing the system.” (ECF No. 70-7, at 96:19-20.)

In short, the conflicting evidence creates a genuine issue of material fact. Accordingly, no party is entitled to summary judgment either for or against Atain’s claim concerning whether the Employer’s Liability Exclusion precludes coverage.

C. Rescission of the Policy

Atain also argues it is entitled to rescind the Policy in light of NMG’s material misrepresentations in the Application. Pachner argues the Court should grant summary judgment against Atain because Atain ratified the Policy despite knowing of the misrepresentations. The Court cannot grant summary judgment either for or against rescission because genuine issues of material fact remain (1) concerning whether NMG knowingly misrepresented any material facts, and (2) about the factual bases for rescission.

“In the field of insurance, rescission has long been recognized as an available and necessary remedy to combat fraudulent behavior by an insured.” Rutgers Cas. Ins. Co. v. LaCroix, 946 A.2d 1027, 1035 (N.J. 2008). “It is settled that a material factual misrepresentation made in an application for insurance may justify rescission [of the resulting insurance policy] if the insurer relied upon it to determine whether or not to issue the policy.” Citizens United Reciprocal Exch. v. Perez, 121 A.2d 374, 378 (N.J. 2015). “Rescission voids the [insurance policy] ab initio, meaning that it is considered ‘null from the beginning’ and treated as if it does not exist for any purpose.” First Am. Title Ins. Co. v. Lawson, 827 A.2d 230, 237 (N.J. 2003).

Rescission of an insurance policy for fraudulent misrepresentation is appropriate if four conditions are satisfied: (1) the applicant must make an “untruthful” representation to the insurer, (2) the representation must be “material to the particular risk assumed by the insurer,” (3) the insurer must “actually and reasonably rel[y] upon [the representation] in the issuance of the policy,” and (4) if the “insurance application . . . calls for subjective information,” then “the insured [must] kn[o]w that the information was false when completing the application.” Id.

Examples of subjective information include when an insurer asks an insured to indicate a belief about the status of his or her health, or when . . . an insurer asks whether an applicant is aware of any circumstances which may result in a claim being made against the firm[.] [A] subjective question will not constitute equitable fraud if the question is directed toward probing the knowledge of the applicant and determining the state of his mind and . . . the answer is a correct statement of the applicant’s knowledge and belief[.]

Id. (citations omitted).

A “mere oversight or honest mistake” will not support rescission. Rutgers, 945 A.2d at 1035 (quoting Longobardi v. Chubb Ins. Co. of N.J., 582 A.2d 1257, 1261 (N.J. 1990)). “The lie must be willful.” Longobardi, 582 A.2d at 1261. The insurer bears the burden of demonstrating the applicant “knew and believed” the information provided on the application was false and “knowingly misrepresented” the information provided to be true, but need not demonstrate the applicant “harbored an intent to defraud.” Mass. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Manzo, 584 A.2d 190, 195 (N.J. 1991).

1. Projected Revenues

First, Atain argues this Court should void the Policy because NMG materially misrepresented its projected revenues on its Application. The Court disagrees because the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, precludes the Court from finding NMG knowingly4 misrepresented its projected revenues.5
Atain argues the projected amount listed on the Application was substantially lower than NMG’s actual revenue for the year preceding the Application and disproportionately less than the revenue NMG actually received in the Policy year. The Court declines to find these numerical discrepancies demonstrate a knowing misrepresentation. Vulpis testified several considerations left him doubtful NMG would succeed financially in the coming year when he filled out the Application for NMG. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) First, Vulpis was divorcing his spouse, which he believed would impact NMG’s ability to remain in business. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Second, Vulpis had hired new guides, and expected revenues would be lower while his new guides gained experience.6 (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Third, “a chronic, life-threatening auto-immune disease” hospitalized Vulpis shortly before he filed the Application, and he was “not sure [he] would live through” the year, “much less have any revenues in NMG.” (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Even taking those factors into account, the revenue Vulpis projected on the Application was approximately equal to NMG’s annual revenue two years prior to the Application, and was slightly lower than the average of the revenue for the preceding three years. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Taking these facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine NMG did not knowingly misrepresent its projected income.

Atain also points to Vulpis’s testimony about how he projected NMG’s revenue by merely “guess[ing] what I thought we might do for the season” and answered “no” when asked if he did any math to figure out the projected revenue. (ECF No. 72-1, at 217:3-12.) Atain argues these answers demonstrate Vulpis did not make a good faith revenue projection. The Court disagrees. When read in context, a reasonable fact-finder could determine Vulpis attempted to accurately project NMG’s revenues. Immediately before testifying he “guessed,” Vulpis testified he “guestimated” the revenue figures, and further testified his projection considered revenues “from previous years of business.” (ECF No. 72-1, at 216:23, 217:13-14.) Combined with his more detailed testimony about how Vulpis considered his divorce, new hires, and his medical condition when projecting revenue on the Application, and viewed in the light most favorable to NMG, genuine issues of material fact exists concerning whether Vulpis failed to make a good faith attempt to project NMG’s revenue.

2. Independent Contractors

Atain argues it is entitled to summary judgment because a second, unrelated misrepresentation on the Application—Vulpis’s statement claiming NMG did not use subcontractors or independent contractors—warrants rescission of the Policy. Pachner7 argues the Court should grant summary judgment against Atain on this ground because NMG accurately represented it did not use independent contractors. Pachner also argues summary judgment is appropriate against any claim Pachner negligently (1) advised Vulpis to answer “no” to the question on the Application asking about NMG’s use of subcontractors or independent contractors or (2) misidentified Manchester as an independent contractor when communicating with Atain. The Court rejects all these arguments because the evidence creates genuine issues of material fact concerning whether NMG (1) knowingly misrepresented its use of independent contractors, and (2) used independent contractors at all.8

i. Knowing Misrepresentation

Distinguishing independent contractors from employees is among the most contentiously litigated issues in courts today, arising in a host of different contexts, each with a different standard.9 The variety of tests creates a “paradoxical truth that even when the same person performs the same acts at the same time in the same place under the same conditions,” the person “may be considered an employee for one purpose and an independent contractor for another.” EEOC v. Zippo Mfg. Co., 713 F.2d 32, 35-36 (3d Cir. 1983) (“paradoxical truth”); Hoag v. Brown, 935 A.2d 1218, 1228 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2007) (“may be considered”).

Given the issue’s complexity, the Court is not surprised Vulpis’s testimony suggests he had genuine difficulty distinguishing between employees and independent contractors. Vulpis’s testimony concerning his thinking at the time demonstrates his confusion. For instance, Vulpis described his guides as “1099 employees,” something of a misnomer.10 (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 17.) When completing the Application, Vulpis discussed how to answer the “independent contractor” question with Donald Pachner, whose less-than-illuminating explanation was to describe the meaning of independent contractor as a “gray area.” (ECF No. 72-1, at 221:19-222:17.) Even when answering interrogatories in this case—presumably with the assistance of counsel—Vulpis initially described his guides as independent contractors, then amended his answer to strike that characterization. (ECF No. 72, at 19:7-23:20.) The Application does not instruct the applicant on the meaning of “independent contractor,” nor does it suggest which (if any) of the legal tests an applicant should apply—missing an opportunity to dispel Vulpis’s confusion. (ECF No. 70-17, at ATN00034.)

Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine Vulpis merely failed to appreciate every nuance of the difference between employees and independent contractors when he wrote on the Application NMG did not use independent contractors or subcontractors. Such a misunderstanding would constitute an “honest mistake,” not a “lie” or a “willful” falsification. Rutgers, 945 A.2d at 1035; Longobardi, 582 A.2d at 1261. Drawing all inferences in non-movant NMG’s favor, a genuine issue of material fact remains concerning whether Vulpis knowingly misrepresented NMG’s use of independent contractors.

ii. Independent Contractors vs. Employees

While Atain is not entitled to summary judgment on its claim concerning Vulpis’s knowing misrepresentation of his use of independent contractors, neither is Pachner entitled to summary judgment against Atain on the same issue. Pachner argues Vulpis’s representation was accurate because NMG’s guides were not independent contractors. A host of evidence suggests the opposite. For instance, Vulpis deducted over $10,000 for “cost of contract labor” and “subcontractors” on the 2015 federal income tax form (and corresponding worksheet) covering NMG’s profit and loss. (ECF No. 70-19, at sch. C, line 11.11) Manchester testified NMG classified its guides as “subcontractors” in its accounting software. (ECF No. 70-7, at 54:12-20.) Manchester further testified Vulpis repeatedly used the term “independent contractor” to describe guides. (ECF No. 70-7, at 54:23-55:8.) Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant Atain, this evidence creates a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether NMG’s guides were in fact independent contractors.

iii. Pachner’s Advice to Vulpis

Pachner also argues summary judgment is appropriate against any claim concerning Pachner’s negligent advice to Vulpis to answer “no” to the question on the Application asking about NMG’s use of subcontractors or independent contractors. However, as Pachner points out, Pachner’s negligence in this instance “is only relevant insofar [as] Atain is seeking to rescind the Policy based on [NMG’s] answer” concerning independent contractors or subcontractors. (ECF No. 73-2, at 19.) Because genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether Atain may rescind the Policy on the basis of NMG’s use of independent contractors, see part III.C.2.i., supra, the same genuine issues of material fact necessarily exist concerning Pachner’s alleged negligent advice to Vulpis concerning this question. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground.

iv. Pachner’s Misdentification of Manchester as a Contractor

Pachner asks the Court to grant summary judgment on any claim concerning Pachner’s negligent mislabeling of Manchester as an independent contractor when Pachner first reported Manchester’s Injury to Atain. The Court cannot grant summary judgment. As with Pachner’s advice to Vulpis, Pachner’s statement to Atain identifying Manchester as an independent contractor relates only to Atain’s claim for rescission of the Policy for NMG’s misrepresentation of its use of independent contractors. Because genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether Atain may rescind the Policy on this basis, see part III.C.2.i., supra, the same genuine issues of material fact exist concerning Pachner’s characterization to Atain of Manchester as an independent contractor. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground.

3. Training and Education Relating to “Search and Rescue” Operations

Atain also argues NMG committed a knowing misrepresentation when it failed to disclose its training and education programs concerning search and rescue operations. The Court declines to grant summary judgment on this claim, because Atain did not plead this claim in its complaint.

“Each and every claim for relief that a plaintiff seeks to press must be set forth in the Complaint.” Bravo v. Union Cty., Civ. No. 12-2848, 2013 WL 2285780, at *8 (D.N.J. May 23, 2013). Failure to do so has consequences. One consequence is that this Court may not “grant[] summary judgment on a claim that was never pleaded.” Day v. White, 764 F. App’x 164, 166 (3d Cir. 2019) (quoting Michelson v. Exxon Rsrch. & Eng’g Co., 808 F.2d 1005, 1009 (3d Cir. 1987)). “To the extent the plaintiff discovers new information giving rise to additional claims, the plaintiff must amend the Complaint to assert those claims and properly put the defendant on notice of them.” Bravo, 2013 WL 2285780, at *8; see also Tavarez v. Twp. of Egg Harbor, Civ. No. 09-6119, 2012 WL 13186197, at *4 (D.N.J. Aug. 3, 2012); Durham v. Vekios, Civ. No. 09-5376, 2011 WL 3667560, at *4 (D.N.J. Aug. 22, 2011).

Atain contends it “asserted a cause of action for rescission based upon material misrepresentation” in its complaint, which Atain argues is broad enough to cover any misrepresentation relating to NMG’s training and education programs concerning search and rescue. (ECF No. 93, at 29.) The Court disagrees because Atain’s “Material Misrepresentation” claim—Count Six12—alleges only a material misrepresented concerning NMG’s engagement in “Ropes/Challenge Course Facilitation.” (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 52-59.) Count Six does not mention search and rescue, much less allege a material misrepresentation relating to NMG’s education and training concerning search and rescue operations.

Atain further argues it did not learn of the misrepresentation concerning search and rescue operations until well into the discovery period of this litigation. This fact does not excuse Atain from seeking to amend its complaint. If Atain learned late in the litigation it had an additional claim of which it was previously unaware, its appropriate course was to seek leave to amend its complaint to add the new claim. See Bravo, 2013 WL 2285780, at *8. Atain did not do so. Because Atain’s complaint does not plead any claim related to search and rescue operations, Atain may not obtain summary judgment on this unpleaded claim. See Day, 764 F. App’x at 166.

However, even if Atain did plead this claim, a genuine issue of material fact precludes summary judgment concerning whether NMG knowingly failed to disclose its education and training programs concerning search and rescue operations. The record contains evidence Vulpis and Enberg both believed these activities were no different than NMG’s other activities NMG had already disclosed on NMG’s initial Application. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 37-42; ECF No. 86-15 ¶¶ 3-6.) Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, this evidence13 is sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact.

4. Ratification of the Policy

Pachner14 argues the Court should grant summary judgment against Atain on its claim for rescission because Atain has ratified the Policy. The Court disagrees because (1) the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prohibit this Court from construing the allegations in one claim as an admission against an alternative or inconsistent second claim, and (2) the evidence conflicts concerning whether Atain’s actions constitute ratification of the Policy.

i. Ratification by Lawsuit

First, Pachner argues Atain cannot file a lawsuit demanding both to disclaim coverage or, in the alternative, to rescind the Policy. Doing so, Pachner argues, constitutes ratification of the Policy and bars rescission. See Merchants Indem. Corp. v. Eggleston, 179 A.2d 505, 514 (N.J. 1962). Assuming without deciding New Jersey law treats an action to disclaim coverage as a ratification of the Policy and thus prohibits a claim for rescission, Pachner is still not entitled to summary judgment because “[t]he Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit parties to file pleadings containing inconsistent factual and legal allegations.” W.V. Realty, Inc. v. N. Ins. Co., 334 F.3d 306, 316 (3d Cir. 2003).

“A party may state as many separate claims or defenses as it has, regardless of consistency.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(d)(3). For instance, a plaintiff may simultaneously plead claims for both breach of contract (which requires the existence of a contract) and unjust enrichment (which requires the non-existence of a contract). See Hughes v. TD Bank, N.A., 856 F. Supp. 2d 673, 680 n.4 (D.N.J. 2012); Dewey v. Volkswagen AG, 558 F. Supp. 2d 505, 528-29 (D.N.J. 2008); cf. Showalter v. Brubaker, 283 F. App’x 33, 36 (3d Cir. 2008) (permitting defendants in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to simultaneously plead both (1) they are entitled to governmental immunity and (2) their actions were wholly private and therefore not under color of state law).

Importantly, this allowance for inconsistent claims “has been interpreted to mean that a court ‘may not construe [a plaintiff’s] first claim as an admission against another alternative or inconsistent claim.'” Indep. Enters. v. Pitt. Water & Sewer Auth., 103 F.3d 1165, 1175 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting Henry v. Daytop Village, 42 F.3d 89, 95 (2d Cir. 1994)). For instance, a claim for abuse of process does not implicitly concede the legitimacy of a prosecution so as to invalidate a simultaneous claim for malicious prosecution. See Evans v. City of Newark, Civ. No. 14-120, 2016 WL 2742862, at *5 n.7 (D.N.J. May 10, 2016).

Atain’s claims are subject to this rule. Assuming without deciding a claim to disclaim coverage and a claim to rescind the Policy are inconsistent under New Jersey law, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit Atain to make both claims simultaneously. Accordingly, Atain’s claim for disclaimer of coverage does not constitute a ratification of the Policy.

ii. Ratification by Action

Second, Pachner argues Atain’s actions constitute ratification of the contract. Genuine issues of material fact preclude the issuance of summary judgment on this ground.

“[T]he remedy [of rescission] is discretionary and will not be granted where the claimant has not acted within a reasonable time or where there has been substantial performance.” Farris v. Cty. of Camden, 61 F. Supp. 2d 307, 336 (D.N.J. 1999) (quoting Notch View Assocs. v. Smith, 615 A.2d 676, 680 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1992)); see also Rowen Petrol. Props., LLC v. Hollywood Tanning Sys., Inc., Civ. No. 08-4764, 2011 WL 6755838, at *10 (D.N.J. Dec. 23, 2011) (same). “[W]here a party ‘is cognizant of fraud or misrepresentation and fails to promptly rescind the . . . agreement or transaction, and instead engages in conduct which assumes the validity of the [agreement], then the agreement or transaction may be deemed ratified.'” Everest Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Sutton, Civ. No. 07-722, 2008 WL 3833586, at *8 (D.N.J. Aug. 13, 2008) (quoting Notch View, 615 A.2d at 685).

Pachner argues Atain received notice of its potential grounds for rescission on or before November 30, 2015, when Atain received an e-mail with a description of the events leading to Manchester’s Injury and a discussion of how Manchester was an “independent contractor” for NMG. (ECF No. 73-43, at Atain 73-75.) Assuming without deciding this e-mail put Atain on notice of its potential grounds for rescission,15 the evidence of ratification following this date is mixed, precluding summary judgment.

For instance, Atain issued a “Notice of Conditional Renewal” to NMG on January 6, 2016, “to advise that [Atain is] agreeable to renewing this policy subject to” new terms and conditions and a rate increase. (ECF No. 73-45, at 1.) This explicit statement suggests Atain treated the Policy as valid. However, this evidence of ratification is tempered by testimony from Atain’s former director of director of underwriting for recreational programs, Grace Cunningham, who noted Atain issued the conditional renewal “until [Atain] received more information about the claim.” (ECF No. 73-16, at 270:10-11.) Cunningham also testified, “We rescinded this,” after Atain learned more. (ECF No. 73-16, at 270:16-19.)

Other evidence is also ambiguous. Although, Atain appears to have kept the Policy premium16 rather than refund it to NMG, the normal course of rescission litigation appears to allow an insurer to maintain the premium while litigation is pending, and to refund the policy-holder after the litigation is successful. See, e.g., Liebling v. Garden State Indem., 767 A.2d 515, 465 n.1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2001). Additionally, Atain negotiated an explicit agreement with Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG to allow Atain to follow this procedure. (ECF No. 70-13, at ATN000051, ATN000068.) Under these circumstances, the Court cannot say Atain’s retention of the Policy premium necessarily demonstrates Atain ratified the Policy.

The record also contains contrary evidence suggesting Atain did not act to ratify the Policy, but instead acted with diligence concerning the possibility of rescinding the Policy. For example, Atain wrote a letter to NMG on February 23, 2016, in which it sought to reserve its right to rescind the Policy. (ECF No. 73-44, at 2.) Likewise, Atain negotiated and, on August 8, 2016, executed non-waiver agreements with Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG to protect Atain’s right to seek rescission of the Policy. (ECF No. 70-13, at ATN000049-53, ATN000066-70.) And, of course, Atain filed this action on August 23, 2016. (ECF No. 1, at 21.) Pachner points to deficiencies in Atain’s reservation-of-rights letter, but no matter the deficiencies, the letter, non-wavier agreement, and declaratory judgment action are not the acts of a company taking action to ratify the Policy. Cf. Annito v. Trump Marina Hotel Casino, No. L-5622-02, 2005 WL 4344137, at *8 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. July 25, 2006) (“By paying his casino debts when he was sober, plaintiff ratified his prior promises to repay the loans, even if they were made while he was intoxicated and not competent to contract.”).

However, the most important evidence is missing. Pachner’s critical argument is Atain ratified the Policy by failing to act promptly after learning of the potential grounds for rescission as a result of the November 30, 2015 e-mail. (ECF No. 73-43, at Atain 73-75.) Pachner does not point to any evidence—other than the mere passage of time—showing Atain failed to follow-up on the e-mail or to investigate the potential grounds for rescission the e-mail raised. Coupled with the ambiguous or contrary evidence above, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether Atain ratified the Policy. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment against Atain on its claim for rescission.

D. Failure to Maintain Signed Liability Waivers

Atain’s final argument is NMG’s failure to comply with a coverage condition—namely, obtaining a signed waiver and release of liability from all participants in NMG’s activities, and maintaining the signed document for three years—relieves Atain from its obligation to cover NMG’s exposure to Manchester’s underlying litigation. The Court rejects this argument because a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether the loss of Manchester’s waiver form appreciably prejudices Atain’s defense of Manchester’s underlying state court litigation.

New Jersey law permits an insurer to escape liability for its obligations under an insurance policy if the insured breaches a condition of coverage, but only if the insurance carrier suffers appreciable prejudice from the breach. See, e.g., Gazis v. Miller, 847 A.2d 591, 595 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2005). When determining the existence of appreciable prejudice, a court must consider two factors. “[F]irst, ‘whether substantial rights have been irretrievably lost’ as a result of the insured’s breach, and second, ‘the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim’ had there been no breach.” Hager v. Gonsalves, 942 A.2d 160, 164 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008) (quoting Sagendorf v. Selective Ins. Co. of Am., 679 A.2d 709, 715 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1996)); see also Ohaus v. Continental Cas. Ins. Co., 679 A.2d 179, 185 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1996).

The insurer bears the burden of demonstrating appreciable prejudice. See, e.g., Kenny v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 746 A.2d 57, 59 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2000). The existence of appreciable prejudice is generally a question for the finder-of-fact, and generally not appropriate for summary judgment. See, e.g., State Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Cty. of Camden, 10 F. Supp. 3d 568, 582-83 (D.N.J. 2014).

A genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether the loss of Manchester’s misplaced waiver form will appreciably prejudice Atain. First, the record is not clear whether Manchester’s waiver form—and therefore, Atain’s ability to defend the underlying state court litigation using Manchester’s waiver—has been “irretrievably lost.” Hager, 942 A.2d at 164. Although NMG cannot locate the waiver at present, Atain points to no evidence NMG will be unable to locate the waiver in the future. In fact, NMG indicates it will willing to allow opposing counsel access to its physical files to conduct its own search for Manchester’s missing waiver. (ECF No. 86-2 ¶ 5.) Atain does not indicate it has accepted NMG’s offer.

Second, even if Atain cannot obtain Manchester’s waiver in time to rely on the waiver against Manchester in the underlying state court litigation, the absence of Manchester’s waiver will not necessarily reduce “the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim.” Hager, 942 A.2d at 164. NMG has provided Atain with Manchester’s signed acknowledgment of receipt (ECF No. 86-4, at 1) of NMG’s employee handbook, which contains a waiver form (ECF No. 86-3, at 22-24). Moreover, while Vulpis acknowledged he could not locate the forms, Vulpis testified Manchester had previously signed a waiver (1) when Manchester initially became was a customer of NMG prior to serving as a guide, and (2) for the year 2015, when Manchester served as a guide. (ECF No. 72, at 55:13-56:3, 87:1-6.) The only contrary evidence is Manchester did not sign a waiver on the day of the Injury. (ECF No. 72, at 99:18-100:4; ECF No. 70-8, at 161:23-162:1.) Atain points to no evidence contradicting Vulpis’s testimony concerning Manchester previously signing a waiver before the day of the Injury. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether NMG’s loss of Manchester’s waiver will appreciably prejudice Atain’s defense of Manchester’s underlying state court litigation.

E. Pachner’s Insurance Producer Licenses

Pachner argues it is entitled to summary judgment on any negligence claim relating to Pachner’s failure to maintain insurance producer licenses. No party opposes Pachner’s argument. Assuming without deciding Pachner owes a duty to its clients or third parties to maintain appropriate licenses as an insurance producer, the uncontested evidence demonstrates Pachner in fact possessed the requisite licenses at the time he assisted NMG with its search for insurance coverage. (ECF No. 73-31, at 1-2.) Therefore, there is no genuine dispute of material fact concerning Pachner’s licensure, and Pachner is entitled to summary judgment on this claim.

F. Pachner’s Explanation of the Policy to NMG

Pachner argues the Court should grant summary judgment against NMG’s claims relating to Pachner’s failure to explain mountaineering-related terms in the Policy or the Application. The Court declines to grant summary judgment because a genuine issue of material fact remains concerning whether Pachner fulfilled his obligations to NMG as a broker.17

An insurance broker’s obligations are “(1) to procure the insurance; (2) to secure a policy that is neither void nor materially deficient; and (3) to provide the coverage he or she undertook to supply.” President v. Jenkins, 853 A.2d 247, 569 (N.J. 2004). “[A]n insurance broker owes a duty to his principal to exercise diligence in obtaining coverage in the area his principal seeks to be protected.” Satec, Inc. v. Hanover Ins. Grp., 162 A.3d 311, 317 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2017) (quoting Werrmann v. Aratusa, Ltd., 630 A.2d 302, 304 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1993)). A broker’s failure to inform a client about critical facts related to the client’s pursuit of insurance can constitute a breach of the broker’s duty. See Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 666 A.2d 146, 157 (N.J. 1995).

1. Subjective vs. Objective Understanding of Policy Terms

Pachner is not entitled to summary judgment concerning whether Pachner failed to explain certain mountaineering-related terms. The report of NMG’s expert Frank Seigel explains Pachner breached an insurance broker’s duty because Pachner “should have been familiar with how Atain handled and considered ‘mountaineering’ and ‘guided mountaineering’ and whether or not those terms, in Atain’s eyes, included the assembly and use of a Tyrolean Traverse.” (ECF No. 80-4, at 13.) Pachner argues Atain’s subjective understanding of these contested terms is irrelevant because of “the general rule that the terms in an insurance policy should be interpreted in accordance with their plain and commonly-understood meaning,” not the subjective meaning of the insurer. Cypress Point Condo. Ass’n v. Adria Towers, LLC, 143 A.3d 273, 286 (N.J. 2016).

This argument does not entitle Pachner to summary judgment. Pachner is correct that courts must “first consider the plain meaning of the language at issue.” N.J. Transit Corp. v. Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London, ___ A.3d ___, 2019 WL 6109144, at *4 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Nov. 18, 2019). But the plain language analysis is only one part of the approach to the interpretation of insurance contracts. Courts’ “goal in interpreting [insurance] policies is to ‘discover the intention of the parties[,]’ by considering ‘the contractual terms, the surrounding circumstances, and the purpose of the contract.'” Id. at *5 (quoting Marchak v. Claridge Commons, Inc., 633 A.2d 531 (1993). Atain’s subjective understanding of these terms is relevant to “discover[ing] the intention of the parties.” Id.

2. Vulpis’s Reliance on Pachner’s Information

Pachner also argues none of the Pachner entities breached any duty to inform NMG about relevant Policy terms because Vulpis testified he did not rely on Pachner for information about these terms. Vulpis’s testimony does not entitle Pachner to summary judgment because Vulpis could not have relied on Pachner for information Pachner did not provide, but should have. Cf. Brill, 666 A.2d at 157.

3. Vulpis’s Greater Level of Expertise Compared to Pachner

Pachner further argues Vulpis, as an expert in the mountaineering field, had greater familiarity than Pachner with terms like “mountaineering” and equipment like a “Tyrolean Traverse.” Therefore, Pachner argues, NMG had no need for any explanation from an individual like Pachner with a lesser level of expertise than Vulpis. The Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground. The fact an insured possesses greater knowledge and expertise in a field than the insured’s broker does not relieve the broker from “exercis[ing] diligence in obtaining coverage in the area his principal seeks to be protected.” Satec, 162 A.3d at 317.

4. Pachner’s and Vulpis’s Awareness of NMG’s Activities

Pachner next points out Vulpis informed Pachner NMG engaged in “mountaineering” activities and requested insurance for those activities (ECF No. 70-17, at ATN000336), but Vulpis never alerted Pachner that NMG engaged in the Activity. Pachner asks this Court for summary judgment because, the argument goes, Pachner could not reasonably have been expected to procure coverage for an Activity of which it had no knowledge. Pachner also argues summary judgment is appropriate because Vulpis was aware the Policy did not cover the Activity because the Activity was not a “mountaineering” activity. The same genuine issue of material fact—namely, the conflicting evidence concerning whether the Activity qualified as a “mountaineering” activity (ECF No. 72-1, at 253:19-24; ECF No. 70-20, at 18:8-13; ECF No. 70-8, at 20:20-21:4)—precludes the entry of summary judgment on both grounds.

G. Pachner’s Failure to Recommend Workers’ Compensation Insurance

Pachner asks the Court to grant summary judgment on NMG’s claim related to Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance, as required by law. The Court cannot grant summary on this basis because genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether (1) Pachner attempted to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG and (2) workers’ compensation insurance would have protected either NMG or Manchester.

An insurance broker’s obligations are “(1) to procure the insurance; (2) to secure a policy that is neither void nor materially deficient; and (3) to provide the coverage he or she undertook to supply.” President v. Jenkins, 853 A.2d 247, 569 (N.J. 2004). “[A]n insurance broker owes a duty to his principal to exercise diligence in obtaining coverage in the area his principal seeks to be protected.” Satec, Inc. v. Hanover Ins. Grp., 162 A.3d 311, 317 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2017) (quoting Werrmann v. Aratusa, Ltd., 630 A.2d 302, 304 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1993)). When a client retains a broker to procure insurance, the broker must procure legally mandated workers’ compensation insurance. See Schustrin v. Globe Indem. Co. of N.Y., 130 A.2d 897, 898 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1957) (noting the jury’s finding that broker was obligated to procure workers’ compensation insurance for client).

Pachner argues a broker owes no duty to recommend additional coverage for a client. This argument does not affect the Court’s analysis. Pachner correctly points out New Jersey law imposes “no duty [on an insurance broker] to advise an insured to consider higher amounts of homeowner’s insurance.” Carter Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., Leasing Div. v. EMAR Grp., 638 A.2d 1288, 1292 (N.J. 1994) (citing Wang v. Allstate Ins. Co., 592 A.2d 527, 532-33 (N.J. 1991)). Assuming without deciding this principle extends to workers’ compensation, the principle still does not apply here. NMG does not claim Pachner failed to advise NMG to consider the option of purchasing higher policy limits. Instead, the case concerns an alleged failure by a broker to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for a client who was legally mandated to obtain such insurance. (ECF No. 80-4, at 13-14.) Were the Court to adopt Pachner’s argument, then NMG would possess a legal obligation to obtain workers’ compensation insurance, see N.J. Stat. Ann. § 34:15-71 (requiring employers to obtain workers’ compensation insurance), but NMG’s insurance broker Pachner would have no legal obligation to procure the insurance for NMG. This is not the law in New Jersey. See Schustrin, 130 A.2d at 898.

The delineation of a broker’s duties does not end the Court’s inquiry, because a plaintiff must show more than the failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance before liability will attach. “To succeed in an action against an insurance broker, the plaintiff must prove that in addition to being negligent, the broker’s negligence was a proximate cause of the loss.” Harbor Commuter Serv., Inc. v. Frenkel & Co., 951 A.2d 198, 207 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008). Put another way, the plaintiff must “establish[] that its loss would not have occurred but for defendants’ negligence, or that defendants’ negligence constituted a substantial contributing factor to the loss.” Id.

Two genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment. First, the record contains conflicting evidence concerning whether Pachner in fact attempted to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for NMG. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶¶ 4-5; ECF No. 73-10, at 6; ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 18.) Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to non-movants NMG and Manchester while making all reasonable inferences in their favor, a reasonable jury could find Pachner did not attempt to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for NMG.

The second genuine issue of material fact concerns whether (1) Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG either contributed to NMG’s and Manchester’s loss or (2) their loss would not have occurred had NMG purchased workers’ compensation insurance. As discussed earlier, genuine issues of material fact remain concerning whether Manchester qualified as an employee or an independent contractor. See part III.B., supra. Given this uncertainty, the record does not conclusively demonstrate whether or not workers’ compensation insurance would have covered Manchester’s Injury. Viewing this uncertainty in the light most favorable to non-movants NMG and Manchester while making all reasonable inferences in their favor, a reasonable jury could find Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG either contributed to NMG’s and Manchester’s loss, or their loss would not have occurred but for Pachner’s failure. In light of the two genuine issues of material fact, the Court cannot grant summary judgment against NMG’s and Manchester’s claims related to Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG.

H. Pachner’s Failure to Provide a Copy of the Policy

Pachner requests summary judgment on any claim it negligently failed to provide NMG with a copy of the Policy. The Court cannot grant summary judgment in light of the conflicting evidence.

An insurance broker has a duty to provide its client with any policy it receives from the insurer within 10 days of receipt by the broker. See N.J. Admin Code § 11:17A-4.6. According to Pachner, when “Pachner & Associates received a copy of the Policy, we made it available to NMG through our web portal.” (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 13.) Vulpis testified that he never received the Policy until after Manchester’s Injury. (ECF No. 72, at 112:16-25.) In light of the conflicting evidence, a genuine issue of material fact precludes summary judgment.

Pachner argues even if Pachner did not provide Vulpis with a copy of the Policy, Pachner’s failure did not proximately cause any of NMG’s damages because Vulpis received a copy of the Quote. (ECF No. 72-1, at 233:21-236:8.) A genuine issue of material fact also precludes summary judgment on this basis. “To succeed in an action against an insurance broker, the plaintiff must prove that in addition to being negligent, the broker’s negligence was a proximate cause of the loss.” Harbor Commuter Serv., Inc. v. Frenkel & Co., 951 A.2d 198, 207 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008). Put another way, the plaintiff must “establish[] that its loss would not have occurred but for defendants’ negligence, or that defendants’ negligence constituted a substantial contributing factor to the loss.” Id.

A genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether Pachner’s failure to provide the Policy to NMG substantially contributed to NMG’s loss by depriving Vulpis of important Policy details that would have prompted Vulpis to make inquiries about, and adjustments to, NMG’s insurance. The Policy contains substantially more details about coverage than the Quote. For instance, while the Quote merely mentions the insurance “Excludes Injury to Employees, Leased Workers, Volunteers, and Independent Contractors,” the Policy actually defines several of these terms. (ECF No. 73-37, at 2; ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000373-76.) Unlike the Quote, the Policy spells out the exact terms of the exclusion for injury to employees or independent contractors. (ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000383.) Making all reasonable inferences in favor of non-movant NMG, a reasonable jury could find Vulpis would use the more detailed information in the Policy to inquire about his insurance and adjust it so as to explicitly cover incidents like the one in which Manchester suffered an Injury. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment.

I. Pachner’s Duty to Manchester

Pachner asks this Court to grant summary judgment against Manchester because New Jersey law precludes Manchester from bringing an action against Pachner until Manchester obtains a judgment against NMG and the judgment is returned unsatisfied.18 The Court disagrees because Manchester is a foreseeable injured third-party to whom Pachner, a broker, owes a duty. See Carter Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., Leasing Div. v. EMAR Grp., 638 A.2d 1288, 1297-98 (N.J. 1994).

“[A]n insurance broker may owe a duty of care not only to the insured who pays the premium and with whom the broker contracts but to other parties found within the zone of harm emanating from the broker’s actions as well.” Id. at 1297. When a broker negligently fails to procure insurance that would cover the injuries of a third-party, the broker owes a duty to the third-party, making the third-party an appropriate plaintiff in a negligence action against the broker. See Impex Ag. Commodities Div. Impex Overseas Corp. v. Parness Trucking Corp., 576 F. Supp. 587, 591 (D.N.J. 1983) (applying New Jersey law). Pachner, as a broker, owes a duty to procure appropriate insurance not just to NMG, but also to Manchester—a foreseeable, injured third-party whose Injury NMG expected the Policy to cover. Because Pachner owes Manchester a duty, Manchester is therefore an appropriate plaintiff in a negligence action. Accordingly, summary judgment against Manchester on this basis is inappropriate. Pachner argues New Jersey is not a direct action state, meaning an injured third party may not bring an action directly against a tortfeasor’s insurance company in lieu of the tortfeasor. See Manukas v. Am. Ins. Co., 237 A.2d 898, 524 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1968). But Pachner is not an insurance company against whom Manchester brings an action in lieu of the tortfeasor. Rather, Pachner is the tortfeasor. Manchester brings a negligence action against Pachner for Pachner’s negligent failure to obtain appropriate insurance for NMG that would cover Manchester’s Injury. Manchester does not bring an action against Pachner in the capacity of an insurer. Therefore, Pachner’s “direct action” argument is inapposite.

Pachner further argues New Jersey law imposes a bar against direct actions such as this one until the plaintiff obtains a judgment against the tortfeasor and is unable to execute on the judgment. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:28-2. This argument does not entitle Pachner to summary judgment against Manchester for two reasons. First, as previously explained, Manchester has not brought a direct action against an insurer, because Pachner is the tortfeasor, not the tortfeasor’s insurer. Second, the statute’s language merely imposes a requirement on insurance contracts; it does not limit the circumstances under which a plaintiff may bring a tort action. See id. (“No policy of insurance . . . shall be issued or delivered in this state by any insurer authorized to do business in this state, unless [the policy allows the plaintiff to recover directly against the insurer if the tortfeasor is insolvent.]”). Because Manchester is not bringing an action for breach of an insurance contract, the statute has no application here.

Finally, Pachner argues Manchester cannot bring an action against Pachner until it has obtained a judgment against NMG. See Estate of Atanasoski v. Arcuri Agency, Inc., No. A-2291-17T4, 2019 WL 1986539, at *3-6 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. May 6, 2019). Because an action by Manchester against NMG concerning Manchester’s Injury is pending in state court, the appropriate course for this Court would not be to grant summary judgment against Manchester (which would permanently extinguish Manchester’s right to recover against Pachner), but to await the outcome of the state court case before issuing any final judgment against Pachner in favor of Manchester.

J. Action Against Pachner Risk Management

Pachner argues, and the Court agrees, summary judgment is appropriate against Pachner Risk Management (“PRM”) because PRM had no relationship with Manchester, Enberg, Vulpis, or NMG, nor was PRM involved in procuring insurance for NMG. No party contests this argument, and the evidence supports it. Donald Pachner testified PRM has always been an inactive company and further testified PRM has never had anything to do with NMG. (ECF No. 73-11, at 126:14-127:5.) When asked whether “there was anything you came across that suggested [PRM] owed or breached any duty to [NMG],” NMG’s expert Frank Seigel testified he did not recall any reference to PRM in the file he reviewed. (ECF No. 73-15, at 180:8-23.) Because the undisputed evidence shows PRM had no connection to NMG, Vulpis, or the other parties in this case, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of PRM.

K. Donald Pachner as Agent of His Disclosed Principal, Pachner & Associates

Pachner argues the Court should grant summary judgment in favor of Donald Pachner because he cannot be liable for the torts of his disclosed principal Pachner & Associates if Donald Pachner was merely serving as the agent of Pachner & Associates. See City of Millville v. Rock, 683 F. Supp. 2d 319, 326-28 (D.N.J. 2010). In light of New Jersey’s “participation theory” of principal-agent tort liability, the court disagrees.

Under New Jersey law, the “long-standing rule [is] that ‘[a]n agent who does an act otherwise a tort is not relieved from liability by the fact that he acted at the command of a principal or on account of the principal.'” Ballinger v. Del. River Port Auth., 800 A.2d 97, 110 (N.J. 2002) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Agency § 343 (1958)). New Jersey law refers to this as the “participation theory” of principal-agent tort liability.

[T]he essence of the participation theory is that a corporate officer can be held personally liable for a tort committed by the corporation when he or she is sufficiently involved in the commission of the tort. A predicate to liability is a finding that the corporation owed a duty of care to the victim, the duty was delegated to the officer and the officer breached the duty of care by his own conduct.

Saltiel v. GSI Consults., Inc., 788 A.2d 268, 272 (N.J. 2002); see also Reliance Ins. Co. v. The Lott Grp., 776-77 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2004).

As the sole member of Pachner & Associates who served as the primary individual responsible for dealing with NMG during NMG’s effort to insure its activities, Donald Pachner meets these requirements. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 1; ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 16.) Accordingly, the Court may not grant summary judgment on this ground.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons set forth above, Atain’s motion is DENIED and Pachner’s motion is GRANTED IN PART in favor of PRM on all claims and in favor of all Pachner parties on any claims relating to Pachner’s negligent failure to maintain appropriate licensure and DENIED IN PART in all other respects. An appropriate order will follow.

/s/ Brian R. Martinotti
HON. BRIAN R. MARTINOTTI
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Dated: January 30, 2020

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Footnotes:

1. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

2. Pachner also argues the Activity could not be “guided” as the Policy uses the term unless Vulpis or Enberg met the definition of “guide” in NMG’s Guide Handbook—”specially trained and experienced mountaineers, climbers, instructors, and outdoor professionals for hire.” (ECF No. 73-35, at 7.) The Court rejects this argument—which Pachner raises for the first time in a reply brief—because “arguments raised for first time in [a] reply brief will not be considered.” Washington v. Doran, 717 F. App’x 151, 155 (3d Cir. 2017).

Were the Court to consider Pachner’s argument on its merits, the argument would fail. First, Pachner offers no evidence the parties intended the Guide Handbook’s definition of “guide” to govern the Policy’s coverage for “guided” activities, nor any evidence the parties even considered the Guide Handbook’s definition at the time Atain issued the Policy. Second, even if the Guide Handbook’s definition did govern the Policy’s coverage for “guided” activities, Vulpis and Enberg meet the definition. Both Vulpis and Enberg possess special training, and were available for hire. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 4-7; ECF No. 86-15 ¶¶ 2-3.) The Guide Handbook’s definition does not require Manchester in fact have hired Vulpis or Enberg to guide Manchester on the day of the incident.

3. Manchester joins Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 80, at 19.) NMG, Vulpis, and Enberg also join Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 86, at 30.)

4. Because a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether NMG knowingly misrepresented its projected revenue, the Court need not decide (1) whether NMG’s projected revenue was material to the particular risk assumed by the Atain, nor (2) whether Atain’s remedy is limited to a retroactive increase in the Policy premium.

5. The Court declines to consider two of Atain’s arguments concerning whether NMG knowingly misrepresented its projected revenues. First, Atain argues—for the first time in its reply brief (ECF No. 93, at 25)—Vulpis improperly projected zero revenue from NMG’s Professional Services Division, which NMG had created shortly before applying for Atain’s insurance. Second, Atain argues—again, for the first time in its reply brief (ECF No. 93, at 25-26)—even if NMG’s revenue figures were reasonable at the time of the Application, NMG’s failure to update the figures as circumstances changed constitutes a knowing misrepresentation. The Court will not consider either argument because an argument raised for the first time in a reply brief is waived. See Haberle v. Borough of Nazareth, 936 F.3d 138, 141 n.3 (3d Cir. 2019).

Were the Court to consider Atain’s arguments on their merits, neither argument would prevail. With regard to revenue from NMG’s newly created Professional Services Division, the Court notes, “[m]ost new businesses fail. Pretty much all studies agree on that.” Thomas J. McIntyre, Note, Discriminatory Opportunism: Why Undertaking Self-Employment to Mitigate Damages Creates Unique Challenges, 45 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 549, 550 n.11 (2012) (quoting Scott A. Shane, The Illusions of Entrepreneurship 98 (2008)). That Vulpis projected no revenue from NMG’s new venture is unsurprising. In conjunction with the other evidence and viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could still determine Vulpis did not knowingly misrepresent NMG’s projected revenue. With regard to NMG’s failure to update its revenue figures as its circumstances changed, the evidence viewed in a light most favorable to NMG does not rule out the possibility NMG’s failure to update its Application was a “mere oversight or honest mistake.” Rutgers, 945 A.2d at 1035 (quoting Longobardi, 582 A.2d at 1261).

6. Atain argues the existence of new hires indicates NMG’s business was growing, and is reason to expect a good faith estimate of NMG’s revenues would have been higher. While Atain’s argument is one permissible inference concerning this piece of evidence, the Court must draw all inferences concerning the new hires in favor of non-movant NMG.

7. Manchester joins Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 80, at 19.) NMG, Vulpis, and Enberg also join Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 86, at 30.)

8. Because these two genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment on these issues for both Atain and Pachner, the Court need not decide (1) whether principles of preclusion or estoppel require the Court to treat the guides as independent contractors for purposes of this litigation, nor (2) whether NMG’s representation concerning subcontractors and independent contractors was material to the particular risk assumed by Atain.

9. In the copyright context, a work is “made for hire” if the work’s author or creator is an “employee” under a non-exhaustive thirteen-factor test derived from the common law of agency. See Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid (“CCNV”), 490 U.S. 730, 751 (1989). The Fair Labor Standards Act regulates the wages of individuals who meet a six-factor, totality-of-the-circumstances test focusing on the “economic reality” of the employer-employee relationship. See Verma v. 3001 Castor, Inc., 937 F.3d 221, 229-30 (3d Cir. 2019). The Americans with Disabilities Act covers businesses with a minimum number of “employees” as determined by a different six-factor, totality-of-the-circumstances test, focusing on the employer’s right to control the employee. See Clackamas Gastroenterology Assocs. v. Wells, 538 U.S. 440, 449-50 (2003). New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act protects a person from retaliation against whistle-blowing if the person is an “employee” under the totality of the circumstances after analyzing a three-consideration, twelve-factor test analyzing both the employer’s right to control the employee and the economic realities of the employer-employee relationship. See D’Annunzio v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 927 A.2d 113, 120-22 (N.J. 2007). When distinguishing employees from independent contractors in the context of federal employment taxes, the U.S. Tax Court, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Court of Federal Claims each use a different test. The Tax Court considers seven factors while the IRS considers twenty, and the Court of Federal Claims adopts the Reid test from copyright law. See Ewens & Miller, Inc. v. Comm’r, 117 T.C. 263, 270 (2001); Consol. Flooring Servs. v. United States, 38 Fed. Cl. 450, 455 (1997) (quoting CCNV, 490 U.S. at 751-52); Rev. Rul. 87-41, 1987-1 C.B. 296, 298-299). This is not an exhaustive list.

10. A business uses IRS Form W-2 to report payments to an employee, but uses IRS Form 1099 to report payments to a non-employee independent contractor. See Hopkins v. Duckett, Civ. No. 02-5589, 2006 WL 3373784, at *4 & n.2 (D.N.J. Nov. 21, 2006).

11. The Court reminds the parties of their obligation to redact social security numbers and tax identification numbers from filings, including copies of tax returns attached as exhibits. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2(a). The parties shall coordinate with the assigned magistrate judge to bring all non-compliant filings into compliance with this rule.

12. Atain does not contend Count Seven, a claim under the New Jersey Insurance Fraud Prevention Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:33A-1 et seq., covers the claim for misrepresentation concerning the training and education programs for search and rescue operations. (ECF No. 93, at 28-33.)

13. The Court rejects Atain’s argument asking the Court to disregard Vulpis’s and Enberg’s declarations as “conclusory, self-serving affidavits . . . insufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment.” Gonzalez v. Sec’y of Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 678 F.3d 254, 263 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Kirleis v. Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C., 560 F.3d 156, 161 (3d Cir. 2009)). Vulpis’s and Enberg’s declarations “detail[] the specific circumstances” surrounding NMG’s education and training programs concerning search and rescue operations, rendering the declarations far from conclusory. Kirleis, 560 F.3d at 161. Notwithstanding any arguable inconsistencies with his deposition testimony, Enberg’s declaration is not so unbelievable that “the [C]ourt, based on all of the evidence, can say with confidence that a rational trier of fact could not credit” Enberg’s declaration. United States v. 717 S. Woodward Street, 2 F.3d 529, 534 (3d Cir. 1993). Both Vulpis’s and Enberg’s declarations (like all declarations) are self-serving, but this is no reason to disregard them entirely. See Paladino v. Newsome, 885 F.3d 203, 209 (3d Cir. 2018). Accordingly, the Court must consider Vulpis’s and Enberg’s testimony, and their testimony creates a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment.

14. Manchester joins Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 80, at 19.) NMG, Vulpis, and Enberg also join Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 86, at 30.)

15. Atain argues the relevant date is January 5, 2016, when NMG received a letter from Manchester’s attorneys providing a notice of claim. (ECF No. 85-5, at 2.)

16. The record is ambiguous on this point. When asked whether, after Manchester’s Injury, Atain retained NMG’s Policy premiums or returned them to NMG, Atain’s representative testified, “I don’t believe so. I don’t know for sure. I can’t verify.” (ECF No. 73-18, at 149:14-15.) For the purpose of Pachner’s motion, the Court assumes Atain did not refund the Policy premium to NMG in light of Atain’s argument claiming Atain may retain the premium without forfeiting Atain’s right to rescission. (ECF No. 85, at 13-14.)

17. As part of its argument, Pachner contends the testimony of Grace Cunningham is irrelevant because Cunningham was not designated as Atain’s organizational representative under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 30(b)(6) and because she did not work at Atain at the time of her deposition. Accordingly, Pachner argues, the Court should disregard not only Cunningham’s testimony but other evidence relying on Cunningham’s testimony. The Court disagrees. Cunningham’s testimony is relevant to this case and the Court will consider it.

A person need not be an organizational representative under Rule 30(b)(6) nor still employed with a defendant to provide relevant testimony. Cf. Lacey v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 932 F.3d 170, 183 (3d Cir. 1991) (observing “many potentially relevant witnesses may no longer be employed by” a defendant company). Testimony is relevant to the extent “(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without [her testimony]; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining [this] action.” Fed. R. Evid. 401.

Pachner does not argue any particular item of Cunningham’s testimony fails to meet this definition. Instead, Pachner argues only the Court should wholesale disregard Cunningham’s entire testimony because none of it can be relevant if Atain no longer employs Cunningham. The Court cannot agree. As the director of underwriting for recreational programs at Atain when NMG contracted with Atain under the Policy, Cunningham was personally involved with Atain’s issuance of the Policy to NMG. (ECF No. 70-20, at 12:22-13:6, 32:19-23.) Given her position and personal involvement, the Court cannot say her testimony is entirely irrelevant. Accordingly, the Court considers both Cunningham’s testimony and other evidence relying on her testimony.

18. Pachner characterizes this argument by saying Manchester lacks “standing” to sue Pachner. (ECF No. 73-2, at 25-26; ECF No. 92, at 4-5.) The Court declines to adopt this phrasing, to avoid confusion with the doctrine of justiciability under Article III of the Constitution. See, e.g., Gill v. Whitford, 138 S. Ct. 1916, 1929 (2018). Pachner’s underlying argument concerns whether Manchester is an appropriate plaintiff—which, in a negligence action like this, is best analyzed in terms of whether Pachner owes a duty to Manchester.

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Iowa Supreme upholds release for injuries due to an accident on a zip line.

However, case goes to trial based on plaintiffs’ claims of gross negligence, which do not exist under Iowa law?

Lukken v. Fleischer, 962 N.W.2d 71 (Iowa 2021)

State: Iowa, Supreme Court of Iowa

Plaintiff: Thomas Lukken

Defendant: Korby L. FLEISCHER, individually and d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area ; Samantha Fleischer, individually and d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area; Mt. Crescent Ski Area, an unknown business entity; Safehold Special Risk, Inc., an Illinois corporation; Challenge Quest, LLC, an Oklahoma Corporation d/b/a Challenge Quest, LLC ; and Kirk Gregory Engineering, P.C., a Texas Corporation; KG Structural Solutions, LLC, a Texas Corporation; and Atlas Engineering, LLC, a Nebraska Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and strict liability, and requesting punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Granted to specific defendants and reversed as to others

Year: 2021

Summary

A zipline braking system was not reset before the plaintiff slammed into the end. The plaintiff sued the original designer and installer of the zipline who had not designed or had anything to do with the new braking system that failed.

The court also found that the release protecting the zipline operator would not protect the zipline operator from claims of greater than ordinary negligence. What is confusing is Iowa does not recognize gross or willful and wanton negligence as a legal claim.

Facts

Thomas Lukken stepped off an elevated platform and sped down a zip line at the Mt. Crescent Ski Area. An employee at the end of the zip line had failed to reset the zip line’s braking system after the previous rider exited. By the time the employee realized his mistake, it was too late. Lukken slammed into a wooden pole at the base of the zip line and fractured his neck. He sued the zip line’s original designer and its owner. The district court dismissed the claims against the zip line’s designer primarily based on the fact that the braking system that failed to stop Lukken had been completely replaced by a different supplier before the incident. And the district court dismissed the claims against the zip line’s owner based on a liability waiver that Lukken signed before riding. Lukken appeals.

Double Diamond, Inc. d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area (Mt. Crescent) operates a skiing and sledding business in winter months and offers other outdoor recreational activities, including zip lining, in warmer months. The zip line begins on a twenty-four-foot-high platform atop the ski hill. Harnessed riders travel down the zip line reaching speeds of up to forty miles per hour before landing on a lower thirty-three-foot-high landing platform at the bottom of the hill. The zip line extends 1576 feet from start to finish.

In April 2014, Mt. Crescent contracted with Challenge Quest, LLC, to build and install the zip line. Challenge Quest designed the zip line to have enough slack so that riders would nearly run out of momentum before reaching the landing platform. To bring riders nearing the landing platform to a complete stop, a small device with wheels that rode on top of the zip line and connected the rider’s harness to the zip line (referred to as a “trolley”) made contact with a padded brake block. The brake block connected to a rope-pulley system. An operator on the landing platform held onto a rope connected to the pulley and applied manual resistance to bring riders to a complete stop. This rope-braking feature slowed riders as the rope ran through the operator’s hands, with operators tightening or releasing their hold as needed to apply the appropriate amount of friction. Because slack in the zip line could cause riders to slide back away from the landing platform once a rider’s forward momentum stopped, the brake block also featured a capture arm that prevented riders from backsliding. The operator used the same rope-pulley system to pull stopped riders all the way onto the landing platform. After an operator unhooked a completed rider on the landing platform, the operator would use the same rope-pulley system to manually move the brake block back out for the next rider.

Challenge Quest completed construction of the zip line in August 2014. It then provided, as contemplated by the parties’ contract, a four day “site specific high technical training for full time staff,” including training on the braking system, after which it turned full control of the zip line over to Mt. Crescent. After the zip line opened to the public, Mt. Crescent’s operators in several instances failed to sufficiently slow riders using grip friction on the rope to control the brake block. Riders arrived at the landing platform at speeds in excess of six miles per hour, the maximum recommended by a trade association called the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), which develops safety standards for zip line courses. In some cases, these riders collided with the Mt. Crescent employees engaged in stopping them. A handful of injuries resulted, the most serious apparently being an injured ankle.

Mt. Crescent decided to consult with a different contractor about a different braking system than the original one Challenge Quest had installed. This new contractor, Sky Line, inspected Mt. Crescent’s zip line and recommended a “zipSTOP” braking system. Mt. Crescent had initially considered a zipSTOP braking system as part of the zip line that Challenge Quest designed but decided against it. Mt. Crescent agreed with Sky Line’s recommendation and hired Sky Line to install the zipSTOP system on its existing zip line. Sky Line completed the installation in July 2016. Mt. Crescent informed Challenge Quest of none of this.

Like the original braking system, the zipSTOP braking system also uses a brake block to bring riders to a complete stop. But instead of rope pulleys controlling the brake block using an operator’s hand resistance, the brake block uses a magnetic-resistance wheel to bring riders to a complete stop. The brake block automatically moves back to the correct position on the zip line in preparation for the next rider, but an operator must manually redeploy it before it will move.

Lukken rode Mt. Crescent’s zip line in October 2016 with the zipSTOP braking system in place. The Mt. Crescent employee on the landing platform forgot to redeploy the brake block after the rider ahead of Lukken finished. Lukken was already whizzing down the zip line toward the landing platform by the time the operator realized his mistake. The operator’s tardy redeployment of the zipSTOP braking system didn’t permit enough time for it to stop Lukken, and he crashed into a wooden pole at the base of the zip line and suffered a neck fracture.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Challenge Quest, holding that it breached no duty to Lukken and that it didn’t cause Lukken’s injuries. The district court reasoned that Challenge Quest owed no duty to Lukken because it had completed its work under its contract and transferred control of the zip line to Mt. Crescent by the time of the incident, and, further, that its actions were not the “cause” of Lukken’s injuries because it didn’t install the allegedly defective braking system in place when Lukken was injured.

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

The first claim pleaded by the plaintiff was the builder of the zip line owed him a duty of care. Under Iowa law “To maintain a claim for negligence, Lukken must prove that Challenge Quest owed a duty to protect him from the harm he suffered.”

To prove his claim the plaintiff argued:

Lukken contends that Challenge Quest owed a bevy of duties to Mt. Crescent, including a duty (1) to design and construct a zip line that complied with industry standards, (2) to provide Mt. Crescent appropriate instruction on how to operate the zip line, (3) to address Mt. Crescent’s safety concerns about the zip line, (4) to ensure that Mt. Crescent had procedures in place to train new employees, and (5) to address safety issues with Mt. Crescent arising in future safety inspections. Lukken argues that Challenge Quest owes each of these duties to Mt. Crescent and, based on the risk of physical harm to Mt. Crescent’s zip line riders, these duties extend to Lukken as well.

The court looked at the issue as one of control. Who had control of the zip line after Challenge Quest was no longer involved in the operation, maintenance or repair of the zipline.

Since Challenge Quest was no longer servicing the zip line and had been replaced by another company, Challenge Quest had no control over the zip line. That lack of control extended both to the design, installation and operation of the zipline as well as its operation on the day the plaintiff was injured.

So too here, once Mt. Crescent decided to replace the braking system, any machine- or human-related flaws in that system ceased to be Challenge Quest’s responsibility. Challenge Quest’s braking system didn’t fail; it no longer existed. Challenge Quest likewise had no connection to the actions of Mt. Crescent’s employee who failed to reset the brake in time to stop Lukken. The employee didn’t work for Mt. Crescent when Challenge Quest conducted its four-day technical training for Mt. Crescent employees prior to Mt. Crescent opening the course to the public. Challenge Quest had no role in the employee’s hiring, supervision, or instruction.

That lack of control extended to the new braking system. Challenge Quest did not design, install or operate the new braking system that was not reset properly on the day of the accident.

And Challenge Quest neither designed nor constructed the braking system that the employee failed to reset when Lukken rode the zip line. By that time, Sky Line’s zipSTOP braking system had replaced Challenge Quest’s original system. Challenge Quest owed no duty of care to prevent Mt. Crescent from changing the braking system. Because Challenge Quest owed no duty of care associated with the zip line’s braking system after its own braking system had been uninstalled, no cause of action for negligence exists as a matter of law, and the district court thus properly granted summary judgment in Challenge Quest’s favor.

Because there was no control over the zipline or braking system, Challenge Quest could not be held liable for the failure of the new braking system.

The Supreme Court then reviewed the dismissal of the complaint against the ski area based on the release.

Under Iowa law, releases are valid.

Exculpatory clauses, sometimes referred to as “hold harmless” clauses, relieve parties from responsibility for the consequences of their actions. “[W]e have repeatedly held that contracts exempting a party from its own negligence are enforceable, and are not contrary to public policy.” An enforceable waiver must contain “clear and unequivocal language” notifying a casual reader that by signing, she agrees to waive all claims for future acts or omissions of negligence. An intention to absolve a party from all claims of negligence must be clearly and unequivocally expressed in the waiver.

The court in its analysis of the arguments made by the plaintiff veered into the idea that a release under Iowa law cannot stop a claim for greater than normal negligence, (gross or willful and wanton negligence).

However, Iowa does not recognize any negligence other than ordinary negligence.

“Gross negligence” is not a distinct cause of action under our common law, but instead is a measure of conduct in a cause of action for negligence. “In this state, as is well known, the actionable character of negligence is not dependent upon its ‘degree,’ and the ancient differentiation into ‘gross,’ ‘ordinary,’ and ‘slight’ has come to mean little more than a matter of comparative emphasis in the discussion of testimony.” Under our common law “there are no degrees of care or of negligence in Iowa, and we thus do not recognize a tort cause of action based on “gross” negligence as distinct from “ordinary” negligence.

The court then wove through an intricate review of statute and case law to determine that although Iowa does not recognize greater than ordinary negligence, if greater than ordinary negligence is found in this case, the release will not stop a claim for it.

We therefore hold that the contractual waiver limiting Mt. Crescent’s liability is unenforceable to the extent it purports to eliminate liability for the willful, wanton, or reckless conduct that Lukken has alleged. To the extent Lukken’s claims against Mt. Crescent involve culpability that constitutes only negligent conduct (regardless of any degree of negligence), his claims fail as a matter of law based on the liability waiver.

So Now What?

The release could have stopped several more of the claims if it had been written better. Besides the ski area, the release could have protected the builder of the zip line and anyone who worked on the zip line after it was built.

As to the release, the Iowa Supreme Court seems to have not muddied the water but moved the entire river to a different stream bed. I do not know how to interpret a case where a release cannot apply to a legal claim that does not exist.

However, this analysis is not that far outside of the laws in most other states. It is just how the court got to this position that is confusing.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Lukken v. Fleischer, 962 N.W.2d 71 (Iowa 2021)

962 N.W.2d 71

Thomas LUKKEN, Appellant,
v.
Korby L. FLEISCHER, individually and d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area ; Samantha Fleischer, individually and d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area; Mt. Crescent Ski Area, an unknown business entity; Safehold Special Risk, Inc., an Illinois corporation; Challenge Quest, LLC, an Oklahoma Corporation d/b/a Challenge Quest, LLC ; and Kirk Gregory Engineering, P.C., a Texas Corporation; KG Structural Solutions, LLC, a Texas Corporation; and Atlas Engineering, LLC, a Nebraska Corporation, Appellees.

No. 20-0343

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted March 24, 2021
Filed June 30, 2021

Matthew A. Lathrop (argued) of Law Office of Mathew A. Lathrop, Omaha, Nebraska, and Robert M. Livingston of Stuart Tinley Law Firm, LLP, Council Bluffs, for appellant.

Thomas Henderson (argued) and Peter J. Chalik of Whitfield & Eddy, P.L.C., Des Moines, for Mt. Crescent appellees.

Joshua S. Weiner (argued) and Robert M. Slovek of Kutak Rock LLP, Omaha, Nebraska, for appellee Challenge Quest, LLC.

McDermott, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Christensen, C.J., and Waterman, Mansfield, McDonald, and Oxley, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed an opinion concurring specially.

McDERMOTT, Justice.

Thomas Lukken stepped off an elevated platform and sped down a zip line at the Mt. Crescent Ski Area. An employee at the end of the zip line had failed to reset the zip line’s braking system after the previous rider exited. By the time the employee realized his mistake, it was too late. Lukken slammed into a wooden pole at the base of the zip line and fractured his neck. He sued the zip line’s original designer and its owner. The district court dismissed the claims against the zip line’s designer primarily based on the fact that the braking system that failed to stop Lukken had been completely replaced by a different supplier before the incident. And the district court dismissed the claims against the zip line’s owner based on a liability waiver that Lukken signed before riding. Lukken appeals.

I.

Double Diamond, Inc. d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area (Mt. Crescent) operates a skiing and sledding business in winter months and offers other outdoor recreational activities, including zip lining, in warmer months. The zip line begins on a twenty-four-foot-high platform atop the ski hill. Harnessed riders travel down the zip line reaching speeds of up to forty miles per hour before landing on a lower thirty-three-foot-high landing platform at the bottom of the hill. The zip line extends 1576 feet from start to finish.

In April 2014, Mt. Crescent contracted with Challenge Quest, LLC, to build and install the zip line. Challenge Quest designed the zip line to have enough slack so that riders would nearly run out of momentum before reaching the landing platform. To bring riders nearing the landing platform to a complete stop, a small device with wheels that rode on top of the zip line and connected the rider’s harness to the zip line (referred to as a “trolley”) made contact with a padded brake block. The brake block connected to a rope-pulley system. An operator on the landing platform held onto a rope connected to the pulley and applied manual resistance to bring riders to a complete stop. This rope-braking feature slowed riders as the rope ran through the operator’s hands, with operators tightening or releasing their hold as needed to apply the appropriate amount of friction. Because slack in the zip line could cause riders to slide back away from the landing platform once a rider’s forward momentum stopped, the brake block also featured a capture arm that prevented riders from backsliding. The operator used the same rope-pulley system to pull stopped riders all the way onto the landing platform. After an operator unhooked a completed rider on the landing platform, the operator would use the same rope-pulley system to manually move the brake block back out for the next rider.

Challenge Quest completed construction of the zip line in August 2014. It then provided, as contemplated by the parties’ contract, a four day “site specific high technical training for full time staff,” including training on the braking system, after which it turned full control of the zip line over to Mt. Crescent. After the zip line opened to the public, Mt. Crescent’s operators in several instances failed to sufficiently slow riders using grip friction on the rope to control the brake block. Riders arrived at the landing platform at speeds in excess of six miles per hour, the maximum recommended by a trade association called the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), which develops safety standards for zip line courses. In some cases, these riders collided with the Mt. Crescent employees engaged in stopping them. A handful of injuries resulted, the most serious apparently being an injured ankle.

Mt. Crescent decided to consult with a different contractor about a different braking system than the original one Challenge Quest had installed. This new contractor, Sky Line, inspected Mt. Crescent’s zip line and recommended a “zipSTOP” braking system. Mt. Crescent had initially considered a zipSTOP braking system as part of the zip line that Challenge Quest designed but decided against it. Mt. Crescent agreed with Sky Line’s recommendation and hired Sky Line to install the zipSTOP system on its existing zip line. Sky Line completed the installation in July 2016. Mt. Crescent informed Challenge Quest of none of this.

Like the original braking system, the zipSTOP braking system also uses a brake block to bring riders to a complete stop. But instead of rope pulleys controlling the brake block using an operator’s hand resistance, the brake block uses a magnetic-resistance wheel to bring riders to a complete stop. The brake block automatically moves back to the correct position on the zip line in preparation for the next rider, but an operator must manually redeploy it before it will move.

Lukken rode Mt. Crescent’s zip line in October 2016 with the zipSTOP braking system in place. The Mt. Crescent employee on the landing platform forgot to redeploy the brake block after the rider ahead of Lukken finished. Lukken was already whizzing down the zip line toward the landing platform by the time the operator realized his mistake. The operator’s tardy redeployment of the zipSTOP braking system didn’t permit enough time for it to stop Lukken, and he crashed into a wooden pole at the base of the zip line and suffered a neck fracture.

Before riding on the zip line, Lukken signed a release and waiver-of-liability agreement in favor of Mt. Crescent. It stated in relevant part:

I am aware and fully understand that these activities are very dangerous. They involve the risk of damage, serious injury and death, both to myself and to others.

I understand that there are many potential causes for property damage, serious injury and death at Mt Crescent Ski Area including the negligence of Mt Crescent Ski Area, its owners, agents, employees, volunteer staff, rescue personnel, and equipment as well as my own negligence and the negligence of others.

In consideration of being permitted to participate in the activities offered at Mt Crescent Ski Area I hereby agree to release, waive, discharge, and covenant not to sue Mt Crescent Ski Area, its owners, agents, employees, volunteer staff, or rescue personnel as well as any equipment manufacturers and distributors involved with the Mt Crescent Ski Area facilities from any and all liability from any and all loss or damage I may have and any claims or demands I may have on account of injury to my person and property or the person and property of others, including death, arising out of or related to the activities offered at Mt Crescent Ski Area whether caused by the negligence of Mt Crescent Ski Area, its owners, agents, employees, volunteer staff, rescue personnel, equipment manufacturers, or distributors or otherwise.

….

In consideration of being permitted to participate in the activities offered at Mt Crescent Ski Area, I agree that this Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement extends to any and all acts of negligence by Mt Crescent Ski Area, its owners, agents, employees, volunteer staff, rescue personnel, and equipment manufacturers, and distributors, including negligent rescue operations and is intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by Iowa law and that if any portion is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall continue in full legal force and effect.

He filed suit against Mt. Crescent (and related individuals and entities alleged to own it) and Challenge Quest (and related entities alleged to have participated in the zip line’s design and construction), pleading causes of action for negligence and strict liability, and requesting punitive damages.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Challenge Quest, holding that it breached no duty to Lukken and that it didn’t cause Lukken’s injuries. The district court reasoned that Challenge Quest owed no duty to Lukken because it had completed its work under its contract and transferred control of the zip line to Mt. Crescent by the time of the incident, and, further, that its actions were not the “cause” of Lukken’s injuries because it didn’t install the allegedly defective braking system in place when Lukken was injured.

The district court also granted summary judgment in favor of Mt. Crescent, holding the waiver dispositive of the claims. The district court reasoned that Iowa courts consistently uphold exculpatory agreements and that the waiver at issue contained language sufficiently “clear and unequivocal” to demonstrate that Lukken understood he was waiving future claims of negligence. The court held that the express language of waiving “any and all negligence” waived all of Lukken’s negligence claims, including his claim for gross negligence. The district court declined to hold the waiver unenforceable based on public-policy grounds and held that the waiver wasn’t preempted by statute.

Lukken appeals each of the district court’s summary judgment rulings.

II.

We turn first to Lukken’s claims against Challenge Quest. Lukken pleaded claims against Challenge Quest under theories of both negligence and strict liability. Yet his summary judgment and appellate briefing contain no separate legal arguments distinguishing the two theories. He cites no products liability law despite the fact that his petition alleges claims for strict liability based on design defects in the zip line. He instead focuses solely on traditional negligence principles. We will thus analyze Challenge Quest’s liability through the lens of a negligence claim.

To maintain a claim for negligence, Lukken must prove that Challenge Quest owed a duty to protect him from the harm he suffered. See
Thompson v. Kaczinski , 774 N.W.2d 829, 834 (Iowa 2009). Lukken contends that Challenge Quest owed a bevy of duties to Mt. Crescent, including a duty (1) to design and construct a zip line that complied with industry standards, (2) to provide Mt. Crescent appropriate instruction on how to operate the zip line, (3) to address Mt. Crescent’s safety concerns about the zip line, (4) to ensure that Mt. Crescent had procedures in place to train new employees, and (5) to address safety issues with Mt. Crescent arising in future safety inspections. Lukken argues that Challenge Quest owes each of these duties to Mt. Crescent and, based on the risk of physical harm to Mt. Crescent’s zip line riders, these duties extend to Lukken as well.

Whether a defendant owes a duty of care under particular circumstances is a question of law for the court. Hoyt v. Gutterz Bowl & Lounge L.L.C. , 829 N.W.2d 772, 775 (Iowa 2013). The district court in granting summary judgment held that Challenge Quest owed Lukken no duty of care for the injury he sustained. We review the district court’s holding for correction of legal error. Lewis v. Howard L. Allen Invs., Inc. , 956 N.W.2d 489, 490 (Iowa 2021).

The central issue here is the scope of Challenge Quest’s duty in regard to the braking system after the braking system had been replaced without Challenge Quest’s involvement. We have reiterated that, under the Restatement (Third) of Torts, control remains an important consideration in whether a duty exists and liability normally follows control. See
McCormick v. Nikkel & Assocs., Inc. , 819 N.W.2d 368, 371–73 (Iowa 2012). In McCormick v. Nikkel & Associates, Inc. , we held as a matter of law that a subcontractor owed no duty to assure the safety of a jobsite once it locked up the switchgear and transferred control back to the contractor. Id. at 373–75. So too here, once Mt. Crescent decided to replace the braking system, any machine- or human-related flaws in that system ceased to be Challenge Quest’s responsibility. Challenge Quest’s braking system didn’t fail; it no longer existed. Challenge Quest likewise had no connection to the actions of Mt. Crescent’s employee who failed to reset the brake in time to stop Lukken. The employee didn’t work for Mt. Crescent when Challenge Quest conducted its four-day technical training for Mt. Crescent employees prior to Mt. Crescent opening the course to the public. Challenge Quest had no role in the employee’s hiring, supervision, or instruction.

And Challenge Quest neither designed nor constructed the braking system that the employee failed to reset when Lukken rode the zip line. By that time, Sky Line’s zipSTOP braking system had replaced Challenge Quest’s original system. Challenge Quest owed no duty of care to prevent Mt. Crescent from changing the braking system. Because Challenge Quest owed no duty of care associated with the zip line’s braking system after its own braking system had been uninstalled, no cause of action for negligence exists as a matter of law, and the district court thus properly granted summary judgment in Challenge Quest’s favor.

Lukken argues more specifically that Challenge Quest should have incorporated an emergency brake as part of its original braking system. But this argument fails, too, based on the replacement of the braking system and Challenge Quest’s lack of any control at that point. When Mt. Crescent decided to install a different braking system, it became the responsibility of Mt. Crescent and Sky Line to assure the safety of that system. Challenge Quest’s original braking system (without an emergency brake) apparently resulted in some minor mishaps until it was replaced in July 2016. Sky Line’s replacement braking system (without an emergency brake) had the potential to result in a more serious accident in the event of an operator’s error. It would be unfair to make Challenge Quest legally responsible for this replacement system. See
Huck v. Wyeth, Inc. , 850 N.W.2d 353, 381 (Iowa 2014) (reaffirming the “long-standing” rule that requires the plaintiff “to prove the defendant manufactured or supplied the product that caused her injury, and [declining] to extend the duty of product manufacturers to those injured by use of a competitor’s product”). In this case, to the extent any product failed, it wasn’t Challenge Quest’s product. Cf. Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Thermogas Co. , 620 N.W.2d 819, 825 (Iowa 2000) (en banc) (“[T]o establish assembler liability, the plaintiff must show that the assembler actually sold or otherwise placed the defective product on the market. Baughman [ v.
Gen. Motors Corp. , 780 F.2d 1131, 1132–33 (4th Cir. 1986)] (refusing to hold truck manufacturer liable for defective wheel rim that was placed on vehicle after sale and that manufacturer did not supply); Exxon [ Shipping Co. v. Pac. Res., Inc. , 789 F. Supp. 1521, 1522–23, 1527 (D. Haw. 1991)] (refusing to hold designer of mooring terminal liable for defective replacement chain).”) That Lukken claims the new, different product was similarly defective does not provide him a basis to pursue Challenge Quest for a defect in a product that Lukken never used and that didn’t injure him. See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Prod. Liab. § 15 cmt. b , illus. 2, at 232 (Am. L. Inst. 1998).

Lukken also contends that Challenge Quest’s zip line design defects caused riders to reach speeds in excess of ACCT’s standards, which left the braking system unable to safely stop him. But the record demonstrates that Sky Line independently examined the existing zip line, recommended the zipSTOP braking system, and (at Mt. Crescent’s direction) installed it. As the district court correctly found, the actions of Sky Line and Mt. Crescent cut off Challenge Quest’s liability. See
McCormick , 819 N.W.2d at 374 (noting that the party in control “is best positioned to take precautions to identify risks and take measures to improve safety”). In this case, when Mt. Crescent scrapped Challenged Quest’s original braking system and installed Sky Line’s zipSTOP braking system, Challenge Quest was relieved of any liability associated with insufficient stopping capacity or other defects in its original braking system.

Lukken further claims that Challenge Quest breached a duty to provide Mt. Crescent information, training, and policies to ensure Mt. Crescent’s safe ongoing operation of the zip line. Lukken asserts that had Challenge Quest instructed Mt. Crescent on safety procedures that included, for instance, operational redundancies or checklists, Mt. Crescent might have ensured the braking system was properly deployed and cross-checked before Lukken ever started down the zip line. But this claimed duty on Challenge Quest fails for reasons inherent in the different braking systems that were installed. The original braking system required an employee’s active, manual stopping efforts to ensure riders stopped at the landing platform. Yet the zipSTOP system stops riders through an automated brake that requires no similar manual exertion. Challenge Quest had no reason to provide the type of instruction or policies that would have caused Mt. Crescent’s employees to remember to redeploy an automated braking system that, at the time, didn’t exist on this zip line. Challenge Quest trained Mt. Crescent’s employees on how to stop a rider using the original manual stopping method; we see no basis to impose on Challenge Quest some requirement to provide instruction or procedures on operating a distinct braking system that hadn’t been installed. On these facts, Challenge Quest had no duty to provide training or policies on the safe operation of a braking system that relied on a completely different stopping mechanism and that required completely different actions by Mt. Crescent’s employees.

We thus affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Challenge Quest.

III.

We turn to the dismissal of Lukken’s negligence claim against Mt. Crescent.

The district court found that the waiver Lukken signed before riding the zip line was “broad in its inclusiveness and contained clear and unequivocal language sufficient to notify Plaintiff that by signing the document, he would be waiving all future claims for negligence against Defendants.” Lukken argues that even if the waiver’s language could be considered “clear and unequivocal,” Mt. Crescent’s negligence went beyond ordinary negligence and into the realm of gross negligence. He argues that the gross negligence alleged in this case involves conduct more culpable than the inadvertence or inattention of ordinary negligence and that, as a matter of public policy, Iowa courts should not enforce clauses that exculpate parties from grossly negligent conduct.

Exculpatory clauses, sometimes referred to as “hold harmless” clauses, relieve parties from responsibility for the consequences of their actions. “[W]e have repeatedly held that contracts exempting a party from its own negligence are enforceable, and are not contrary to public policy.” Huber v. Hovey , 501 N.W.2d 53, 55 (Iowa 1993). An enforceable waiver must contain “clear and unequivocal language” notifying a casual reader that by signing, she agrees to waive all claims for future acts or omissions of negligence. Sweeney v. City of Bettendorf , 762 N.W.2d 873, 878–79 (Iowa 2009). An intention to absolve a party from all claims of negligence must be clearly and unequivocally expressed in the waiver. Id. at 878–79 ; see also
Baker v. Stewarts’ Inc. , 433 N.W.2d 706, 709 (Iowa 1988) (stating that an intent “to absolve the establishment from liability based upon the acts or omissions of its professional staff … must be clearly and unequivocally expressed”).

Exculpatory clauses reside at the intersection of tort law and contract law. Under tort law, courts generally permit a party to whom a duty of care is owed to pursue damages against another for acts that breach that duty if those acts were the factual cause of the harm and within the other party’s scope of liability. See
Thompson , 774 N.W.2d at 837. But under contract law, “parties of full age and competent understanding must have the greatest freedom of contracting, and contracts, when entered into freely and voluntarily, must be upheld and enforced by the courts.” 5 Richard A. Lord, Williston on Contracts § 12:3, at 862–870 (4th ed. 2009). Not enforcing exculpatory clauses advances the interests of tort law (deterring unsafe conduct and compensating accident victims) but abridges parties’ power to contract; enforcing exculpatory clauses advances the parties’ power to contract but abridges tort remedies.

Courts attempt to strike a balance by not enforcing exculpatory contracts that contravene public policy. See
Wunschel L. Firm, P.C. v. Clabaugh , 291 N.W.2d 331, 335 (Iowa 1980). Admittedly, courts have struggled to articulate a predictable framework for parties to anticipate which agreements will contravene public policy in a future given case and which will not. We have stated in general terms that courts should not enforce a contract that “tends to be injurious to the public or contrary to the public good.” Walker v. Am. Fam. Mut. Ins. , 340 N.W.2d 599, 601 (Iowa 1983). Yet declaring contracts unenforceable as violating public policy “is a delicate power which ‘should be exercised only in cases free from doubt.’ ” Wunschel L. Firm, P.C. , 291 N.W.2d at 335 (quoting Richmond v. Dubuque & Sioux City R.R. , 26 Iowa 191, 202 (1868) ). We will not “curtail the liberty to contract by enabling parties to escape their valid contractual obligation on the ground of public policy unless the preservation of the general public welfare imperatively so demands.” Walker , 340 N.W.2d at 601 (quoting Tschirgi v. Merchs. Nat’l Bank of Cedar Rapids , 253 Iowa 682, 690, 113 N.W.2d 226, 231 (1962) ); see also
Robinson v. Allied Prop. & Cas. Ins. , 816 N.W.2d 398, 408 (Iowa 2012) (” ‘[T]here is a certain danger in too freely invalidating private contracts on the basis of public policy.’ … To do so ‘is to mount “a very unruly horse, and when you once get astride it, you never know where it will carry you.” ‘ ” (alteration in original) (first quoting Skyline Harvestore Sys., Inc. v. Centennial Ins. , 331 N.W.2d 106, 109 (Iowa 1983) ) (second quoting Grinnell Mut. Reins. v. Jungling , 654 N.W.2d 530, 540 (Iowa 2002) )). And yet, in Galloway v. State , we held that “public policy precludes enforcement of a parent’s preinjury waiver of her child’s cause of action for [negligently inflicted] injuries” on an educational field trip. 790 N.W.2d 252, 253, 256, 258 (Iowa 2010). But see
Kelly v. United States , 809 F. Supp. 2d 429, 437 (E.D.N.C. 2011) (anticipating that the North Carolina Supreme Court would enforce the parent’s liability waiver for fifteen-year-old’s high school enrichment program and describing Galloway as an “outlier”).

Lukken argues that we should not enforce an exculpatory clause against him that purports to release claims of “any and all acts of negligence” as contrary to public policy to the extent it includes claims of gross negligence. While we have never provided an all-encompassing framework for analyzing public-policy exceptions, in Baker v. Stewarts’ Inc. , we recited several factors that might be considered to determine whether a contract implicated a public interest. See 433 N.W.2d at 708. The district court in this case found that one of these factors—whether “the party seeking exculpation performs a service of great importance to the public which is of practical necessity for at least some members of the public,” id. —cut sharply against a finding that zip lining implicated a sufficient public interest to warrant interference with the parties’ contract. The district court noted that the Iowa Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion determined that snow sledding was a “purely recreational activity” and thus not a service of great importance or necessity to the public to justify applying the public-policy exception. Lathrop v. Century, Inc. , No. 01-1058, 2002 WL 31425215, at *3 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 30, 2002).

But this focus somewhat misconstrues Lukken’s argument. Lukken’s focus isn’t on whether Mt. Crescent may enforce an exculpatory clause for voluntary recreational activities (under Iowa law, it may), but whether Mt. Crescent may enforce an exculpatory clause that negates claims for more culpable conduct. Lukken argues that the district court’s ruling overlooks the differences between “ordinary” negligence and “gross” negligence, and thus overlooks the public-policy implications associated with the differences in the culpability of the conduct that he alleges.

In his summary judgment and appeal briefing, Lukken contends that gross negligence includes “wanton” conduct based on its description in Iowa Code section 85.20. That statute describes gross negligence as conduct “amounting to such lack of care as to amount to wanton neglect.” Iowa Code § 85.20(2) (2018); see also
Thompson v. Bohlken , 312 N.W.2d 501, 504 (Iowa 1981) (en banc). Lukken recites cases that define gross negligence similar to wanton conduct (and wanton conduct’s close sibling, reckless conduct) as a basis for refusing to enforce contracts that include exculpatory clauses for gross negligence. Yet Lukken’s argument—that his gross negligence claim includes wanton or reckless conduct—glosses over a distinction in our cases between our common law conception of gross negligence and different statutory renderings of gross negligence.

“Gross negligence” is not a distinct cause of action under our common law, but instead is a measure of conduct in a cause of action for negligence. Unertl v. Bezanson , 414 N.W.2d 321, 326–27 (Iowa 1987) (en banc). “In this state, as is well known, the actionable character of negligence is not dependent upon its ‘degree,’ and the ancient differentiation into ‘gross,’ ‘ordinary,’ and ‘slight’ has come to mean little more than a matter of comparative emphasis in the discussion of testimony.” Denny v. Chi., R.I. & P. Ry. , 150 Iowa 460, 464–65, 130 N.W. 363, 364 (1911). Under our common law “there are no degrees of care or of negligence in Iowa,” Tisserat v. Peters , 251 Iowa 250, 252, 99 N.W.2d 924, 925–26 (1959), and we thus do not recognize a tort cause of action based on “gross” negligence as distinct from “ordinary” negligence. Hendricks v. Broderick , 284 N.W.2d 209, 214 (Iowa 1979).

Yet analysis of “gross negligence” appears frequently in our cases interpreting statutes that employ the term. See, e.g. , Thompson , 312 N.W.2d at 504 (interpreting the meaning of “gross negligence” in section 85.20 ); Sechler v. State , 340 N.W.2d 759, 761 (Iowa 1983) (en banc) (interpreting the meaning of “gross negligence” in section 306.41). In Thompson v. Bohlken , for instance, we analyzed the term “gross negligence” in section 85.20, which the statute describes as conduct “amounting to such lack of care as to amount to wanton neglect.” 312 N.W.2d at 504 (quoting Iowa Code § 85.20 (1977)). We determined that the term “gross negligence” under this statute included elements requiring proof of the defendant’s knowledge of the danger, the defendant’s knowledge that injury is probable (not merely possible) to result from the danger, and the defendant’s conscious failure to avoid the danger. Id. at 505. These elements generally track the definition of recklessness in the Restatement (Second) of Torts. See
Leonard ex rel. Meyer v. Behrens , 601 N.W.2d 76, 80 (Iowa 1999) (per curiam) (relying on the definition of “recklessness” in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500, at 587 (Am. L. Inst. 1965) ).

But we have warned that conceptions of “gross negligence” deriving from statutory uses of that term are not to be applied beyond those statutes. In Sechler v. State , a case tried before Iowa’s adoption of comparative negligence, we defined gross negligence for purposes of Iowa Code section 306.41 (1983) as not to include wanton neglect. 340 N.W.2d at 761. We later stated that, “[f]ar from creating a new basis of liability, the ‘gross negligence’ discussed in Thompson was a restriction, not an expansion, of the scope of negligence suits.” Unertl , 414 N.W.2d at 327. The notion of gross negligence as including “wanton” conduct under section 85.20 thus is “a concept limited by its terms to workers’ compensation cases.” Id. at 326–27.

As a result, Lukken’s argument that common law gross negligence incorporates wanton or reckless conduct based on the description in section 85.20 doesn’t square with our cases. The district court, reciting our cases stating that gross negligence is simply another degree of ordinary negligence, determined that the exculpatory clause releasing “any and all negligence” likewise released Lukken’s gross negligence claims, and thus dismissed Lukken’s claims against Mt. Crescent.

Lukken’s confusion about how reckless or wanton conduct falls within the scope of gross negligence doesn’t end the analysis in this case, however, because Lukken in his petition alleged that Mt. Crescent engaged in not only negligent conduct but also willful, wanton, and reckless conduct. We have long recognized separate grounds for tort liability based on these more culpable types of conduct. See, e.g. , Leonard ex rel. Meyer , 601 N.W.2d at 80 (recognizing a cause of action in tort for reckless disregard for safety); see also
Hendricks , 284 N.W.2d at 214 (analyzing alleged reckless conduct separate from negligence).

Both the Restatements of Contracts and Torts disfavor exculpatory clauses that attempt to limit liability for harm caused recklessly or intentionally. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195(1), at 65 (Am. L. Inst. 1981) (“A term exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy.”); Restatement (Third) of Torts: Apportionment of Liab. § 2 cmt. d , at 20 (Am. L. Inst. 2000) (stating that generally “contracts absolving a party from intentional or reckless conduct are disfavored”).

The Restatement (Second) of Torts notes that “[i]n the construction of statutes which specifically refer to gross negligence, that phrase is sometimes construed as equivalent to reckless disregard” of the interest of others. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 282 cmt. e , special n. 5, at 11. And so it has been in Iowa. Wanton conduct “involves the combination of attitudes: a realization of imminent danger, coupled with a reckless disregard or lack of concern for the probable consequences of the act.” Thompson , 312 N.W.2d at 505. While willfulness is “characterized by intent to injure,” wantonness is characterized by “indifference as to whether the act will injure another.” Id. (citing 57 Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 102, at 452–53 (1971) ).

Many courts have considered in the same classification the concepts of wantonness, recklessness, and willfulness in declaring liability waivers unenforceable to the extent they seek to release such conduct. See, e.g. , Wolfgang v. Mid-Am. Motorsports, Inc. , 898 F. Supp. 783, 788 (D. Kan. 1995) (recognizing that under Kansas common law “any attempt to limit liability for gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct is unenforceable”); Moore v. Waller , 930 A.2d 176, 179 (D.C. 2007) (recognizing that courts generally don’t enforce exculpatory clauses limiting a party’s liability for “gross negligence, recklessness or intentional torts” (quoting Carleton v. Winter , 901 A.2d 174, 181 (D.C. 2006) )); Jones v. Dressel , 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981) (en banc) (holding that “in no event will such an [exculpatory] agreement provide a shield against a claim for willful and wanton negligence”); Brady v. Glosson , 87 Ga.App. 476, 74 S.E.2d 253, 255–56 (1953) (holding an exculpatory clause unenforceable to relieve liability for willful or wanton conduct); Wolf v. Ford , 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 525 (1994) (stating that “a party will not be permitted to excuse its liability for … the more extreme forms of negligence, i.e., reckless, wanton, or gross”); Anderson v. McOskar Enters., Inc. , 712 N.W.2d 796, 801 (Minn. Ct. App. 2006) (stating that “any ‘term’ in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable” (quoting Wolfgang , 898 F. Supp. at 788 )); New Light Co. v. Wells Fargo Alarm Servs. , 247 Neb. 57, 525 N.W.2d 25, 30 (1994) (holding that public policy prevents parties from limiting damages for “gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct”). We conclude that, consistent with the great weight of authority, exculpatory clauses purporting to negate liability for acts that are wantonly or recklessly committed generally violate public policy.

We therefore hold that the contractual waiver limiting Mt. Crescent’s liability is unenforceable to the extent it purports to eliminate liability for the willful, wanton, or reckless conduct that Lukken has alleged. To the extent Lukken’s claims against Mt. Crescent involve culpability that constitutes only negligent conduct (regardless of any degree of negligence), his claims fail as a matter of law based on the liability waiver. Yet Lukken maintains the opportunity, notwithstanding the liability waiver, to pursue against Mt. Crescent his claims of willful, wanton, or reckless conduct.

We reverse the district court’s summary judgment ruling as to Mt. Crescent and, in light of this determination, need not address the plaintiff’s other arguments concerning the claims against Mt. Crescent in this appeal. We remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED.

All justices concur except Appel, J., who concurs specially.

APPEL, Justice (concurring specially).

I cannot join the majority’s overbroad duty analysis suggesting that because of lack of control, duty invariably evaporates. If the zip line was negligently constructed by Challenge Quest and a patron was injured as a result of the negligent design, a potential claim by the injured patron would not be defeated by a lack of duty. As noted by comment g of the Restatement (Third), section 49, a contractor no longer in possession “is subject to a duty of reasonable care as provided in § 7 for any risk created by the contractor in the course of its work.” 2 Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liab. for Physical and Emotional Harm § 49 cmt. g , at 235 (Am. L. Inst. 2012). See generally
McCormick v. Nikkel & Assocs., Inc. , 819 N.W.2d 368, 377–83 (Iowa 2012) (Hecht, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (describing the duty of care for contractors after relinquishing possession of land). The analysis after a contractor is no longer in control of the premises concerns the fact-based questions of whether the risk was within the scope of liability and causation, not the legal question of duty. See generally
Morris v. Legends Fieldhouse Bar and Grill, LLC, 958 N.W.2d 817, 828–42 (Iowa 2021) (Appel, J., dissenting) (describing the proper analysis in most negligence cases rests with the fact questions of breach of duty and causation).

Generally, of course, these fact questions are not amenable to summary judgment. See
Thompson v. Kaczinski , 774 N.W.2d 829, 832 (Iowa 2009). But here, causation is not present with respect to the design of the braking system itself as the allegedly defective Challenge Quest system was entirely replaced by another independent vendor. To the extent there was an equipment defect in the braking system (i.e. not having an emergency brake), it was the defect in the new braking system, and not the original braking system, that caused the accident. And, the plaintiff showed no linkage between the unfortunate accident and the nebulous and allegedly insufficient training and safety policies, or the accident and the newly installed braking system (with a fundamentally different design from the original Challenge Quest system). So I concur in the district court’s conclusion that any claim against Challenge Quest fails. But this is an oddball case tightly controlled by its facts that should not be decided based on the legal principles of duty.

I concur in the majority’s holding with respect to the waiver of claims sounding in gross negligence.


Release upheld to stop claims for injuries sustained on a high rope’s course.

Plaintiff’s arguments failed because Colorado is supportive of releases.

Sheldon v. Retreat, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69461 (D. Colo. 2020)

State: Colorado, US District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Jodi Sheldon

Defendant: Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene, d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center, Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC, Kent Fielden Mcilhany, an individual, and John Doe Corporations 1-10, Defendants

Plaintiff Claims: Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (“PLA”), §13-21-115, C.R.S. negligence against Cross Bearing Adventures (“CBA”), the company which constructed and inspected the course and trained Golden Bell employees on the safety and facilitation of various aspects of the course, and its owner, Kent McIlhany

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

The plaintiff signed a release to go to a Church retreat prior to attending the retreat. At the retreat, she was injured on a ropes or challenge course. She sued the retreat, the church and the builder of the course and lost because of the release she had signed.

Facts

The facts in this case are sparse.

On June 29, 2018, plaintiff Jodi Sheldon was seriously injured while participating in a high ropes course at the Golden Bell Ranch (“Golden Bell”).

Ms. Sheldon sued Golden Bell under Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (“PLA”), §13-21-115, C.R.S. She also brought a claim of negligence against Cross Bearing Adventures (“CBA”), the company which constructed and inspected the course and trained Golden Bell employees on the safety and facilitation of various aspects of the course, and its owner, Kent McIlhany

The defendants claim the plaintiff’s claims are barred by the release she signed.

Ms. Sheldon received the Waiver from her aunt3 after having been given a list of activities offered at Golden Bell and indicating her interest in participating in the high ropes course.

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

The court started its analysis of the case by reviewing case law on releases.

Exculpatory agreements “stand at the crossroads of two competing principles: freedom of contract and responsibility for damages caused by one’s own negligent acts,” Thus, although such agreements are generally disfavored, and cannot “shield against a claim for willful and wanton conduct, regardless of the circumstances or intent of the parties,” “Colorado common law does not categorically prohibit the enforcement of contracts seeking to release claims of negligence,”

The court then reviewed the four factors that affect the validity of a release under Colorado law.

Colorado courts have identified four factors which inform the decision whether to enforce an exculpatory agreement: “(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.”

If a release meets any of the four factors, then under Colorado law, the release is unenforceable. The first two factors can be ignored because the activities were recreational in nature. Colorado courts have long held that there is no public policy or necessity in recreational cases.

The same applies to the third test, because the services offered were recreational in nature, the third test does not apply.

Nor is there any argument or evidence to establish that the third factor – whether the contract was fairly entered into – is applicable here. Indeed, because recreational activities are not considered either essential services or practically necessary, “a person is not ‘at the mercy’ of a business’s negligence when entering an exculpatory agreement involving recreational activities.”

Consequently, under Colorado law only the fourth test can be used to show a release should be void in a recreational case. This test is a simple legal test, is the release written properly and does it convey to the possible plaintiff the intention of the document.

Thus, whether the Waiver is enforceable turns exclusively on the fourth factor, “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” In analyzing this factor, the court focuses on whether the parties’ intent to “extinguish liability . . . was clearly and unambiguously expressed.”

The plaintiff argued the language of the release did not cover the risks of a high rope’s course. However, the court found the language did cover the risks; the language was broad enough in scope to cover the risks and injury the plaintiff incurred.

Ms. Sheldon insists the Waiver is ambiguous as to whether the high ropes course was within the scope of the activities covered. I am not persuaded. Here, the Waiver defined the term “Activities” as “recreational activities . . . including activities that may be hazardous or otherwise involve a risk of physical injury or death to participants.” (Emphasis added.) The use of the term “including” plainly signifies that some – but not all – of the Activities covered by the Waiver will be hazardous or involve a risk of physical injury. Thus, even accepting Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that a high ropes course is not a hazardous activity, her argument fails.

Colorado is extremely lenient on the language allows to prevent a claim.

Nor does the Waiver’s failure to refer specifically to the high ropes course render it ambiguous with respect to the type of activities covered. Colorado law does not require “an exculpatory agreement describe in detail each specific risk that the signor might encounter.”

The language was interpreted to be broad enough to protect the builder of the course, also.

Relatedly, the Waiver also clearly bars Ms. Sheldon’s claims against CBA. “A person not a party to an express contract may bring an action on such contract if the parties to the agreement intended to benefit the non-party, provided that the benefit claimed is a direct and not merely an incidental benefit of the contract.”

The plaintiff also argued the waiver lacked consideration because of the lapse in time between when she signed the release and when her injury occurred. The court did not agree.

The Waiver does not fail for lack of consideration. Contrary to Ms. Sheldon’s arguments, the mere lapse of time between her payment to participate in the activity and the date the waiver was delivered to Golden Bell is not fatal to its enforcement. Instead, the pertinent question is whether the release of liability was a contract modification or rather is part of the same transaction and thus enforceable without additional consideration.

Consideration is a benefit flowing from one party to the other. Every contract must have consideration. In 99% of the contracts, consideration is defined as money, an amount. The other side of the contract in consideration for money exchanges or provides services or products. In this case the exchange was a fee, money, paid by the plaintiff in exchange for a service, the ropes course, for the fee paid by the defendant.

The Plaintiff then argued the release should be void because of mutual mistake. That argument failed because the plaintiff could not show where there was any issue that was not clearly covered in the release. If a release is written with clarity and signed, their argument of mutual mistake is nearly impossible to prove.

The doctrine of mutual mistake permits a party to rescind a contract “if all parties labored under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.”

The mutual mistake argument was then expanded by the plaintiff to say because the state had no licensed the high ropes course, then the release should be void by mutual mistake.

Mutual mistake in a contract means both parties to the contract made the same mistake in the contract unenforceable or such that neither party wants to enforce the contract. Normally in a mutual mistake claim, the court re-writes the contract to meet the terms needed to eliminate the mutual mistake.

The state of Colorado does not license ropes course.

For one thing, it is not clear that Ms. Sheldon’s asserted mistake – that Golden Bell’s high ropes course had been licensed by the state of Colorado – was sufficiently similar to Golden Bell’s mistake – that it did not require such a license – to warrant application of the doctrine at all. Assuming arguendo that it does, however, the doctrine of mutual mistake permits reformation of the contract “where both parties’ understanding of their agreement is contrary to the terms of a written instrument due to a drafting error[.]”(“A mutual mistake claim requires a showing that both parties were laboring under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.”) (doctrine of mutual mistake applies only to mistakes going to a “basic assumption” underlying the contract)

The plaintiff claimed the mutual mistake was the ropes course was not licensed. There was a mistake that because the course was unlicensed, the contract was not correct, there was a mistake.

There could not be a mutual mistake because no term in the contract, the release, required that one party have the rope’s course licensed. Meaning, a mutual mistake is not a legal theory that brings in outside issues into the analysis of the contract. A mutual mistake is something that was not understood within the contract.

The plaintiff then argued there was a unilateral mistake that should void the release.

[A] unilateral mistake by one party to a contract can permit reformation if the evidence demonstrates that, at the time the contract was formed, the non-mistaken party was aware of the mistaken party’s mistake.” Thus, one party’s unilateral mistake may permit reformation where “the other engaged in fraud or inequitable conduct.

However, there was nothing in the contract, the release or the evidence that could be identified as one party engaging in fraud or inequitable conduct.

None of these circumstances pertains here. It cannot be unconscionable to enforce an exculpatory contract which, like this one, is enforceable under Colorado law. Moreover, there is no hint in the record that Golden Bell knew or had reason to know that Ms. Sheldon did not know its high ropes course was not licensed by the state. Nor is there evidence to suggest Golden Bell was required to make its licensing status known to participants or that it purposefully hid its licensing status from Ms. Sheldon.

The release was upheld to prevent the claims brought against all three defendants.

So Now What?

Release law is written by poor releases. My releases never go to court because they are written to cover the issues like this. The Socratic method used in law school to learn still applies when practicing law, you learn from failure not success.

Here the release squeaked through, because of the breath of the case law in Colorado supporting releases. In other states, this release would fail.

Have your release written by an attorney who understands release law and understands what you do so you do not become a learning opportunity for the rest of your industry.

The remaining arguments made by the plaintiff were without any merit, and I write about them just as additional caution and to understand what those arguments really mean.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

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Sheldon v. Retreat, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69461 (D. Colo. 2020)

Sheldon v. Retreat, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69461 (D. Colo. 2020)

JODI SHELDON, Plaintiff,
v.
GOLDEN BELL RETREAT d/b/a THE COLORADO DISTRICT CHURCH OF THE NAZARENE,
d/b/a GOLDEN BELL RANCH and GOLDEN BELL CAMP and CONFERENCE CENTER,
CROSS BEARING ADVENTURES, LLC, KENT FIELDEN MCILHANY, an individual,
and JOHN DOE CORPORATIONS 1-10, Defendants.

Civil Action No. 19-cv-01371-REB-NYW

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

April 20, 2020

Judge Robert E. Blackburn

ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Blackburn, J.

The matters before me are (1) the Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Claims Against Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center [#42],1 filed January 21, 2020; and (2) Defendants Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC’s and Kent Fielden McIlhany’s Motion for Summary Judgment [#55], filed March 9, 2020. I grant both motions and dismiss plaintiff’s remaining claims with prejudice as against the named defendants and without prejudice as against the Doe defendants.

I. JURISDICTION

I have jurisdiction over this matter under 28 U.S.C. §1332 (diversity of citizenship).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” if the issue could be resolved in favor of either party. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); Farthing v. City of Shawnee, 39 F.3d 1131, 1135 (10th Cir. 1994). A fact is “material” if it might reasonably affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Farthing, 39 F.3d at 1134.

A party who does not have the burden of proof at trial must show the absence of a genuine factual dispute. Concrete Works, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1517 (10th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 115 S.Ct. 1315 (1995). Once the motion has been properly supported, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to show, by tendering depositions, affidavits, and other competent evidence, that summary judgment is not proper. Concrete Works, 36 F.3d at 1518. All the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Simms v. Oklahoma ex rel. Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, 165 F.3d 1321, 1326 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 120 S.Ct. 53 (1999).

III. ANALYSIS

On June 29, 2018, plaintiff Jodi Sheldon was seriously injured while participating in a high ropes course at the Golden Bell Ranch (“Golden Bell”). Ms. Sheldon sued Golden Bell under Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (“PLA”), §13-21-115, C.R.S. She also brought a claim of negligence against Cross Bearing Adventures (“CBA”), the company which constructed and inspected the course and trained Golden Bell employees on the safety and facilitation of various aspects of the course, and its owner, Kent McIlhany.2

All three defendants claim Ms. Sheldon’s claims are barred by a Waiver, Release and Indemnification Agreement (the “Waiver”) which she signed on May 18, 2018, prior to participating in the high ropes course. The Waiver provided, in relevant part,

I wish to participate in recreational activities to be made available to participants at Golden Bell Camp including activities that may be hazardous or otherwise involve a risk of physical injury or death to the participants (the”Activities”).

I expressly assume any and all risks of injury or death arising from or relating to the Activities including horseback riding, agricultural recreation and waive and release any and all actions, claims, suits or demands of any kind or nature whatsoever against Golden Bell Camp, its corporate affiliates, contractors, vendors, officer, agents, sponsors, volunteers or representatives of any kind (collectively “Releases”) arising from or relating in any way to my voluntary participation in these activities. I understand that this Waiver, Release and Indemnification agreement means, among other things, that if I am injured or die as a result of my participation in these activities, I and/or my family or heirs cannot under any circumstances sue Releases or any of them for damages relating to or caused by my injuries or death.

. . .

I agree to indemnify Releases or any of them and their subrogees, if any, in the event of any loss, damage or claim arising from or relating in any way to my participation in any of the Activities.

. . . .

I have read this Waiver, Release and Indemnification Agreement, have asked and received answers to any questions I had concerning its meaning and execute it freely, without duress, and in full complete understanding of its legal effect, and of the fact that it may affect my legal rights.

(CBA Motion App., Exh. C, Attachment 2.) Ms. Sheldon received the Waiver from her aunt3 after having been given a list of activities offered at Golden Bell and indicating her interest in participating in the high ropes course. (Id., Exh. C, Attachment 1 at 25-26.)

To begin, Ms. Sheldon does not oppose Mr. McIlhany’s motion to dismiss her claims against him personally. The uncontested evidence supports Mr. McIlhany’s assertion that all actions taken by him of which Ms. Sheldon complains were done in his capacity as a member, manager, and operator of CBA and that he never performed any services for Golden Bell in his individual capacity. Ms. Sheldon’s claims against Mr. McIlhany therefore will be dismissed with prejudice.

As for Ms. Sheldon’s claims against Golden Bell and CBA, they are precluded by the Waiver.4 Because this case implicates the court’s diversity jurisdiction, I apply Colorado law. Wade v. EMASCO Insurance Co., 483 F.3d 657, 665-66 (10th Cir. 2007). Exculpatory agreements “stand at the crossroads of two competing principles: freedom of contract and responsibility for damages caused by one’s own negligent acts,” Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784 (Colo. 1989). Thus, although such agreements are generally disfavored, see B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 136 (Colo. 1998), and cannot “shield against a claim for willful and wanton conduct, regardless of the circumstances or intent of the parties,” Boles v. Sun Ergoline, Inc., 223 P.3d 724, 726 (Colo. 2010), “Colorado common law does not categorically prohibit the enforcement of contracts seeking to release claims of negligence,” Espinoza v. Arkansas Valley Adventures, LLC, 809 F.3d 1150, 1152 (10th Cir. 2016).

Colorado courts have identified four factors which inform the decision whether to enforce an exculpatory agreement: “(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 883 F.3d 1243, 1250 (10t Cir. 2018) (quoting Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The first two Jones factors focus on public policy questions – asking whether the party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity. Meanwhile, the latter two factors focus on more party – and contract-specific questions – asking whether the release was fairly obtained and clearly and unambiguously expressed.

Patterson v. Powder Monarch, LLC, 926 F.3d 633, 639 (10th Cir. 2019) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]f an exculpatory agreement satisfies any of the four factors, it must be deemed unenforceable.” Brigance, 883 F.3d at 1250. The determination of this question is a matter of law for the court. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. See also Johnson v. Gold’s Gym Rockies, LLC, 2019 WL 1112374 at *3 (D. Colo. March 11, 2019).

The first two factors are generally inapplicable to businesses engaged in recreational activities, Patterson, 926 F.3d at 639; Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004), and the parties do not argue otherwise. See also Brigance, 883 F.3d at 1250-51, 1252-53 (citing cases). Nor is there any argument or evidence to establish that the third factor – whether the contract was fairly entered into – is applicable here. Indeed, because recreational activities are not considered either essential services or practically necessary, “a person is not ‘at the mercy’ of a business’s negligence when entering an exculpatory agreement involving recreational activities.” Brigance, 883 F.3d at 1253 (quoting Hamill v. Cheley Colorado Camps, Inc., 262 P.3d 945, 949-50 (Colo. App. 2011)).

Thus, whether the Waiver is enforceable turns exclusively on the fourth factor, “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. In analyzing this factor, the court focuses on whether the parties’ intent to “extinguish liability . . . was clearly and unambiguously expressed.” Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785.

To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, [Colorado courts] have previously examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. [They] have even taken into account an injured party’s subsequent acknowledgment that he understood the meaning of the provision.

Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467 (internal citations omitted).

Ms. Sheldon insists the Waiver is ambiguous as to whether the high ropes course was within the scope of the activities covered. I am not persuaded. Here, the Waiver defined the term “Activities” as “recreational activities . . . including activities that may be hazardous or otherwise involve a risk of physical injury or death to participants.” (Emphasis added.) The use of the term “including” plainly signifies that some – but not all – of the Activities covered by the Waiver will be hazardous or involve a risk of physical injury. Thus, even accepting Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that a high ropes course is not a hazardous activity,5 her argument fails.

Nor does the Waiver’s failure to refer specifically to the high ropes course render it ambiguous with respect to the type of activities covered.6 Colorado law does not require “an exculpatory agreement describe in detail each specific risk that the signor might encounter.” Squires v. Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, 715 F.3d 867, 873 (10th Cir. 2013). Read in context, and considering not only its structure and language but also its purpose, the Waiver clearly and unambiguously applies to activities such as the high ropes course. See Patterson, 926 F.3d at 642. In this regard, Ms. Sheldon testified that prior to signing up for the high ropes course, she reviewed a list of activities offered by Golden Bell which, in addition to the high ropes course, also included “horseback riding,” an activity specifically referenced in and covered by the Waiver. (CBA Motion App., Exh. C, Attachment 1 at 25.) Moreover, nothing in the record suggests Ms. Sheldon would have been asked to sign a Waiver had she not requested to participate in the high ropes course. Given those circumstances, it “strains logic,” Squires, 715 F.3d at 874, to suggest Ms. Sheldon was confused or misled as to the fact that she was being asked to waive potential claims of negligence associated with the high ropes course. See also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 952 (exculpatory waiver enforceable against parent who signed on behalf of minor child where parent knew activities that were offered at camp; “An agreement with such plain and unambiguous terms will not fail because one of the parties, in hindsight, now claims to have misunderstood the scope of that agreement . . . based on ambiguities not readily apparent within the four corners of the agreement.”).7

Relatedly, the Waiver also clearly bars Ms. Sheldon’s claims against CBA. “A person not a party to an express contract may bring an action on such contract if the parties to the agreement intended to benefit the non-party, provided that the benefit claimed is a direct and not merely an incidental benefit of the contract.” E.B. Roberts Const. Co. v. Concrete Contractors, Inc., 704 P.2d 859, 865 (Colo. 1985). The Waiver specifically protects Golden Bell’s “contractors” and “vendors” from claims “arising from or relating in any way to [Ms. Sheldon’s] voluntary participation in these activities.” (CBA Motion App., Exh. C, Attachment 2.) Clearly, the Waiver was intended to cover parties like CBA in precisely the situation presented by this lawsuit. Moreover, the benefit thus conferred is directly related to its purpose – to absolve such parties from liability for claims of negligence.

Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that the Wavier is ambiguous as to whether contractors and vendors are covered for all purposes or only when they are on site is meritless. The Waiver plainly is intended to have the broadest possible scope, applying to claims “arising from or relating in any way” to Ms. Sheldon’s participation in the covered activities. Clearly, the parties intended to absolve contractors from claims they were negligent in any way in relation to the subject activities, regardless whether that negligence happened on site at the time of the event. I thus find and conclude that the Waiver clearly and unambiguously bars Ms. Sheldon’s claims against CBA as well.

Ms. Sheldon’s remaining arguments attempting to avoid the effect of the Waiver are likewise unavailing. The Waiver does not fail for lack of consideration. Contrary to Ms. Sheldon’s arguments, the mere lapse of time between her payment to participate in the activity and the date the waiver was delivered to Golden Bell is not fatal to its enforcement. Instead, the pertinent question is whether the release of liability was a contract modification or rather is part of the same transaction and thus enforceable without additional consideration. See Patterson, 926 F.3d at 638 (“[E]ven aside from the question of timing, we are persuaded based on the nature and circumstances of the transaction that the payment and exculpatory agreement here . . . are better viewed as part of the same transaction, rather than as a subsequent contract modification.”) (citing Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1109).8

I am similarly unpersuaded by Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that the Waiver fails due to either unilateral or mutual mistake. The doctrine of mutual mistake permits a party to rescind a contract “if all parties labored under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.” In re Estate of Ramstetter, 411 P.3d 1043, 1051 (Colo. App. 2016) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Ms. Sheldon has failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that such is the case here. Cabs, Inc. v. Hartford Insurance Group, 151 Fed. Appx. 604, 610 (10th Cir. Aug. 31, 2005); Maryland Casualty Co. v. Buckeye Gas Products Co., 797 P.2d 11, 13 (Colo. 1990).

For one thing, it is not clear that Ms. Sheldon’s asserted mistake – that Golden Bell’s high ropes course had been licensed by the state of Colorado – was sufficiently similar to Golden Bell’s mistake – that it did not require such a license – to warrant application of the doctrine at all.9 Assuming arguendo that it does, however, the doctrine of mutual mistake permits reformation of the contract “where both parties’ understanding of their agreement is contrary to the terms of a written instrument due to a drafting error[.]” Tatonka Capital Corp. v. Connelly, 390 F.Supp.3d 1289, 1294 (D. Colo. 2019), as modified on reconsideration, 2019 WL 5535226 (D. Colo. Oct. 25, 2019), appeal filed, 2019 WL 5535226 (10th Cir. Nov. 25, 2019) (No. 19-1450). See also Casey v. Colorado Higher Education Insurance Benefits Alliance Trust, 310 P.3d 196, 207 (Colo. App. 2012) (“A mutual mistake claim requires a showing that both parties were laboring under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.”) See also Ranch O, LLC v. Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, 361 P.3d 1063, 1066-67 (Colo. App. 2015) (doctrine of mutual mistake applies only to mistakes going to a “basic assumption” underlying the contract).10

No term of the contract here addressed whether Golden Bell had, or was required to have, a state-issued license. Thus, any mistake as to that fact “did not create any ambiguity regarding the terms or substance of the [Waiver].” Shoels v. Klebold, 375 F.3d 1054, 1067 (10th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 125 S.Ct. 1302 (2005). The Colorado Supreme Court long ago warned that courts “should not sanction, under the guise of reformation, the insertion in [contracts] of a new term or provision which was never even in the minds of the parties, let alone assented to by them.” Segelke v. Kilmer, 360 P.2d 423, 427 (Colo. 1961). “To order reformation under these circumstances is to rewrite, not to reform, the instruments.” Id. Just so here. I thus find the Waiver is not infirm based on mutual mistake.

I likewise reject Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that she may avoid the waiver’s effect under the doctrine of unilateral mistake. “[A] unilateral mistake by one party to a contract can permit reformation if the evidence demonstrates that, at the time the contract was formed, the non-mistaken party was aware of the mistaken party’s mistake.” Tatonka Capital Corp., 390 F.Supp.3d at 1299. Thus, one party’s unilateral mistake may permit reformation where “the other engaged in fraud or inequitable conduct.” Poly Trucking, Inc. v. Concentra Health Service., Inc., 93 P.3d 561, 563 (Colo. App. 2004). See also RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 153 (contract may be avoided based on unilateral mistake where “(a) the effect of the mistake is such that enforcement of the contract would be unconscionable, or (b) the other party had reason to know of the mistake or his fault caused the mistake”); Shoels, 375 F.3d at 1068 (quoting Powder Horn Constructors, Inc. v. City of Florence, 754 P.2d 356, 364 (Colo.1988) (“[E]quity will not allow a party to knowingly take advantage of a mistake of another.”)).

None of these circumstances pertains here. It cannot be unconscionable to enforce an exculpatory contract which, like this one, is enforceable under Colorado law. Moreover, there is no hint in the record that Golden Bell knew or had reason to know that Ms. Sheldon did not know its high ropes course was not licensed by the state. Nor is there evidence to suggest Golden Bell was required to make its licensing status known to participants or that it purposefully hid its licensing status from Ms. Sheldon. At best, the evidence suggests Golden Bell’s website made it appear the camp’s activities were open to the general public, which if true would have rendered them subject to inspection and licensing by the state.11 Yet there is neither argument nor evidence that Ms. Sheldon even consulted, much less relied on, Golden Bell’s website in deciding to participate in the high ropes course or sign the Waiver.12 I thus find and conclude that the Waiver is not voidable based on unilateral mistake either.

IV. CONCLUSION

For these reasons, the named defendants are entitled to summary judgment, and Ms. Sheldon’s remaining claims against them will be dismissed with prejudice. Although the caption of this case named a number of unknown John Doe defendant corporations who may have had “ownership and control of the subject obstacle activity (Complaint ¶ 10 at 3 [#1], filed May 13, 2019), with discovery now closed, Ms. Sheldon has not identified any such entities. These defendants therefore also should be dismissed, albeit without prejudice.13
See Culp v. Williams, 2011 WL 1597686 at *3 (D. Colo. April 27, 2011) (because Doe designation is not permitted where “plaintiff’s ignorance of the defendant’s true identity is the result of willful ignorance or lack of reasonable inquiry,” Doe defendants dismissed where case had been pending for more than a year and plaintiff failed to show “good reason as to why [it] ha[d] been unable to obtain the true identity of these unnamed Defendants”).

V. ORDERS

THEREFORE, IT IS ORDERED as follows:

1. That the Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Claims Against Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center [#42], filed January 21, 2020, is granted;

2. That Defendants Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC’s and Kent Fielden McIlhany’s Motion for Summary Judgment [#55], filed March 9, 2020, is granted;

3. That plaintiff’s remaining claims against defendants are dismissed as follows:

a. That the remaining claims of plaintiff against defendants, Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center; Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC; Kent Fielden McIlhany, an individual, are dismissed with prejudice; and

b. That the remaining claims of plaintiff against defendants, John Doe Corporations 1 through 10 are dismissed without prejudice;

4. That judgment shall enter as follows:

a. That judgment with prejudice shall enter on behalf of defendants, Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center; Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC; and Kent Fielden McIlhany, an individual, and against plaintiff, Jodi Sheldon, as to all remaining claims for relief and causes of action asserted herein;

b. That judgment without prejudice shall enter on behalf of defendants, John Doe Corporations 1 through 10, and against plaintiff, Jodi Sheldon, as to all remaining claims for relief and causes of action asserted herein;

5. That judgment shall enter further in accordance with my Order Adopting Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge [#35], filed January 8, 2020;

6. That the combined Final Pretrial Conference and Trial Preparation Conference scheduled for June 11, 2020, at 10:00 a.m., is vacated;

7. That the trial scheduled to commence on June 29, 2020, is vacated;

8. That defendants are awarded their costs, to be taxed by the clerk in the time and manner required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(1) and D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1; and

9. That this case is closed.

Dated April 20, 2020, at Denver, Colorado.

BY THE COURT:

/s/_________
Robert E. Blackburn
United States District Judge

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Footnotes:

1. “[#42]” is an example of the convention I use to identify the docket number assigned to a specific paper by the court’s case management and electronic case filing system (CM/ECF). I use this convention throughout this order.

2. Ms. Sheldon’s claims of negligence and fraudulent concealment against Golden Bell were dismissed previously as preempted by the PLA. (See Order Adopting Recommendation of the United States Magistrate Judge [#35], filed January 8, 2020.)

3. Ms. Sheldon, who is a resident of Illinois, attended Golden Bell as part of a large family reunion.

4. I reject Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that I should defer ruling on this motion until after Golden Bell’s Rule 30(b)(6) deposition is completed. Pursuant to Rule 56(d), to warrant such action, Ms. Sheldon must “show[] by affidavit or declaration that, for specified reasons, [she] cannot present facts essential to justify [her] opposition.” FED. R. CIV. P. 56(d). No such affidavit or declaration has been submitted in support of Ms. Sheldon’s request. The request also violates D.C.COLO.LCivR 7.1(d), which provides that “[a] motion shall not be included in a response or reply to the original motion. A motion shall be filed as a separate document.” I therefore deny this request and consider the summary judgment motions as submitted.

5. Frankly, however, this argument strains credulity. I would be hard pressed to find that it is not inherently risky to be suspended many feet above the ground, regardless of safety measures taken to mitigate the risk. Moreover, Ms. Sheldon’s subjective belief that the ropes course was not inherently dangerous is irrelevant. See Brooks v. Timberline Tours, Inc., 127 F.3d 1273, 1275 n.1 (10t Cir. 1997) (“Plaintiffs’ subjective intent is inadmissible to overcome the parties overt manifestation of intent in the releases because the language in these agreements is clear and unambiguous.”) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

6. Ms. Sheldon’s reliance on the district court’s decision in Schlumbrecht-Muniz v. Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., 132 F.Supp.3d 1310 (D. Colo. 2015), is misplaced. There, although the agreement at issue clearly and unambiguously released the defendant from claims related to the plaintiff’s participation in “the Event” (a ski race), it was not clear that it covered injuries the plaintiff sustained after she finished competing in that event. See id. at 1315. There is no such ambiguity here. Ms. Sheldon was injured while participating in the “activities” which were the subject of the Waiver.

7. I further reject Ms. Sheldon’s argument that her claim of gross negligence against Golden Bell cannot be waived. Assuming such is the case as a matter of law, as a matter of fact, Ms. Sheldon failed to plead such a claim.

8. In reaching its determination, the Mincin court relied on two state court decisions which reached similar conclusions. See Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1109 (citing Beehner v. Cragun Corp., 636 N.W.2d 821, 829 (Minn. Ct. App.2001) (“This court has held that an exculpatory agreement signed after a fee to participate in a recreational activity has been paid is part of the same transaction and is therefore enforceable without additional consideration other than permission to participate in the activity.”), and Hewitt v. Miller, 521 P.2d 244, 248 n.3 (Wash. App. 1974) (concluding that release signed by scuba diving student after payment of fee was an integrated part of the whole transaction and was thus supported by original consideration)).

9. At the time Ms. Sheldon participated in the high ropes course, the course was not licensed by the Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety (“OPS”) because Golden Bell believed itself subject to a “private event” exception, as its activities were available only to persons staying at the camp or its associated RV park and not open to the general public. However, because Golden Bell charged a separate fee for participation in activities at the camp to groups making use of the RV park, OPS found Golden Bell was not entitled to the benefit of this exclusion. Golden Bell resolved the violation by changing the way in which it offers its activities to guests of the RV park. OPS waived the fine assessed and considered the matter resolved as of August 23, 2019. (See Pl. Resp. App. [#52], Exh. J, Golden Bell Motion App., Exhs. A & B.)

10. Even where the doctrine of mutual mistake is otherwise applicable, however, a party is not entitled to reformation where she was “‘aware, at the time the contract is made, that [she] ha[d] only limited knowledge with respect to the facts to which the mistake relates but treat[ed] [her] limited knowledge as sufficient.'” In re Estate of Ramstetter, 411 P.3d 1043, 1051 (Colo. App. 2016) (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 154(b)). Such is arguably the case here as well.

11.
See supra, note 6.

12. These same reasons preclude Ms. Sheldon’s belated assertion that Golden Bell engaged in fraud which would invalidate the Waiver. Otherwise, this argument is so woefully undeveloped and unsupported by citation to any legal authority that I decline to consider it. See Bird v. Regents of New Mexico State University, 619 Fed. Appx. 733, 766 (10th Cir. Aug. 6, 2015) (arguments which re “conclusory, unsupported, and undeveloped” “are insufficient to overcome summary judgment “); Center for Biological Diversity v. Pizarchik, 858 F.Supp.2d 1221, 1230 n.11 (D. Colo. 2012) (court does not consider “cursory, unsupported, or otherwise inadequately briefed arguments”). To the extent Ms. Sheldon believed she required further discovery to make this argument, she has forfeited any such argument. See supra, note 4.

13. Without knowledge as to how any such corporations may be related to or associated with Golden Bell, it is impossible to say whether they would be covered by the Waiver and thus entitled to dismissal with prejudice. Cf. Roper v. Grayson, 81 F.3d 124, 126 (10th Cir. 1996); Bustamante v. Board of County Commissioners of San Miguel County, 2009 WL 10706928 at *5 n.7 (D.N.M. Oct. 2, 2009).

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Minnesota Appellate court upholds a release signed by a mother for a child’s injuries

Court also upheld the settlement agreement signed by the parents was valid to prohibit a claim by the minor after turning age 18

Justice v. Marvel, LLC, 965 N.W.2d 335 (Minn. App. 2021)

State:
Minnesota, Court of Appeals of Minnesota

Plaintiff: Carter Justice

Defendant: Marvel, LLC d/b/a Pump It Up Parties

Plaintiff Claims: negligently failed to cover the landing surface of the fall zone surrounding the inflatable

Defendant Defenses: Settlement and Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

The plaintiff was injured as a minor at an indoor recreation facility. The parents settled with the facility at the time of the injury. When the minor reached the age of majority in Minnesota he sued the facility. The Appellate court upheld the release signed by the parent to stop the minors claims and the settlement agreement.

Facts

In February 2007, Justice attended a friend’s birthday party at an indoor amusement facility in the city of Plymouth. The facility, known as Pump It Up, was owned and operated by Marvel, L.L.C. Upon entering the facility, Justice’s mother, Michelle Sutton, was asked to sign, and did sign, a form agreement….

During the party, while playing on an inflatable obstacle course, Justice fell approximately six feet and hit his head on the carpeted floor. He was taken to a hospital, where he received treatment.

In September 2007, Sutton and her husband, Steve Sutton, who is Justice’s step-father, entered into a written agreement with Marvel. The one-page agreement states that the Suttons had incurred unreimbursed medical expenses as a result of Justice’s head injury and that Marvel agreed to pay $1,500 of those expenses. The agreement provided that, if no new medical complications arose within six months, the Suttons would “execute a full and complete release and discharge of any and all claims” against Marvel. The Suttons did not thereafter execute such a release.

In June 2018, after Justice had turned 18 years old, he commenced this action against Marvel.

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

This is the first case I’ve found in the recreation community where a minor sued upon reaching the age of majority for an injury the minor received years before. Injured minors are the lawsuits that seem to hang on forever. In some cases, you want the parents to present a claim so you can deal with it and not possible wait tent to fifteen years for the minor to turn 18 (or 19 or 21 dependent on the state See The age that minors become adults.) to sue on their own.

The defendant had two defenses. 1. The release that the mother had signed for her son at the time of the injury (pre-injury release). 2. The release the mother and father had signed at the time of the injury to settle the claim (post injury release).

The court looked at the basic issues surrounding a parents’ right to raise a child and whether this right includes the right to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

His first argument for voiding the release is also unique. After his mother signed the release, Minnesota passed a statute to regulate amusement parks like this and in the process lost the right to have a parent sign away a minor’s right to sue.

Nonetheless, the existence of a parent’s fundamental right “to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of his or her children,” implies that a parent has authority to act on behalf of a minor child when interacting with third parties. The United States Supreme Court has recognized as much: “Most children, even in adolescence, simply are not able to make sound judgments concerning many decisions, including their need for medical care or treatment. Parents can and must make those judgments. This principle is based on “a presumption that parents possess what a child lacks in maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment required for making life’s difficult decisions.” Furthermore, the law recognizes that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children. The Supreme Court stated in Parham that a parent’s authority to make health-care decisions on behalf of a minor child is limited only in atypical situations, such as if the parent has neglected or abused the child.

(This has been adopted by all states, yet most State Supreme Courts do not believe that a parent has the right to sign away a child’s right to sue. They can provide medical care to the child that might kill them, but they can’t allow them to be injured.)

The court then reviewed all the ways that the state of Minnesota has by statute given parents the right to control the child upbringing. The court then made this statement supporting the right of a parent to sign away the right to sue.

In light of these statutes, and in the absence of any law that either forbids parents from entering into contracts on behalf of their minor children or limits their ability to do so, it is clear that a parent generally has authority, on behalf of a minor child, to enter into an agreement that includes an exculpatory clause.

The next issue was a statute posted after the release was signed would void the release.

Three years after the plaintiff’s mother signed the release, Minnesota enacted Minn. Stat. 184B.20 Inflatable Amusement Equipment. The statute had a specific provision which voided releases signed by a parent for a minor.

Subd. 5. Insurance required; waiver of liability limited.

(b) A waiver of liability signed by or on behalf of a minor for injuries arising out of the negligence of the owner or the owner’s employee or designee is void.

The plaintiff argued that this statute should be used to void a release. However, a basic tenet of the law is “No law shall be construed to be retroactive unless clearly and manifestly so intended by the legislature.” Even if the legislature intends for a law to retroactive it is very rarely upheld as valid. No business could continue if at any time in the future the law could change making the action or business illegal.

The plaintiff then argued the release was void because it was “overly broad and contrary to public policy.” Minnesota law follows the law in most other states on interpreting an overly broad release and public policy issues.

“A clause exonerating a party from liability will be strictly construed against the benefited party.” “If the clause is either ambiguous in scope or purports to release the benefited party from liability for intentional, willful or wanton acts, it will not be enforced.” Id. In addition, an exculpatory clause is unenforceable if it “contravenes public policy.”

Minnesota has a two prongs test to determine if a contract violates public policy.

The test focuses on two factors: “(1) whether there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties (in terms of a compulsion to sign a contract containing an unacceptable provision and the lack of ability to negotiate elimination of the unacceptable provision)” and “(2) the types of services being offered or provided (taking into consideration whether it is a public or essential service).”

The plaintiff argued the release was a violation of public policy because his mother could not negotiate the release and as such he would not have been permitted to attend the birthday party if she had not signed the release. This argument might work for a real necessity, however in recreation cases it fails because the services can always be obtained elsewhere.

Justice contends that there was a disparity in bargaining power because there was no opportunity for his mother to negotiate the terms of the exculpatory clause and because he would not have been permitted to attend the birthday party if his mother had not signed the form agreement. Justice’s contention is not legally viable. “Even though a contract is on a printed form and offered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, those facts alone do not cause it to be an adhesion contract.” More is required. The agreement must relate to a “necessary service,” and there also “must be a showing … that the services could not be obtained elsewhere.”

But the supreme court has recognized that “contracts relating to recreational activities do not fall within any of the categories where the public interest is involved,” on the ground that they are not “services of great importance to the public, which were a practical necessity for some members of the public.”

The release was found to not violate public policy because:

…exculpatory clause is not contrary to public policy because there was no bargaining-power disparity and because Marvel did not provide “an essential or public service.”

The next argument was the scope of the release was too broad because the language tries to stop claims for “intentional, willful or wanton acts.” However, the release itself only referred to claims for negligence. However, this was not enough of a restriction under Minnesota law the court concluded.

Marvel’s exculpatory clause does not make any reference to claims of “ordinary negligence” or simply “negligence.” Rather, it expansively refers to “any and all claims,” which means that it purports to release Marvel from claims arising from its intentional, willful or wanton acts. Thus, Marvel’s exculpatory clause is overly broad.

The court concluded the language of the release was overly broad when it did language in the release purported to release the defendant from more than simple negligence claims. The court then examined whether this issue was enough to void the release.

The court in a prior decision, repeated here found that although the language of the release may purport to cover greater than ordinary negligence, a release under Minnesota law could only release from ordinary negligence. So, no matter what the release said or was interpreted to say, it could not protect from simple negligence claims.

We reasoned that “any term in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire contract. ” (emphasis added) (quotation and alteration omitted). In light of Anderson, Marvel’s exculpatory clause is enforceable to the extent that Justice asserts a claim of ordinary negligence, but it is unenforceable to the extent that Justice asserts a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence.

Overly broad language, concerning the extent of the protection provided by the release, did not void the release.

Finally, the court reviewed the plaintiff’s argument that the post injury release signed by the plaintiff’s parents to settle their claims at the time of the injury was not valid. The plaintiff argued legal technical claims about the signing and validity of the release, which the court rejected.

The district court did not err by granting Marvel’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that Justice’s sole claim of ordinary negligence is barred by the exculpatory clause that his mother signed on his behalf. In light of that conclusion, Justice’s argument that the district court erred by denying his motion to amend the complaint to add a request for punitive damages is moot.

So Now What?

One of the confusing points of this case is why did the amusement industry allow Minn. Stat. 184B.20 Inflatable Amusement Equipment to be passed. It provided no protection for the industry or operators, placed a mandatory insurance requirement and worst voided the use of a release for a minor in one of the few states where a minor can have a parent sign away their rights.

The two other issues, the signing of a release by a parent to stop the claims of a child, which is not moot for inflatable amusement devices, and the concept of a minor suing after his parents have settled a claim, after reaching the age of majority are rare and decided by the court in a manner that upholds the validity of a contract.

If settlement and post injury release signed by the parents had been thrown out, this would create a nightmare of litigation. No one would settle any claim of a minor until the minor reached the age of majority since any settlement might be void. No matter how badly a parent might want to pay medical bills or move on, no insurance company would offer a payment knowing they could be sued later.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Justice v. Marvel, LLC, 965 N.W.2d 335 (Minn. App. 2021)

Justice v. Marvel, LLC, 965 N.W.2d 335 (Minn. App. 2021)

965 N.W.2d 335

Carter JUSTICE, Appellant,
v.
MARVEL, LLC d/b/a Pump It Up Parties, Respondent.

A20-1318

Court of Appeals of Minnesota.

Filed July 19, 2021
Granted in part October 19, 2021

Mahesha P. Subbaraman, Subbaraman, P.L.L.C., Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Patrick W. Michenfelder, Throndset Michenfelder, L.L.C., St. Michael, Minnesota (for appellant)

Joseph A. Nilan, Daniel A. Ellerbrock, Jacob T. Merkel, Gregerson, Rosow, Johnson & Nilan, Ltd., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)

Matthew J. Barber, Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for amicus curiae Minnesota Association for Justice)

Considered and decided by Worke, Presiding Judge; Johnson, Judge; and Gaïtas, Judge.

OPINION

JOHNSON, Judge

When he was seven years old, Carter Justice attended a birthday party at a business that provided inflatable amusement equipment on which children were allowed to jump, climb, and play. Before entering the party, Justice’s mother signed a form agreement that included an exculpatory clause that released the business from any and all claims she and Justice might have based on his use of the inflatable amusement equipment. During the party, Justice fell off an inflatable obstacle course and hit his head on the floor, which caused him a head injury.

When Justice was 18 years old, he sued the business that hosted the birthday party. The district court denied Justice’s motion to amend the complaint to seek punitive damages. The district court later granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that the exculpatory clause signed by Justice’s mother is valid and enforceable. We conclude that the district court did not err by granting the motion for summary judgment. Therefore, we affirm.

FACTS

In February 2007, Justice attended a friend’s birthday party at an indoor amusement facility in the city of Plymouth. The facility, known as Pump It Up, was owned and operated by Marvel, L.L.C. Upon entering the facility, Justice’s mother, Michelle Sutton, was asked to sign, and did sign, a form agreement that stated as follows:

In consideration of being allowed to enter into the play area and/or participate in any party and/or program at Pump It Up of Plymouth, MN, the undersigned, on his or her own behalf, and/or on behalf of the participant(s) identified below, acknowledges, appreciates and agrees to the following conditions:

I represent that I am the parent or legal guardian of the Participant(s) named below …

….

I, for myself and the participant(s) nanied below, hereby releaseMARVEL, LLC, dba Pump It Up of Plymouthfrom and against any and all claims, injuries, liabilities or damages arising out of or related to our participation inthe use of the play area and/or inflatable equipment. (Emphasis added.)

During the party, while playing on an inflatable obstacle course, Justice fell approximately six feet and hit his head on the carpeted floor. He was taken to a hospital, where he received treatment.

In September 2007, Sutton and her husband, Steve Sutton, who is Justice’s step-father, entered into a written agreement with Marvel. The one-page agreement states that the Suttons had incurred unreimbursed medical expenses as a result of Justice’s head injury and that Marvel agreed to pay $1,500 of those expenses. The agreement provided that, if no new medical complications arose within six months, the Suttons would “execute a full and complete release and discharge of any and all claims” against Marvel. The Suttons did not thereafter execute such a release.

In June 2018, after Justice had turned 18 years old, he commenced this action against Marvel. He alleged that Marvel had “negligently failed to cover the landing surface of the fall zone surrounding the inflatable.” In March 2020, Justice moved to amend the complaint to add a request for punitive damages. In April 2020, the district court denied the motion to amend.

In May 2020, Marvel moved for summary judgment on the ground that Justice’s claim is barred by the exculpatory clause that his mother signed and, in addition, by the post-injury agreement that both of the Suttons signed. In August 2020, the district court granted the motion for summary judgment, reasoning that Justice’s claim is barred by the pre-injury exculpatory clause. Justice appeals.

ISSUE

Did the district court err by granting Marvel’s motion for summary judgment based on the exculpatory clause that Justice’s mother signed on his behalf when he was a minor child?

ANALYSIS

On appeal, Justice makes two arguments. First, he argues that the district court erred by granting Marvel’s motion for summary judgment. Second, he argues that the district court erred by denying his motion to amend the complaint to add a request for punitive damages. We begin by addressing his first argument, which is dispositive of the appeal.

A district court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.01. A genuine issue of material fact exists if a rational trier of fact, considering the record as a whole, could find for the nomnoving party. Frieler v. Carlson Mktg. Grp., Inc., 751 N.W.2d 558, 564 (Minn. 2008). This court applies a de novo standard of review to the district court’s legal conclusions on summary judgment and views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted. Commerce Bank v.
West Bend Mut. Ins. Co., 870 N.W.2d 770, 773 (Minn. 2015).

Justice argues that the district court erred on the ground that the exculpatory clause is invalid and unenforceable for five reasons. First, he argues that a pre-injury exculpatory clause releasing claims arising from the use of inflatable amusement equipment is void as a matter of law pursuant to a statute that was enacted after Justice’s mother signed Marvel’s exculpatory clause. Second, he argues that a parent does not have authority to agree to a pre-injury exculpatory clause on behalf of a minor child and that any such agreement is not binding on the child after he becomes an adult. Third, he argues that Marvel’s exculpatory clause is invalid and unenforceable because it is overly broad or arguably overbroad and in violation of public policy. Fourth, he argues that the post-injury agreement abrogated or modified the pre-injury exculpatory clause. And fifth, he argues that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Marvel engaged in greater-than-ordinary negligence. We will consider each of Justice’s arguments but in a different order.

A. Parental Authority

Justice argues that a parent does not have authority to agree to a pre-injury exculpatory clause on behalf of a minor child and that any such agreement is not binding on the child after he becomes an adult.1 Neither party has cited any Minnesota caselaw that is directly on point, and we are unaware of any such caselaw.2

The district court ruled in favor of Marvel on this issue by stating that “a parent may sign a waiver on behalf of a child under the laws of Minnesota.” In support of this statement, the district court quoted the following sentence in SooHoo v. Johnson, 731 N.W.2d 815 (Minn. 2007) : “A parent’s right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of his or her children is a protected fundamental right.” Id. at 820 (citing Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65, 120 S. Ct. 2054, 2060, 147 L.Ed.2d 49 (2000) ). The supreme court’s statement in SooHoo was made in the context of analyzing an argument that a custodial parent of a minor child has a constitutional right to substantive due process with respect to governmental interference with the parent-child relationship. Id. There was no issue in that case concerning a parent’s authority to enter into a contract on behalf of a minor child. See
id. at 819-26.

Nonetheless, the existence of a parent’s fundamental right “to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of his or her children,” id. at 820, implies that a parent has authority to act on behalf of a minor child when interacting with third parties. The United States Supreme Court has recognized as much: “Most children, even in adolescence, simply are not able to make sound judgments concerning many decisions, including their need for medical care or treatment. Parents can and must make those judgments.” Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 603, 99 S. Ct. 2493, 2505, 61 L.Ed.2d 101 (1979). This principle is based on “a presumption that parents possess what a child lacks in maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment required for making life’s difficult decisions.” Id. at 602, 99 S. Ct. at 2504. Furthermore, the law recognizes that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children.” Id. (citing 1 William Blackstone, Commentaries of the Law of England 447 (Legal Classics Library 1983) (1769); 2 James Kent, Commentaries on American Law 190 (1827)). The Supreme Court stated in Parham that a parent’s authority to make health-care decisions on behalf of a minor child is limited only in atypical situations, such as if the parent has neglected or abused the child. Id. at 604, 99 S. Ct. at 2505.

Several Minnesota statutes recognize by implication that a parent generally is authorized to enter into agreements with third parties on behalf of a minor child. For example, in matters related to education, the legislature has recognized that parents have authority to make binding decisions on behalf of their minor children. See, e.g., Minn.Stat. §§ 120A.22, subds. 4-5, 8, 120A.3 8, 120B.07 (2020). Similarly, in the context of medical care, the legislature has provided for only a limited number of situations in which a parent’s consent to the medical treatment of a minor child is unnecessary, thereby implying that, in all other situations, a parent’s agreement or consent is necessary. For example, a minor child “may give effective consent to personal medical, dental, mental and other health services” only if the minor child is “living separate and apart from parents or legal guardian … and is managing personal financial affairs.” Minn. Stat. § 144.341 (2020). In addition, a health-care provider may give emergency treatment to a minor child without parental consent only if “the risk to the minor’s life or health is of such a nature that treatment should be given without delay and the requirement of consent would result in delay or denial of treatment.” Minn. Stat. § 144.344 (2020). Each of these statutes presupposes that a parent generally has authority to make decisions on behalf of a minor child.

The legislature’s recognition of a parent’s authority to enter into an agreement on behalf of a minor child also is reflected in two recent statutes that are especially pertinent to this case. In 2010, the legislature passed, and the governor signed, a bill to regulate inflatable amusement equipment in various ways. 2010 Minn. Laws ch. 347, art. 3, § 2, at 46 (codified at Minn. Stat. § 184B.20 (2020) ). One provision of the statute (which is discussed further below in part B) broadly prohibits exculpatory clauses with the following language: “A waiver of liability signed by or on behalf of a minor for injuries arising out of the negligence of the owner or the owner’s employee or designee is void.” Minn. Stat. § 184B.20, subd. 5(b) (emphasis added). The italicized language in section 184B.20 would be unnecessary unless another person—such as a parent—has authority to sign a waiver of liability on behalf of a minor child. Also, in 2013, the legislature and the governor enacted a law to, among other things, prohibit exculpatory clauses that purport to release claims of greater-than-ordinary negligence in the context of consumer services, including recreational activities. 2013 Minn. Laws ch. 118 (codified at Minn. Stat. § 604.055 (2020) ). The statute applies to agreements entered into by “a minor or another who is authorized to sign or accept the agreement on behalf of the minor. ” Minn. Stat. § 184B.20, subd. 2 (emphasis added). Again, the italicized language impliedly recognizes that, in the absence of the statute, another person—such as a parent—may be authorized to sign agreements of that type, which is the same general type of agreement as the exculpatory clause in this case.

In light of these statutes, and in the absence of any law that either forbids parents from entering into contracts on behalf of their minor children or limits their ability to do so, it is clear that a parent generally has authority, on behalf of a minor child, to enter into an agreement that includes an exculpatory clause.

Justice contends that a parent should not be permitted to bind his or her minor child to an exculpatory clause after the child becomes an adult because a minor child who independently enters into a contract may avoid the contract after reaching adulthood. See
Kelly v. Furlong, 194 Minn. 465, 261 N.W. 460, 466 (1935) ; Goodnow v. Empire Lumber Co., 31 Minn. 468, 18 N.W. 283, 284-85 (1884) ; Dixon v. Merritt, 21 Minn. 196, 200 (1875). This rule of law exists “for the protection of minors, and so that they shall not be prejudiced by acts done or obligations incurred at a time when they are not capable of determining what is for their interest to do.” Goodnow, 18 N.W. at 284. For that reason, “the law gives them an opportunity, after they have become capable of judging for themselves, to determine whether such acts or obligations are beneficial or prejudicial to them, and whether they will abide by or avoid them.” Id. at 284-85. But that rationale simply does not apply if an adult parent signed an exculpatory clause on behalf of a minor child. An adult parent is presumed to be competent to make decisions on behalf of a minor child and to act in the child’s best interest. See
Parham, 442 U.S. at 602, 99 S. Ct. at 2504. Such a parent may balance the relevant considerations and either elect to sign an exculpatory clause on behalf of a minor child and thereby obtain the benefits of doing so or elect to not sign it and thereby forego any such benefits.

Justice also contends that a parent should not be permitted to sign an exculpatory clause on behalf of a minor child before any injury occurs because a parent is not permitted to settle a pending lawsuit on behalf of a minor child after a child has been injured, unless a district court approves. Justice refers to a statute that authorizes a parent to “maintain an action for the injury of a minor son or daughter” and also provides, “No settlement or compromise of the action is valid unless it is approved by a judge of the court in which the action is pending.” Minn. Stat. § 540.08 (2020). Justice’s contention fails to recognize the differences between the two situations. Section 540.08 guards against the risk that a parent might enter into an improvident settlement that is not in the minor child’s best interests or the risk that a parent might be motivated by an intent to use settlement proceeds for improper purposes. Such risks are especially ripe after a child has been injured and a civil action has been commenced and settled. But such risks are not present and are unlikely to arise in the more common situation in which a parent is presented with an exculpatory clause and no injury has yet occurred. In that situation, there is no immediate prospect of a settlement that is contrary to a minor child’s best interests.

Justice contends further that this court held in O’Brien Entertainment Agency, Inc. v. Wolfgramm, 407 N.W.2d 463 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Aug. 12, 1987), that a parent’s agreement on behalf of his minor children was unenforceable. We disagree with Justice’s interpretation of our opinion in O’Brien
. The opinion states that a father of six children signed a contract, but the opinion does not clearly state that the father signed the contract on behalf of his children. Id. at 465-66. Absent from the court’s reasoning is any statement that the father purported to enter into the contract on behalf of his children. See
id. at 466-67. We concluded that the statute of frauds barred the breach-of-contract claim against the children because none of the children signed the contract. Id. at 466. Thus, our opinion did not address the question whether a parent may enter into a contract on behalf of a minor child.

In sum, various provisions of Minnesota law recognize that a parent may enter into an agreement on behalf of a minor child. Recent statutory enactments clearly indicate that the legislature has assumed that a parent is authorized to sign an exculpatory clause—including an exculpatory clause concerning the use of inflatable amusement equipment—on behalf of a minor child. Justice has not cited any Minnesota authority for the proposition that a parent may not enter into an agreement on behalf of a minor child.

Thus, the district court did not err by reasoning that Justice’s mother was authorized to sign Marvel’s exculpatory clause on Justice’s behalf.

B. Section 184B.20

Justice also argues that section 184B.20 of the Minnesota Statutes, which was enacted in 2010, voids the exculpatory clause that his mother signed in 2007 because the statute voids all waivers of claims based on injuries caused by the use of inflatable amusement equipment.

As noted above, section 184B.20 provides, “A waiver of liability signed by or on behalf of a minor for injuries arising out of the negligence of the owner or the owner’s employee or designee is void.” Minn. Stat. § 184B.20, subd. 5(b). The session law that led to the codification of this statute states that the law “is effective August 1, 2010.” 2010 Minn. Laws ch. 347, art. 3, § 2, at 46. The district court rejected Justice’s argument that section 184B.20 voids Marvel’s exculpatory clause on the grounds that Justice’s mother signed the exculpatory clause before the statute’s effective date and that the legislature did not intend for the statute to apply retroactively.

” ‘No law shall be construed to be retroactive unless clearly and manifestly so intended by the legislature.’ ” In re Individual 35W Bridge Litigation, 806 N.W.2d 811, 819 (Minn. 2011) (A09-1776) (hereinafter 35W Bridge (A09-1776)
) (quoting Minn. Stat. § 645.21 (2010) ). One way in which the legislature may indicate its intent for a law to operate retroactively is to use the term “retroactive.” Duluth Firemen’s Relief Ass’n v. City of Duluth, 361 N.W.2d 381, 385 (Minn. 1985).

Justice does not argue that the legislature intended the statute to apply retroactively. Instead, he contends that the statute’s application in this case would be a prospective application, not a retroactive application. But the supreme court has stated, “A statute operates retroactively if it affects rights, obligations, acts, transactions and conditions which are performed or exist prior to the adoption of the statute.” 35W Bridge (A09-1776), 806 N.W.2d at 819-20 (quotation omitted). If section 184B.20 were applied to this case, it would affect the parties’ respective rights and obligations concerning events—the signing of Marvel’s exculpatory clause and Justice’s head injury—that occurred more than three years before the effective date of the statute. Such an application would result in a retroactive application of the statute because it would affect rights and obligations that were pre-existing when the statute became effective. See id.

Justice attempts to avoid a retroactive characterization by relying on Tapia v. Leslie, 950 N.W.2d 59 (Minn. 2020), in which the supreme court concluded that a 2014 statutory amendment governed a 2017 application for a permit to carry a pistol. Id. at 63. In Tapia, the relevant statute was amended three years before the application for a permit, which was the operative event. Id. In this case, the statute was enacted three years after Justice’s mother agreed to the exculpatory agreement. Thus, Tapia is distinguishable from this case.

Justice also contends that the application of section 184B.20 in this case would not impair any vested rights belonging to Marvel. The existence of vested rights may, in certain circumstances, defeat the intended retroactive application of a statute if retroactive application would be unconstitutional. See
In re Individual 35W Bridge Litigation, 806 N.W.2d 820, 829-33 (Minn. 2011) (A10-0087); Peterson v. City of Minneapolis, 285 Minn. 282, 173 N.W.2d 353, 357-58 (1969) ; Yaeger v. Delano Granite Works, 250 Minn. 303, 84 N.W.2d 363, 366-67 (1957) ; Holen v. Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro. Airports Comm’n, 250 Minn. 130, 84 N.W.2d 282, 287 (1957) ; K.E. v. Hoffman, 452 N.W.2d 509, 512-13 (Minn. App. 1990), review denied (Minn. May 7, 1990). This understanding of vested rights is apparent in Larson v. Independent School District No. 314, 305 Minn. 358, 233 N.W.2d 744 (1975), the case on which Justice primarily relies in his principal brief. In Larson, the supreme court concluded that the retroactive application of a rule of civil procedure, as intended, did not “deprive[ ] defendants of vested rights of property and privacy in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.Id. at 748 (emphasis added). Outside the context of land use and zoning, the vested-rights doctrine simply does not affect the determination of whether a statute is intended to have retroactive application. Cf . Interstate Power Co. v. Nobles County Bd. of Commissioners, 617 N.W.2d 566, 575-78 (Minn. 2000) (citing cases). Because we have determined that the legislature did not intend for section 184B.20 to apply retroactively, the vested-rights doctrine is not relevant.

Thus, the district court did not err by reasoning that section 184B.20 does not apply retroactively to Justice’s mother’s agreement to Marvel’s exculpatory clause.

C. Marvel’s Exculpatory Clause

Justice also argues that Marvel’s exculpatory clause is unenforceable on the grounds that it is overly broad and contrary to public policy.

“A clause exonerating a party from liability will be strictly construed against the benefited party.” Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 923 (Minn. 1982). “If the clause is either ambiguous in scope or purports to release the benefited party from liability for intentional, willful or wanton acts, it will not be enforced.” Id. In addition, an exculpatory clause is unenforceable if it “contravenes public policy.” Yang v. Voyagaire Houseboats, Inc., 701 N.W.2d 783, 789 (Minn. 2005) (citing Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 923 ).

1. Public Policy

Justice contends that Marvel’s exculpatory clause is unenforceable on the ground that it is contrary to public policy.

The supreme court has prescribed a “two-prong test” to determine whether an exculpatory clause is contrary to public policy. Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 923. The test focuses on two factors: “(1) whether there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties (in terms of a compulsion to sign a contract containing an unacceptable provision and the lack of ability to negotiate elimination of the unacceptable provision)” and “(2) the types of services being offered or provided (taking into consideration whether it is a public or essential service).” Id. In this case, the district court determined that Marvel’ s exculpatory clause is not contrary to public policy because there was no bargaining-power disparity and because Marvel did not provide “an essential or public service.”

Justice contends that there was a disparity in bargaining power because there was no opportunity for his mother to negotiate the terms of the exculpatory clause and because he would not have been permitted to attend the birthday party if his mother had not signed the form agreement. Justice’s contention is not legally viable. “Even though a contract is on a printed form and offered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, those facts alone do not cause it to be an adhesion contract.” Id. at 924. More is required. The agreement must relate to a “necessary service,” and there also “must be a showing … that the services could not be obtained elsewhere.” Id. at 924-25. Consequently, there is no disparity in bargaining power, for purposes of the Schlobohm public-policy analysis, if a consumer has the choice to simply forego the activity. See
Beehner v. Cragun Corp., 636 N.W.2d 821, 827-28 (Minn. App. 2001), review denied (Minn. Feb. 28, 2002); Malecha v. St. Croix Valley Skydiving Club, Inc., 392 N.W.2d 727, 730 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. Oct. 29, 1986). There is no evidence in the summary-judgment record that the services Marvel provided were unavailable else where, and we may presume that Justice was not compelled to participate in the birthday party because the provision of inflatable amusement equipment is not a necessary service. Thus, as in Schlobohm and Malecha, there was no disparity in bargaining power, as required for a conclusion that an exculpatory clause is contrary to public policy.

Justice also contends that the type of services offered by Marvel causes its exculpatory clause to be incompatible with public policy. He likens Marvel’s services to the “[t]ypes of services thought to be subject to public regulation,” such as “common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers and services involving extra-hazardous activities.” Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 925. But the supreme court has recognized that “contracts relating to recreational activities do not fall within any of the categories where the public interest is involved,” on the ground that they are not “services of great importance to the public, which were a practical necessity for some members of the public.” Id. at 926. Subsequent opinions have relied on this principle in concluding that the use of an exculpatory clause in connection with a recreational activity is not contrary to public policy. See
Anderson v. McOskar Enterprises, Inc., 712 N.W.2d 796, 802 (Minn. App. 2006) (health club); Beehner, 636 N.W.2d at 829 (horseback riding); Malecha, 392 N.W.2d at 730 (skydiving). A business that provides inflatable amusement equipment is well within the category of recreational activities for which exculpatory clauses are not prohibited.

Justice counters that providing inflatable amusement equipment is the type of service that is “generally thought suitable for public regulation,” Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 925, because it now is, in fact, regulated by statute, as of 2010. See Minn. Stat. § 184B.20; 2010 Minn. Laws ch. 347, art. 3, § 2, at 46. Furthermore, he contends that Marvel’s exculpatory clause is contrary to public policy because the legislature has declared that all exculpatory clauses concerning inflatable amusement equipment are void. To rely on section 184B.20 for purposes of the Schlobohm public-policy analysis would be, in effect, to apply the statute retroactively. We have already concluded that section 184B.20 does not apply retroactively to an exculpatory clause that was signed before the statute’s effective date. See supra part B. Accordingly, Justice cannot rely on section 184B.20 to establish that Marvel’s exculpatory clause is contrary to public policy in the sense described in Schlobohm.

Thus, the district court did not err by reasoning that Marvel’s exculpatory clause does not violate public policy.

2. Scope of Release

Justice contends that Marvel’s exculpatory clause is unenforceable on the ground that it purports to release Marvel from claims arising from Marvel’s intentional, willful or wanton acts. Justice alternatively contends that Marvel’s exculpatory clause is unenforceable on the ground that it is ambiguous with respect to whether it releases Marvel from claims arising from Marvel’s intentional, willful or wanton acts.

Exculpatory clauses are permissible but not favored and, thus, are “strictly construed against the benefited party.” Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 923. An exculpatory clause is unenforceable if it is “either ambiguous in scope or purports to release the benefited party from liability for intentional, willful or wanton acts.” Id.

By signing Marvel’s exculpatory clause, Justice’s mother agreed, on her own behalf and on behalf of Justice, to “release … MARVEL, LLC, … from and against any and all claims, injuries, liabilities or damages.” (Emphasis added.) The plain language of this clause purports to release claims of both ordinary negligence and greater-than-ordinary negligence, including claims based on intentional, willful or wanton acts. Marvel contends that its exculpatory clause is similar to exculpatory clauses in other cases in which the appellate courts concluded that the clauses were limited to ordinary negligence. In each of those cases, however, the exculpatory clause expressly referred to claims of “negligence,” which provided the appellate courts with a basis for concluding that the clauses were limited to claims of ordinary negligence. See
Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 922-23 ; Anderson, 712 N.W.2d at 799, 801 ; Malecha, 392 N.W.2d at 728-30 ; see also Beehner, 636 N.W.2d at 825-27. But Marvel’s exculpatory clause does not make any reference to claims of “ordinary negligence” or simply “negligence.” Rather, it expansively refers to “any and all claims,” which means that it purports to release Marvel from claims arising from its intentional, willful or wanton acts. Thus, Marvel’s exculpatory clause is overly broad.

3. Effect of Overbreadth

Having determined that Marvel’s exculpatory clause is overly broad, we must consider the consequences of that determination. The question arises whether Marvel’s exculpatory clause is completely unenforceable, even with respect to claims of ordinary negligence, or unenforceable only to the extent that Justice asserts a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. Justice contends that an overly broad exculpatory clause is “invalid,” without discussing more specifically the nature or extent of its invalidity. Marvel argues only that the exculpatory clause is valid, without making any alternative argument about whether or how this court should apply the exculpatory clause if it is invalid.

This court considered this precise issue in Anderson, in which we characterized a health club’s exculpatory clause as “arguably ambiguous.” 712 N.W.2d at 801. The plaintiff had asserted only a claim of ordinary negligence. Id. We stated that it “would subvert the parties’ manifested intent” to conclude that the plaintiffs ordinary-negligence claim was not barred by a release that clearly released such a claim. Id. We reasoned that “any term in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire contract.Id. (emphasis added) (quotation and alteration omitted). In light of Anderson, Marvel’s exculpatory clause is enforceable to the extent that Justice asserts a claim of ordinary negligence, but it is unenforceable to the extent that Justice asserts a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. See id. ; see also
ADT Security Services, Inc. v. Swenson, 276 F.R.D. 278, 300-01 (D. Minn. 2011) (concluding that overly broad nature of exculpatory clause “limit[s] its applicability to claims which do not implicate willful and wanton negligence or intentional behavior”).

Thus, the district court did not err by enforcing Marvel’s exculpatory clause and concluding that it released Justice’s claim of ordinary negligence, even though the clause is overly broad.

D. Greater-than-Ordinary Negligence

Justice argues that he has introduced evidence that is sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Marvel engaged in greater-than-ordinary negligence. In response, Marvel argues that Justice did not preserve this argument because he did not present it to the district court.

Marvel is correct. Justice did not argue to the district court that Marvel’s summary-judgment motion should be denied on the ground that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Marvel engaged in greater-than-ordinary negligence. The district court expressly stated in its order that “Plaintiffs claims are based solely on negligence, and there is no claim by Plaintiff nor evidence in the record to suggest that Defendant or its employees acted willfully, intentionally or wantonly.” Justice is making a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence for the first time on appeal. In that situation, an appellate court generally will not consider an argument that was forfeited because it was not presented to the district court. Thiele v. Stich, 425 N.W.2d 580, 582 (Minn. 1988) ; Doe 175 v. Columbia Heights Sch. Dist., 842 N.W.2d 38, 42-43 (Minn. App. 2014).

Justice contends that he adequately preserved a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence by pleading his claim broadly. He also contends that he raised an issue of greater-than-ordinary negligence in his motion to amend the complaint to add a request for punitive damages. Regardless of how Justice pleaded his claim or claims in his complaint, and regardless of the arguments he made with respect to a different motion, he had an obligation to oppose Marvel’s summary-judgment motion by submitting and citing admissible evidence in support of all of his claims and by presenting all of his legal arguments for denying the motion. See
DLH, Inc. v. Russ, 566 N.W.2d 60, 69-71 (Minn. 1997) ; Hunt v. IBM Mid Am. Emps. Fed. Credit Union, 384 N.W.2d 853, 855-56 (Minn. 1986) ; Molde v. CitiMortgage, Inc., 781 N.W.2d 36, 44 (Minn. App. 2010) ; Fontaine v. Steen, 759 N.W.2d 672, 676 (Minn. App. 2009). But Justice did not mention a claim of. greater-than-ordinary negligence in his memorandum of law in opposition to Marvel’s motion.

Thus, we will not consider Justice’s argument that the district court should have denied Marvel’s summary-judgment motion with respect to a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. See
Thiele, 425 N.W.2d at 582 ; Doe 175 , 842 N.W.2d at 42-43.

E. Post-Injury Agreement

Justice argues that the district court erred by reasoning that the agreement signed by his mother and step-father in September 2007, after Justice was injured, does not abrogate or modify the exculpatory clause.

The September 2007 agreement provides, in relevant part,

As of the date of this Agreement, Carter Justice seems to have recovered completely from the Accident and has been removed from any restrictions by his attending physician(s). Parents agree that if there are no new medical complications arising as a result of the Accident within six months following the date of this Agreement they will execute a full and complete release and discharge of any and all claims against [Marvel] stemming from the Accident.

Justice argued to the district court that this post-injury agreement abrogated the exculpatory clause on the ground that the parties “agreed to substitute a new contract” for the exculpatory clause. The district court rejected the argument, reasoning that the post-injury agreement does not abrogate or modify the exculpatory clause because it does not refer to the exculpatory clause and because it states that it is not “an admission of any fault or legal liability.”

On appeal, Justice contends that the post-injury agreement abrogates the exculpatory clause because the post-injury agreement is specifically related to Justice’s head injury, Justice’s mother and step-father agreed to release claims arising from Justice’s head injury only if certain conditions were present, and the conditions stated in the post-injury agreement were not present. In response, Marvel contends that the post-injury agreement did not modify the exculpatory clause because the agreement does not refer to the waiver and because it was entered into by Justice’s mother and step-father on their own behalf but not on behalf of Justice.

Justice’s argument requires us to interpret the post-injury agreement, which is a contract. “The primary goal of contract interpretation is to determine and enforce the intent of the parties.” Travertine Corp. v. Lexington-Silverwood, 683 N.W.2d 267, 271 (Minn. 2004). “Where there is a written instrument, the intent of the parties is determined from the plain language of the instrument itself.” Id. If a contract is clear and unambiguous, courts should apply the plain language of the contract and “not rewrite, modify, or limit its effect by a strained construction.” Id. This court applies a de novo standard of review to a district court’s interpretation of a contract. Id.

The district court correctly interpreted the post-injury agreement. It is an agreement between Marvel and Justice’s mother and step-father but not between Marvel and Justice, the two parties to this case. It does not refer to the pre-injury exculpatory clause in any way. It provided for the possibility of “a full and complete release and discharge of any and all claims against [Marvel] stemming from” Justice’s injury. If such a release had been signed, it would have provided Marvel with an additional defense to Justice’s claim. But Justice’s mother and step-father never signed the release that was contemplated by the post-injury agreement. The absence of a second release does not in any way alter the release contained in the exculpatory clause that was signed by Justice’s mother on the day of Justice’s injury.

Thus, the district court did not err by reasoning that the post-injury agreement does not abrogate or modify the exculpatory clause.

DECISION

The district court did not err by granting Marvel’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that Justice’s sole claim of ordinary negligence is barred by the exculpatory clause that his mother signed on his behalf. In light of that conclusion, Justice’s argument that the district court erred by denying his motion to amend the complaint to add a request for punitive damages is moot.

Affirmed.

——–

Notes:

1 Marvel contends that Justice did not preserve this argument by presenting it to the district court. Marvel’s contention is colorable because Justice presented the issue to the district court in a somewhat indirect manner. But the district court determined that the issue was presented, stating that it “was addressed in the [parties’] memoranda and is therefore worth clarifying.” Accordingly, the argument is sufficiently preserved for appellate review.

2 The Minnesota Association for Justice has filed an amicus brief supporting Justice’s position. The association notes that a person may void a contract that he or she entered into as a minor, contends that compensation of children who are tort victims is an important objective, and asserts that courts in 17 other states do not enforce parental waivers of minors’ claims. Our research indicates that courts in other states have resolved the issue in various ways. Courts in some states have enforced exculpatory clauses signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child. See, e.g.,
Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 745-47 (2002) ; BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, 435 Md. 714, 80 A.3d 345, 353-55 (2013) ; Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 696 N.E.2d 201, 206-07 (1998). Courts in other states have not enforced such exculpatory clauses. See, e.g., Woodman ex rel. Woodman v. Kera, LLC, 486 Mich. 228, 785 N.W.2d 1, 8 (2010) ; Hawkins ex rel. Hawkins v. Peart, 37 P.3d 1062, 1066 (Utah 2001) ; Scott v. Pacific W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wash.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 10-12 (1992).

——–


New way to beat a release, lie and say you signed it not your son.

However, fraud in signing a contract is usually not enough to get the agreement thrown out. This should be appealed.

Bonnen v. Pocono Whitewater, Ltd. (M.D. Pa. 2021)

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Caroline Bonnen, et al

Defendant: Pocono Whitewater, Ltd

Plaintiff Claims: negligent, grossly negligent, and reckless

Defendant Defenses: Release which contained a forum selection clause

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

The facts are sparse in the opinion and semi speculative here. A mother allegedly signed her son up for a Whitewater raft trip. The son died on the trip after falling out of the unguided raft. The rafting company tried to dismiss the claims due to the jurisdiction and venue clause in the release but was denied because the mother signed the release, not the son.

This reads like the release was signed online, but I could not find an online release for the defendant. With a search, I did find a PDF of a release for the defendant which did have jurisdiction language matching the defendants.

Facts

This is a motion to dismiss because the lawsuit was filed in a county that was not the county identified in the release. Consequently, since it is a simple motion to dismiss the order is light on facts.

On September 1, 2019, Christopher Santana was one of nine occupants in an eight-person raft, none of whom were guides, who were Whitewater rafting on the Lehigh River in Jim Thorpe, Carbon County, Pennsylvania. After the raft hit a rock, Santana was thrown from the raft into turbulent and rocky waters. His foot became lodged between rocks causing him to become submerged underwater, which resulted in his death by drowning. The plaintiff, Caroline Bonnen, individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of Christopher Santana, brings this wrongful death and survival action against the defendant, Pocono Whitewater, Ltd.

In her opposition papers, the plaintiff contends that the release of liability, which includes the forum selection clause contained therein, is invalid because the decedent did not execute the release. The plaintiff maintains that it was she who signed the decedent’s name, without authority to contract on behalf of the decedent.

So, you now have as many questions as you do answers.

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

I’m not sure how an attorney can plead a lie as a defense to a claim to dismiss, but that is probably just me.

The lawsuit was filed in Federal District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The deceased or his mother had signed a release which stated any lawsuit had to be filed in Carbon County state court.

The defendant raft company filed a motion to dismiss in the court stating the lawsuit had been filed in the wrong place, based on the contract.

Normally, these are granted and the court requires the plaintiff to file within so many days or months. The only real issue always is if the statute of limitations has passed by the time the motion is filed, does the plaintiff have a case.

Here though, the mother of the deceased, the plaintiff, said the release was not valid because it was not signed by the deceased. She signed it.

The court bought this argument, which really it had no choice because there were not facts that countered the argument.

Here, the plaintiff disputes the validity of the release containing a forum selection clause because it was allegedly signed in the decedent’s name by his mother, the plaintiff, without authorization or consent by the decedent. Based on the factual allegations by the parties, we are unable to conclude that the decedent unambiguously manifested his assent to the forum selection clause, and thus we are unable to find that the forum selection clause is valid.

The case even gets wilder with the next statement by the court.

Moreover, Pennsylvania law holds that such a release agreement cannot bind non-signatories. Therefore, construing all well-pleaded facts as true, as we must, we are constrained to deny the motion to dismiss.

Sure, a contract cannot be used to hold a non-signatory to an agreement. I cannot sign a contract signing you up for the beer of the month club. However, in most cases, when there is fraud involved things change. Here the mother fraudulent signed the contract on behalf of her son.

Should she be allowed to profit from her fraud?

Yes, she lost a son, but this; I think, is not right.

So Now What?

  1. The release needed better language that stated that the person signing the document was the person identified in the document.
  2. The contract or release should have also stated that the release binds the entire family of the signor to the terms of the release.

I did a Google Search and found a PDF of a release for the defendant dated around the time of the accident. If that is the release that was used, it might not work anyhow. It was a half-page form that would have a difficult time holding up to Pennsylvania law. However, it also was a PDF so it would require an actual signature.

So here again, the plaintiff could use a release that was lacking a few issues to keep the lawsuit going. I suspect this is not the last argument over this release we will read. At least, I hope not.

The website states there will be professional raft guides, the allegations claim no guides were in the boat.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

CV

Copyright 2022 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

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Bonnen v. Pocono Whitewater, Ltd. (M.D. Pa. 2021)

CAROLINE BONNEN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
POCONO WHITEWATER, LTD., Defendant.

Civil Action No. 3:20-cv-01532

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 17, 2021

MEMORANDUM

JOSEPH F. SAPORITO, JR., U.S. Magistrate Judge.

 This diversity action is before the court on the defendant’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) based on enforcement of a forum selection provision. (Doc. 15). The action arises out of an incident where the plaintiffs decedent died as a result of being thrown from a raft while Whitewater rafting on the Lehigh River in Carbon County, Pennsylvania. For the reasons set forth herein, we will deny the motion.

 I. Statement of Facts

 On September 1, 2019, Christopher Santana was one of nine occupants in an eight-person raft, none of whom were guides, who were Whitewater rafting on the Lehigh River in Jim Thorpe, Carbon County, Pennsylvania. After the raft hit a rock, Santana was thrown from the raft into turbulent and rocky waters. His foot became lodged between rocks causing him to become submerged underwater, which resulted in his death by drowning. The plaintiff, Caroline Bonnen, individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of Christopher Santana, brings this wrongful death and survival action against the defendant, Pocono Whitewater, Ltd.

 The defendant has filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 15), seeking dismissal on the ground that a forum selection provision contained in a release of liability purportedly signed by the decedent sets the Court of Common Pleas of Carbon County as the appropriate and agreed-upon venue for any dispute “aris[ing] out of th[e] agreement or otherwise between the parties.” (Doc. 14-5).

 A review of the amended complaint reflects that the plaintiff did not plead whether the release of liability has any relevance to the incident. Rather, the plaintiff has pled that the defendant was negligent, grossly negligent, and reckless in its conduct in a variety of several itemized instances. (Doc. 9 ¶ 31). In her opposition papers, the plaintiff contends that the release of liability, which includes the forum selection clause contained therein, is invalid because the decedent did not execute the release. (Doc. 20 passim; Doc. 21, at 3-5). The plaintiff maintains that it was she who signed the decedent’s name, without authority to contract on behalf of the decedent. (Id.).

 The motion has been fully briefed by the parties and is ripe for disposition. (Doc. 16; Doc. 21).

 II. Legal Standard

 Rule 12 (b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes a defendant to move to dismiss for “failure to state a claim upon which relief is granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “Under Rule 12(b)(6), a motion to dismiss may be granted only if, accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a court finds the plaintiffs claims lack facial plausibility.” Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen, Inc., 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007)). In deciding the motion, the court may consider the facts alleged on the face of the complaint, as well as “documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice.” Tellab, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007). Although the Court must accept the fact allegations in the complaint as true, it is not compelled to accept “unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, or a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegations.” Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 165 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Baraka v. McGreevy, 481 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007). Nor is it required to credit factual allegations contradicted by indisputably authentic documents on which the complaint relies or matters of public record of which we may take judicial notice. In re Washington Mut. Inc., 741 Fed.Appx. 88, 91 n.3 (3d Cir. 2018); Sourovelis v. City of Philadelphia, 246 F.Supp.3d 1058, 1075 (E.D. Pa. 2017); Banks v. Cty. of Allegheny, 568 F.Supp.2d 579, 588-89 (W.D. Pa. 2008).

 III. Discussion

 Turning to the motion to dismiss based on enforcement of a forum selection provision under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), when the parties’ agreement contains a valid forum selection clause designating a particular forum for settling disputes arising out of their contract, a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal is a permissible means of enforcing that forum selection clause. Salovaara v. Jackson Nat’l Life Ins. Co., 246 F.3d 289, 298 (3d Cir. 2001). Podesta v. Hanzel, 684 Fed.Appx. 213, 216 (3d Cir. 2017); see also Eureka Res., LLC v. Hoden Roots LLC, ___F.Supp.3d.___, 2021 WL 3545068, at * 1 & n.5 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 11, 2021).

 Here, the plaintiff disputes the validity of the release containing a forum selection clause because it was allegedly signed in the decedent’s name by his mother, the plaintiff, without authorization or consent by the decedent. Based on the factual allegations by the parties, we are unable to conclude that the decedent unambiguously manifested his assent to the forum selection clause, and thus we are unable to find that the forum selection clause is valid. See Oak Street Printery LLC v. Fujifilm N. Am. Corp., 895 F.Supp.2d 613, 619 (M.D. Pa. 2012). Because the validity of the form selection clause remains in doubt, the defendant’s preferred forum-the Carbon County state courts-is not controlling. See Id. Moreover, Pennsylvania law holds that such a release agreement cannot bind non-signatories. See Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483, 497 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (noting that a statutory “wrongful death claimant possesses an independent, non-derivative right of action” that cannot be subjected to a forum selection clause, signed by the decedent, without the claimant’s consent); cf. Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 561 A.2d 733, 736 (Pa. l989)(holding that a wife’s consortium claim was an independent cause of action, and thus not barred by a settlement agreement to which she was not a signatory). Therefore, construing all well-pleaded facts as true, as we must, we are constrained to deny the motion to dismiss.

 An appropriate order follows.


A Parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue in New Jersey, however, a parent can agree to arbitrate the minor’s claims.

Another trampoline park case where the plaintiffs are required to arbitrate their claim even though the release which included the arbitration clause was not enforceable in New Jersey.

Johnson v. Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2021)

State: New Jersey

Plaintiff: David Johnson, an infant by his guardian ad litem, Shalonda Johnson, and Shalonda Johnson, individually

Defendant: Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield, Sky Zone, LLC, Sky Zone Franchise Group, LLC, and Go Ahead and Jump 4, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release required arbitration of the claims

Holding: For the defendants, claims must be arbitrated

Year: 2021

Summary

The New Jersey Supreme Court held Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323 (2006), that a parent could not sign away a minor’s right to sue. See However, in Hojnowski the court stated a parent could agree to arbitrate a minor’s claims. This decision of the injuries received at a trampoline park held the same decision. When signing the release, the mother agreed to arbitration of any claims.

Facts

On July 14, 2018, ten-year-old David and his mother visited the Park. Before they were permitted entry, however, a Park employee apprised Johnson she was required to sign a “Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” (the Agreement) on an electronic tablet. On August 15, 2018, plaintiffs again visited the Park and, while jumping on a trampoline, David seriously injured his leg. The appellate record did not include evidence of whether Johnson executed a second waiver.

The Agreement is presented to the patrons at a kiosk in the form of an electronic document. The patrons are expected to read it and acknowledge their consent to be bound by the terms contained therein by placing an electronic “checkmark” and entering certain personally identifying information. Defendants argue David’s mother placed an electronic checkmark where indicated, and thus acknowledged she understood and agreed “to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and waived “[her] right, and the right(s) of [her] minor child(ren) . . . to maintain a lawsuit against [defendants] . . . for any and all claims covered by this Agreement.”

The mother filed a lawsuit for herself and her son. The defendant argued the arbitration clause in the release should apply. That would remove the litigation from the state court system and have a neutral arbitrator decide the case. Normally arbitrators do not hand out damages to the extend a jury would. The court agreed, leading to this appeal.

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

The argument was quite simple. The plaintiff argued that since the New Jersey Supreme Court had decided that a parent could not sign away a minor’s right to sue, that the release, including the arbitration clause should be thrown out.

The plaintiff first argued there was no real notice because the plaintiff had checked a box on the electronic form and that was not enough notice required to alert the plaintiff that she was going to have to arbitrate any claim. The defense countered that the plaintiff has completed the form giving the defendant a lot of contact information.

In response, defense counsel argued Johnson did a great deal more than merely place a checkmark on a section of an electronic document. “We don’t just have the electronic signatures. We have her name, her address, her phone number, her date of birth . . . it’s not merely that you have [Janay’s] certification.

The plaintiff then argued the arbitration clause was ambiguous and unenforceable as a matter of law.

As a matter of public policy, our Supreme Court has upheld arbitration as a “favored means of dispute resolution.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. The Court has consistently endorsed a “strong preference to enforce arbitration agreements, both at the state and federal level.” In determining whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, we will apply “state contract-law principles.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. Guided by these principles, “[a]n arbitration agreement is valid only if the parties intended to arbitrate because parties are not required ‘to arbitrate when they have not agreed to do so.

The statement that the arbitration clause is only valid if the parties intended to arbitrate is good for arbitration clauses and contracts. The court also found the language requiring arbitration was not ambiguous or unenforceable.

Mutuality of assent is the hallmark of an enforceable contract. Thus, the initial inquiry is whether the parties actually and knowingly agreed to arbitrate their dispute. To reflect mutual assent to arbitrate, the terms of an arbitration provision must be “sufficiently clear to place a consumer on notice that he or she is waiving a constitutional or statutory right . . . .” “No particular form of words is necessary to accomplish a clear and unambiguous waiver of rights.” If, “at least in some general and sufficiently broad way,” the language of the clause conveys arbitration is a waiver of the right to bring suit in a judicial forum, the clause will be enforced.

The court went further to state:

The language in the arbitration clause states plaintiffs were “agreeing to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and were “waiving [their] right . . . to maintain a lawsuit.” It sets forth, “[b]y agreeing to arbitrate, [plaintiffs] understand that [they] will NOT have the right to have [their] claim[s] determined by a jury.” This language clearly and unambiguously puts plaintiffs on notice that they are waiving the right to a jury trial and the right to pursue their claims in a court of law. This part of the Agreement is therefore enforceable.

The plaintiff then argued that forcing her to sign an exculpatory contract of adhesion right before a birthday party was a violation of the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability.

We next address plaintiffs’ arguments attacking the enforcement of the arbitration clause based on the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability. In essence, plaintiffs argue requiring Johnson to read and sign an ambiguous contract of adhesion immediately before a birthday party left her with no other choice but to assent.

In New Jersey there is a four-part test to determine if an agreement is a contract of adhesion.

[I]n determining whether to enforce the terms of a contract of adhesion, [a court] look[s] not only to the take-it-or-leave-it nature or the standardized form of the document but also to [(1)] the subject matter of the contract, [(2)] the parties’ relative bargaining positions, [(3)] the degree of economic compulsion motivating the “adhering” party, and [(4)] the public interests affected by the contract.

The court’s response was they could not find anything in the agreement that rose to the level that the contract was a contract of adhesion under New Jersey law.

Although the case is not over, any damages will probably significantly reduce by requiring arbitration.

So Now What?

This is the second decision that is almost identical to this one. Can a release in New Jersey at a trampoline park require the parent to arbitrate the minor’s claim. See New Jersey does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue so a binding arbitration agreement is a good idea, if it is written correctly. This decision does not mention the decision is Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206 which is almost identical in the facts.

There are two ways to limit damages in a state that does not allow a parent to sign a release giving up a minor’s right to sue. Assumption of the risk agreements and the defense of assumption of the risk. Did the parent AND the minor knowingly and voluntarily enter into the risk that caused the injury. This is only valid if you can prove the minor knew or you provided the minor with the education or knowledge to knowingly and voluntarily assume the risk. Voluntary is the easy part proving the minor knew of the risk is difficult.

Arbitration then is the next defense in this ladder to reduce damages. Most states do not allow an arbitrator to award more than the basic damages. Punitive damages cannot be awarded by arbitrators. Also, arbitrators are not over come by emotion or other factors that would influence them into awarding large damages.

Before putting an arbitration clause in your agreement, you need to determine two things.

  1. Is arbitration better than the court system in your state. If your state supports the use of a release, a release gets you out of a case without any damages. Even though arbitration will generally not give the plaintiff large awards, they usually award something.
  2. Are there benefits to arbitration in your state that outweigh other means of resolving the dispute.

In those states that do not support a parent signing away a minor’s right to sue, arbitration is probably a good result. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

CV

Copyright 2022 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com

James H. Moss

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw,


Johnson v. Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2021)

Johnson v. Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2021)

DAVID JOHNSON, an infant by his guardian ad litem, SHALONDA JOHNSON, and SHALONDA JOHNSON, individually, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
SKY ZONE INDOOR TRAMPOLINE PARK IN SPRINGFIELD, SKY ZONE, LLC, SKY ZONE FRANCHISE GROUP, LLC, and GO AHEAD AND JUMP 4, LLC, Defendants-Respondents.

No. A-2489-20

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

December 6, 2021

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued November 10, 2021

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-5446-20.

Edward M. Colligan argued the cause for appellants (Colligan & Colligan attorneys; Edward M. Colligan, on the brief).

Kelly A. Waters argued the cause for respondents (Wood Smith Henning & Berman, attorneys; Kelly A. Waters, of counsel and on the brief; Jill A. Mucerino and Sean P. Shoolbraid, on the brief).

Before Judges Fuentes, Gilson, and Gooden Brown.

PER CURIAM

David Johnson, a child under the age of eighteen, was injured while visiting a trampoline park owned and operated by Sky Zone, LLC, Sky Zone Franchise Group, LLC and Go Ahead and Jump 4, LLC (collectively, Park or defendants). Shalonda Johnson, individually and as guardian ad litem of her minor son (collectively, plaintiffs), [1] filed a civil action against defendants in the Superior Court, Law Division, in Union County, seeking compensatory damages. In lieu of filing a responsive pleading, defendants moved before the Law Division to enforce an arbitration clause contained in an electronic document Johnson signed as a condition of being permitted to enter the Park. After considering the arguments of counsel and the exhibits submitted, the Law Division judge assigned to the case granted defendants’ motion to enforce the arbitration clause and dismissed the case with prejudice in an order entered on March 24, 2021.

In this appeal, plaintiffs argue the arbitration clause contained in this electronic general liability release contract is unenforceable. After reviewing the record presented to the Law Division judge, we affirm the part of the order enforcing the arbitration clause, vacate the dismissal of plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice, and remand for the court to stay judicial proceedings related to this case pending the outcome of the arbitration.[2]

I.

A.

On July 14, 2018, ten-year-old David and his mother visited the Park. Before they were permitted entry, however, a Park employee apprised Johnson she was required to sign a “Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” (the Agreement) on an electronic tablet. On August 15, 2018, plaintiffs again visited the Park and, while jumping on a trampoline, David seriously injured his leg.[3] The appellate record did not include evidence of whether Johnson executed a second waiver.

The Agreement contains a general release provision “intended to release and provide other benefits, legal protections and consideration” to defendants. For example, it contains an “acknowledgement of potential injuries” provision, which places patrons on notice that “participating in trampoline and other activities is inherently and obviously dangerous.” The Agreement also includes a “voluntary assumption of risk acknowledgment” provision, which informs patrons that they “are participating voluntarily at [their] own risk” and could suffer “significant bodily injuries” or “die or become paralyzed, partially or fully, through their use of the Sky Zone facility and participation in Sky Zone activities.”

Finally, the Agreement contains a “release of liability” section, which requires patrons to “forever, irrevocably and unconditionally release, waive, relinquish, discharge from liability and covenant not to sue [Sky Zone]” for

any and all claims . . . of whatever kind or nature, in law, equity or otherwise, . . . related to or arising, directly or indirectly, from [their] access to and/or use of the Sky Zone [f]acility, . . . including, without limitation, any claim for negligence, failure to warn or other omission, . . . personal injury, . . . [or] bodily harm . . . .

The enforceability of these exculpatory provisions are not part of this appeal. We express no opinion as to whether these exculpatory provisions are enforceable under our State’s common law, as expressed by our Supreme Court in Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), and Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323 (2006).

The dispositive issue in this appeal concerns the enforceability of the section in the Agreement entitled, in part, “arbitration of disputes.” The Agreement is presented to the patrons at a kiosk in the form of an electronic document. The patrons are expected to read it and acknowledge their consent to be bound by the terms contained therein by placing an electronic “checkmark” and entering certain personally identifying information. Defendants argue David’s mother placed an electronic checkmark where indicated, and thus acknowledged she understood and agreed “to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and waived “[her] right, and the right(s) of [her] minor child(ren) . . . to maintain a lawsuit against [defendants] . . . for any and all claims covered by this Agreement.” This section also provides the following recitation of the rights plaintiffs agreed to waive as a precondition to enter the Park and participate in the activities available therein:

By agreeing to arbitrate, I understand that I will NOT have the right to have my claim determined by a jury, and the minor child(ren) above will NOT have the right to have claim(s) determined by a jury. Reciprocally, [the Sky Zone defendants] waive their right to maintain a lawsuit against [plaintiff] . . . for any and all claims covered by this [a]greement, and they will not have the right to have their claim(s) determined by a jury. ANY DISPUTE, CLAIM OR CONTROVERSY ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO MY OR THE CHILD’S ACCESS TO AND/OR USE OF THE SKY ZONE PREMISES AND/OR ITS EQUIPMENT, INCLUDING THE DETERMINATION OF THE SCOPE OR APPLICABILITY OF THIS AGREEMENT TO ARBITRATE, SHALL BE BROUGHT WITHIN ONE YEAR OF ITS ACCRUAL (i.e., the date of the alleged injury) FOR AN ADULT AND WITHIN THE APPLICABLE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS FOR A MINOR AND BE DETERMINED BY ARBITRATION IN THE COUNTY OF THE SKY ZONE FACILITY . . . BEFORE ONE ARBITRATOR. THE ARBITRATION SHALL BE ADMINISTERED BY [JUDICIAL ARBITRATION AND MEDIATION SERVICES (JAMS)] PURSUANT TO ITS RULE 16.1 EXPEDITED ARBITRATION RULES AND PROCEDURES. JUDGMENT ON THE AWARD MAY BE ENTERED IN ANY COURT HAVING JURISDICTION. THIS CLAUSE SHALL NOT PRECLUDE PARTIES FROM SEEKING PROVISIONAL REMEDIES IN AID OF ARBITRATION FROM A COURT OF APPROPRIATE JURISDICTION. This [a]greement shall be governed by, construed and interpreted in accordance with the laws of the State of New Jersey, without regard to choice of law principles. Notwithstanding the provision with respect to the applicable substantive law, any arbitration conducted pursuant to the terms of this [a]greement shall be governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C., Sec. 1-16). I understand and acknowledge that the JAMS Arbitration Rules to which I agree are available online for my review at jamsadr.com, and include JAMS Comprehensive Arbitration Rules & Procedures; Rule 16.1 Expedited Procedures; and, Policy On Consumer Minimum Standards Of Procedural Fairness.

[(Emphasis in original).]

The Agreement also contained a merger and a severability clause, in which Johnson acknowledged: “I have had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document. I have read and understood and voluntarily agree to be bound by its terms.” The clause further provided:

This [a]greement constitutes and contains the entire agreement between [Sky Zone] and [plaintiffs] relating to the . . . use of the Sky Zone Facility. There are no other agreements, oral, written, or implied, with respect to such matters. . . . If any term or provision of this [agreement] shall be held illegal, unenforceable, or in conflict with any law governing this [agreement] the validity of the remaining portions shall not be affected thereby. B.

Plaintiffs filed their personal injury complaint against defendants on August 13, 2020. The Law Division entered default against defendants on December 28, 2020, for failure to file a timely responsive pleading. On January 8, 2021, defendants’ counsel notified plaintiffs’ counsel he intended to file a motion to dismiss the complaint in lieu of an answer pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(e), based on plaintiffs’ failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The attorneys thereafter entered into a Consent Agreement, stating in relevant part:

This matter having come before the [c]ourt upon the Consent of the parties, whereby the parties consent, stipulate, and agree that the default entered against Defendants, SKY ZONE FRANCHISE GROUP, LLC and GO AHEAD AND JUMP 4, LLC, be vacated and the time for Defendant to Answer or Otherwise Plead be extended until January 30, 2021 . . . .

[(Strikethrough in original).]

Plaintiff’s counsel unilaterally struck “or Otherwise Plead” from the Consent Order. On February 2, 2021, the Law Division accepted the Consent Agreement and vacated the default. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and compel arbitration on January 30, 2021. Defendants’ motion came for oral argument before the Law Division on March 24, 2021. Plaintiffs’ counsel argued the arbitration clause presented to Johnson was unenforceable based on both the obscure, technical language used in the document, and by presenting it as part of an electronic document in a kiosk located outside the Park’s entrance. Plaintiff’s counsel also emphasized the circumstances under which Johnson allegedly waived her son’s constitutional right to a jury trial: “[M]y client went in July [2018] to be a guest at a birthday party. The . . . defense . . . alleges that she signed this Agreement at that time and at that time, they’re saying that she signed an agreement that was good forever.”

In response, defense counsel argued Johnson did a great deal more than merely place a checkmark on a section of an electronic document. “We don’t just have the electronic signatures. We have her name, her address, her phone number, her date of birth . . . it’s not merely that you have [Janay’s] certification. You have identifiers that Skyzone would not have gotten without the plaintiff.” The reference made by defense counsel to “Janay’s certification” relates to Michael Janay, the Managing Member of defendant Go Ahead and Jump 4, LLC., who averred:

As a matter of business practice, all patrons who enter the Park for the first time are required to electronically sign a Participant Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk . . . at a kiosk, or online, as a pre-condition to entry. Patrons are not permitted entry into the Park unless a Participation Agreement has been executed on their behalf and there are signs throughout the Park indicating the same. . . . [A]ll patrons who enter the Park are required to provide a valid email address when electronically signing the Participation Agreement.

. . . [O]nce the Participation Agreement is electronically signed, a copy of the executed Participation Agreement is sent to the email address provided by the patron.

. . . .

Based on the information provided, a copy of this Participation Agreement was sent to Shalonda Johnson’s email following Shalonda Johnson’s execution of the Participation Agreement at the Park on July 14, 2018. As indicated, Shalonda Johnson listed her son David Johnson[, ] who is the Minor[-]Plaintiff, and another minor Kevin Johnson. On that basis, Shalonda Johnson, David Johnson, and Kevin Johnson were permitted entry into the Park on July 14, 2018.

After considering the arguments of counsel, the motion judge granted defendants’ motion on March 24, 2021. The judge explained the basis of his decision in a Statement of Reasons attached to the order.

II.

Against this factual backdrop, plaintiffs argue the arbitration agreement is ambiguous and unenforceable as a matter of law. We reject these arguments and affirm the part of the Law Division’s Order upholding the enforceability of the arbitration clause. Because the Law Division’s decision to enforce this arbitration provision is purely a question of law, our standard of review is de novo. Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc., 244 N.J. 119, 131 (2020); see also Kernahan v. Home Warranty Adm’r of Fla., Inc., 236 N.J. 301, 316 (2019) (“Whether a contractual arbitration provision is enforceable is a question of law, and we need not defer to the interpretative analysis of the trial . . . court[] unless we find it persuasive.”).

As a matter of public policy, our Supreme Court has upheld arbitration as a “favored means of dispute resolution.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. The Court has consistently endorsed a “strong preference to enforce arbitration agreements, both at the state and federal level.” Hirsch v. Amper Fin. Servs., LLC, 215 N.J. 174, 186 (2013). In determining whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, we will apply “state contract-law principles.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. Guided by these principles, “[a]n arbitration agreement is valid only if the parties intended to arbitrate because parties are not required ‘to arbitrate when they have not agreed to do so.'” Kernahan, 236 N.J. at 317 (quoting Volt Info. Scis., Inc. v. Bd. of Trs. of Leland Stanford Junior Univ., 489 U.S. 468, 478 (1989)).

Mutuality of assent is the hallmark of an enforceable contract. Thus, the initial inquiry is whether the parties actually and knowingly agreed to arbitrate their dispute. To reflect mutual assent to arbitrate, the terms of an arbitration provision must be “sufficiently clear to place a consumer on notice that he or she is waiving a constitutional or statutory right . . . .” Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp., L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 443 (2014). “No particular form of words is necessary to accomplish a clear and unambiguous waiver of rights.” Id. at 444. If, “at least in some general and sufficiently broad way,” the language of the clause conveys arbitration is a waiver of the right to bring suit in a judicial forum, the clause will be enforced. Id. at 447. “The key . . . is clarity.” Barr v. Bishop Rosen & Co., 442 N.J.Super. 599, 607 (App. Div. 2015).

Here, plaintiffs claim the arbitration clause is ambiguous and therefore unenforceable because it contains “void, inaccurate, misleading and ambiguous language . . . .” and “confusing lower[-]case passages and all upper[-]case bold passages.” Plaintiffs argue Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 327, “prohibits a parent of a minor child from releasing the child’s potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility.” According to plaintiffs, JAMS, the named forum in the arbitration provision, is “not permitted to conduct arbitration in New Jersey” and thus the agreement should fail. We disagree.

The language in the arbitration clause states plaintiffs were “agreeing to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and were “waiving [their] right . . . to maintain a lawsuit.” It sets forth, “[b]y agreeing to arbitrate, [plaintiffs] understand that [they] will NOT have the right to have [their] claim[s] determined by a jury.” This language clearly and unambiguously puts plaintiffs on notice that they are waiving the right to a jury trial and the right to pursue their claims in a court of law. This part of the Agreement is therefore enforceable. See Flanzman, 244 N.J. at 137-38 (citing Atalese, 219 N.J. at 444-45).

Plaintiffs’ reliance on Hojnowski is misplaced. Writing for a unanimous Court, then Justice Zazzali[4] made clear “permitting arbitration of a minor’s claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children.” 187 N.J. at 343. Here, plaintiff’s mother signed the Agreement that included an arbitration clause.

The unavailability of JAMS does not render the arbitration clause unenforceable. Although the parties agree JAMS is not available to arbitrate this case, the Agreement contains a severability clause that states: “If any term or provision of this [agreement] shall be held illegal, unenforceable, or in conflict with any law governing this [agreement] the validity of the remaining portions shall not be affected thereby.” Severability clauses “are indicative of the parties’ intent that the agreement as a whole survives the excision of an unenforceable provision.” Arafa v. Health Express Corp., 243 N.J. 147, 169 n.2 (2020). As the Supreme Court explained in Flanzman:

No New Jersey statutory provision or prior decision has elevated the selection of an “arbitral institution” or the designation of a “general process for selecting an arbitration mechanism or setting” to the status of essential contract terms, without which an arbitration agreement must fail.

To the contrary, the [New Jersey Arbitration Act (NJAA)] makes clear that its default provision for the selection of an arbitrator may operate in the absence of contractual terms prescribing such procedures. See N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-11(a). The NJAA reflects the Legislature’s intent that the parties’ omission of an arbitrator or arbitral organization, or their failure to set forth the method by which they will choose an arbitrator in the event of a dispute, will not preclude the enforcement of their agreement. Ibid.

[244 N.J. at 139.]

The arbitration clause at issue here must be interpreted in accordance with New Jersey law and the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The FAA and the NJAA provide for a court-appointed arbitrator if the designated arbitrator is unavailable. Id. at 141. The arbitration clause enables the parties to seek from a court “provisional remedies in aid of arbitration.” The language in the Agreement does not show the parties intended to forego arbitration if JAMS is unavailable. The designation of JAMS was not integral to the enforcement of the arbitration clause. Thus, the unavailability of JAMS does not invalidate the arbitration clause.

We next address plaintiffs’ arguments attacking the enforcement of the arbitration clause based on the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability. In essence, plaintiffs argue requiring Johnson to read and sign an ambiguous contract of adhesion immediately before a birthday party left her with no other choice but to assent. Our Supreme Court has described the factors that constitute the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability:

The defense of unconscionability, specifically, calls for a fact-sensitive analysis in each case, even when a contract of adhesion is involved. [The] Court has recognized that contracts of adhesion necessarily involve indicia of procedural unconscionability. [The Court has] identified, therefore, four factors as deserving of attention when a court is asked to declare a contract of adhesion unenforceable.

[I]n determining whether to enforce the terms of a contract of adhesion, [a court] look[s] not only to the take-it-or-leave-it nature or the standardized form of the document but also to [(1)] the subject matter of the contract, [(2)] the parties’ relative bargaining positions, [(3)] the degree of economic compulsion motivating the “adhering” party, and [(4)] the public interests affected by the contract. [Delta Funding Corp. v. Harris, 189 N.J. 28, 39-40 (2006) (internal citations omitted) (quoting Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 356 (1992)).]

Here, plaintiffs merely recycle their arguments relying on the Agreement’s alleged ambiguity without applying or analyzing the factors established by the Court in Delta Funding. We discern no basis, in fact or in law, to conclude this arbitration provision is substantively unconscionable. Finally, plaintiffs’ allegations that defendants acted intentionally and recklessly have no basis in fact and are not worthy of further comment by this court. Plaintiffs’ remaining argument lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written decision. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).

The order of the Law Division upholding the enforceability of defendants’ arbitration clause is affirmed. However, we vacate the part of the order that dismisses plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice and remand the matter to the Law Division to stay any judicial proceedings related to this case pending the outcome of the arbitration. GMAC, 205 N.J. at 584 n.7; N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-7(g).

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction. ———

Notes:

[1] In the interest of clarity, we will occasionally also refer to plaintiffs by their names; we will refer to the child by his first name and his mother by her last name. No disrespect is intended.

[2] Although an order entered by the Law Division compelling or denying arbitration is appealable to this court as of right, pursuant to Rule 2:2-3(a)(3), the trial court must stay any judicial proceeding pending the outcome of the arbitration. The court may also limit the stay to arbitrable claims if other claims are severable. GMAC v. Pittella, 205 N.J. 572, 584 n.7 (2011) (citing N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-7(g)).

[3] In a certification submitted to the motion judge, Johnson averred the injury damaged “the growth plate in my son’s leg . . . and his leg did not continue to grow properly. He has undergone surgery to shorten the opposite leg and may need additional treatment in the future.”

[4] In October 2006, Governor Jon Corzine appointed Justice Zazzali to succeed Deborah T. Poritz as Chief Justice. Chief Justice Zazzali served in this capacity until June 17, 2007, when he reached the mandatory retirement age for all members of the New Jersey Judiciary.

———


Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323; 901 A.2d 381; 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1080

Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323; 901 A.2d 381; 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1080

Andrew Hojnowski, a Minor, through his Parents and Guardians Ad Litem, Jerry Hojnowski and Anastasia Hojnowski and Jerry Hojnowski and Anastasia Hojnowski, in their own right, Plaintiffs-Respondents and Cross-Appellants, v. Vans Skate Park, Defendant-Appellant and Cross-Respondent, and Mccown Deleeuw Company, John Doe(s) Skate Park Owner (a fictitious name) and Jane Doe(s) Insurance Company (for med pay only), Defendants.

A-17/A-45 September Term 2005

SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY

187 N.J. 323; 901 A.2d 381; 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1080

January 30, 2006, Argued

July 17, 2006, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: [***1] On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 375 N.J. Super. 568, 868 A.2d 1087 (2005).

Hojnowski ex rel. Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 375 N.J. Super. 568, 868 A.2d 1087, 2005 N.J. Super. LEXIS 79 (App.Div., 2005)

CASE SUMMARY:

PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Plaintiffs, a minor and his parents, sued defendant skate park for negligence. The park moved to compel arbitration; the trial court granted the park summary judgment and dismissed the suit. Plaintiffs appealed; the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, affirmed the grant of summary judgment but held that the waiver of liability contained in a pre-injury release signed by a parent was void. Plaintiffs sought further review.

OVERVIEW: Plaintiffs alleged the minor fractured his femur when an aggressive skateboarder, about whom his parents had complained to the park, forced him off a skateboard ramp. One parent had executed a release on the minor’s behalf that provided for mandatory arbitration of claims against the park and limited its liability. Plaintiffs moved to invalidate the release; the trial court did not rule on the validity of the limitation of liability, leaving this issue for the arbitrators to decide. The intermediate appellate court held that the arbitration provision was valid, that the trial court should have ruled on the validity of the liability waiver, and that it was invalid. The high court agreed. Under the parens patriae doctrine, the public policy of New Jersey prohibited a parent of a minor child from releasing the child’s potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility. But under the public policy expressed in the New Jersey Arbitration Act, former N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2A:24-1 to -11, a parent’s agreement to arbitrate was enforceable against any tort claims asserted on the minor’s behalf, in the absence of fraud, duress, unconscionability, or ambiguity.

OUTCOME: The high court affirmed the judgment of the intermediate appellate court and referred the matter to the arbitrator for further proceedings.

CORE TERMS: arbitration, pre-injury, minor child, public policy, exculpatory, parental, settlement, bind, post-injury, tort claims, arbitration agreements, agreement to arbitrate, recreational, enforceable, arbitrator, arbitrate, arbitration provision, unenforceable, public interest, inherent risks, reasonableness, guardian, waive, commercial enterprise, recreational facility, best interests, cause of action, invalidate, implicate, patriae

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Andrew Hojnowski, a minor v. Vans Skate Park, et als. (A-17/45-05)

Argued January 30, 2006 — Decided July 17, 2006

ZAZZALI, J., writing for the Court.

The issue before the Court is whether a parent can bind a minor child to either a pre-injury waiver of liability or an agreement to arbitrate.

In January 2003, twelve-year-old Andrew Hojnowski was injured while skateboarding at a facility operated by Vans, Inc. (Vans). On a previous visit to the facility, Andrew’s mother had executed a release on Andrew’s behalf, which was required in order for Andrew to enter the skate park. The exculpatory release contained a clause agreeing to submit any claims against Vans to arbitration, as well as provisions limiting Vans’ liability for injury.

[***2] In August 2003, Andrew, acting through his parents as guardians ad litem, and his parents, in their own right, filed suit against Vans. Their complaint alleges, among other things, negligent supervision and failure to warn, and negligent failure to provide a safe place. Vans responded by filing a demand for commercial arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. The Hojnowskis then moved to enjoin the arbitration and invalidate the pre-injury release signed by Andrew’s mother and Vans cross-moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted Vans’ motion, dismissing the Hojnowskis’ complaint without prejudice and ordering arbitration. The trial court did not rule on the validity of the liability release, finding the issue for the arbitrators to determine.

On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in respect of the validity of the arbitration provision. In addition, the panel found that because the issue presented a question of public policy, the trial court should have ruled on the validity of the waiver. The panel was divided in its resolution of that question. The majority determined that a pre-injury release [***3] of liability executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violates public policy and is, therefore, unenforceable. The dissent argued that the court should have deferred to the parent’s decision to enter into the agreement and, hence, should have enforced the waiver.

Vans appealed to the Supreme Court as of right on the issue of the validity of the pre-injury release of liability. The Court granted certification on the question of whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitration.

HELD: Although a parent may agree to bind a minor child to an arbitration provision, which in essence constitutes a choice of forum, a parent may not bind a minor child to a pre-injury release of a minor’s prospective tort claims resulting from the minor’s use of a commercial recreational facility.

1. Because exculpatory agreements can encourage a lack of care, courts closely scrutinize liability releases and invalidate them if they violate public policy. The relevant public policy implicated in this case is the protection of the best interests of the child under the parens patriae doctrine, which refers to the State’s capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care [***4] for themselves. In keeping with that doctrine, the Legislature and the courts have historically afforded considerable protections to claims of minor children. The most significant of those protections concerns the compromise or release of a minor’s post-injury claims, requiring the parent to obtain statutory or judicial approval to dispose of the minor’s existing cause of action. The purpose underlying the post-injury settlement rule also applies in the pre-injury context. (Pp. 9-15)

2. Business owners owe invitees a duty of reasonable or due care to provide a safe environment because it is the business owners who are in the best position to control the risk of harm. In this case, the risk of loss should fall on the party best suited to avert injury. The operator of a commercial recreational enterprise can inspect the premises for unsafe conditions, train staff in respect of the facility’s proper operation, and regulate the types of activities permitted to occur. The business operator can also obtain insurance and spread the costs of insurance among its customers. Children are not in a position to discover hazardous conditions or insure against risks. In addition, the expectation [***5] that a commercial facility will be reasonably safe is especially important where the patron’s are minors. To permit waivers of liability would remove a significant incentive for operators of these types of facilities that attract children to take reasonable steps to protect their safety. The overwhelming majority of jurisdictions are in accord with the decision to invalidate such waivers. (Pp. 15-19)

3. In view of the protections that New Jersey historically has afforded to a minor’s claims and the need to discourage negligent activity on the part of commercial enterprises attracting children, a parent’s execution of a pre-injury release of a minor’s future tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility is unenforceable. (P.19)

4. Vans’ remaining contentions are unconvincing. Van’s argument that allowing a pre-injury release of a minor’s potential tort claim is no different than a parent’s decision never to bring suit on the child’s behalf ignores the tolling provisions enabling a minor to retain the right to sue for most personal injuries for two years after reaching the age of majority. Nor does the Court accept the argument that the parental release [***6] implicates the parent’s fundamental right to direct the upbringing of the child. Nor is the Court persuaded by the argument that such releases are necessary to ensure the continued validity of businesses offering sports activities to minors. Tort liability is not an unreasonable economic restraint on the ability of business owners to operate commercial recreational facilities. (Pp. 19-23)

5. Federal policy has favored the enforcement of arbitration agreements for many years. In New Jersey, arbitration is also a favored means of dispute resolution. An agreement to arbitrate generally will be valid under State law unless it violates public policy. Allowing a parent to bind a minor child to arbitrate future tort claims is not contrary to the Court’s duty as parens patriae to protect the best interests of the child. A pre-injury agreement to arbitrate does not require the minor to give up any substantive rights; rather, it specifies only the forum in which those rights are redressed. Furthermore, permitting arbitration of a minor’s claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children. Case law [***7] from other jurisdictions reinforces this conclusion. (Pp. 23-31)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED and the matter is referred to an arbitrator for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins, is in full agreement with that portion of the majority’s decision that affirms the enforcement of the parties’ agreement to subject their dispute to arbitration. Justice LaVecchia dissents from the majority’s invalidation of the waiver of liability that the parties executed as a condition of the minor’s use of Van’s property to skateboard. Because the type of waiver entered into in this case generally would be enforceable as against an adult, there is no reason why this Court should prevent a parent from ratifying such a waiver on behalf of the minor, provided that a court or arbitrator determines that the release is reasonable.

COUNSEL: Richard C. Wischusen argued the cause for appellant and cross-respondent (Reilly, Supple & Wischusen, attorneys; Alex W. Raybould, on the briefs).

Robert A. Porter argued the cause for respondents and cross-appellants (Bafundo, [***8] Porter, Borbi & Clancy, attorneys).

David G. Evans submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae, Pacific Legal Foundation.

JUDGES: Justice ZAZZALI delivered the opinion of the Court. Justice LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice RIVERA-SOTO joins in this opinion. Chief Justice PORITZ and Justices LONG, ZAZZALI, ALBIN and WALLACE. Justices LaVECCHIA and RIVERA-SOTO. CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI’s opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins.

OPINION BY: ZAZZALI

OPINION

[*327] [**383] Justice ZAZZALI delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this appeal, we must determine whether a parent can bind a minor child to either a pre-injury waiver of liability or an agreement to arbitrate. In January 2003, twelve-year old Andrew Hojnowski was injured while skateboarding at a skate park facility operated by defendant Vans, Inc. (Vans). On a previous visit to the facility, Andrew’s mother had executed a release on Andrew’s behalf. That release contained a clause agreeing to submit any claims against Vans to arbitration, as well as a provision limiting Vans’ liability. After Andrew and his parents (plaintiffs) brought suit seeking recovery for Andrew’s injuries, Vans filed for commercial arbitration. Plaintiffs then moved to enjoin arbitration and to invalidate the [***9] liability release signed by Andrew’s mother.

The trial court found that plaintiffs were bound by the arbitration provision and dismissed their complaint without prejudice. The court declined to rule on whether the liability release was valid, concluding that that issue should be determined by the arbitrator. On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously voted to uphold the arbitration provision but divided on the validity of the liability release. The majority determined that a pre-injury release of liability executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable. The dissent argued that the court should have deferred to the parent’s decision to enter into the agreement and enforced the waiver. We affirm the majority and hold that although a parent may agree to bind a minor child to an arbitration provision, which in essence constitutes a choice of forum, a parent may not bind a minor child to a pre-injury release of a minor’s prospective tort claims resulting from the minor’s use of a commercial recreational facility. Pursuant to our parens patriae duty to protect the best interests [*328] of the child, we will not enforce such a release [***10] in the context of this case.

I.

In January 2003, twelve-year old Andrew Hojnowski and his mother, Anastasia Hojnowski, visited a Vans Store in Moorestown, New Jersey. Defendant Vans operated the retail store that sold skateboards and related merchandise and maintained a recreational skateboard facility. To enter the skate park, Vans required Andrew’s mother to sign an exculpatory release. It appears that Andrew’s mother did not execute a release on the date in question but had executed a release in December 2002, which Vans had kept on file.

The release, entitled “RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILTY AND JURY TRIAL WITH INDEMNITY (FOR ALL VANS SKATEPARKS, STORES AND FACILITIES (COLLECTIVELY, ‘PARKS’) IN NEW JERSEY),” begins by stating:

Please read this document. It affects Your legal rights against Vans, Inc. if you are injured. Do not sign this document unless you understand it. If You are a minor, Your parent or guardian is required to sign this legal document.

The document then provides, in relevant part:

2. Can You Make A Claim For Money If You Are Injured?

If you are injured and want to make a claim, you must file a demand before the American Arbitration [***11] Association (the “AAA”). . . . You agree that any dispute between You and Vans will be decided by the AAA. Vans, Inc. will pay all costs of the arbitration for You. . . .

[**384] 3. Vans Is Asking You To Give Up Legal Rights in Order to Enter This Park

Because using Vans’ Park, or even entering the Park as a spectator may increase your risk of harm, Vans is asking you to give up certain valuable legal rights. Here are the rights you are giving up when you sign this document:

(a) You give up your right to sue Vans in a court of law.

(b) You give up your right to a trial by jury.

(c) You give up the right to claim money from Vans if you are injured unless Vans intentionally failed to prevent or correct a hazard caused by unsafe equipment or devices.

(d) You give up the right to claim money from Vans if you wait more than one year from the injury in order to make a claim.

[*329] (e) You give up the right to claim money from Vans, Inc. if you are injured by another person.

(f) You give up the right to recover damages to punish or make an example of Vans, Inc.

4. Rights You Do Not Give Up

You do not give up the right:

(a) To have safe equipment, [***12] structures and devices at the Park for Your intended use.

(b) To claim compensation for Your injury from Vans, Inc. if you are hurt because the equipment, structures and devices at the Park are not safe for Your intended use.

. . . .

(e) To make a claim if Vans, Inc. or anyone working for Vans, Inc. intentionally hurts you.

5. Who Is Bound By This Document?

You are bound by this document. Anyone who has or can obtain Your rights is also bound by this document, such as Your family, relatives, guardians, executors or anyone responsible for You. . . .

6. Other Information Important For You To Know

You have the right to demand money if You believe Vans, Inc. intentionally caused You harm. If parts of this document are determined to be invalid, then that portion will be unenforceable and the remainder of the document will continue in full legal force and effect. . . .

Following those provisions, Andrew’s mother answered “Yes” to the question: “Do You understand that You are giving up rights by signing this document if You are hurt?” The document also informed customers that “[b]y signing this document You agree that Vans, Inc. may rely [***13] on Your answers.” Andrew’s mother signed the release on Andrew’s behalf in the space provided beneath that provision.

Plaintiffs claim that, during his use of Vans’ facility in January 2003, Andrew suffered a fractured femur when an aggressive skateboarder, about whom his parents had complained to Vans, forced him off a skateboard ramp. Consequently, in August 2003, Andrew, acting through his parents as guardians ad litem, and his parents, in their own right, filed suit against Vans. Their complaint alleges that Vans “negligently fail[ed] to supervise the activities at the skate park, negligently failed to control activities of aggressive skateboarders, negligently failed to warn Plaintiffs’ parents that [*330] the activities of aggressive skateboarders would not be monitored, and negligently failed to provide a safe place to skateboard.” Plaintiffs also filed suit against an unnamed corporate owner and insurance company. Vans responded by filing a demand for commercial arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. [**385] Plaintiffs then moved to enjoin the arbitration and to invalidate the pre-injury release signed by Andrew’s mother, and Vans cross-moved for summary judgment. The [***14] trial court granted Vans’ motion, dismissing plaintiffs’ complaint without prejudice and ordering arbitration. The trial court, however, did not rule on the validity of the liability release, finding that the issue is “for the arbitrators to determine.”

On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment concerning the validity of the arbitration provision. Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 375 N.J. Super. 568, 574-75, 868 A.2d 1087 (App.Div.2005). The panel held that “a parent can enter into an enforceable contract, binding on the parent’s minor child, that waives the right to trial by jury of the minor’s bodily injury claims and requires submission of ‘any dispute’ to arbitration.” Ibid. The panel also found that because the validity of a pre-injury liability waiver presents a question of public policy, the trial court should have ruled on the waiver’s validity and not referred that question to the arbitrator. Id. at 581-82, 868 A.2d 1087. The panel then divided on the resolution of that issue.

The majority concluded that, under the circumstances of this matter, a parent lacks the authority “to sign a pre-tort [***15] agreement limiting the liability of a tortfeasor to exclude negligent conduct” and therefore voided the release. Id. at 583, 868 A.2d 1087. The majority reasoned that “the judiciary must stand as guardians of the State’s children” and that

[w]ere [the court] to decide otherwise, [it] would be relieving an alleged wrongdoer from its traditional legal responsibility to provide compensation for injuries caused by its negligence and shifting the economic burden to families, public welfare agencies and private charities without any concomitant benefit to either an injured child or his parents.

[*331] [Id. at 590, 868 A.2d 1087.]

Judge Fisher dissented, arguing that the court should have enforced the liability waiver and deferred to a parent’s decision regarding such matters. Id. at 591-92, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). In his view, “in the absence of parental unfitness, courts should not overrule parental decisions but should instead defer to a parent’s own weighing of the benefits and risks when entering into agreements that relate to the activities of their children.” Id. at 592, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring [***16] in part and dissenting in part).

Vans appealed to this Court as of right on the issue of the validity of the pre-injury release of liability. R. 2:2-1(a)(2). We also permitted the Pacific Legal Foundation to submit a brief as amicus curiae on that issue and granted plaintiffs’ petition for certification on the question whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitration. 1 185 N.J. 36, 878 A.2d 853 (2005).

1 On appeal, plaintiffs did not raise the issue of the enforceability of the arbitration provision or the pre-injury liability release against the parents in their own right. Accordingly, our analysis is limited to a determination of the enforceability of those provisions against the minor child. Because the issue is not before us, we neither express nor imply an opinion concerning whether a waiver-of-rights provision of the nature entered into by the parties would be enforceable as against an adult.

II.

We first address whether New Jersey’s public policy permits [***17] a parent to release a minor child’s potential tort claims arising out of the minor’s use of a commercial recreational facility. Plaintiffs argue that [**386] a parent may not waive a minor child’s right to sue for negligence. Relying on Fitzgerald v. Newark Morning Ledger Co., 111 N.J. Super. 104, 267 A.2d 557 (Law Div.1970), and numerous out-of-state decisions, plaintiffs claim that the vast majority of states have held that a parent’s attempt to waive a child’s prospective cause of action is void as a matter of public policy. Plaintiffs assert that public policy disfavors pre-injury waivers of liability [*332] because they encourage tortious conduct by absolving a commercial enterprise of its ordinary duty to exercise due care. Plaintiffs also maintain that because a parent is not permitted to settle a child’s post-injury tort claim without judicial approval, a parent should not be allowed to waive a child’s potential claim before an injury occurs.

Defendant recognizes that the enforcement of parental liability waivers has been “treated in varied fashions by different states.” However, defendant asserts that “[t]he more substantial and well-considered decisions favor enforcement [***18] of exculpatory agreements based on the fundamental right of parents to raise their children as they decide.” Defendant further contends that it is “erroneous” to equate pre-tort releases of liability with post-tort releases because “[t]he conflict of interest and potential for harm to befall a minor are far different in the context of a release of an accrued tort claim where settlement funds are present and may be misappropriated.” Finally, defendant claims that “[w]ithout enforceable [r]eleases many activities available to children may be forced to close due to liability concerns.”

A.

We begin our analysis of that issue by noting that there is ambiguity in the pre-injury release concerning whether the agreement extinguishes or merely limits plaintiffs’ ability to recover against defendant for negligence. For example, although paragraph 3(c) provides that plaintiffs have “give[n] up the right to claim money from [defendant] unless [defendant] intentionally failed to prevent or correct a hazard caused by unsafe equipment or devices,” paragraph 4(b) states that plaintiffs have not “give[n] up the right to claim compensation [if] the equipment, structures and devices [***19] at the Park are not safe for [their] intended use.” We need not determine the precise scope and meaning of those terms, however, because we hold that the public policy of New Jersey prohibits a parent of a minor child from releasing a minor child’s [*333] potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility.

B.

[HN1] Exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored in the law because they encourage a lack of care. See, e.g., Gershon v. Regency Diving Ctr., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 247, 845 A.2d 720 (App.Div.2004); Ultimate Computer Servs., Inc. v. Biltmore Realty Co., 183 N.J. Super. 144, 151, 443 A.2d 723 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 91 N.J. 184, 450 A.2d 522 (1982). For that reason, courts closely scrutinize liability releases and invalidate them if they violate public policy. See, e.g., Lucier v. Williams, 366 N.J. Super. 485, 491, 841 A.2d 907 (App.Div.2004) (“[C]ourts have not hesitated to strike limited liability clauses that are unconscionable or in violation of public policy.”). It is well settled that to contract in advance to release tort liability resulting from intentional or reckless conduct [***20] violates public policy, Kuzmiak v. Brookchester, Inc., 33 N.J. Super. 575, 580, 111 A.2d 425 (App.Div.1955); Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 (1981), as does a contract that releases liability from a statutorily-imposed duty, [**387] McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 542, 226 A.2d 713 (1967). Further, courts have found that exculpatory agreements for negligence claims violate public policy in a variety of settings, such as in residential leases, Cardona v. Eden Realty Co., 118 N.J. Super. 381, 384, 288 A.2d 34 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 60 N.J. 354, 289 A.2d 799 (1972), or in connection with rendering professional services, Lucier, supra, 366 N.J. Super. at 495, 841 A.2d 907; Erlich v. First National Bank, 208 N.J. Super. 264, 287, 505 A.2d 220 (Law Div.1984).

The relevant public policy implicated in this matter is the protection of the best interests of the child under the parens patriae doctrine. [HN2] Parens patriae refers to “the state in its capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care for themselves.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1144 (8th ed.2004). [***21] In keeping with that policy, the Legislature and the courts historically [*334] have afforded considerable protections to claims of minor children. The most significant of those protections concerns the compromise or release of a minor’s post-injury claims. Under Rule 4:44, after a minor has suffered a tortious injury, a minor’s parent or guardian may not dispose of a minor’s existing cause of action without statutory or judicial approval. See
Moscatello ex rel. Moscatello v. Univ. of Med. & Dentistry of N.J., 342 N.J. Super. 351, 361, 776 A.2d 874 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 170 N.J. 207, 785 A.2d 435 (2001); Riemer v. St. Clare’s Riverside Med. Ctr., 300 N.J. Super. 101, 110-11, 691 A.2d 1384 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 152 N.J. 188, 704 A.2d 18 (1997); Colfer v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 214 N.J. Super. 374, 377, 519 A.2d 893 (App.Div.1986). That Rule applies regardless of whether suit has been filed on the minor’s behalf, see, e.g., Moscatello, supra, 342 N.J. Super. at 361, 776 A.2d 874, and its purpose is “to guard a minor against an improvident compromise [and] to secure the minor against dissipation of [***22] the proceeds,” Colfer, supra, 214 N.J. Super. at 377, 519 A.2d 893.

Although the Rule governing post-injury settlements is not dispositive of our treatment of pre-injury releases, we find that the purposes underlying the post-injury settlement rule also apply in the present context. First, children deserve as much protection from the improvident compromise of their rights before an injury occurs as Rule 4:44 affords them after the injury. Moreover, at the time a parent decides to release the potential tort claims of his or her child, the parent may not fully understand the consequences of that action and may not have even read the waiver before signing. As the Utah Supreme Court has noted:

These clauses are . . . routinely imposed in a unilateral manner without any genuine bargaining or opportunity to pay a fee for insurance. The party demanding adherence to an exculpatory clause simply evades the necessity of liability coverage and then shifts the full burden of risk of harm to the other party. Compromise of an existing claim, however, relates to negligence that has already taken place and is subject to measurable damages. Such releases involve actual negotiations [***23] concerning ascertained rights and liabilities. Thus, if anything, the policies relating to restrictions on a parent’s right to compromise an existing claim apply with even greater force in the preinjury, exculpatory clause scenario. [Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, 37 P.3d 1062, 1066 (2001) (emphasis added).]

[*335] Further, in both the pre- and post-injury context, it is necessary to ensure that children retain the ability to seek compensation for an injury. When a parent signs a pre-injury release of liability and the child is later injured, the parent is [**388] left to provide for the child’s injuries while the negligent party suffers no liability. If a parent is unable to finance the child’s injuries, the child may be left with no resources to obtain much needed care or support. See
Cooper v. Aspen Skiing Co., 48 P.3d 1229, 1235 (Colo.2002) (“[T]o allow a parent to release a child’s possible future claims for injury caused by negligence may as a practical matter leave the minor in an unacceptably precarious position with no recourse, no parental support, and no method to support himself or care for his injury.” (footnote omitted)); Scott v. Pac. W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 12 (1992) [***24] (“[W]here parents are unwilling or unable to provide for a seriously injured child, the child would have no recourse against a negligent party to acquire resources needed for care.”).

Those concerns are even more acute in the context of commercial premises liability. [HN3] In New Jersey, “[b]usiness owners owe to invitees a duty of reasonable or due care to provide a safe environment for doing that which is in the scope of the invitation.” Nisivoccia v. Glass Gardens, Inc., 175 N.J. 559, 563, 818 A.2d 314 (2003). That is because business owners “are in the best position to control the risk of harm. Ownership or control of the premises, for example, enables a party to prevent the harm.” Kuzmicz v. Ivy Hill Park Apartments, Inc., 147 N.J. 510, 517, 688 A.2d 1018 (1997) (citations omitted). It follows that in this case the risk of loss should fall on the party best suited to avert injury. See
Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 447, 625 A.2d 1110 (1993) (recognizing “salutary effect of shifting the risk of loss . . . to those who should be able and are best able to bear them”). The operator of a commercial recreational enterprise [***25] can inspect the premises for unsafe conditions, train his or her employees with regard to the facility’s proper operation, and regulate the types of activities permitted to occur. Such an operator also can obtain [*336] insurance and spread the costs of insurance among its customers. Children, on the other hand, are not in a position to discover hazardous conditions or insure against risks. Moreover, the expectation that a commercial facility will be reasonably safe to do that which is within the scope of the invitation, see
Nisivoccia, supra, 175 N.J. at 563, 818 A.2d 314, is especially important where the facility’s patrons are minor children. If we were to permit waivers of liability, we would remove a significant incentive for operators of commercial enterprises that attract children to take reasonable precautions to protect their safety.

In finding that the exculpatory provision in this matter is invalid, we are in agreement not only with our own State’s case law, but also with the overwhelming majority of other jurisdictions. See, e.g., Fitzgerald, supra, 111 N.J. Super. at 108, 267 A.2d 557 (invalidating exculpatory agreement executed by parent on behalf of minor [***26] child that released defendant from liability to child for future injuries and required parent to indemnify defendant for any claims brought by minor); In re Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., 403 F. Supp. 2d 1168, 1172-73 (S.D.Fla.2005) (stating that where “a release of liability is signed on behalf of a minor child for an activity run by a for-profit business, outside of a school or community setting, the release is typically unenforceable against the minor”); Simmons v. Parkette Nat’l Gymnastic Training Ctr., 670 F. Supp. 140, 144 (E.D.Pa.1987) (concluding that parent’s execution of pre-injury release did not exculpate third party from potential claims of minor child); Apicella v. Valley Forge Military Acad. & Junior Coll., 630 F. Supp. 20, 24 (E.D.Pa.1985) (“Under Pennsylvania law, parents do not possess the authority to release . . . potential claims of a minor [**389] child merely because of the parental relationship.”); Cooper, supra, 48 P.3d at 1233-35 (holding that Colorado’s public policy prohibits parents from contractually releasing child’s future claims for injury caused by negligence); Meyer v. Naperville Manner, Inc., 262 Ill. App. 3d 141, 634 N.E.2d 411, 415, 199 Ill. Dec. 572 (1994) [***27] (concluding that because “parent’s waiver of liability was not authorized by any statute or judicial approval, it had no effect to bar the minor child’s (future) [*337] cause of action”); Santangelo v. City of New York, 66 A.D.2d 880, 411 N.Y.S.2d 666, 667 (1978) (holding that minor was not bound by exculpatory release executed by parent on minor’s behalf); Munoz v. II Jaz, Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207, 209-10 (Tex.Ct.App.1990) (concluding that allowing parent to waive child’s right to sue for personal injury “would be against the public policy to protect minor children”); Scott, supra, 834 P.2d at 12 (“To the extent a parent’s release of a third party’s liability for negligence purports to bar a child’s own cause of action, it violates public policy and is unenforceable.”); Hawkins, supra, 37 P.3d at 1065-66 (concluding that “a parent does not have the authority to release a child’s claims before an injury”); see also
Auto. Workers v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 499 U.S. 187, 213, 111 S. Ct. 1196, 1211, 113 L. Ed. 2d 158, 183 (1991) (White, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment) [***28] (stating that “the general rule is that parents cannot waive causes of action on behalf of their children”); Doyle v. Bowdoin Coll., 403 A.2d 1206, 1208 n.3 (Me.1979) (stating in dicta that parent cannot release child’s cause of action); Williams v. Patton, 821 S.W.2d 141, 147 n.8, 35 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 65 (Tex.1991) (Doggett, J., concurring) (stating that parental releases of minor’s potential tort claims are “outrightly disfavored”).

Although we recognize that jurisdictions are not uniform on the question of waiver, our research discloses that the only published decisions in which such agreements have been upheld are in connection with non-commercial ventures, such as volunteer-run or non-profit organizations. See, e.g., Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal. App. 3d 1559, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647, 648-50 (1990) (upholding parental agreement releasing any claims of minor child resulting from child’s participation in school-sponsored event); Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So. 2d 1067, 1067 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.2004) (upholding parental liability release in context of “community or school supported activities”); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201, 207 (1998) [***29] (holding that parent may bind minor child to provision releasing volunteers and sponsors of non-profit sports activity from liability for negligence); Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 [*338] N.E.2d 738, 741, 745 (2002) (concluding that parent had authority to bind minor child to exculpatory release as condition of child’s participation in public-school extracurricular sports activities). Without expressing an opinion on the validity of parental liability releases in such settings, it suffices to note that volunteer, community, and non-profit organizations involve different policy considerations than those associated with commercial enterprises. Such a distinction is buttressed by the fact that the Legislature has afforded civil immunity from negligence to certain volunteer athletic coaches, managers, officials, and sponsors of non-profit sports teams, see, e.g., N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6 to -6.2, while not providing similar immunities from negligence in the commercial realm.

Accordingly, [HN4] in view of the protections that our State historically has afforded to a minor’s claims and the need to discourage negligent activity on the part [***30] of commercial enterprises attracting children, we hold that a parent’s execution of a pre-injury [**390] release of a minor’s future tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility is unenforceable.

C.

In so holding, we find that defendant’s remaining contentions and those of the dissent below are unconvincing. First, we are not persuaded by the argument that we should allow for parental liability releases because a pre-injury release of a minor’s potential tort claims is no different than a parent’s decision not to bring suit on a minor’s behalf. That argument ignores the fact that, under the tolling provisions of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21, a minor retains the right to sue for most personal injuries for two years after reaching the age of majority, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2. One of the rationales behind the tolling provision is that a child should not “be penalized for the ignorance or neglect of his parents or guardian in failing to assert [his or her legal] rights.” O’Connor v. Altus, 67 N.J. 106, 131-32, 335 A.2d 545 (1975) (Pashman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Consequently, although [***31] a parent may control a minor’s right to seek tort compensation [*339] until the age of majority–either by choosing not to sue or by neglecting to do so–a minor’s claim is not eliminated by the parent’s decision; it merely is delayed. Were we to uphold the challenged pre-injury release, however, we would permanently bar the minor’s tort claim, a far more draconian effect.

Nor do we accept the argument that a parental release of liability on behalf of a minor child implicates a parent’s fundamental right to direct the upbringing of his or her child. [HN5] Although parents undoubtedly have a fundamental liberty interest “in the care, custody, and control of their children,” Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65, 120 S. Ct. 2054, 2060, 147 L. Ed. 2d 49, 56 (2000), the question whether a parent may release a minor’s future tort claims implicates wider public policy concerns and the parens patriae duty to protect the best interests of children. See
Cooper, supra, 48 P.3d at 1235 n.11 (concluding that parental release of child’s right to sue for negligence is “not of the same character and quality as those rights recognized as implicating parents’ fundamental [***32] liberty interest in the ‘care, custody and control’ of their children”). As the majority opinion below noted, “[w]ere it otherwise, existing restrictions on parental conduct in the context of litigation involving minors would long ago have been abrogated in New Jersey.” Hojnowski, supra, 375 N.J. Super. at 585, 868 A.2d 1087. Indeed, the post-injury settlement rule is but one example of such restrictions. Moreover, nothing in our analysis interferes with the constitutionally protected right of a parent “to permit or deny a child’s participation in any or all of the recreational activities that may be available.” Id. at 597, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

We also reject defendant’s argument that enforcing parental releases of liability is necessary to ensure the continued viability of businesses offering sports activities to minors. We do not view tort liability as an unreasonable economic restraint on the ability of business owners to operate commercial recreational facilities. See
Scott, supra, 834 P.2d at 12 (finding “[n]o legally sound reason . . . for removing children’s athletics from the normal tort system”). [***33] [*340] Indeed, by invalidating pre-injury releases of liability executed by a parent on a minor’s behalf, we are not altering the landscape of common-law tort liability principles by which commercial enterprises typically must abide. Rather, we are preserving the traditional duties owed by business owners to their invitees. Further, as noted, because such facilities [**391] derive economic benefit from their operation, they are better able to assume the costs associated with proper maintenance and the prevention of injury than are the children to whom they cater.

Finally, the dissent below argued that invalidating parental releases of liability “is at odds with our Legislature’s willingness to render participants solely responsible for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of similar activities.” Hojnowski, supra, 375 N.J. Super. at 593, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). That argument refers to legislative acts in the areas of skiing, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11; roller skating, N.J.S.A. 5:14-1 to -7; and equestrian activities, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 to -12, which place the [***34] responsibility for injuries resulting from “inherent risks” of the sport on the participant. However, those statutes do not absolve an operator of a facility from liability for its own negligence. Instead, the statutes apply only to inherent risks, which, by their very nature, are those “that cannot be removed through the exercise of due care if the sport is to be enjoyed.” Brett v. Great Am. Recreation, Inc., 144 N.J. 479, 499, 677 A.2d 705 (1996); see also
Pietruska v. Craigmeur Ski Area, 259 N.J. Super. 532, 537, 614 A.2d 639 (Law Div.1992) (finding that “[i]mproper operation of a ski lift is not an inherent risk of skiing since, with due care, it can be eliminated”). As such, inherent risks need not be the subject of waiver because “the general law of negligence has long recognized that a defendant has no duty with regard to such risks.” Brett, supra, 144 N.J. at 499, 677 A.2d 705; see also
Meistrich v. Casino Arena Attractions, Inc., 31 N.J. 44, 49, 155 A.2d 90 (1959) (stating that assumption of inherent risk “is an alternate expression for the proposition that defendant was not negligent”). Thus, a commercial enterprise [***35] is [*341] not liable for injuries sustained as a result of an activity’s inherent risks so long as that enterprise has acted in accordance with “the ordinary duty owed to business invitees, including exercise of care commensurate with the nature of the risk, foreseeability of injury, and fairness in the circumstances.” Rosania v. Carmona, 308 N.J. Super. 365, 374, 706 A.2d 191 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 609, 713 A.2d 500 (1998).

III.

The second issue that we must decide is whether a parent can bind a minor child to an agreement to arbitrate future disputes arising out of a commercial recreation contract. Plaintiffs contend that “[although] arbitration is an approved alternative to a jury trial, an unsophisticated parent, about to have [his or her] child enter a recreational facility, should not be permitted to bind [his or her] child to a waiver of a trial by jury.” Defendant counters that this Court should enforce the parent’s agreement to submit the minor’s claims to arbitration because the Appellate Division previously upheld such an agreement in Allgor v. Travelers Insurance Co., 280 N.J. Super. 254, 654 A.2d 1375 (App.Div.1995). [***36] Defendant also argues that plaintiffs should be bound to arbitrate the present matter because public policy favors the arbitration of disputes. We agree and find that a parent’s agreement to arbitrate a minor’s potential tort claims is not contrary to public policy.

A.

[HN6] Federal policy has favored the enforcement of arbitration agreements for many years. In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C.A. §§ 1-16, to reverse then existing judicial hostility to arbitration agreements and “to place arbitration agreements upon [**392] the same footing as other contracts.” Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 24, 111 S. Ct. 1647, 1651, 114 L. Ed. 2d 26, 36 (1991). To that end, § 2 of the FAA provides:

[HN7] [*342] A written provision in any . . . contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such a contract or transaction . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract. [Emphasis added.]

[HN8] Although the FAA applies to both state [***37] and federal judicial proceedings, state contract-law principles generally govern a determination whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists. See, e.g., First Options of Chi., Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944, 115 S. Ct. 1920, 1924, 131 L. Ed. 2d 985, 993 (1995) (“When deciding whether the parties agreed to arbitrate a certain matter (including arbitrability), courts generally . . . should apply ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts.”). However, “a state cannot subject an arbitration agreement to more burdensome requirements than those governing the formation of other contracts.” Leodori v. CIGNA Corp., 175 N.J. 293, 302, 814 A.2d 1098, cert. denied, 540 U.S. 938, 124 S. Ct. 74, 157 L. Ed. 2d 250 (2003).

[HN9] In New Jersey, arbitration also is a favored means of dispute resolution. See, e.g., Martindale v. Sandvik, Inc., 173 N.J. 76, 84-85, 800 A.2d 872 (2002); Garfinkel v. Morristown Obstetrics & Gynecology Assocs., 168 N.J. 124, 131, 773 A.2d 665 (2001); Marchak v. Claridge Commons Inc., 134 N.J. 275, 281, 633 A.2d 531 (1993). Our Legislature [***38] codified its endorsement of arbitration agreements in the Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:24-1 to -11, which, like its federal counterpart, provides that agreements to arbitrate shall be valid save for “such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of a contract,” N.J.S.A. 2A:24-1. 2 In accordance with those principles, an agreement to arbitrate generally will be valid under state law unless it violates public policy. See, e.g., Marchak, supra, 134 N.J. at 281-82, 633 A.2d [*343] 531 (“Honoring an agreement to submit a matter to arbitration is consistent with the premise that, as long as the agreement does not violate public policy, parties may bargain freely.”); Faherty v. Faherty, 97 N.J. 99, 105, 477 A.2d 1257 (1984) (“A court generally will enforce an arbitration agreement unless it violates public policy.”).

2 N.J.S.A. 2A:24-1 to -11 was superseded by a modified version of the Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 to -32, effective January 1, 2003, and applicable to agreements entered into on or after that date, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-3a. Because the arbitration agreement at issue in this appeal was executed prior to that date, this matter is governed by the former statute.

[***39] B.

In light of the strong public policy favoring the settlement of disputes through arbitration, we conclude that allowing a parent to bind a minor child to arbitrate future tort claims is not contrary to our duty as parens patriae to protect the best interests of the child. As opposed to a pre-injury release of liability, a pre-injury agreement to arbitrate does not require a minor to forego any substantive rights. Rather, such an agreement specifies only the forum in which those rights are vindicated. See, e.g., Global Travel Mktg., Inc. v. Shea, 908 So. 2d 392, 403 (Fla.2005) (stating that distinction between waiver of forum in which claim is presented and outright waiver of legal claim “is a crucial consideration in determining whether state’s interest in protecting children renders [**393] the waiver unenforceable”); Cross v. Carnes, 132 Ohio App. 3d 157, 724 N.E.2d 828, 836 (1998) (stating that “parent’s consent and release to arbitration only specifies the forum for resolution of the child’s claim; it does not extinguish the claim”). In that respect, our Appellate Division has observed that

[t]he ancient practice of [***40] arbitration “[i]n its broad sense, . . . is a substitution, by consent of the parties, of another tribunal for the tribunal provided by the ordinary processes of law. The object of arbitration is the final disposition, in a speedy, inexpensive, expeditious, and perhaps less formal manner, of the controversial differences between the parties.”

[Carpenter v. Bloomer, 54 N.J. Super. 157, 162, 148 A.2d 497 (App.Div.1959) (quoting E. Eng’g Co. v. City of Ocean City, 11 N.J. Misc. 508, 510-11, 167 A. 522 (Sup.Ct.1933)).]

Further, although this Court previously has not ruled on the issue, permitting arbitration of a minor’s claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children. For example, in [*344] Allgor, supra, the Appellate Division concluded that a father’s contractual agreement to submit to arbitration disputes arising under his underinsured motorist policy also bound his minor son who filed a claim under that policy. 280 N.J. Super. at 262-65, 654 A.2d 1375. The court rejected the contention that “arbitration is not appropriate when the best interests [***41] of a child are at stake.” Id. at 261, 654 A.2d 1375. Our decision in Faherty also supports enforcement of the arbitration provision at issue. In that case, we held that public policy permits spouses to include provisions in their separation agreements for arbitration of child support disputes, subject only to heightened judicial review of the arbitrator’s award. Faherty, supra, 97 N.J. at 108-09, 477 A.2d 1257. We reasoned that

[w]e do not agree with those who fear that by allowing parents to agree to arbitrate child support, we are interfering with the judicial protection of the best interests of the child. We see no valid reason why the arbitration process should not be available in the area of child support; the advantages of arbitration in domestic disputes outweigh any disadvantages.

[Id. at 109, 477 A.2d 1257 (emphasis added).]

Finally, a review of case law from other jurisdictions reinforces our conclusion that a parent should be permitted to bind a minor child to arbitration. In Global Travel Marketing, supra, the Florida Supreme Court recently reversed a Florida Court of Appeals ruling, upon which plaintiffs relied, [***42] which held that parents lack authority to bind a minor child to arbitrate prospective claims arising out of a commercial travel contract for an African safari. 908 So. 2d at 394-95. In finding that such agreements are “not contrary to the public policy of protecting children,” id. at 405, the court recognized a “crucial” distinction between an outright waiver of a minor’s legal claims and a waiver of the forum in which the claims are presented, id. at 403.

The Ohio Court of Appeals reached a similar conclusion in Cross, supra, 724 N.E.2d 828. There, the producers of a television show sought to enforce an arbitration agreement signed by a parent on behalf of a child who sued the show for fraud and defamation after the show allegedly portrayed [*345] the child as a bully. Id. at 830-31. The court upheld that agreement and found that “a parent has the authority to bind his or her child to a resolution of the child’s claims [**394] through arbitration.” Id. at 836. The court reasoned that the Ohio Supreme Court previously had upheld a liability waiver executed by a parent on behalf of a minor participating in a recreational [***43] activity sponsored by a non-profit organization. Ibid. (citing Zivich, supra, 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 696 N.E.2d 201). In relying on Zivich, however, the court noted that

[a] parent’s consent and release to arbitration only specifies the forum for resolution of the child’s claim; it does not extinguish the claim. Logically, if a parent has the authority to bring and conduct a lawsuit on behalf of the child, he or she has the same authority to choose arbitration as the litigation forum.

[Ibid.]

See also
Doyle v. Giuliucci, 62 Cal. 2d 606, 401 P.2d 1, 3, 43 Cal. Rptr. 697 (1965) (stating that arbitration provision in contract for medical services signed by parent on minor’s behalf “is a reasonable restriction, for it does no more than specify a forum for the settlement of disputes”); accord
Leong v. Kaiser Found. Hosps., 71 Haw. 240, 788 P.2d 164, 169 (1990) (concurring with reasoning of Doyle and holding that minor was bound by arbitration provision in contract for medical services signed by father).

Although we recognize that certain cases from other jurisdictions have found a minor’s claims to be non-arbitrable, [***44] those cases are distinguishable because they were decided solely on the basis of the individual contracts at issue in those appeals. They did not directly rule on the larger issue presented by this appeal–whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitrate future disputes. Fleetwood Enters. Inc. v. Gaskamp, 280 F.3d 1069, 1077, reh’g denied, 303 F.3d 570 (5th Cir.2002) (holding that minor children were not bound to arbitrate injuries suffered as result of formaldehyde inhalation because children were neither signatories to mobile-home sales contract signed by their parents nor third-party beneficiaries of that contract); Billieson v. City of New Orleans, 863 So. 2d 557, 562-63 (La.Ct.App.2003) (concluding that children’s claims for lead poisoning were not precluded by [*346] arbitration agreement between city housing authority and property management company because children were not third-party beneficiaries of agreement); see also
Lewis v. Cedu Educ. Servs., 135 Idaho 139, 15 P.3d 1147, 1152 (2000) (concluding that child was not bound to arbitrate based on language of contract and expressly declining to determine [***45] whether “minors should or should not be bound to arbitrate disputes arising out of contracts entered into on their behalf by their parents”); Accomazzo v. Cedu Educ. Servs., Inc., 135 Idaho 145, 15 P.3d 1153, 1156 (2000) (same). Therefore, [HN10] in the absence of any allegations relating to fraud, duress, or unconscionability in the signing of the contract or that the agreement to arbitrate was not written in clear and unambiguous terms, we conclude that a parent’s agreement to arbitrate is valid and enforceable against any tort claims asserted on a minor’s behalf.

IV.

We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division and refer this matter to the arbitrator for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI’s opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins.

CONCUR BY: LaVECCHIA (In Part)

DISSENT BY: LaVECCHIA (In Part)

DISSENT

Justice LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

I am in full agreement with that portion of the majority’s decision that affirms enforcement of the parties’ agreement to subject [***46] their dispute to arbitration. I part company from my colleagues, however, in so far as they have chosen to invalidate the [**395] waiver of liability that the parties to this appeal executed as a condition of the minor Andrew’s use of defendant’s property to skateboard. In that respect, I am in substantial agreement with the Appellate Division dissent that was penned by Judge Fisher. Essentially, because a waiver of rights of the type entered into by these parties generally would be enforceable as against an adult, I see no reason why this Court should prevent a parent from ratifying such a waiver on behalf of a child, provided that a court or arbitrator determines that the release is reasonable.

[*347] Although the majority declines to express any view on whether the waiver would be invalid if enforced against an adult, it is noteworthy that the waiver does not appear to involve any of the grounds that New Jersey courts have heretofore invoked to invalidate an exculpatory waiver. For example, the waiver does not exempt defendant from liability for a “future intentional tort or willful act or gross negligence.” Kuzmiak v. Brookchester, Inc., 33 N.J. Super. 575, 580, 111 A.2d 425 (App.Div.1955). [***47] Nor does the waiver seek a release from any statutorily imposed duty. McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 542, 226 A.2d 713 (1967). Furthermore, although the majority notes that “[e]xculpatory agreements have long been disfavored in the law,” that proposition has been invoked not to invalidate a waiver, as the Court does here, but rather to explain that such waivers should be narrowly construed:

Contracts of this nature are not favored by the law. They are strictly construed against the party relying on them and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from such a liability.

[McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 87 N.J. Super. 442, 450, 209 A.2d 668 (Law Div.1965), aff’d, 90 N.J. Super. 574, 218 A.2d 871 (App.Div.1966), aff’d, 48 N.J. 539, 226 A.2d 713 (1967).]

See also
Gershon v. Regency Diving Ctr., Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 247, 845 A.2d 720 (App.Div.2004) (stating more recently that because “the law does not favor exculpatory agreements,” “[a]ny doubts or ambiguities as to the scope of the exculpatory language must be resolved against the drafter”).

The fact that exculpatory waivers receive [***48] narrow construction from courts does not render such waivers unenforceable. Previously, we have stated that “[w]here [exculpatory agreements] do not adversely affect the public interest, exculpatory clauses in private agreements are generally sustained.” Mayfair Fabrics v. Henley, 48 N.J. 483, 487, 226 A.2d 602 (1967). Such clauses most commonly are used and enforced in a “commercial context,” Chem. Bank, N.A. v. Bailey, 296 N.J. Super. 515, 527, 687 A.2d 316 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 150 N.J. 28, 695 A.2d 671 (1997), and generally are valid and enforceable against individuals so long as the particular exculpatory clause does not involve a matter of [*348] public interest. McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543, 226 A.2d 713 (1967) (citing Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44, 46 (1953)). Many states also look to the notion of “public interest,” or other related concepts, when determining whether to uphold the validity of an exculpatory waiver. The California Supreme Court’s decision in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33 (1963), [***49] provides arguably the most widely accepted test applied to exculpatory agreements. Tunkl set forth six factors, one of which is whether “[t]he party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some [**396] members of the public.” Id. at 33, 383 P.2d at 445.

In my view, recreational activities such as skateboarding do not implicate the “public interest.” 1 The majority apparently does not assert otherwise, lodging no objection to the content of the waiver. Rather, the majority focuses on the fact that defendant is attempting to enforce this particular waiver of rights against a minor.

1 That conclusion is in accord with the majority of jurisdictions that have addressed the subject; they have concluded that recreational activities do not implicate the public interest. See, e.g.
Chauvlier v. Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., 109 Wn. App. 334, 35 P.3d 383, 388 (2001) (stating that “skiing is not a ‘service of great importance to the public,’ much less a service of ‘practical necessity.'”). Courts have upheld liability waivers in the context of the following recreational activities: automobile racing, being a spectator at an automobile race, scuba diving, horseback riding, roller skating, skydiving, mountain biking, recreational sumo wrestling, weightlifting at a fitness center, motorcycle racing, go-cart racing, bicycling, and ski racing. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, 752-53 (2005) (Norcott, J., dissenting) (collecting cases). On the other hand, a minority of states have found that snow-tubing and skiing activities do implicate the public interest. See
Hanks, supra, 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (majority opinion); Spencer v. Killington, Ltd., 167 Vt. 137, 702 A.2d 35 (Vt. 1997); Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt. 329, 670 A.2d 795 (1995). I find those cases unpersuasive. To find that recreational activities implicate the “public interest,” would strip that term of meaningful content.

[***50] Invoking the “best interests” of children under the parens patriae doctrine, the majority holds that the waiver is invalid as [*349] against public policy, and analogizes the instant situation to the requirement under Rule 4:44 that parental settlement of a minor’s post-injury claims receive judicial approval. There is an important difference between the present pre-injury waiver and the circumstances Rule 4:44 seeks to address. “Our rules for friendly settlements, R. 4:44-1 et seq., are intended to minimize or prevent conflicts of interest from occurring and to assure the reasonableness of settlements.” Zukerman v. Piper Pools, 232 N.J. Super. 74, 90, 556 A.2d 775 (App.Div.1989). See also
Colfer v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 214 N.J. Super. 374, 377, 519 A.2d 893 (App.Div.1986) (noting that “[t]he purpose of the rule is not only to guard a minor against an improvident compromise but also to secure the minor against dissipation of the proceeds.”). Because the pre-injury setting does not involve the specter of a potential monetary settlement that looms over post-injury settlements, conflicts are of little [***51] concern in the pre-injury setting. See
Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 747 n.10 (2002); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201, 206 (1998); Angeline Purdy, Note, Scott v. Pacific West Mountain Resort: Erroneously Invalidating Parental Releases of a Minor’s Future Claim, 68 Wash. L. Rev. 457 (1993).

Assuming, nonetheless, that a pre-injury contractual setting is similar to a post-injury setting, that does not support the conclusion that all waivers entered into on behalf of minors are unenforceable, a conclusion that simply goes too far. Rule 4:44 does not bar parental settlements. Rather, the rule requires judicial scrutiny “to ensure the reasonableness of settlements.” Zukerman, supra, 232 N.J. Super. at 90, 556 A.2d 775. If Rule 4:44 provides an appropriate analogy, then the standard of reasonableness that applies to post-injury settlements should apply to the review of pre-injury waivers.

I acknowledge that as a general rule, minors can, before they reach the age of majority, disaffirm contracts into which they enter. [**397] Mechanics Fin. Co. v. Paolino, 29 N.J. Super. 449, 453, 102 A.2d 784 (App.Div.1954) [***52] (stating that “[i]t is generally true that an [*350] infant may avoid his contract.”); Boyce v. Doyle, 113 N.J Super. 240, 241, 273 A.2d 408 (Law Div.1971) (stating that “[t]here can be no doubt but that contracts not of necessity may be voided by an infant either before or a reasonable time after he obtains his majority.”); Restatement (Second) of Contracts §§ 12, 14 (1981); 7 Corbin on Contracts § 27.2 (Perillo rev.2002); 5 Williston on Contracts § 9.5 (Lord ed., 4th ed.1993). That general rule is not altered by a parent’s signing of the contract on behalf of a minor. See 42 Am. Jur. 2d Infants § 46 (2000) (stating that “[a]s a general rule, an infant’s right to avoid his contract is not defeated by the fact that the contract was made by the infant and his or her parent, was made with the approval of his or her parent [or] was approved and ratified by his or her guardian”); Del Bosco v. U.S. Ski Ass’n, 839 F. Supp. 1470, 1474 n.2 (D.Colo.1993) (noting that “[c]ourts that have decided the issue have determined that the signature of a parent does not validate [***53] an infant’s contract.”).

However, contracts entered into by minors can be enforceable if the contract is approved by a court. Indeed, as noted, Rule 4:44 allows settlement agreements involving minors to be enforced so long as a reviewing court determines that the agreement is “reasonable.” Zukerman, supra, 232 N.J. Super. at 90, 556 A.2d 775. Beyond the settlement context, other states have enacted statutory schemes that bar minors from disaffirming certain contracts that have received judicial approval. See, e.g., Cal. Fam. Code § 6750-53 (2006) (covering entertainers and athletes); Cal. Lab. Code § 1700.37 (2006) (covering contracts between a minor and a talent agency); N.Y. Arts & Cult. Affr. Law § 35.03 (2006) (covering entertainers and athletes).

Although our Legislature has not yet enacted similar legislation, freedom of contract principles lead me to the conclusion that a pre-tort waiver entered into by a minor, or ratified by a parent on behalf of a minor, should be enforceable when a reviewing court or arbitrator determines that the waiver was reasonable and not [***54] based on unequal bargaining positions. See
Simmons v. Parkette Nat’l Gymnastic Training Ctr., 670 F. Supp. 140, 144 (E.D.Pa. [*351] 1987) (invalidating minor’s pre-injury waiver and relying, in part, on the fact that “there was no court involvement in the transaction”). If the reasonableness of the waiver is approved, then a minor should be barred from disaffirming the contract, an approach that is consistent with Rule 4:44. It differs somewhat from Rule 4:44 in that I would allow a trial court to review the “reasonableness” of a pre-tort waiver when a defendant, post-injury, raises the waiver as a defense to a suit brought by an injured party.
2

2 Under Rule 4:44 litigants must obtain court approval at the time of entry into the settlement agreement. Requiring judicial approval at the time that a minor enters into a pre-injury waiver would be impractical and inefficient. Review would have to be limited to situations when an injury actually occurs. The reviewing court, of course, would have to view the “reasonableness” of the waiver as of the time that the waiver was executed.

[***55] Post-injury review of pre-injury waivers eliminates the certainty that is provided by Rule 4:44 or, for example, the process established by statute in California and New York, all of which mandate that courts review contracts at the time they are executed. Potential defendants may, however, wish to bear the risk of such uncertainty given the benefits of any waiver ultimately upheld as reasonable. Absent action by the Legislature, I would permit court or arbitrator review and approval, as described, to validate a minor’s [**398] contract in respect of the type of pre-injury liability waivers presented herein. In so stating, I offer no judgment about what forms of liability defendant purported to waive by this exculpatory release. I would have allowed the arbitrator to sort out the reasonableness and the reach of the waiver executed by the parties.

Accordingly, I would affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand the matter for further proceedings.

Justice RIVERA-SOTO joins in this opinion. [*352]


Great Win, funny Settlement agreement

https://rec-law.us/3mMrNoR

State: California & Washington

First, congratulations to Garrett Madison for getting this great settlement in this lawsuit. His legal team was brilliant in the initial filing to set the state for a win. Great job.

It’s the classic recreation lawsuit. Guide makes a decision to save his clients life. Client is not happy about the decision and sues for a refund because he lived (and did not get to summit Mt. Everest).

During the 2019 winter season on Mt. Everest (where the success rate is low anyway) the decision was made by all expeditions to abandon the mountain. A Serac above the Khumbu Icefall the size of 15 story building was possibility going to fall. A serac that big, would have wiped out the icefall and base camp down valley.

The lawsuit failed because the client had signed contracts and releases, which gave the guide service absolute control on decisions affecting the climb. Without the paperwork, the guide might have lost and been forced to refund the money. The decision was not based on any inherent mountain guide dominion over clients.

I was quoted in an @OutsideMagazine in an article about the lawsuit too!

Why Is This Interesting?

The settlement paperwork is written more like a press release than a settlement. I’ve never seen any settlement paperwork like this. In fact, 95% of the time the settlement is a one-page document that says the parties agree to settle the case. There is another document not filed with the court that is confidential that lays out the terms of the settlement. How much money going to whom, who can say what, no future lawsuits over this issue can be started, etc.

@writereimers @madisonmtng @RecreationLaw #RecLaw #RecreationLaw #OutdoorRecreationLaw #OutdoorLaw #OutdoorIndustry

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

CV

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

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

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw, Outdoor Recreation Insurance Risk Management and Law, Jim Moss, James H. Moss, James Moss,

 


One paragraph would have eliminated this lawsuit.

Badly written release and a bad attempt to tie two documents together almost cost outfitter

Hamric v. Wilderness Expeditions, Inc

State: Colorado, United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Alicia Hamric, individually, as representative of the Estate of Robert Gerald Hamric, and as next friend of Ava Hamric, a minor

Defendant: Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

Badly written release and medical form with release language in them give the plaintiff the opportunity to win a lawsuit. However, a lawsuit where Colorado law is applied is going to support the release.

Facts

Members of the Keller Church of Christ in Keller, Texas, scheduled an outdoor excursion to Colorado, contracting with WEI for adventure planning and guide services. WEI is incorporated in Colorado and has its headquarters in Salida, Colorado. Jamie Garner served as the coordinator for the church group and the point-of-contact between the church members and WEI. The experience WEI provided included guides taking participants rappelling. WEI required all participants, before going on the outdoor excursion, to complete and initial a “Registration Form” and complete and sign a “Medical Form.”

WEI made the forms available to Mr. Garner for downloading and completion by the individual church members several months prior to the booked trip. Mr. Hamric initialed both blanks on the Registration Form and signed the Medical Form, dating it April 5, 2017. Andrew Sadousky, FNP-C, completed and signed the “Physician’s Evaluation” section of the Medical Form, certifying that Mr. Hamric was medically capable of participating in the outdoor activities listed on the form, including rappelling. Mr. Hamric’s signed forms were delivered to WEI upon the church group’s arrival in Colorado in July 2017.

After spending a night on WEI property, WEI guides took the church group, including Mr. Hamric, to a rappelling site known as “Quarry High.” Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course. Id. at 203.

Several members of the church group successfully descended Quarry High before Mr. Hamric attempted the rappel. As Mr. Hamric worked his way down the overhang portion of the course, he became inverted and was unable to right himself. Efforts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died of positional asphyxiation.

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

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is an appellate court that sits in Denver. The Tenth Circuit hears cases from Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. The court, consequently, hears a few appeals of recreation cases.

This appealed covered four different legal issues. Three of the issues were procedural and won’t be reviewed. The fourth was the dismissal of the case by the lower-court magistrate on a motion for summary judgement because of the release.

The plaintiff argued the release should be read using Texas law because the release was read and signed in Texas.

There was no Jurisdiction and Venue Clause in the Release!

The defendant had the deceased sign two forms. One was a release, and the second was a medical form. Having a medical information formed signed is a quick give away that the defendant does not understand the legal issues involved. The defendant wrote both forms, so they conflicted with each other in some cases and attempted to tie the forms together. Neither really worked.

The plaintiff argued the forms were one because they conflicts would have made both forms basically invalid.

Further, language on the Medical Form is conflicting and ambiguous as to whether the two forms comprise a single agreement: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document. I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

Both the italicized language and the use of “forms” in the plural to describe the agreement support the conclusion that the Registration Form and the Medical Form are a single agreement. But the underlined language, using “form” in the singular, suggests the forms might constitute separate agreements. Otherwise, the singular use of “form” would suggest the unlikely result that a participant could not alter the wording of the Medical Form but could alter the wording of the Registration Form.

The plaintiff’s argument in many jurisdictions might have prevailed. However, the 10th circuit covers the outdoor recreation center of the universe, and state laws protect outdoor recreation, and outdoor recreation is a major source of income for these states. Consequently, any issues are going to lean towards protecting recreation.

After a lengthy review, the court found the forms were two different documents and ignored the medical form and the release like language in it.

We conclude, however, that this dispute of fact is not material to resolution of the primarily legal question regarding whether Mr. Hamric entered into a valid liability release with WEI.

The next issue is what law should apply to determine the validity of the release. Choice of laws is a complete course you can take in law school. I still have my Choice of Laws’ textbook after all these years because it is a complicated subject that hinges on minutia in some cases to determine what court will hear a case and what law will be applied.

The case was filed in the Federal Court covering Colorado. Since the defendant was not a Texas business or doing business in Texas, the lawsuit needed to be in the defendant’s state. Federal Court was chosen because disputes between citizens of two states should be held in a neutral court, which are the federal courts. A Texan might not feel they are getting a fair deal if they have to sue in a Colorado state court. That is called the venue. What court sitting where, will hear the case.

So, the decision on what court to sue in was somewhat limited. However, that is not the end. Once the court is picked the next argument is what law will be applied to the situation. The plaintiff argued Texas Law. Texas has stringent requirements on releases. The defendant argued Colorado law, which has much fewer requirements for releases.

Ms. Hamric further contends that under contract principles in the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, Texas law applies because Mr. Hamric was a Texas resident who completed the Registration Form and the Medical Form while in Texas.

Here is the court’s analysis on what states laws should apply.

A more specific section of the Restatement addressing contracts lacking a choice-of-law provision provides additional guidance: (1) The rights and duties of the parties with respect to an issue in contract are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the transaction and the parties under the principles stated in § 6. (2) In the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties . . ., the contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include: (a) the place of contracting, (b) the place of negotiation of the contract, (c) the place of performance, (d) the location of the subject matter of the contract, and (e) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties. These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.

It is not a slam dunk for Colorado law. In this case, the plaintiff made a very good argument that Texas law should apply. The deceased was a Texas resident recruited in Texas by the defendant. The release had been given to the deceased in Texas, and he signed it in Texas. If the analysis ended there, Texas law would have applied.

There was more to the investigation the court is required to do.

We conclude that, under the Restatement, a Colorado court would apply Colorado law to determine the validity and enforceability of the liability release relied upon by WEI. First looking at § 6 of the Restatement, the liability release was drafted by a Colorado corporation to cover services provided exclusively in Colorado.

This argument switched the discussion from applying Texas law to Colorado law.

Applying out-of-state law to interpret the liability release would hinder commerce, as it would require WEI and other outdoor-recreation companies to know the law of the state in which a given participant lives. Such a rule would place a significant burden on outdoor-recreation companies who depend on out-of-state tourists for revenue because it would require a company like WEI to match the various requirements of the other forty-nine states. This approach would not give WEI the benefit of having logically molded its liability release to comply with Colorado law, the law of the state where WEI does business. Furthermore, Ms. Hamric’s primary argument for applying Texas law is that Mr. Hamric signed the forms in Texas. But a rule applying out-of-state law on that basis is likely to deter WEI from furnishing the liability release until a participant enters Colorado. And, while not providing participants the forms until arrival in Colorado might lessen WEI’s liability exposure under out-of-state law, such a practice would not benefit participants because it would pressure participants into a last-minute decision regarding whether to sign the liability release after having already traveled to Colorado for the outdoor excursion.

It is significant to note that the court looked at the issue of waiting until customers arrive in the state of Colorado to have them sign the release. The court intimated that doing so would put pressure on them to sign after already traveling to Colorado. Legally, that could be argued as duress, which voids a release or contract.

It is important to remember this point. If you are marketing out of state and book travel from out of state, you need to get your release in the hands of your out of state clients when they book the travel.

In a rare statement, the court also commented on the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado and the need for releases.

Colorado also has a strong interest in this matter. Colorado has a booming outdoor-recreation industry, in the form of skiing, hiking, climbing, camping, horseback riding, and rafting excursions. Colorado relies on tax receipts from the outdoor-recreation industry. And while many out-of-state individuals partake in these activities within Colorado, they often purchase their tickets or book excursion reservations before entering Colorado. If we applied Texas law because it is the state where Mr. Hamric signed the liability release, we would essentially allow the other forty-nine states to regulate a key industry within Colorado.

So Now What?

This was a badly written set of documents. Probably the attempt was made to cover as many legal issues as possible as many was as possible. Writing to documents that both contained release language. However, as written here and in Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.
Write too many documents with release language in them and you can void all the releases.

The second major disaster is not having a venue and jurisdiction clause. The only real attempt to win the plaintiff had, was the release did not have a venue and jurisdiction clause. Never sign any contract without one, or if signing a contract written by someone else, find out where you have to sue and what law is applied to the contract. It makes a major difference.

Sad, so much time, energy and money were wasted on poorly written contracts (Yes, a release is a contract).

Sadder yet the plaintiff died.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

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Hamric v. Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.,

ALICIA HAMRIC, individually, as representative of the Estate of Robert Gerald Hamric, and as next friend of Ava Hamric, a minor, Plaintiff – Appellant,

v.

WILDERNESS EXPEDITIONS, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 20-1250

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

July 26, 2021

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. No. 1:19-CV-01442-NYW)

William J. Dunleavy, Law Offices of William J. Dunleavy, Allen, Texas (Stephen A. Justino, Boesen Law, Denver, Colorado, on the briefs), for Plaintiff – Appellant.

Malcolm S. Mead (Peter C. Middleton and Jacob R. Woods with him on the brief), Hall & Evans, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant – Appellee.

Before TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, HOLMES, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.

McHUGH, CIRCUIT JUDGE

Gerald Hamric, a Texas resident, joined a church group on an outdoor recreation trip to Colorado. The church group employed the services of Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. (“WEI”) to arrange outdoor activities. Before the outdoor adventure commenced, WEI required each participant, including Mr. Hamric, to complete a “Registration Form” and a “Medical Form.” On the first day, WEI led the church group on a rappelling course. In attempting to complete a section of the course that required participants to rappel down an overhang, Mr. Hamric became inverted. Attempts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died.

Alicia Hamric, Mr. Hamric’s wife, sued WEI for negligence. WEI moved for summary judgment, asserting the Registration Form and the Medical Form contained a release of its liability for negligence. Ms. Hamric resisted WEI’s motion for summary judgment in four ways. First, Ms. Hamric moved for additional time to conduct discovery under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d). Second, Ms. Hamric moved for leave to amend her complaint to seek exemplary damages based on willful and wanton conduct. Third, Ms. Hamric filed a motion for leave to disclose an expert out of time. Fourth, Ms. Hamric argued Texas law controlled the validity of the purported liability release in the Registration Form and the Medical Form, and additionally that the release was not conspicuous as required by Texas law.

In a single order, a magistrate judge addressed each of the pending motions. The magistrate judge first declined to grant leave to amend the complaint due to Ms. Hamric’s failure to (1) sustain her burden under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b) because the deadline for amendments had passed; and (2) make out a prima facie case of willful and wanton conduct as required by Colorado law to plead a claim seeking exemplary damages. Next, the magistrate judge concluded WEI was entitled to summary judgment, holding the liability release was valid under both Colorado law and Texas law. Finally, the magistrate judge denied as moot Ms. Hamric’s motions for additional discovery and to disclose an expert out of time.

We affirm the magistrate judge’s rulings. As to Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend, a party seeking to amend a pleading after the deadline in a scheduling order for amendment must satisfy the standard set out by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b). But Ms. Hamric concedes she has never sought to satisfy the Rule 16(b) standard. Turning to the discovery motions, where this case hinges on the validity of the liability release and all facts necessary to this primarily legal issue appear in the record, we reject Ms. Hamric’s contentions that further discovery or leave to belatedly disclose an expert were warranted. Finally, while the magistrate judge’s summary judgment analysis was not free of error, we apply de novo review to that ruling. And, under de novo review, we conclude (1) relying on contract law to resolve the choice-of-law issue, as argued for by the parties, Colorado law, rather than Texas law, controls whether the Registration Form and the Medical Form contain a valid liability release; and (2) the forms contain a valid release for negligence by WEI, barring Ms. Hamric’s action.

I. BACKGROUND

A. The Rappelling Excursion, Mr. Hamric’s Death, and the Liability Release

Members of the Keller Church of Christ in Keller, Texas, scheduled an outdoor excursion to Colorado, contracting with WEI for adventure planning and guide services. WEI is incorporated in Colorado and has its headquarters in Salida, Colorado. Jamie Garner served as the coordinator for the church group and the point-of-contact between the church members and WEI. The experience WEI provided included guides taking participants rappelling. WEI required all participants, before going on the outdoor excursion, to complete and initial a “Registration Form” and complete and sign a “Medical Form.”[ 1]

The Registration Form has three sections. The first section requires the participant to provide personally identifiable information and contact information. The second section is entitled “Release of Liability & User Indemnity Agreement for Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.” App. Vol. I at 57, 83.[ 2] The text under this bold and underlined header reads, in full: I hereby acknowledge that I, or my child, have voluntarily agreed to participate in the activities outfitted by Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. I understand that the activities and all other hazards and exposures connected with the activities conducted in the outdoors do involve risk and I am cognizant of the risks and dangers inherent with the activities. I (or my child) and (is) fully capable of participating in the activities contracted for and willingly assume the risk of injury as my responsibility whether it is obvious or not. I understand and agree that any bodily injury, death, or loss of personal property and expenses thereof as a result of any, or my child’s, negligence in any scheduled or unscheduled activities associated with Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. are my responsibilities. I understand that accidents or illness can occur in remote places without medical facilities, physicians, or surgeons, and be exposed to temperature extremes or inclement weather. I further agree and understand that any route or activity chosen may not be of minimum risk, but may have been chosen for its interest and challenge. I agree to defend, indemnify, and hold harmless Wilderness Expeditions. Inc., the USDA Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Recreation Department, and any and all state or government agencies whose property the activities may be conducted on, and all of their officers, members, affiliated organizations, agents, or employees for any injury or death caused by or resulting from my or my child’s participation in the activities, scheduled and unscheduled, whether or not such injury or death was caused by my, or their, negligence or from any other cause. By signing my initials below, I certify this is a release of liability.

Id.[ 3] Immediately after this paragraph, the form reads, “Adult participant or parent/guardian initial here:(Initials).” Id. The third and final section of the form is entitled: “Adult Agreement or Parent’s/Guardian Agreement for Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.” Id. The text of this provision states: I understand the nature of the activities may involve the physical demands of hiking over rough terrain, backpacking personal and crew gear, and voluntarily climbing mountains to 14, 433 feet in elevation. Having the assurance of my, or my child’s, good health through a current physical examination by a medical doctor, I hereby give consent for me, or my child, to participate in the activities outfitted by Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. I have included in this form all necessary medical information about myself, or my child, that should be known by the leadership of the program. I assure my, or my child’s, cooperation and assume responsibility for my, or my child’s, actions. I understand that I am responsible for any medical expenses incurred in the event of needed medical attention for myself, or my child. I further agree that I will be financially responsible to repair or replace all items lost or abused by myself or my child. In the event of an emergency, I authorize my consent to any X-ray examination, medica1, dental, or surgical diagnosis, treatment, and/or hospital care advised and supervised by a physician, surgeon, or dentist licensed to practice. I understand that the designated next of kin will be contacted as soon as possible. By signing my initials below, I certify this is a release of liability.

Id. And, as with the second section, the form then provides a line for the participant or the parent or guardian of the participant to initial.

The Medical Form has four sections. The first section seeks information about the participant. The second section is entitled “Medical History.” Initially, this section asks the participant if he suffers from a list of medical conditions, including allergies, asthma, and heart trouble. If the participant does suffer from any medical conditions, the form requests that the participant explain the affirmative answer. Thereafter, the section includes the following language: Note: The staff will not administer any medications, including aspirin, Tums, Tylenol, etc. If you need any over the counter medications, you must provide them. Be sure to tell your staff members what medications you are taking. List any medications that you will have with you: Note about food: Trail food is by necessity a high carbohydrate, high caloric diet. It is high in wheat, milk products, sugar, com syrup, and artificial coloring/flavoring. If these food products cause a problem to your diet, you will be responsible for providing any appropriate substitutions and advise the staff upon arrival. * Doctor’s signature is required to participate. No other form can be substituted. By signing below a physician is verifying the medical history given above and approving this individual to participate.

Id. at 58, 84. The form then includes a section titled “Physician’s Evaluation.” Id. This section seeks certification of the participant’s medical capability to partake in the outdoor activities and asks the physician for contact information. It reads: The applicant will be taking part in strenuous outdoor activities that may include: backpacking, rappelling, hiking at 8-12, 000 feet elevation, and an all day summit climb up to 14, 433 feet elevation. This will include high altitude, extreme weather, cold water, exposure, fatigue, and remote conditions where medical care cannot be assured. The applicant is approved for participation. Physician Signature: ___ Date: ___ Physician Name: ___ Phone Number: ___ Office Address: ___ City: ___ State: ___ Zip: ___

Id. The final section of the form is entitled “Participant or Parent/Guardian Signature – All sections of these forms must be initialed or signed.” Id. The text of the section reads: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document[.] I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

Id.

WEI made the forms available to Mr. Garner for downloading and completion by the individual church members several months prior to the booked trip. Mr. Hamric initialed both blanks on the Registration Form and signed the Medical Form, dating it April 5, 2017. Andrew Sadousky, FNP-C, completed and signed the “Physician’s Evaluation” section of the Medical Form, certifying that Mr. Hamric was medically capable of participating in the outdoor activities listed on the form, including rappelling. Mr. Hamric’s signed forms were delivered to WEI upon the church group’s arrival in Colorado in July 2017.

After spending a night on WEI property, WEI guides took the church group, including Mr. Hamric, to a rappelling site known as “Quarry High.” Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course. Id. at 203.

Several members of the church group successfully descended Quarry High before Mr. Hamric attempted the rappel. As Mr. Hamric worked his way down the overhang portion of the course, he became inverted and was unable to right himself. Efforts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died of positional asphyxiation.

B. Procedural History

In the District of Colorado, Ms. Hamric commenced a negligence action against WEI, sounding in diversity jurisdiction. As a matter of right, Ms. Hamric amended her complaint shortly thereafter. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(1)(A) (permitting plaintiff to file amended complaint “as a matter of course” within twenty-one days of serving original complaint). The parties, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), consented to a magistrate judge presiding over the case. WEI answered Ms. Hamric’s First Amended Complaint, in part raising the following affirmative defense: “Decedent Gerald Hamric executed a valid and enforceable liability release. Decedent Gerald Hamric also executed a medical evaluation form which Defendant relied upon. The execution of these document [sic] bars or reduces [Ms. Hamric’s] potential recovery.” Id. at 31-32.

The magistrate judge entered a Scheduling Order adopting several deadlines: (1) August 31, 2019, for amendments to the pleadings; (2) January 31, 2020, for Ms. Hamric to designate her expert witnesses; and (3) April 10, 2020, for the close of all discovery. The Scheduling Order also noted WEI’s defense based on the purported liability release, stating “[t]he parties anticipate that mediation . . . may be useful to settle or resolve the case after meaningful discovery and summary judgment briefing on the issue of the validity and enforceability of the liability release.” Id. at 38 (emphasis added). Finally, the Scheduling Order concluded with language reminding the parties that the deadlines adopted by the order “may be altered or amended only upon a showing of good cause.” Id. at 42 (italicized emphasis added).

In November 2019, after the deadline for amendments to the pleadings but before the discovery deadlines, WEI moved for summary judgment based on its affirmative defense that both the Registration Form and Medical Form contained a liability release that barred Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. In support of its motion, WEI contended Colorado law controlled the interpretation and validity of the liability release. Ms. Hamric opposed summary judgment, arguing that because Mr. Hamric completed the forms in Texas, a Colorado court would apply Texas law and that, under Texas law, the liability release was not adequately conspicuous to be valid.

Ms. Hamric also sought to avoid disposition of WEI’s motion for summary judgment and dismissal of her action by filing three motions of her own. First, Ms. Hamric moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) for additional time to conduct discovery, contending further discovery would, among other things, reveal details about Mr. Hamric’s completion of the forms and whether Colorado or Texas law should control the interpretation and validity of the purported liability release. Second, in February 2020, Ms. Hamric moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a), for leave to file a second amended complaint to seek exemplary damages under § 13-21-102 of the Colorado Revised Statutes based on new allegations of WEI’s willful and wanton conduct.[ 4] Ms. Hamric’s motion to amend, however, did not cite Federal Rule Civil Procedure 16(b) or seek leave to amend the August 31, 2019, Scheduling Order deadline for amendments to the pleadings. Third, in March 2020, Ms. Hamric moved for leave to disclose out of time a “‘Rappelling/Recreational Activities Safety’ expert.” App. Vol. II at 37. Ms. Hamric contended the expert’s opinions about the training, knowledge, and rescue efforts of the WEI guides supported her contention in her proposed second amended complaint that WEI acted in a willful and wanton manner.

The magistrate judge disposed of the four pending motions in a single order. Starting with Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint, the magistrate judge concluded Ms. Hamric (1) “failed to meet her burden under Rule 16(b) of establishing good cause to generally amend the operative pleading” and (2) had not made out a prima facie case of wanton and willful conduct. Id. at 94. The magistrate judge then turned to WEI’s motion for summary judgment. The magistrate judge concluded WEI’s affirmative defense raised an issue sounding in contract law such that principles of contract law controlled the choice-of-law analysis. Applying contract principles, the magistrate judge determined that although Texas law imposed a slightly more rigorous standard for enforcing a liability release, the difference between Texas law and Colorado law was not outcome-determinative and the court could, therefore, apply Colorado law. The magistrate judge read Colorado law as holding that a liability release is valid and enforceable “so long as the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.” Id. at 106 (citing Heil Valley Ranch v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 785 (Colo. 1989)). Applying this standard, the magistrate judge held the liability release used clear and simple terms such that, even though Mr. Hamric was inexperienced at rappelling, the release was valid and foreclosed Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. Therefore, the magistrate judge granted WEI’s motion for summary judgment. And, having denied Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend and granted WEI’s motion for summary judgment, the magistrate judge denied both of Ms. Hamric’s discovery motions as moot.

Ms. Hamric moved for reconsideration, which the magistrate judge denied. Ms. Hamric timely appealed.

II. DISCUSSION

On appeal, Ms. Hamric contests the denial of her motion for leave to amend and the grant of summary judgment to WEI. Ms. Hamric also tacitly challenges the magistrate judge’s denial of her discovery motions. We commence our analysis with Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend, holding the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion in denying the motion where the motion was filed after the Scheduling Order’s deadline for amendments to pleadings and Ms. Hamric did not attempt to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b)’s standard for amending a deadline in a scheduling order. Next, we discuss Ms. Hamric’s two discovery motions, concluding the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion by denying the motions because (1) WEI’s motion for summary judgment presented a largely legal issue on which all facts necessary for resolution already appeared in the record; and (2) consideration of the proposed expert’s opinions potentially capable of supporting allegations of willful and wanton conduct was mooted upon Ms. Hamric failing to satisfy Rule 16(b)’s standard for amending her complaint to allege such conduct. Finally, we analyze WEI’s motion for summary judgment. Although the magistrate judge’s decision was not free of error, the errors are not outcome determinative on appeal given our de novo standard of review. Exercising de novo review, we conclude Colorado law governs the validity of the liability release. And considering the entirety of both the Registration Form and the Medical Form, we conclude the liability release satisfies the factors in Colorado law for enforceability. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment.

A. Ms. Hamric’s Motion for Leave to Amend

1. Standard of Review

“We review for abuse of discretion a district court’s denial of a motion to amend a complaint after the scheduling order’s deadline for amendments has passed.” Birch v. Polaris Indus., Inc., 812 F.3d 1238, 1247 (10th Cir. 2015). “An abuse of discretion occurs where the district court clearly erred or ventured beyond the limits of permissible choice under the circumstances.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). “A district court also abuses its discretion when it issues an arbitrary, capricious, whimsical or manifestly unreasonable judgment.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

2. Analysis

“A party seeking leave to amend after a scheduling order deadline must satisfy both the [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 16(b) and Rule 15(a) standards.” Tesone v. Empire Mktg. Strategies, 942 F.3d 979, 989 (10th Cir. 2019). Under the former of those two rules, “[a] schedule may be modified only for good cause and with the judge’s consent.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b)(4). To satisfy this standard a movant must show that “the scheduling deadlines cannot be met despite the movant’s diligent efforts.” Gorsuch, Ltd., B.C. v. Wells Fargo Nat’l Bank Ass’n, 771 F.3d 1230, 1240 (10th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). We have observed the “good cause” standard for amending deadlines in a scheduling order is “arguably [a] more stringent standard than the standards for amending a pleading under Rule 15.” Bylin v. Billings, 568 F.3d 1224, 1231 (10th Cir. 2009).

In moving for leave to file a second amended complaint, Ms. Hamric discussed Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15 and how Colorado law did not permit a plaintiff to seek exemplary damages until after commencement of discovery. But Ms. Hamric did not advance an argument for amending the Scheduling Order as required by Rule 16(b). Nor does Ms. Hamric cite Rule 16(b) in her briefs on appeal, much less explain how she satisfied, in her papers before the magistrate judge, the Rule 16(b) standard. In fact, Ms. Hamric conceded at oral argument that, before the magistrate judge, she sought only to amend her complaint and “did not seek to amend the scheduling order.” Oral Argument at 7:42-7:46; see also id. at 7:31-9:10. Ms. Hamric also conceded at oral argument that she had not advanced an argument on appeal regarding satisfying Rule 16(b).

This omission by Ms. Hamric is fatal to her argument. Specifically, when a party seeking to amend her complaint fails, after the deadline for amendment in a scheduling order, to present a good cause argument under Rule 16(b), a lower court does not abuse its discretion by denying leave to amend. Husky Ventures, Inc. v. B55 Invs. Ltd., 911 F.3d 1000, 1019-20 (10th Cir. 2018). Even if a party who belatedly moves for leave to amend a pleading satisfies Rule 15(a)’s standard, the party must also obtain leave to amend the scheduling order. But Rule 16(b) imposes a higher standard for amending a deadline in a scheduling order than Rule 15(a) imposes for obtaining leave to amend a complaint. Thus, as Husky Ventures suggests, a party’s ability to satisfy the Rule 15(a) standard does not necessitate the conclusion that the party could also satisfy the Rule 16(b) standard. Id. at 1020; see also Bylin, 568 F.3d at 1231 (observing that Rule 16(b) imposes “an arguably more stringent standard than the standards for amending a pleading under Rule 15”). Accordingly, where Ms. Hamric did not attempt to satisfy the Rule 16(b) standard for amending the Scheduling Order, we affirm the district court’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend.

B. Ms. Hamric’s Discovery Motions

After WEI moved for summary judgment, Ms. Hamric filed a pair of discovery-related motions-a motion for additional discovery before disposition of WEI’s motion for summary judgment and a motion to disclose an expert out of time. The magistrate judge denied both motions as moot. After stating the applicable standard of review, we consider each motion, affirming the magistrate judge’s rulings.

1. Standard of Review

We review the denial of a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) motion for additional discovery for an abuse of discretion. Ellis v. J.R.’s Country Stores, Inc., 779 F.3d 1184, 1192 (10th Cir. 2015). Likewise, we review the denial of a motion to revisit a scheduling order and allow the disclosure of an expert out of time for an abuse of discretion. Rimbert v. Eli Lilly & Co., 647 F.3d 1247, 1253-54 (10th Cir. 2011). “We will find an abuse of discretion when the district court bases its ruling on an erroneous conclusion of law or relies on clearly erroneous fact findings.” Ellis, 779 F.3d at 1192 (internal quotation marks omitted). “A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if it is without factual support in the record or if, after reviewing all of the evidence, we are left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” Id. (quotation marks omitted).

2. Analysis

a. Motion for additional discovery

Before the April 10, 2020, deadline for discovery, WEI filed its motion for summary judgment based on the liability release. Ms. Hamric moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) to delay resolution of WEI’s motion for summary judgment, asserting additional discovery would allow her to learn further information about the liability release. The magistrate judge denied the motion as moot, concluding further discovery was not needed to assess the validity of the liability release.

Under Rule 56(d), a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may seek additional time for discovery. To do so, a party must “submit an affidavit (1) identifying the probable facts that are unavailable, (2) stating why these facts cannot be presented without additional time, (3) identifying past steps to obtain evidence of these facts, and (4) stating how additional time would allow for rebuttal of the adversary’s argument for summary judgment.” Cerveny v. Aventis, Inc., 855 F.3d 1091, 1110 (10th Cir. 2017). “[S]ummary judgment [should] be refused where the nonmoving party has not had the opportunity to discover information that is essential to his opposition.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 n.5 (1986). “Requests for further discovery should ordinarily be treated liberally.” Cerveny, 855 F.3d at 1110. “But relief under Rule 56(d) is not automatic.” Id. And Rule 56’s provision allowing a non-moving party to seek additional discovery before disposition on a motion for summary judgment “is not a license for a fishing expedition.” Lewis v. City of Ft. Collins, 903 F.2d 752, 759 (10th Cir. 1990); see also Ellis, 779 F.3d at 1207-08 (affirming denial of Rule 56(d) motion where party “required no further discovery to respond to the . . . summary-judgment motion” and additional discovery sought was speculative).

Through the affidavit supporting her Rule 56(d) motion, Ms. Hamric sought four areas of additional discovery. First, she sought discovery on “the drafting of the purported liability release forms” and the meaning of language on the forms. App. Vol. I at 94. Regardless of whether Colorado or Texas law applies, the four corners of the Registration Form and Medical Form, not WEI’s thought process when drafting the forms, controls the validity of the liability release. See B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 138 (Colo. 1998) (requiring that intent of parties to extinguish liability be “clearly and unambiguously expressed” (quoting Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785)); Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 508 (Tex. 1993) (“[A] party seeking indemnity from the consequences of that party’s own negligence must express that intent in specific terms within the four corners of the contract.”). Therefore, the drafting process employed by WEI and its understanding of the language of the forms is not relevant to whether the forms included sufficiently specific language to foreclose a claim for negligence.

Second, Ms. Hamric sought to discover information about WEI’s process for distributing the forms and how the church group members, including Mr. Hamric, completed and submitted the forms. Ms. Hamric also requested time to discover matters related to the choice-of-law issue, including the “place of contracting,” “the place of performance,” and “the domicile, residence nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties.” App. Vol. I at 95. Information on these matters, however, was known to Ms. Hamric prior to the magistrate judge’s summary judgment ruling. For instance, the record shows Mr. Hamric received and completed the forms in Texas a few months before the WEI-led excursion and that the church group provided WEI the completed forms upon its arrival at WEI’s location in Colorado. Accordingly, there was no need to delay summary judgment proceedings to discover matters already known to the parties. See Ellis, 779 F.3d at 1207-08.

Third, Ms. Hamric, as part of a challenge to the authenticity of the forms, initially sought to discover information regarding anomalies and alterations on the forms attached to WEI’s motion for summary judgment, as well as evidence of fraud by WEI. Subsequent to Ms. Hamric filing her motion for additional discovery, WEI provided her the original forms signed by Mr. Hamric, and she withdrew her challenge to the authenticity of the forms. Accordingly, by the time the district court ruled on WEI’s motion for summary judgment and Ms. Hamric’s motion for additional discovery, the requests for discovery regarding the authenticity of the forms was moot.

Fourth, Ms. Hamric sought time to discover “evidence of willful and wanton conduct by Defendant WEI and/or by its agents, servants and/or employees.” Id. Discovery on this matter, however, became moot with the magistrate judge’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint to seek exemplary damages and add allegations of willful and wanton conduct, a ruling we affirm. See supra at 12-14, Section II(A).

Having considered each additional discovery request advanced by Ms. Hamric, we conclude the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion by ruling on WEI’s motion for summary judgment without permitting Ms. Hamric additional time for discovery. Accordingly, we affirm the magistrate judge’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s Rule 56(d) motion.

b. Motion for leave to disclose expert out of time

Ms. Hamric moved for leave to disclose a “‘Rappelling/Recreational Activities Safety’ expert” out of time. App. Vol. II at 37. Attached to the motion was a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2) expert disclosure, offering opinions about the alleged negligent and/or willful and wanton conduct of WEI and its employees. The magistrate judge denied this motion as moot. Considering the magistrate judge’s other rulings and our holdings on appeal, we conclude the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion. Any opinion offered by the expert as to willful and wanton conduct lost relevance with the denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint to add allegations of willful and wanton conduct and to seek exemplary damages-a ruling we affirmed supra at 12-14, Section II(A). And the expert’s opinion about WEI acting in a negligent manner lost relevance upon the magistrate judge concluding the liability release was valid and barred Ms. Hamric from proceeding on her negligence claim-a ruling we affirm infra at 19-37, Section II(C). Accordingly, we affirm the magistrate judge’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to disclose an expert out of time.

C. WEI’s Motion for Summary Judgment

After stating our standard of review, we discuss Ms. Hamric’s contentions that the magistrate judge (1) applied the wrong standard when considering WEI’s affirmative defense based on the liability release and (2) resolved issues of disputed fact in favor of WEI. Although we conclude the magistrate judge’s ruling is not free of error, the errors do not bind us because we need not repeat them when conducting our de novo review of the grant of summary judgment. Thus, we proceed to consider the validity of the liability release. In conducting our analysis, we hold that, where the parties contend contract principles provide the framework for our choice-of-law analysis, Colorado law governs the validity of the release.[ 5] And we conclude that, under Colorado law, the liability release is valid and enforceable so as to foreclose Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment.

1. Standard of Review

We review the district court’s rulings on summary judgment de novo. Universal Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Winton, 818 F.3d 1103, 1105 (10th Cir. 2016). Summary judgment is appropriate if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. “In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we need not defer to factual findings rendered by the district court.” Lincoln v. BNSF Ry. Co., 900 F.3d 1166, 1180 (10th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted). For purposes of summary judgment, “[t]he nonmoving party is entitled to all reasonable inferences from the record.” Water Pik, Inc. v. Med-Sys., Inc., 726 F.3d 1136, 1143 (10th Cir. 2013). Finally, “we can affirm on any ground supported by the record, so long as the appellant has had a fair opportunity to address that ground.” Alpine Bank v. Hubbell, 555 F.3d 1097, 1108 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

2. Alleged Errors by the Magistrate Judge

Ms. Hamric argues the magistrate judge (1) applied the incorrect standard when considering WEI’s affirmative defense and (2) resolved disputed issues of material fact in favor of WEI. We consider each contention in turn.

a. Standard applicable to affirmative defenses

Ms. Hamric contends the magistrate judge announced an incorrect standard of review and impermissibly shifted evidentiary burdens onto her, as the non-moving party. The disputed language in the magistrate judge’s opinion states: When, as here, a defendant moves for summary judgment to test an affirmative defense, it is the defendant’s burden to demonstrate the absence of any disputed fact as to the affirmative defense asserted. See Helm v. Kansas, 656 F.3d 1277, 1284 (10th Cir. 2011). Once the defendant meets its initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to put forth sufficient evidence to demonstrate the essential elements of her claim(s), see Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Simms v. Okla. ex rel. Dep’t of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Servs., 165 F.3d 1321, 1326 (10th Cir. 1999), and to “demonstrate with specificity the existence of a disputed fact” as to the defendant’s affirmative defense, see Hutchinson v. Pfeil, 105 F.3d 562, 564 (10th Cir. 1997).

App. Vol. II at 100 (emphasis added). Ms. Hamric takes issue with the emphasized phrase.

Nothing on the pages the magistrate judge cited from Anderson and Simms requires a plaintiff responding to a motion for summary judgment based on an affirmative defense to identify evidence supporting each element of her claim. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (requiring nonmoving party in face of “properly supported motion for summary judgment” to “‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial'” (quoting First Nat’l Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288 (1968))); Simms, 165 F.3d at 1326, 1328 (discussing summary judgment standard in context of employment discrimination claim and burden-shifting framework from McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)). In fact, the standard announced by the magistrate judge would unnecessarily require a plaintiff, in response to a motion for summary judgment based on an affirmative defense, to identify evidence supporting elements of her claim never drawn into question by the defendant. Placing such a burden on a plaintiff is all the more problematic where, as here, the parties contemplated a bifurcated summary judgment process initially focused on the validity of the liability release, and WEI filed its motion for summary judgment before the close of discovery.

We have previously stated that a district court errs by requiring a party opposing summary judgment based on an affirmative defense to “establish at least an inference of the existence of each element essential to the case.” Johnson v. Riddle, 443 F.3d 723, 724 n.1 (10th Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted). We reaffirm that conclusion today. To defeat a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff, upon the defendant raising and supporting an affirmative defense, need only identify a disputed material fact relative to the affirmative defense. Id.; Hutchinson, 105 F.3d at 564; see also Leone v. Owsley, 810 F.3d 1149, 1153-54 (10th Cir. 2015) (discussing defendant’s burden for obtaining summary judgment based on an affirmative defense). Only if the defendant also challenges an element of the plaintiff’s claim does the plaintiff bear the burden of coming forward with some evidence in support of that element. See Tesone, 942 F.3d at 994 (“The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing an absence of any issues of material fact. Where . . . the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the nonmoving party, the movant may carry its initial burden by providing ‘affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim’ or by ‘demonstrating to the Court that the nonmoving party’s evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.’ If the movant makes this showing, the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” (first quoting Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 330, then quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250)); Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670-71 (10th Cir. 1998) (if summary judgment movant carries its initial burden of showing a lack of evidence in support of an essential element of plaintiff’s claim, “the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and set forth specific facts” supporting the essential element (internal quotation marks omitted)).

The magistrate judge’s erroneous statement regarding Ms. Hamric’s burden, however, does not foreclose our ability to further review the grant of summary judgment. Rather, in accord with the applicable de novo standard of review, we review WEI’s motion for summary judgment under the standard that “should have been applied by the [magistrate judge].”[ 6] Nance v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Can., 294 F.3d 1263, 1266 (10th Cir. 2002) (quotation marks omitted).

b. Resolution of disputed issues of material fact

Ms. Hamric contends the magistrate judge impermissibly resolved two issues of disputed fact in WEI’s favor. We discuss each asserted factual issue in turn, concluding factual disputes existed and the magistrate judge incorrectly resolved one of the disputes against Ms. Hamric. However, even if this factual dispute were material, we may proceed to analyze the validity of the liability release after resolving the dispute in Ms. Hamric’s favor. See Lincoln, 900 F.3d at 1180 (“In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we need not defer to factual findings rendered by the district court.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

i. Language of Registration Form and Medical Form

In moving for summary judgment, WEI’s brief contained edited versions of the Registration Form and Medical Form that focused the reader’s attention on the language most pertinent to Mr. Hamric’s participation in the outdoor excursion and the release of liability. For instance, the version of the forms in WEI’s brief left out phrases such as “(or my child)” and the accompanying properly-tensed-and-conjugated verb that would apply if the forms were completed by a parent or guardian of the participant, rather than by the participant himself. Compare App. Vol. I at 46, with id. at 57, 83.

Although WEI and Ms. Hamric attached full versions of the forms to their papers on the motion for summary judgment, the magistrate judge’s quotation of the language in the forms mirrored that which appeared in WEI’s brief. Ms. Hamric contends the magistrate judge, in not quoting the full forms, resolved a dispute of fact regarding the language of the forms in WEI’s favor. It is not uncommon for a court to focus on the pertinent language of a contract or liability release when putting forth its analysis. In this case, Ms. Hamric claims the forms should be reviewed on the whole. Although there is no indication the magistrate judge did not review the forms in their entirety, despite her use of incomplete quotations, we attach full versions of the Registration Form and Medical Form completed by Mr. Hamric as an appendix to this opinion. And we consider all the language on the forms when assessing whether the forms contain a valid liability release.

ii. Registration Form and Medical Form as single form

The magistrate judge viewed the Registration Form and the Medical Form as a single, “two-page agreement.” App. Vol. II at 103; see also id. at 101 (“Adult customers are required to execute a two-page agreement with WEI before they are permitted to participate in WEI-sponsored activities. The first page of the agreement is a ‘Registration Form’, followed by a ‘Medical Form’ on page two.”). Ms. Hamric contends the two forms are separate agreements, not a single agreement. While a jury could have concluded that the Registration Form and Medical Form were separate agreements, this dispute of fact is not material given applicable law regarding the construction of agreements that are related and simultaneously executed.

It is clear from the record that a participant needed to complete both forms before partaking in the WEI-lead excursion. Further, while the Medical Form required a signature and a date, the Registration Form required only that a participant place his initials on certain lines, suggesting the forms were part of a single agreement. However, the forms do not contain page numbers to indicate they are part of a single agreement. Further, language on the Medical Form is conflicting and ambiguous as to whether the two forms comprise a single agreement: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document. I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

App., Vol. I at 58, 84 (emphases added). Both the italicized language and the use of “forms” in the plural to describe the agreement support the conclusion that the Registration Form and the Medical Form are a single agreement. But the underlined language, using “form” in the singular, suggests the forms might constitute separate agreements. Otherwise the singular use of “form” would suggest the unlikely result that a participant could not alter the wording of the Medical Form but could alter the wording of the Registration Form.[ 7] Accord Navajo Nation v. Dalley, 896 F.3d 1196, 1213 (10th Cir. 2018) (describing the cannon of expressio unius est exclusio alterius as providing “that the ‘expression of one item of an associated group or series excludes another left unmentioned'” and that “the enumeration of certain things in a statute suggests that the legislature had no intent of including things not listed or embraced.” (quoting NLRB v. SW Gen., Inc., 137 S.Ct. 929, 940 (2017))). Thus, a reasonable jury could have found the Registration Form and the Medical Form were separate agreements.

We conclude, however, that this dispute of fact is not material to resolution of the primarily legal question regarding whether Mr. Hamric entered into a valid liability release with WEI. Under Colorado law, it is well established that a court may, and often must, construe two related agreements pertaining to the same subject matter as a single agreement. See Bledsoe v. Hill, 747 P.2d 10, 12 (Colo.App. 1987) (“If a simultaneously executed agreement between the same parties, relating to the same subject matter, is contained in more than one instrument, the documents must be construed together to determine intent as though the entire agreement were contained in a single document. Although it is desirable for the documents to refer to each other, there is no requirement that they do so.” (citing In re Application for Water Rights v. N. Colo. Water Conservancy Dist., 677 P.2d 320 (Colo. 1984); Harty v. Hoerner, 463 P.2d 313 (Colo. 1969); Westminster v. Skyline Vista Dev. Co., 431 P.2d 26 (Colo. 1967))).[ 8] Thus, although a jury could conclude the Registration Form and Medical Form technically constitute separate agreements, we consider the agreements together when determining if Mr. Hamric released WEI for its negligent acts.

3. Choice-of-Law Analysis

At the heart of WEI’s motion for summary judgment was whether Colorado or Texas law controls and whether the release is valid under the appropriate law. On appeal, Ms. Hamric contends “contract principles” control the choice-of-law analysis because WEI’s affirmative defense “was a contract issue on a purported agreement to release liability.” Opening Br. at 26-27. Ms. Hamric further contends that under contract principles in the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, Texas law applies because Mr. Hamric was a Texas resident who completed the Registration Form and the Medical Form while in Texas. WEI agrees that if contract principles govern the choice-of-law issue, the Restatement (Second) on Conflict of Laws provides the appropriate factors for this court to consider. But WEI contends (1) the liability release is valid under both Colorado and Texas law and (2) the relevant factors in §§ 6 and 188 of the Restatement favor application of Colorado law if this court is inclined to resolve the conflict-of-law issue.

Outdoor recreation and tourism is a growing industry in Colorado, as well as several other states within our circuit. And many outdoor tourism outfitters, like WEI, require participants to complete forms containing liability releases. See Redden v. Clear Creek Skiing Corp., ___ P.3d ___, 2020 WL 7776149, at *2 (Colo.App. Dec. 31, 2020); Hamill v. Cheley Colo. Camps, Inc., 262 P.3d 945, 947-48 (Colo.App. 2011); see also Dimick v. Hopkinson, 422 P.3d 512, 515-16 (Wyo. 2018); Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 301 P.3d 984, 986 (Utah 2013); Beckwith v. Weber, 277 P.3d 713, 716-17 (Wyo. 2012). With the prevalence and recurrence of questions regarding the validity of liability releases in mind, and viewing the choice-of-law issue as sounding in contract law as urged by the parties, we consider whether the law of the state where the outdoor recreation company is based and the outdoor excursion occurs controls or whether the law of the state of residence of the participant controls.

a. Framework for choice-of-law analysis

“In a diversity action we apply the conflict-of-laws rules of the forum state.” Kipling v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 774 F.3d 1306, 1310 (10th Cir. 2014). “This is true even when choice of law determinations involve the interpretation of contract provisions.” Shearson Lehman Brothers, Inc. v. M & L Invs., 10 F.3d 1510, 1514 (10th Cir. 1993). Accordingly, this court must look to Colorado choice-of-law rules to determine if Colorado or Texas law applies.

“Colorado follows the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971) . . . for both contract and tort actions,” Kipling, 774 F.3d at 1310 (citing Wood Brothers Homes, Inc. v. Walker Adjustment Bureau, 601 P.2d 1369, 1372 (Colo. 1979); First Nat’l Bank v. Rostek, 514 P.2d 314, 319-20 (Colo. 1973)). Absent a forum-state “statutory directive,” the Restatement advises a court to consider seven factors: (a) the needs of the interstate and international systems, (b) the relevant policies of the forum, (c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue (d) the protection of justified expectations, (e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law, (f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and (g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws: Choice-of-Law Principles § 6 (Am. L. Inst. 1971). The commentary to § 6 identifies the first factor as “[p]robably the most important function of choice-of-law rules” because choice-of-law rules are designed “to further harmonious relations between states and to facilitate commercial intercourse between them.” Id. § 6 cmt. d. Meanwhile, the second factor takes into account any special interests, beyond serving as the forum for the action, that the forum state has in the litigation. Id. § 6 cmt. e. As to the fourth factor-“the protection of justified expectations, “- the comments to § 6 note: This is an important value in all fields of the law, including choice of law. Generally speaking, it would be unfair and improper to hold a person liable under the local law of one state when he had justifiably molded his conduct to conform to the requirements of another state.

Id. § 6 cmt. g.

A more specific section of the Restatement addressing contracts lacking a choice-of-law provision provides additional guidance: (1) The rights and duties of the parties with respect to an issue in contract are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the transaction and the parties under the principles stated in § 6. (2) In the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties . . ., the contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include: (a) the place of contracting, (b) the place of negotiation of the contract, (c) the place of performance, (d) the location of the subject matter of the contract, and (e) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties. These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws: Law Governing in Absence of Effective Choice by the Parties § 188.

b. Colorado law controls

We conclude that, under the Restatement, a Colorado court would apply Colorado law to determine the validity and enforceability of the liability release relied upon by WEI. First looking at § 6 of the Restatement, the liability release was drafted by a Colorado corporation to cover services provided exclusively in Colorado. Applying out-of-state law to interpret the liability release would hinder commerce, as it would require WEI and other outdoor-recreation companies to know the law of the state in which a given participant lives. Such a rule would place a significant burden on outdoor-recreation companies who depend on out-of-state tourists for revenue because it would require a company like WEI to match the various requirements of the other forty-nine states. This approach would not give WEI the benefit of having logically molded its liability release to comply with Colorado law, the law of the state where WEI does business. Furthermore, Ms. Hamric’s primary argument for applying Texas law is that Mr. Hamric signed the forms in Texas. But a rule applying out-of-state law on that basis is likely to deter WEI from furnishing the liability release until a participant enters Colorado. And, while not providing participants the forms until arrival in Colorado might lessen WEI’s liability exposure under out-of-state law, such a practice would not benefit participants because it would pressure participants into a last-minute decision regarding whether to sign the liability release after having already traveled to Colorado for the outdoor excursion.

Colorado also has a strong interest in this matter. Colorado has a booming outdoor-recreation industry, in the form of skiing, hiking, climbing, camping, horseback riding, and rafting excursions. Colorado relies on tax receipts from the outdoor-recreation industry. And while many out-of-state individuals partake in these activities within Colorado, they often purchase their tickets or book excursion reservations before entering Colorado. If we applied Texas law because it is the state where Mr. Hamric signed the liability release, we would essentially allow the other forty-nine states to regulate a key industry within Colorado. Such an approach is impractical and illogical.

Further, the considerations and contacts listed in § 188 of the Restatement favor application of Colorado law. As to the first contact, in accord with the commentary, a contract is formed in “the place where occurred the last act necessary to give the contract binding effect.” Id. § 188 cmt. e. Here, that act occurred when the church group provided the forms to WEI in Colorado; for, before the forms were provided to WEI, Mr. Hamric had not conveyed his acceptance to WEI and WEI did not know whether Mr. Hamric would complete the forms and agree to the liability release. See Scoular Co. v. Denney, 151 P.3d 615, 619 (Colo.App. 2006) (discussing means of accepting an offer and stating “general rule that communication is required of the acceptance of the offer for a bilateral contract”). The second contact consideration is not applicable because the terms of the Medical Form precluded alteration, and there is no suggestion in the record Mr. Hamric attempted to negotiate the terms of the liability release before signing the forms. The third and fourth factors heavily favor application of Colorado law because WEI provides outdoor excursion services in Colorado, not Texas, and Mr. Hamric knew such when he signed the forms. Finally, the fifth factor is neutral because Mr. Hamric was a resident of Texas and WEI has its place of business in Colorado. With three factors favoring Colorado law, one factor inapplicable, and one factor neutral, the overall weight of the § 188 factors favors application of Colorado law.

Concluding that both § 6 and § 188 of the Restatement strongly support application of Colorado law, we hold that a Colorado court would choose to apply Colorado law, not Texas law, when determining whether the Registration Form and Medical Form contain a valid liability release. We, therefore, proceed to that analysis.

4. The Liability Release Is Valid under Colorado Law

Under Colorado law, “[a]greements attempting to exculpate a party from that party’s own negligence have long been disfavored.” Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 783.But, such “[e]xculpatory agreements are not necessarily void,” as courts recognize that “[t]hey stand at the crossroads of two competing principles: freedom of contract and responsibility for damages caused by one’s own negligent acts.” Id. at 784.In assessing the validity of a release, “a court must consider: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981); see also Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004) (a release agreement “must be closely scrutinized to ensure that the intent of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language and that the circumstances and the nature of the service involved indicate that the contract was fairly entered into”).

Ms. Hamric challenges only WEI’s ability to show “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.”[ 9] “To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, [the Colorado Supreme Court has] examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.” Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. In general accord with this statement, federal district courts in Colorado have discerned five factors from Colorado Supreme Court decisions to determine if a release is unambiguous: (1) “whether the agreement is written in simple and clear terms that are free from legal jargon”; (2) “whether the agreement is inordinately long or complicated”; (3) “whether the release specifically addresses the risk that caused the plaintiff’s injury”; (4) “whether the contract contains any emphasis to highlight the importance of the information it contains”; and (5) “whether the plaintiff was experienced in the activity making risk of that particular injury reasonably foreseeable.” Salazar v. On the Trail Rentals, Inc., Civil Action No. 11-cv-00320-CMA-KMT, 2012 WL 934240, at *4 (D. Colo. Mar. 20, 2012) (deriving factors from Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785; Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467); see also Eburn v. Capitol Peak Outfitters, Inc., 882 F.Supp.2d 1248, 1253 (D. Colo. 2012) (citing factors set forth in Salazar). Each and every factor, however, need not be satisfied for a court to uphold the validity of a liability release, as the Colorado Supreme Court has upheld the validity of a release where the signor was a novice at the outdoor activity in question. See B & B Livery, Inc., 960 P.2d at 138 (upholding liability release without finding every factor favored validity); id. at 139-40 (Hobbs, J., dissenting) (discussing signor’s inexperience riding horses).

The first four factors taken from Heil Valley Ranch and Chadwick support the validity of the liability release in the Registration Form and Medical Form. The forms span a mere two pages, with language pertinent to the liability release in only four sections of the forms. And those four sections are generally free of legal jargon. For instance, in detailing the scope of the release, the Registration Form required the participant/signor to “hold harmless Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. . . . for any injury or death caused by or resulting from my or my child’s participation in the activities.”[ 10] App. Vol. I at 57, 83. And this language comes after the form describes several of the risks associated with the activities, including “that accidents or illness can occur in remote places without medical facilities” and that “any route or activity chosen [by WEI] may not be of minimum risk, but may have been chosen for its interest and challenge.” Id. The Registration Form also twice places bolded emphasis on the fact that a participant was releasing WEI from liability: “By signing my initials below, I certify this is a release of liability.”Id. Finally, although not explicitly a factor identified by Colorado courts, we observe WEI provided the church group with the forms, and Mr. Hamric completed the forms, months before the booked excursion. Thus, if Mr. Hamric personally had difficulty understanding any of the language on the forms, he had ample time to contact WEI for an explanation or consult legal counsel.

The sole factor clearly cutting against enforcement of the liability release is Mr. Hamric’s lack of rappelling experience. However, as noted above, the Colorado Supreme Court has not found this consideration to be dispositive against the enforcement of a liability waiver. See B & B Livery, Inc., 960 P.2d at 138-39. And, where the liability release between Mr. Hamric and WEI is otherwise clear, specific, and uncomplicated, Mr. Hamric’s lack of experience rappelling is insufficient to defeat the release as a whole.

Accordingly, applying Colorado law, we hold the liability release is valid and its enforcement bars Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment in favor of WEI.

III. CONCLUSION

We affirm the denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint because the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion where Ms. Hamric did not attempt to satisfy the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b) standard for amending the Scheduling Order. We also affirm the denial of Ms. Hamric’s discovery motions, holding the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion where the items Ms. Hamric sought to discover were either already in the record, were not necessary to determine the validity of the liability release, or went to Ms. Hamric’s effort to obtain exemplary damages, which she could not pursue given the denial of her motion for leave to amend her complaint. Finally, applying de novo review to the choice-of-law issue and the issue regarding the validity of the liability release, we conclude Colorado law applies and the release is valid and enforceable under that law. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment to WEI.

———

Notes:

[ 1]Here, we summarize the Registration Form and the Medical Form. Copies of the full forms, taken from the Appendix submitted by Ms. Hamric, are attached to this opinion. We rely on the full forms, and all of the language thereon, when conducting our analysis. Further, as discussed infra at 25-27, Section II(C)(2)(b)(ii), while the Registration Form and Medical Form could be viewed as separate forms, Colorado law requires us to consider both forms together when conducting our analysis.

[ 2]Throughout our opinion, we cite simultaneously to the Registration Form or Medical Form attached to WEI’s motion for summary judgment, App. Vol. I at 57- 58, and the Registration Form or Medical Form attached to Ms. Hamric’s response to WEI’s motion for summary judgment, id. at 83-84. Although the language of the two sets of forms are identical, the clarity of the text varies somewhat, seemingly based on the proficiency of the respective copy machines used by the parties.

[ 3]In quoting the forms, we seek to replicate the font size, spacing, and bolding of the text of the Registration Form and Medical Form completed by Mr. Hamric.

[ 4] Under Colorado law: A claim for exemplary damages in an action governed by [§ 13-21-102 of the Colorado Revised Statutes] may not be included in any initial claim for relief. A claim for exemplary damages in an action governed by this section may be allowed by amendment to the pleadings only after the exchange of initial disclosures . . . and the plaintiff establishes prima facie proof of a triable issue.

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-102(1.5)(a).

[ 5]Although Ms. Hamric’s action sounds in tort law, on appeal, the parties do not contend that tort principles provide the framework for the choice-of-law analysis regarding the liability release. Thus, we reach no conclusion as to whether Colorado law or Texas law would govern if tort principles played a role in the choice-of-law analysis.

[ 6]While the magistrate judge incorrectly stated the standard governing WEI’s motion for summary judgment, it is not apparent the magistrate judge’s analysis and conclusion that WEI was entitled to summary judgment hinged on Ms. Hamric’s failure to identify evidence supporting each element of her negligence claim. Rather, the magistrate judge correctly granted WEI summary judgment based on the liability release and WEI’s affirmative defense.

[ 7]WEI has advanced inconsistent positions on whether the Registration Form and Medical Form comprised a single agreement. Although on appeal WEI argues the forms constitute a single agreement releasing liability, WEI’s Answer to Ms. Hamric’s Complaint treats the two forms as separate agreements, stating that “[d]ecedent Gerald Hamric executed a valid and enforceable liability release. Decedent Gerald Hamric also executed a medical evaluation.” App. Vol. I at 32 (emphasis added).

[ 8]Although we conclude that Colorado law, not Texas law, controls the validity of the liability release, infra at 28-33, Section II(C)(3), Texas law likewise permits a court to read separate but related documents together when determining the intent of the parties, see Fort Worth Indep. Sch. Dist. v. City of Fort Worth, 22 S.W.3d 831, 840 (Tex. 2000) (“The City’s argument ignores well-established law that instruments pertaining to the same transaction may be read together to ascertain the parties’ intent, even if the parties executed the instruments at different times and the instruments do not expressly refer to each other, and that a court may determine, as a matter of law, that multiple documents comprise a written contract. In appropriate instances, courts may construe all the documents as if they were part of a single, unified instrument.” (footnotes omitted)).

[ 9]Ms. Hamric also argues that the question of whether Mr. Hamric and WEI entered into a liability release was a question of fact for a jury. But Ms. Hamric withdrew her fact-based challenge to the authenticity of the forms. Further, under Colorado law, “[t]he determination of the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court to determine.” Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). And, where a liability release has force only if it is “clear and unambiguous,” id., the question of the existence of a liability release and its validity are one in the same because if the language relied on by a defendant does not form a valid release, then no liability release exists.

[ 10] The omitted language marked by the ellipses also required a signor/participant to hold federal and state agencies harmless for injuries or death that might occur as a result of WEI-led activities on federal or state land. Like the rest of the release, this language is plain and clear such that any reasonably educated individual would understand the nature of the release as to these third parties.


One paragraph would have eliminated this lawsuit.

Badly written release and a bad attempt to tie two documents together almost cost the defendant outfitter.

Hamric v. Wilderness Expeditions, Inc

State: Colorado, United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Alicia Hamric, individually, as representative of the Estate of Robert Gerald Hamric, and as next friend of Ava Hamric, a minor

Defendant: Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

Deceased died while repelling with the defendant and surviving spouse sued Colorado company in Colorado but attempted to use Texas law, where the release was signed, as a way to void the release.

Facts

Members of the Keller Church of Christ in Keller, Texas, scheduled an outdoor excursion to Colorado, contracting with WEI for adventure planning and guide services. WEI is incorporated in Colorado and has its headquarters in Salida, Colorado. Jamie Garner served as the coordinator for the church group and the point-of-contact between the church members and WEI. The experience WEI provided included guides taking participants rappelling. WEI required all participants, before going on the outdoor excursion, to complete and initial a “Registration Form” and complete and sign a “Medical Form.”

WEI made the forms available to Mr. Garner for downloading and completion by the individual church members several months prior to the booked trip. Mr. Hamric initialed both blanks on the Registration Form and signed the Medical Form, dating it April 5, 2017. Andrew Sadousky, FNP-C, completed and signed the “Physician’s Evaluation” section of the Medical Form, certifying that Mr. Hamric was medically capable of participating in the outdoor activities listed on the form, including rappelling. Mr. Hamric’s signed forms were delivered to WEI upon the church group’s arrival in Colorado in July 2017.

After spending a night on WEI property, WEI guides took the church group, including Mr. Hamric, to a rappelling site known as “Quarry High.” Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course. [emphasize added]

Several members of the church group successfully descended Quarry High before Mr. Hamric attempted the rappel. As Mr. Hamric worked his way down the overhang portion of the course, he became inverted and was unable to right himself. Efforts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died of positional asphyxiation.

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

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is an appellate court that sits in Denver. The Tenth Circuit hears cases from Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming federal district courts. The court, consequently, hears a few appeals of recreation cases because of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming recreation activities.

This appealed covered four different legal issues. Three of the issues were procedural and won’t be reviewed here. The fourth was the dismissal of the case by the lower-court magistrate on a motion for summary judgement because of the release.

The plaintiff argued the release should be read using Texas law because the release was read and signed in Texas.

There was no Jurisdiction and Venue Clause in the Release!

The defendant had the deceased sign two forms. One was a release, and the second was a medical form. Neither form had a venue or jurisdiction clause. Having a medical information formed signed is a quick give away that the defendant does not understand the legal issues involved. The defendant wrote both forms, so they conflicted with each other in some cases and attempted to tie the forms together. Neither really worked.

The plaintiff argued the forms were one because they conflicts would have made both forms basically invalid.

Further, language on the Medical Form is conflicting and ambiguous as to whether the two forms comprise a single agreement: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document. I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

Both the italicized language and the use of “forms” in the plural to describe the agreement support the conclusion that the Registration Form and the Medical Form are a single agreement. But the underlined language, using “form” in the singular, suggests the forms might constitute separate agreements. Otherwise, the singular use of “form” would suggest the unlikely result that a participant could not alter the wording of the Medical Form but could alter the wording of the Registration Form.

However, after a lengthy review, the court found the forms were two different documents and ignored the medical form and the release like language in it.

We conclude, however, that this dispute of fact is not material to resolution of the primarily legal question regarding whether Mr. Hamric entered into a valid liability release with WEI.

The next issue is what law should apply to determine the validity of the release. Choice of laws is a compete course you can take in law school. I still have my Choice of Laws’ textbook after all these years because it is a complicated subject that hinges on minutia in some cases to determine what court will hear a case and what law will be applied.

The case was filed in the Federal Court covering Colorado. Since the defendant was not a Texas business or doing business in Texas, the lawsuit needed to be in the defendant’s state. Federal Court was chosen because disputes between citizens of two states should be held in a neutral court, which is the federal courts. A Texan might not feel they are getting a fair deal if they have to sue in a Colorado state court. That is called the venue. What court sitting where will hear the case.

If the defendant had operated in Texas, been served in Texas or had a history of actively looking for clients in Texas this would have been a Texas lawsuit, probably with a different outcome.

So, the decision on what court to sue was somewhat limited. However, that is not the end. Once the court is picked, venue, the next argument is what law will be applied to the situation. The Plaintiff argued Texas Law. Texas has stringent requirements on releases. If Texas law was applied to the release, there was a chance the release would be void under Texas law. The defendant argued Colorado law, which has much fewer requirements for releases.

Ms. Hamric further contends that under contract principles in the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, Texas law applies because Mr. Hamric was a Texas resident who completed the Registration Form and the Medical Form while in Texas.

Here is the court’s analysis on what states laws should apply.

A more specific section of the Restatement addressing contracts lacking a choice-of-law provision provides additional guidance: (1) The rights and duties of the parties with respect to an issue in contract are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the transaction and the parties under the principles stated in § 6. (2) In the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties . . ., the contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include: (a) the place of contracting, (b) the place of negotiation of the contract, (c) the place of performance, (d) the location of the subject matter of the contract, and (e) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties. These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.

It is not a slam dunk for Colorado law. In this case, the plaintiff made a very good argument that Texas law should apply. The deceased was a Texas resident recruited in Texas by the defendant. The release had been given to the deceased in Texas, and he signed it in Texas. If the analysis ended there Texas law would have applied.

However, there was more to the investigation the court is required to do.

We conclude that, under the Restatement, a Colorado court would apply Colorado law to determine the validity and enforceability of the liability release relied upon by WEI. First looking at § 6 of the Restatement, the liability release was drafted by a Colorado corporation to cover services provided exclusively in Colorado.

Honestly, the trial court and appellate court bent over backwards to help this defendant.

This argument switched the discussion from applying Texas law to Colorado law.

Applying out-of-state law to interpret the liability release would hinder commerce, as it would require WEI and other outdoor-recreation companies to know the law of the state in which a given participant lives. Such a rule would place a significant burden on outdoor-recreation companies who depend on out-of-state tourists for revenue because it would require a company like WEI to match the various requirements of the other forty-nine states. This approach would not give WEI the benefit of having logically molded its liability release to comply with Colorado law, the law of the state where WEI does business. Furthermore, Ms. Hamric’s primary argument for applying Texas law is that Mr. Hamric signed the forms in Texas. But a rule applying out-of-state law on that basis is likely to deter WEI from furnishing the liability release until a participant enters Colorado. And, while not providing participants the forms until arrival in Colorado might lessen WEI’s liability exposure under out-of-state law; such a practice would not benefit participants because it would pressure participants into a last-minute decision regarding whether to sign the liability release after having already traveled to Colorado for the outdoor excursion.

It is significant to note that the court looked at the issue of waiting until customers arrive in the state of Colorado to have them sign the release. The court intimated that doing so would put pressure on them to sign after already traveling to Colorado. Legally, that could be argued as duress, which voids a release or contract.

It is these small statements in decisions that must be watched and remembered so that in the future they are not used to void a release. You must have your clients sign a release as soon as possible and waiting until they travel to Colorado maybe to late to have the release survive in court.

In a rare statement, the court also commented on the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado and the need for releases.

Colorado also has a strong interest in this matter. Colorado has a booming outdoor-recreation industry, in the form of skiing, hiking, climbing, camping, horseback riding, and rafting excursions. Colorado relies on tax receipts from the outdoor-recreation industry. And while many out-of-state individuals partake in these activities within Colorado, they often purchase their tickets or book excursion reservations before entering Colorado. If we applied Texas law because it is the state where Mr. Hamric signed the liability release, we would essentially allow the other forty-nine states to regulate a key industry within Colorado.

The final analysis the court discussed on the issue was the legal issue of binding effect. When a contract does define what is required to create the contract, such as the signature of both parties to the contract, then the last act that gives life or that is necessary to form the contract is considered the point when the contract was valid. Where that last act occurs is the place where the contract should be litigated and the law that should be applied to the contract. Here the last act occurred when the deceased was in Colorado and the church group he was with, handed over the signed releases.

Further, the considerations and contacts listed in § 188 of the Restatement favor application of Colorado law. As to the first contact, in accord with the commentary, a contract is formed in “the place where occurred the last act necessary to give the contract binding effect.” Here, that act occurred when the church group provided the forms to WEI in Colorado; for, before the forms were provided to WEI, Mr. Hamric had not conveyed his acceptance to WEI, and WEI did not know whether Mr. Hamric would complete the forms and agree to the liability release.

The plaintiff then argued the release did not meet the requirements of Colorado or Texas law. The plaintiff argued the contract was ambiguous. Colorado has five factors that must be considered to determine if a contract is ambiguous.

In general accord with this statement, federal district courts in Colorado have discerned five factors from Colorado Supreme Court decisions to determine if a release is unambiguous: (1) “whether the agreement is written in simple and clear terms that are free from legal jargon”; (2) “whether the agreement is inordinately long or complicated”; (3) “whether the release specifically addresses the risk that caused the plaintiff’s injury”; (4) “whether the contract contains any emphasis to highlight the importance of the information it contains”; and (5) “whether the plaintiff was experienced in the activity making risk of that particular injury reasonably foreseeable.”

The court reviewed the release and found it was not ambiguous. Only one factor the last one, whether the plaintiff has experience in the activity, was possible and the Colorado Supreme Court had weakened that requirement.

The sole factor clearly cutting against enforcement of the liability release is Mr. Hamric’s lack of rappelling experience. However, as noted above, the Colorado Supreme Court has not found this consideration to be dispositive against the enforcement of a liability waiver.

So, the court first determined that the release should be reviewed under Colorado law and then determined that under Colorado law, the release was valid and stopped the claims of the plaintiffs.

Finally, I have to comment about one incredibly stupid move on the part of the defendant. As quoted in the facts and by the court.

Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course.

Besides eliminating the defense of assumption of the risk by doing this, you have created a situation where you have increased the chance of a participant getting injured or as in this case died. You cannot assume a risk which you don’t know about.

First, what are you doing taking beginners rappelling over an overhang. This is not a beginner move.

Second, you have a scary section you CANNOT hide it from people, especially if they cannot see it or understand it. You MUST inform your participants of the risk.

Third, the defendant did not tell the deceased how to correct the problem if they found themselves in a compromised position. That is the main goal of any safety talk, to tell your participants how to keep themselves safe and how to rescue or be rescue.

Fourth, you need to hire new guides because it is clear your current guides do not understand the gravity of the situation, let alone the legal liability, of doing this to someone.

So Now What?

However, for one simple paragraph, or actually, one sentence, this lawsuit would have never gotten off the ground. The issue is a jurisdiction and venue clause. If the release would have stated any lawsuit must be in Colorado and Colorado law must apply, this lawsuit would not have had a chance.

Of special note in writing a release in Colorado and a few other states, if you do not outline or identify the possible risks to the participant signing the release, the release may be ambiguous. This issue is facing more scrutiny by the plaintiffs, and you are seeing more courts have to deal with the issue. On top of that, failing to identify the possible risks, eliminates the defense of assumption of the risk, which might be needed.

The other issue that the court waded through that could have done the defendant in was the competing language in the two contracts. First why collect information you cannot use, such as medical information? Only a physician and the participant have the ability to make the decision, as to whether or not they can medically undertake an activity. If you, the activity, business or program, decide a person can’t participate because of a medical issue, you are practicing medicine without a license which is a crime.

That does not mean you cannot collect information that you might need if a participant is injured.

Worse the above in this case, was both documents attempted to include release language and neither agreement had language stated which one was controlling. If you have your participants sign multiple documents you need to make sure that the release is not voided by another contract. You need to make sure one contract is primary, and the other contact has nothing in it that cancels, modifies or revokes the release.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2021 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Hamric v. Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.,

Hamric v. Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.

ALICIA HAMRIC, individually, as representative of the Estate of Robert Gerald Hamric, and as next friend of Ava Hamric, a minor, Plaintiff – Appellant,

v.

WILDERNESS EXPEDITIONS, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 20-1250

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

July 26, 2021

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. No. 1:19-CV-01442-NYW)

William J. Dunleavy, Law Offices of William J. Dunleavy, Allen, Texas (Stephen A. Justino, Boesen Law, Denver, Colorado, on the briefs), for Plaintiff – Appellant.

Malcolm S. Mead (Peter C. Middleton and Jacob R. Woods with him on the brief), Hall & Evans, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant – Appellee.

Before TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, HOLMES, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.

McHUGH, CIRCUIT JUDGE

Gerald Hamric, a Texas resident, joined a church group on an outdoor recreation trip to Colorado. The church group employed the services of Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. (“WEI”) to arrange outdoor activities. Before the outdoor adventure commenced, WEI required each participant, including Mr. Hamric, to complete a “Registration Form” and a “Medical Form.” On the first day, WEI led the church group on a rappelling course. In attempting to complete a section of the course that required participants to rappel down an overhang, Mr. Hamric became inverted. Attempts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died.

Alicia Hamric, Mr. Hamric’s wife, sued WEI for negligence. WEI moved for summary judgment, asserting the Registration Form and the Medical Form contained a release of its liability for negligence. Ms. Hamric resisted WEI’s motion for summary judgment in four ways. First, Ms. Hamric moved for additional time to conduct discovery under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d). Second, Ms. Hamric moved for leave to amend her complaint to seek exemplary damages based on willful and wanton conduct. Third, Ms. Hamric filed a motion for leave to disclose an expert out of time. Fourth, Ms. Hamric argued Texas law controlled the validity of the purported liability release in the Registration Form and the Medical Form, and additionally that the release was not conspicuous as required by Texas law.

In a single order, a magistrate judge addressed each of the pending motions. The magistrate judge first declined to grant leave to amend the complaint due to Ms. Hamric’s failure to (1) sustain her burden under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b) because the deadline for amendments had passed; and (2) make out a prima facie case of willful and wanton conduct as required by Colorado law to plead a claim seeking exemplary damages. Next, the magistrate judge concluded WEI was entitled to summary judgment, holding the liability release was valid under both Colorado law and Texas law. Finally, the magistrate judge denied as moot Ms. Hamric’s motions for additional discovery and to disclose an expert out of time.

We affirm the magistrate judge’s rulings. As to Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend, a party seeking to amend a pleading after the deadline in a scheduling order for amendment must satisfy the standard set out by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b). But Ms. Hamric concedes she has never sought to satisfy the Rule 16(b) standard. Turning to the discovery motions, where this case hinges on the validity of the liability release and all facts necessary to this primarily legal issue appear in the record, we reject Ms. Hamric’s contentions that further discovery or leave to belatedly disclose an expert were warranted. Finally, while the magistrate judge’s summary judgment analysis was not free of error, we apply de novo review to that ruling. And, under de novo review, we conclude (1) relying on contract law to resolve the choice-of-law issue, as argued for by the parties, Colorado law, rather than Texas law, controls whether the Registration Form and the Medical Form contain a valid liability release; and (2) the forms contain a valid release for negligence by WEI, barring Ms. Hamric’s action.

I. BACKGROUND

A. The Rappelling Excursion, Mr. Hamric’s Death, and the Liability Release

Members of the Keller Church of Christ in Keller, Texas, scheduled an outdoor excursion to Colorado, contracting with WEI for adventure planning and guide services. WEI is incorporated in Colorado and has its headquarters in Salida, Colorado. Jamie Garner served as the coordinator for the church group and the point-of-contact between the church members and WEI. The experience WEI provided included guides taking participants rappelling. WEI required all participants, before going on the outdoor excursion, to complete and initial a “Registration Form” and complete and sign a “Medical Form.”[ 1]

The Registration Form has three sections. The first section requires the participant to provide personally identifiable information and contact information. The second section is entitled “Release of Liability & User Indemnity Agreement for Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.” App. Vol. I at 57, 83.[ 2] The text under this bold and underlined header reads, in full: I hereby acknowledge that I, or my child, have voluntarily agreed to participate in the activities outfitted by Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. I understand that the activities and all other hazards and exposures connected with the activities conducted in the outdoors do involve risk and I am cognizant of the risks and dangers inherent with the activities. I (or my child) and (is) fully capable of participating in the activities contracted for and willingly assume the risk of injury as my responsibility whether it is obvious or not. I understand and agree that any bodily injury, death, or loss of personal property and expenses thereof as a result of any, or my child’s, negligence in any scheduled or unscheduled activities associated with Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. are my responsibilities. I understand that accidents or illness can occur in remote places without medical facilities, physicians, or surgeons, and be exposed to temperature extremes or inclement weather. I further agree and understand that any route or activity chosen may not be of minimum risk, but may have been chosen for its interest and challenge. I agree to defend, indemnify, and hold harmless Wilderness Expeditions. Inc., the USDA Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Recreation Department, and any and all state or government agencies whose property the activities may be conducted on, and all of their officers, members, affiliated organizations, agents, or employees for any injury or death caused by or resulting from my or my child’s participation in the activities, scheduled and unscheduled, whether or not such injury or death was caused by my, or their, negligence or from any other cause. By signing my initials below, I certify this is a release of liability.

Id.[ 3] Immediately after this paragraph, the form reads, “Adult participant or parent/guardian initial here:(Initials).” Id. The third and final section of the form is entitled: “Adult Agreement or Parent’s/Guardian Agreement for Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.” Id. The text of this provision states: I understand the nature of the activities may involve the physical demands of hiking over rough terrain, backpacking personal and crew gear, and voluntarily climbing mountains to 14, 433 feet in elevation. Having the assurance of my, or my child’s, good health through a current physical examination by a medical doctor, I hereby give consent for me, or my child, to participate in the activities outfitted by Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. I have included in this form all necessary medical information about myself, or my child, that should be known by the leadership of the program. I assure my, or my child’s, cooperation and assume responsibility for my, or my child’s, actions. I understand that I am responsible for any medical expenses incurred in the event of needed medical attention for myself, or my child. I further agree that I will be financially responsible to repair or replace all items lost or abused by myself or my child. In the event of an emergency, I authorize my consent to any X-ray examination, medica1, dental, or surgical diagnosis, treatment, and/or hospital care advised and supervised by a physician, surgeon, or dentist licensed to practice. I understand that the designated next of kin will be contacted as soon as possible. By signing my initials below, I certify this is a release of liability.

Id. And, as with the second section, the form then provides a line for the participant or the parent or guardian of the participant to initial.

The Medical Form has four sections. The first section seeks information about the participant. The second section is entitled “Medical History.” Initially, this section asks the participant if he suffers from a list of medical conditions, including allergies, asthma, and heart trouble. If the participant does suffer from any medical conditions, the form requests that the participant explain the affirmative answer. Thereafter, the section includes the following language: Note: The staff will not administer any medications, including aspirin, Tums, Tylenol, etc. If you need any over the counter medications, you must provide them. Be sure to tell your staff members what medications you are taking. List any medications that you will have with you: Note about food: Trail food is by necessity a high carbohydrate, high caloric diet. It is high in wheat, milk products, sugar, com syrup, and artificial coloring/flavoring. If these food products cause a problem to your diet, you will be responsible for providing any appropriate substitutions and advise the staff upon arrival. * Doctor’s signature is required to participate. No other form can be substituted. By signing below a physician is verifying the medical history given above and approving this individual to participate.

Id. at 58, 84. The form then includes a section titled “Physician’s Evaluation.” Id. This section seeks certification of the participant’s medical capability to partake in the outdoor activities and asks the physician for contact information. It reads: The applicant will be taking part in strenuous outdoor activities that may include: backpacking, rappelling, hiking at 8-12, 000 feet elevation, and an all day summit climb up to 14, 433 feet elevation. This will include high altitude, extreme weather, cold water, exposure, fatigue, and remote conditions where medical care cannot be assured. The applicant is approved for participation. Physician Signature: ___ Date: ___ Physician Name: ___ Phone Number: ___ Office Address: ___ City: ___ State: ___ Zip: ___

Id. The final section of the form is entitled “Participant or Parent/Guardian Signature – All sections of these forms must be initialed or signed.” Id. The text of the section reads: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document[.] I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

Id.

WEI made the forms available to Mr. Garner for downloading and completion by the individual church members several months prior to the booked trip. Mr. Hamric initialed both blanks on the Registration Form and signed the Medical Form, dating it April 5, 2017. Andrew Sadousky, FNP-C, completed and signed the “Physician’s Evaluation” section of the Medical Form, certifying that Mr. Hamric was medically capable of participating in the outdoor activities listed on the form, including rappelling. Mr. Hamric’s signed forms were delivered to WEI upon the church group’s arrival in Colorado in July 2017.

After spending a night on WEI property, WEI guides took the church group, including Mr. Hamric, to a rappelling site known as “Quarry High.” Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course. Id. at 203.

Several members of the church group successfully descended Quarry High before Mr. Hamric attempted the rappel. As Mr. Hamric worked his way down the overhang portion of the course, he became inverted and was unable to right himself. Efforts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died of positional asphyxiation.

B. Procedural History

In the District of Colorado, Ms. Hamric commenced a negligence action against WEI, sounding in diversity jurisdiction. As a matter of right, Ms. Hamric amended her complaint shortly thereafter. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(1)(A) (permitting plaintiff to file amended complaint “as a matter of course” within twenty-one days of serving original complaint). The parties, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), consented to a magistrate judge presiding over the case. WEI answered Ms. Hamric’s First Amended Complaint, in part raising the following affirmative defense: “Decedent Gerald Hamric executed a valid and enforceable liability release. Decedent Gerald Hamric also executed a medical evaluation form which Defendant relied upon. The execution of these document [sic] bars or reduces [Ms. Hamric’s] potential recovery.” Id. at 31-32.

The magistrate judge entered a Scheduling Order adopting several deadlines: (1) August 31, 2019, for amendments to the pleadings; (2) January 31, 2020, for Ms. Hamric to designate her expert witnesses; and (3) April 10, 2020, for the close of all discovery. The Scheduling Order also noted WEI’s defense based on the purported liability release, stating “[t]he parties anticipate that mediation . . . may be useful to settle or resolve the case after meaningful discovery and summary judgment briefing on the issue of the validity and enforceability of the liability release.” Id. at 38 (emphasis added). Finally, the Scheduling Order concluded with language reminding the parties that the deadlines adopted by the order “may be altered or amended only upon a showing of good cause.” Id. at 42 (italicized emphasis added).

In November 2019, after the deadline for amendments to the pleadings but before the discovery deadlines, WEI moved for summary judgment based on its affirmative defense that both the Registration Form and Medical Form contained a liability release that barred Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. In support of its motion, WEI contended Colorado law controlled the interpretation and validity of the liability release. Ms. Hamric opposed summary judgment, arguing that because Mr. Hamric completed the forms in Texas, a Colorado court would apply Texas law and that, under Texas law, the liability release was not adequately conspicuous to be valid.

Ms. Hamric also sought to avoid disposition of WEI’s motion for summary judgment and dismissal of her action by filing three motions of her own. First, Ms. Hamric moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) for additional time to conduct discovery, contending further discovery would, among other things, reveal details about Mr. Hamric’s completion of the forms and whether Colorado or Texas law should control the interpretation and validity of the purported liability release. Second, in February 2020, Ms. Hamric moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a), for leave to file a second amended complaint to seek exemplary damages under § 13-21-102 of the Colorado Revised Statutes based on new allegations of WEI’s willful and wanton conduct.[ 4] Ms. Hamric’s motion to amend, however, did not cite Federal Rule Civil Procedure 16(b) or seek leave to amend the August 31, 2019, Scheduling Order deadline for amendments to the pleadings. Third, in March 2020, Ms. Hamric moved for leave to disclose out of time a “‘Rappelling/Recreational Activities Safety’ expert.” App. Vol. II at 37. Ms. Hamric contended the expert’s opinions about the training, knowledge, and rescue efforts of the WEI guides supported her contention in her proposed second amended complaint that WEI acted in a willful and wanton manner.

The magistrate judge disposed of the four pending motions in a single order. Starting with Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint, the magistrate judge concluded Ms. Hamric (1) “failed to meet her burden under Rule 16(b) of establishing good cause to generally amend the operative pleading” and (2) had not made out a prima facie case of wanton and willful conduct. Id. at 94. The magistrate judge then turned to WEI’s motion for summary judgment. The magistrate judge concluded WEI’s affirmative defense raised an issue sounding in contract law such that principles of contract law controlled the choice-of-law analysis. Applying contract principles, the magistrate judge determined that although Texas law imposed a slightly more rigorous standard for enforcing a liability release, the difference between Texas law and Colorado law was not outcome-determinative and the court could, therefore, apply Colorado law. The magistrate judge read Colorado law as holding that a liability release is valid and enforceable “so long as the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.” Id. at 106 (citing Heil Valley Ranch v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 785 (Colo. 1989)). Applying this standard, the magistrate judge held the liability release used clear and simple terms such that, even though Mr. Hamric was inexperienced at rappelling, the release was valid and foreclosed Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. Therefore, the magistrate judge granted WEI’s motion for summary judgment. And, having denied Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend and granted WEI’s motion for summary judgment, the magistrate judge denied both of Ms. Hamric’s discovery motions as moot.

Ms. Hamric moved for reconsideration, which the magistrate judge denied. Ms. Hamric timely appealed.

II. DISCUSSION

On appeal, Ms. Hamric contests the denial of her motion for leave to amend and the grant of summary judgment to WEI. Ms. Hamric also tacitly challenges the magistrate judge’s denial of her discovery motions. We commence our analysis with Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend, holding the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion in denying the motion where the motion was filed after the Scheduling Order’s deadline for amendments to pleadings and Ms. Hamric did not attempt to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b)’s standard for amending a deadline in a scheduling order. Next, we discuss Ms. Hamric’s two discovery motions, concluding the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion by denying the motions because (1) WEI’s motion for summary judgment presented a largely legal issue on which all facts necessary for resolution already appeared in the record; and (2) consideration of the proposed expert’s opinions potentially capable of supporting allegations of willful and wanton conduct was mooted upon Ms. Hamric failing to satisfy Rule 16(b)’s standard for amending her complaint to allege such conduct. Finally, we analyze WEI’s motion for summary judgment. Although the magistrate judge’s decision was not free of error, the errors are not outcome determinative on appeal given our de novo standard of review. Exercising de novo review, we conclude Colorado law governs the validity of the liability release. And considering the entirety of both the Registration Form and the Medical Form, we conclude the liability release satisfies the factors in Colorado law for enforceability. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment.

A. Ms. Hamric’s Motion for Leave to Amend

1. Standard of Review

“We review for abuse of discretion a district court’s denial of a motion to amend a complaint after the scheduling order’s deadline for amendments has passed.” Birch v. Polaris Indus., Inc., 812 F.3d 1238, 1247 (10th Cir. 2015). “An abuse of discretion occurs where the district court clearly erred or ventured beyond the limits of permissible choice under the circumstances.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). “A district court also abuses its discretion when it issues an arbitrary, capricious, whimsical or manifestly unreasonable judgment.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

2. Analysis

“A party seeking leave to amend after a scheduling order deadline must satisfy both the [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 16(b) and Rule 15(a) standards.” Tesone v. Empire Mktg. Strategies, 942 F.3d 979, 989 (10th Cir. 2019). Under the former of those two rules, “[a] schedule may be modified only for good cause and with the judge’s consent.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b)(4). To satisfy this standard a movant must show that “the scheduling deadlines cannot be met despite the movant’s diligent efforts.” Gorsuch, Ltd., B.C. v. Wells Fargo Nat’l Bank Ass’n, 771 F.3d 1230, 1240 (10th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). We have observed the “good cause” standard for amending deadlines in a scheduling order is “arguably [a] more stringent standard than the standards for amending a pleading under Rule 15.” Bylin v. Billings, 568 F.3d 1224, 1231 (10th Cir. 2009).

In moving for leave to file a second amended complaint, Ms. Hamric discussed Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15 and how Colorado law did not permit a plaintiff to seek exemplary damages until after commencement of discovery. But Ms. Hamric did not advance an argument for amending the Scheduling Order as required by Rule 16(b). Nor does Ms. Hamric cite Rule 16(b) in her briefs on appeal, much less explain how she satisfied, in her papers before the magistrate judge, the Rule 16(b) standard. In fact, Ms. Hamric conceded at oral argument that, before the magistrate judge, she sought only to amend her complaint and “did not seek to amend the scheduling order.” Oral Argument at 7:42-7:46; see also id. at 7:31-9:10. Ms. Hamric also conceded at oral argument that she had not advanced an argument on appeal regarding satisfying Rule 16(b).

This omission by Ms. Hamric is fatal to her argument. Specifically, when a party seeking to amend her complaint fails, after the deadline for amendment in a scheduling order, to present a good cause argument under Rule 16(b), a lower court does not abuse its discretion by denying leave to amend. Husky Ventures, Inc. v. B55 Invs. Ltd., 911 F.3d 1000, 1019-20 (10th Cir. 2018). Even if a party who belatedly moves for leave to amend a pleading satisfies Rule 15(a)’s standard, the party must also obtain leave to amend the scheduling order. But Rule 16(b) imposes a higher standard for amending a deadline in a scheduling order than Rule 15(a) imposes for obtaining leave to amend a complaint. Thus, as Husky Ventures suggests, a party’s ability to satisfy the Rule 15(a) standard does not necessitate the conclusion that the party could also satisfy the Rule 16(b) standard. Id. at 1020; see also Bylin, 568 F.3d at 1231 (observing that Rule 16(b) imposes “an arguably more stringent standard than the standards for amending a pleading under Rule 15”). Accordingly, where Ms. Hamric did not attempt to satisfy the Rule 16(b) standard for amending the Scheduling Order, we affirm the district court’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend.

B. Ms. Hamric’s Discovery Motions

After WEI moved for summary judgment, Ms. Hamric filed a pair of discovery-related motions-a motion for additional discovery before disposition of WEI’s motion for summary judgment and a motion to disclose an expert out of time. The magistrate judge denied both motions as moot. After stating the applicable standard of review, we consider each motion, affirming the magistrate judge’s rulings.

1. Standard of Review

We review the denial of a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) motion for additional discovery for an abuse of discretion. Ellis v. J.R.’s Country Stores, Inc., 779 F.3d 1184, 1192 (10th Cir. 2015). Likewise, we review the denial of a motion to revisit a scheduling order and allow the disclosure of an expert out of time for an abuse of discretion. Rimbert v. Eli Lilly & Co., 647 F.3d 1247, 1253-54 (10th Cir. 2011). “We will find an abuse of discretion when the district court bases its ruling on an erroneous conclusion of law or relies on clearly erroneous fact findings.” Ellis, 779 F.3d at 1192 (internal quotation marks omitted). “A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if it is without factual support in the record or if, after reviewing all of the evidence, we are left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” Id. (quotation marks omitted).

2. Analysis

a. Motion for additional discovery

Before the April 10, 2020, deadline for discovery, WEI filed its motion for summary judgment based on the liability release. Ms. Hamric moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) to delay resolution of WEI’s motion for summary judgment, asserting additional discovery would allow her to learn further information about the liability release. The magistrate judge denied the motion as moot, concluding further discovery was not needed to assess the validity of the liability release.

Under Rule 56(d), a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may seek additional time for discovery. To do so, a party must “submit an affidavit (1) identifying the probable facts that are unavailable, (2) stating why these facts cannot be presented without additional time, (3) identifying past steps to obtain evidence of these facts, and (4) stating how additional time would allow for rebuttal of the adversary’s argument for summary judgment.” Cerveny v. Aventis, Inc., 855 F.3d 1091, 1110 (10th Cir. 2017). “[S]ummary judgment [should] be refused where the nonmoving party has not had the opportunity to discover information that is essential to his opposition.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 n.5 (1986). “Requests for further discovery should ordinarily be treated liberally.” Cerveny, 855 F.3d at 1110. “But relief under Rule 56(d) is not automatic.” Id. And Rule 56’s provision allowing a non-moving party to seek additional discovery before disposition on a motion for summary judgment “is not a license for a fishing expedition.” Lewis v. City of Ft. Collins, 903 F.2d 752, 759 (10th Cir. 1990); see also Ellis, 779 F.3d at 1207-08 (affirming denial of Rule 56(d) motion where party “required no further discovery to respond to the . . . summary-judgment motion” and additional discovery sought was speculative).

Through the affidavit supporting her Rule 56(d) motion, Ms. Hamric sought four areas of additional discovery. First, she sought discovery on “the drafting of the purported liability release forms” and the meaning of language on the forms. App. Vol. I at 94. Regardless of whether Colorado or Texas law applies, the four corners of the Registration Form and Medical Form, not WEI’s thought process when drafting the forms, controls the validity of the liability release. See B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 138 (Colo. 1998) (requiring that intent of parties to extinguish liability be “clearly and unambiguously expressed” (quoting Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785)); Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 508 (Tex. 1993) (“[A] party seeking indemnity from the consequences of that party’s own negligence must express that intent in specific terms within the four corners of the contract.”). Therefore, the drafting process employed by WEI and its understanding of the language of the forms is not relevant to whether the forms included sufficiently specific language to foreclose a claim for negligence.

Second, Ms. Hamric sought to discover information about WEI’s process for distributing the forms and how the church group members, including Mr. Hamric, completed and submitted the forms. Ms. Hamric also requested time to discover matters related to the choice-of-law issue, including the “place of contracting,” “the place of performance,” and “the domicile, residence nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties.” App. Vol. I at 95. Information on these matters, however, was known to Ms. Hamric prior to the magistrate judge’s summary judgment ruling. For instance, the record shows Mr. Hamric received and completed the forms in Texas a few months before the WEI-led excursion and that the church group provided WEI the completed forms upon its arrival at WEI’s location in Colorado. Accordingly, there was no need to delay summary judgment proceedings to discover matters already known to the parties. See Ellis, 779 F.3d at 1207-08.

Third, Ms. Hamric, as part of a challenge to the authenticity of the forms, initially sought to discover information regarding anomalies and alterations on the forms attached to WEI’s motion for summary judgment, as well as evidence of fraud by WEI. Subsequent to Ms. Hamric filing her motion for additional discovery, WEI provided her the original forms signed by Mr. Hamric, and she withdrew her challenge to the authenticity of the forms. Accordingly, by the time the district court ruled on WEI’s motion for summary judgment and Ms. Hamric’s motion for additional discovery, the requests for discovery regarding the authenticity of the forms was moot.

Fourth, Ms. Hamric sought time to discover “evidence of willful and wanton conduct by Defendant WEI and/or by its agents, servants and/or employees.” Id. Discovery on this matter, however, became moot with the magistrate judge’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint to seek exemplary damages and add allegations of willful and wanton conduct, a ruling we affirm. See supra at 12-14, Section II(A).

Having considered each additional discovery request advanced by Ms. Hamric, we conclude the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion by ruling on WEI’s motion for summary judgment without permitting Ms. Hamric additional time for discovery. Accordingly, we affirm the magistrate judge’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s Rule 56(d) motion.

b. Motion for leave to disclose expert out of time

Ms. Hamric moved for leave to disclose a “‘Rappelling/Recreational Activities Safety’ expert” out of time. App. Vol. II at 37. Attached to the motion was a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2) expert disclosure, offering opinions about the alleged negligent and/or willful and wanton conduct of WEI and its employees. The magistrate judge denied this motion as moot. Considering the magistrate judge’s other rulings and our holdings on appeal, we conclude the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion. Any opinion offered by the expert as to willful and wanton conduct lost relevance with the denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint to add allegations of willful and wanton conduct and to seek exemplary damages-a ruling we affirmed supra at 12-14, Section II(A). And the expert’s opinion about WEI acting in a negligent manner lost relevance upon the magistrate judge concluding the liability release was valid and barred Ms. Hamric from proceeding on her negligence claim-a ruling we affirm infra at 19-37, Section II(C). Accordingly, we affirm the magistrate judge’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to disclose an expert out of time.

C. WEI’s Motion for Summary Judgment

After stating our standard of review, we discuss Ms. Hamric’s contentions that the magistrate judge (1) applied the wrong standard when considering WEI’s affirmative defense based on the liability release and (2) resolved issues of disputed fact in favor of WEI. Although we conclude the magistrate judge’s ruling is not free of error, the errors do not bind us because we need not repeat them when conducting our de novo review of the grant of summary judgment. Thus, we proceed to consider the validity of the liability release. In conducting our analysis, we hold that, where the parties contend contract principles provide the framework for our choice-of-law analysis, Colorado law governs the validity of the release.[ 5] And we conclude that, under Colorado law, the liability release is valid and enforceable so as to foreclose Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment.

1. Standard of Review

We review the district court’s rulings on summary judgment de novo. Universal Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Winton, 818 F.3d 1103, 1105 (10th Cir. 2016). Summary judgment is appropriate if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. “In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we need not defer to factual findings rendered by the district court.” Lincoln v. BNSF Ry. Co., 900 F.3d 1166, 1180 (10th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted). For purposes of summary judgment, “[t]he nonmoving party is entitled to all reasonable inferences from the record.” Water Pik, Inc. v. Med-Sys., Inc., 726 F.3d 1136, 1143 (10th Cir. 2013). Finally, “we can affirm on any ground supported by the record, so long as the appellant has had a fair opportunity to address that ground.” Alpine Bank v. Hubbell, 555 F.3d 1097, 1108 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

2. Alleged Errors by the Magistrate Judge

Ms. Hamric argues the magistrate judge (1) applied the incorrect standard when considering WEI’s affirmative defense and (2) resolved disputed issues of material fact in favor of WEI. We consider each contention in turn.

a. Standard applicable to affirmative defenses

Ms. Hamric contends the magistrate judge announced an incorrect standard of review and impermissibly shifted evidentiary burdens onto her, as the non-moving party. The disputed language in the magistrate judge’s opinion states: When, as here, a defendant moves for summary judgment to test an affirmative defense, it is the defendant’s burden to demonstrate the absence of any disputed fact as to the affirmative defense asserted. See Helm v. Kansas, 656 F.3d 1277, 1284 (10th Cir. 2011). Once the defendant meets its initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to put forth sufficient evidence to demonstrate the essential elements of her claim(s), see Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Simms v. Okla. ex rel. Dep’t of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Servs., 165 F.3d 1321, 1326 (10th Cir. 1999), and to “demonstrate with specificity the existence of a disputed fact” as to the defendant’s affirmative defense, see Hutchinson v. Pfeil, 105 F.3d 562, 564 (10th Cir. 1997).

App. Vol. II at 100 (emphasis added). Ms. Hamric takes issue with the emphasized phrase.

Nothing on the pages the magistrate judge cited from Anderson and Simms requires a plaintiff responding to a motion for summary judgment based on an affirmative defense to identify evidence supporting each element of her claim. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (requiring nonmoving party in face of “properly supported motion for summary judgment” to “‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial'” (quoting First Nat’l Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288 (1968))); Simms, 165 F.3d at 1326, 1328 (discussing summary judgment standard in context of employment discrimination claim and burden-shifting framework from McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)). In fact, the standard announced by the magistrate judge would unnecessarily require a plaintiff, in response to a motion for summary judgment based on an affirmative defense, to identify evidence supporting elements of her claim never drawn into question by the defendant. Placing such a burden on a plaintiff is all the more problematic where, as here, the parties contemplated a bifurcated summary judgment process initially focused on the validity of the liability release, and WEI filed its motion for summary judgment before the close of discovery.

We have previously stated that a district court errs by requiring a party opposing summary judgment based on an affirmative defense to “establish at least an inference of the existence of each element essential to the case.” Johnson v. Riddle, 443 F.3d 723, 724 n.1 (10th Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted). We reaffirm that conclusion today. To defeat a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff, upon the defendant raising and supporting an affirmative defense, need only identify a disputed material fact relative to the affirmative defense. Id.; Hutchinson, 105 F.3d at 564; see also Leone v. Owsley, 810 F.3d 1149, 1153-54 (10th Cir. 2015) (discussing defendant’s burden for obtaining summary judgment based on an affirmative defense). Only if the defendant also challenges an element of the plaintiff’s claim does the plaintiff bear the burden of coming forward with some evidence in support of that element. See Tesone, 942 F.3d at 994 (“The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing an absence of any issues of material fact. Where . . . the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the nonmoving party, the movant may carry its initial burden by providing ‘affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim’ or by ‘demonstrating to the Court that the nonmoving party’s evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.’ If the movant makes this showing, the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” (first quoting Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 330, then quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250)); Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670-71 (10th Cir. 1998) (if summary judgment movant carries its initial burden of showing a lack of evidence in support of an essential element of plaintiff’s claim, “the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and set forth specific facts” supporting the essential element (internal quotation marks omitted)).

The magistrate judge’s erroneous statement regarding Ms. Hamric’s burden, however, does not foreclose our ability to further review the grant of summary judgment. Rather, in accord with the applicable de novo standard of review, we review WEI’s motion for summary judgment under the standard that “should have been applied by the [magistrate judge].”[ 6] Nance v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Can., 294 F.3d 1263, 1266 (10th Cir. 2002) (quotation marks omitted).

b. Resolution of disputed issues of material fact

Ms. Hamric contends the magistrate judge impermissibly resolved two issues of disputed fact in WEI’s favor. We discuss each asserted factual issue in turn, concluding factual disputes existed and the magistrate judge incorrectly resolved one of the disputes against Ms. Hamric. However, even if this factual dispute were material, we may proceed to analyze the validity of the liability release after resolving the dispute in Ms. Hamric’s favor. See Lincoln, 900 F.3d at 1180 (“In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we need not defer to factual findings rendered by the district court.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

i. Language of Registration Form and Medical Form

In moving for summary judgment, WEI’s brief contained edited versions of the Registration Form and Medical Form that focused the reader’s attention on the language most pertinent to Mr. Hamric’s participation in the outdoor excursion and the release of liability. For instance, the version of the forms in WEI’s brief left out phrases such as “(or my child)” and the accompanying properly-tensed-and-conjugated verb that would apply if the forms were completed by a parent or guardian of the participant, rather than by the participant himself. Compare App. Vol. I at 46, with id. at 57, 83.

Although WEI and Ms. Hamric attached full versions of the forms to their papers on the motion for summary judgment, the magistrate judge’s quotation of the language in the forms mirrored that which appeared in WEI’s brief. Ms. Hamric contends the magistrate judge, in not quoting the full forms, resolved a dispute of fact regarding the language of the forms in WEI’s favor. It is not uncommon for a court to focus on the pertinent language of a contract or liability release when putting forth its analysis. In this case, Ms. Hamric claims the forms should be reviewed on the whole. Although there is no indication the magistrate judge did not review the forms in their entirety, despite her use of incomplete quotations, we attach full versions of the Registration Form and Medical Form completed by Mr. Hamric as an appendix to this opinion. And we consider all the language on the forms when assessing whether the forms contain a valid liability release.

ii. Registration Form and Medical Form as single form

The magistrate judge viewed the Registration Form and the Medical Form as a single, “two-page agreement.” App. Vol. II at 103; see also id. at 101 (“Adult customers are required to execute a two-page agreement with WEI before they are permitted to participate in WEI-sponsored activities. The first page of the agreement is a ‘Registration Form’, followed by a ‘Medical Form’ on page two.”). Ms. Hamric contends the two forms are separate agreements, not a single agreement. While a jury could have concluded that the Registration Form and Medical Form were separate agreements, this dispute of fact is not material given applicable law regarding the construction of agreements that are related and simultaneously executed.

It is clear from the record that a participant needed to complete both forms before partaking in the WEI-lead excursion. Further, while the Medical Form required a signature and a date, the Registration Form required only that a participant place his initials on certain lines, suggesting the forms were part of a single agreement. However, the forms do not contain page numbers to indicate they are part of a single agreement. Further, language on the Medical Form is conflicting and ambiguous as to whether the two forms comprise a single agreement: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document. I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

App., Vol. I at 58, 84 (emphases added). Both the italicized language and the use of “forms” in the plural to describe the agreement support the conclusion that the Registration Form and the Medical Form are a single agreement. But the underlined language, using “form” in the singular, suggests the forms might constitute separate agreements. Otherwise the singular use of “form” would suggest the unlikely result that a participant could not alter the wording of the Medical Form but could alter the wording of the Registration Form.[ 7] Accord Navajo Nation v. Dalley, 896 F.3d 1196, 1213 (10th Cir. 2018) (describing the cannon of expressio unius est exclusio alterius as providing “that the ‘expression of one item of an associated group or series excludes another left unmentioned'” and that “the enumeration of certain things in a statute suggests that the legislature had no intent of including things not listed or embraced.” (quoting NLRB v. SW Gen., Inc., 137 S.Ct. 929, 940 (2017))). Thus, a reasonable jury could have found the Registration Form and the Medical Form were separate agreements.

We conclude, however, that this dispute of fact is not material to resolution of the primarily legal question regarding whether Mr. Hamric entered into a valid liability release with WEI. Under Colorado law, it is well established that a court may, and often must, construe two related agreements pertaining to the same subject matter as a single agreement. See Bledsoe v. Hill, 747 P.2d 10, 12 (Colo.App. 1987) (“If a simultaneously executed agreement between the same parties, relating to the same subject matter, is contained in more than one instrument, the documents must be construed together to determine intent as though the entire agreement were contained in a single document. Although it is desirable for the documents to refer to each other, there is no requirement that they do so.” (citing In re Application for Water Rights v. N. Colo. Water Conservancy Dist., 677 P.2d 320 (Colo. 1984); Harty v. Hoerner, 463 P.2d 313 (Colo. 1969); Westminster v. Skyline Vista Dev. Co., 431 P.2d 26 (Colo. 1967))).[ 8] Thus, although a jury could conclude the Registration Form and Medical Form technically constitute separate agreements, we consider the agreements together when determining if Mr. Hamric released WEI for its negligent acts.

3. Choice-of-Law Analysis

At the heart of WEI’s motion for summary judgment was whether Colorado or Texas law controls and whether the release is valid under the appropriate law. On appeal, Ms. Hamric contends “contract principles” control the choice-of-law analysis because WEI’s affirmative defense “was a contract issue on a purported agreement to release liability.” Opening Br. at 26-27. Ms. Hamric further contends that under contract principles in the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, Texas law applies because Mr. Hamric was a Texas resident who completed the Registration Form and the Medical Form while in Texas. WEI agrees that if contract principles govern the choice-of-law issue, the Restatement (Second) on Conflict of Laws provides the appropriate factors for this court to consider. But WEI contends (1) the liability release is valid under both Colorado and Texas law and (2) the relevant factors in §§ 6 and 188 of the Restatement favor application of Colorado law if this court is inclined to resolve the conflict-of-law issue.

Outdoor recreation and tourism is a growing industry in Colorado, as well as several other states within our circuit. And many outdoor tourism outfitters, like WEI, require participants to complete forms containing liability releases. See Redden v. Clear Creek Skiing Corp., ___ P.3d ___, 2020 WL 7776149, at *2 (Colo.App. Dec. 31, 2020); Hamill v. Cheley Colo. Camps, Inc., 262 P.3d 945, 947-48 (Colo.App. 2011); see also Dimick v. Hopkinson, 422 P.3d 512, 515-16 (Wyo. 2018); Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 301 P.3d 984, 986 (Utah 2013); Beckwith v. Weber, 277 P.3d 713, 716-17 (Wyo. 2012). With the prevalence and recurrence of questions regarding the validity of liability releases in mind, and viewing the choice-of-law issue as sounding in contract law as urged by the parties, we consider whether the law of the state where the outdoor recreation company is based and the outdoor excursion occurs controls or whether the law of the state of residence of the participant controls.

a. Framework for choice-of-law analysis

“In a diversity action we apply the conflict-of-laws rules of the forum state.” Kipling v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 774 F.3d 1306, 1310 (10th Cir. 2014). “This is true even when choice of law determinations involve the interpretation of contract provisions.” Shearson Lehman Brothers, Inc. v. M & L Invs., 10 F.3d 1510, 1514 (10th Cir. 1993). Accordingly, this court must look to Colorado choice-of-law rules to determine if Colorado or Texas law applies.

“Colorado follows the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971) . . . for both contract and tort actions,” Kipling, 774 F.3d at 1310 (citing Wood Brothers Homes, Inc. v. Walker Adjustment Bureau, 601 P.2d 1369, 1372 (Colo. 1979); First Nat’l Bank v. Rostek, 514 P.2d 314, 319-20 (Colo. 1973)). Absent a forum-state “statutory directive,” the Restatement advises a court to consider seven factors: (a) the needs of the interstate and international systems, (b) the relevant policies of the forum, (c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue (d) the protection of justified expectations, (e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law, (f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and (g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws: Choice-of-Law Principles § 6 (Am. L. Inst. 1971). The commentary to § 6 identifies the first factor as “[p]robably the most important function of choice-of-law rules” because choice-of-law rules are designed “to further harmonious relations between states and to facilitate commercial intercourse between them.” Id. § 6 cmt. d. Meanwhile, the second factor takes into account any special interests, beyond serving as the forum for the action, that the forum state has in the litigation. Id. § 6 cmt. e. As to the fourth factor-“the protection of justified expectations, “- the comments to § 6 note: This is an important value in all fields of the law, including choice of law. Generally speaking, it would be unfair and improper to hold a person liable under the local law of one state when he had justifiably molded his conduct to conform to the requirements of another state.

Id. § 6 cmt. g.

A more specific section of the Restatement addressing contracts lacking a choice-of-law provision provides additional guidance: (1) The rights and duties of the parties with respect to an issue in contract are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the transaction and the parties under the principles stated in § 6. (2) In the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties . . ., the contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include: (a) the place of contracting, (b) the place of negotiation of the contract, (c) the place of performance, (d) the location of the subject matter of the contract, and (e) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties. These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws: Law Governing in Absence of Effective Choice by the Parties § 188.

b. Colorado law controls

We conclude that, under the Restatement, a Colorado court would apply Colorado law to determine the validity and enforceability of the liability release relied upon by WEI. First looking at § 6 of the Restatement, the liability release was drafted by a Colorado corporation to cover services provided exclusively in Colorado. Applying out-of-state law to interpret the liability release would hinder commerce, as it would require WEI and other outdoor-recreation companies to know the law of the state in which a given participant lives. Such a rule would place a significant burden on outdoor-recreation companies who depend on out-of-state tourists for revenue because it would require a company like WEI to match the various requirements of the other forty-nine states. This approach would not give WEI the benefit of having logically molded its liability release to comply with Colorado law, the law of the state where WEI does business. Furthermore, Ms. Hamric’s primary argument for applying Texas law is that Mr. Hamric signed the forms in Texas. But a rule applying out-of-state law on that basis is likely to deter WEI from furnishing the liability release until a participant enters Colorado. And, while not providing participants the forms until arrival in Colorado might lessen WEI’s liability exposure under out-of-state law, such a practice would not benefit participants because it would pressure participants into a last-minute decision regarding whether to sign the liability release after having already traveled to Colorado for the outdoor excursion.

Colorado also has a strong interest in this matter. Colorado has a booming outdoor-recreation industry, in the form of skiing, hiking, climbing, camping, horseback riding, and rafting excursions. Colorado relies on tax receipts from the outdoor-recreation industry. And while many out-of-state individuals partake in these activities within Colorado, they often purchase their tickets or book excursion reservations before entering Colorado. If we applied Texas law because it is the state where Mr. Hamric signed the liability release, we would essentially allow the other forty-nine states to regulate a key industry within Colorado. Such an approach is impractical and illogical.

Further, the considerations and contacts listed in § 188 of the Restatement favor application of Colorado law. As to the first contact, in accord with the commentary, a contract is formed in “the place where occurred the last act necessary to give the contract binding effect.” Id. § 188 cmt. e. Here, that act occurred when the church group provided the forms to WEI in Colorado; for, before the forms were provided to WEI, Mr. Hamric had not conveyed his acceptance to WEI and WEI did not know whether Mr. Hamric would complete the forms and agree to the liability release. See Scoular Co. v. Denney, 151 P.3d 615, 619 (Colo.App. 2006) (discussing means of accepting an offer and stating “general rule that communication is required of the acceptance of the offer for a bilateral contract”). The second contact consideration is not applicable because the terms of the Medical Form precluded alteration, and there is no suggestion in the record Mr. Hamric attempted to negotiate the terms of the liability release before signing the forms. The third and fourth factors heavily favor application of Colorado law because WEI provides outdoor excursion services in Colorado, not Texas, and Mr. Hamric knew such when he signed the forms. Finally, the fifth factor is neutral because Mr. Hamric was a resident of Texas and WEI has its place of business in Colorado. With three factors favoring Colorado law, one factor inapplicable, and one factor neutral, the overall weight of the § 188 factors favors application of Colorado law.

Concluding that both § 6 and § 188 of the Restatement strongly support application of Colorado law, we hold that a Colorado court would choose to apply Colorado law, not Texas law, when determining whether the Registration Form and Medical Form contain a valid liability release. We, therefore, proceed to that analysis.

4. The Liability Release Is Valid under Colorado Law

Under Colorado law, “[a]greements attempting to exculpate a party from that party’s own negligence have long been disfavored.” Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 783.But, such “[e]xculpatory agreements are not necessarily void,” as courts recognize that “[t]hey stand at the crossroads of two competing principles: freedom of contract and responsibility for damages caused by one’s own negligent acts.” Id. at 784.In assessing the validity of a release, “a court must consider: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981); see also Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004) (a release agreement “must be closely scrutinized to ensure that the intent of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language and that the circumstances and the nature of the service involved indicate that the contract was fairly entered into”).

Ms. Hamric challenges only WEI’s ability to show “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.”[ 9] “To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, [the Colorado Supreme Court has] examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.” Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. In general accord with this statement, federal district courts in Colorado have discerned five factors from Colorado Supreme Court decisions to determine if a release is unambiguous: (1) “whether the agreement is written in simple and clear terms that are free from legal jargon”; (2) “whether the agreement is inordinately long or complicated”; (3) “whether the release specifically addresses the risk that caused the plaintiff’s injury”; (4) “whether the contract contains any emphasis to highlight the importance of the information it contains”; and (5) “whether the plaintiff was experienced in the activity making risk of that particular injury reasonably foreseeable.” Salazar v. On the Trail Rentals, Inc., Civil Action No. 11-cv-00320-CMA-KMT, 2012 WL 934240, at *4 (D. Colo. Mar. 20, 2012) (deriving factors from Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785; Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467); see also Eburn v. Capitol Peak Outfitters, Inc., 882 F.Supp.2d 1248, 1253 (D. Colo. 2012) (citing factors set forth in Salazar). Each and every factor, however, need not be satisfied for a court to uphold the validity of a liability release, as the Colorado Supreme Court has upheld the validity of a release where the signor was a novice at the outdoor activity in question. See B & B Livery, Inc., 960 P.2d at 138 (upholding liability release without finding every factor favored validity); id. at 139-40 (Hobbs, J., dissenting) (discussing signor’s inexperience riding horses).

The first four factors taken from Heil Valley Ranch and Chadwick support the validity of the liability release in the Registration Form and Medical Form. The forms span a mere two pages, with language pertinent to the liability release in only four sections of the forms. And those four sections are generally free of legal jargon. For instance, in detailing the scope of the release, the Registration Form required the participant/signor to “hold harmless Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. . . . for any injury or death caused by or resulting from my or my child’s participation in the activities.”[ 10] App. Vol. I at 57, 83. And this language comes after the form describes several of the risks associated with the activities, including “that accidents or illness can occur in remote places without medical facilities” and that “any route or activity chosen [by WEI] may not be of minimum risk, but may have been chosen for its interest and challenge.” Id. The Registration Form also twice places bolded emphasis on the fact that a participant was releasing WEI from liability: “By signing my initials below, I certify this is a release of liability.”Id. Finally, although not explicitly a factor identified by Colorado courts, we observe WEI provided the church group with the forms, and Mr. Hamric completed the forms, months before the booked excursion. Thus, if Mr. Hamric personally had difficulty understanding any of the language on the forms, he had ample time to contact WEI for an explanation or consult legal counsel.

The sole factor clearly cutting against enforcement of the liability release is Mr. Hamric’s lack of rappelling experience. However, as noted above, the Colorado Supreme Court has not found this consideration to be dispositive against the enforcement of a liability waiver. See B & B Livery, Inc., 960 P.2d at 138-39. And, where the liability release between Mr. Hamric and WEI is otherwise clear, specific, and uncomplicated, Mr. Hamric’s lack of experience rappelling is insufficient to defeat the release as a whole.

Accordingly, applying Colorado law, we hold the liability release is valid and its enforcement bars Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment in favor of WEI.

III. CONCLUSION

We affirm the denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint because the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion where Ms. Hamric did not attempt to satisfy the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b) standard for amending the Scheduling Order. We also affirm the denial of Ms. Hamric’s discovery motions, holding the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion where the items Ms. Hamric sought to discover were either already in the record, were not necessary to determine the validity of the liability release, or went to Ms. Hamric’s effort to obtain exemplary damages, which she could not pursue given the denial of her motion for leave to amend her complaint. Finally, applying de novo review to the choice-of-law issue and the issue regarding the validity of the liability release, we conclude Colorado law applies and the release is valid and enforceable under that law. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment to WEI.

———

Notes:

[ 1]Here, we summarize the Registration Form and the Medical Form. Copies of the full forms, taken from the Appendix submitted by Ms. Hamric, are attached to this opinion. We rely on the full forms, and all of the language thereon, when conducting our analysis. Further, as discussed infra at 25-27, Section II(C)(2)(b)(ii), while the Registration Form and Medical Form could be viewed as separate forms, Colorado law requires us to consider both forms together when conducting our analysis.

[ 2]Throughout our opinion, we cite simultaneously to the Registration Form or Medical Form attached to WEI’s motion for summary judgment, App. Vol. I at 57- 58, and the Registration Form or Medical Form attached to Ms. Hamric’s response to WEI’s motion for summary judgment, id. at 83-84. Although the language of the two sets of forms are identical, the clarity of the text varies somewhat, seemingly based on the proficiency of the respective copy machines used by the parties.

[ 3]In quoting the forms, we seek to replicate the font size, spacing, and bolding of the text of the Registration Form and Medical Form completed by Mr. Hamric.

[ 4] Under Colorado law: A claim for exemplary damages in an action governed by [§ 13-21-102 of the Colorado Revised Statutes] may not be included in any initial claim for relief. A claim for exemplary damages in an action governed by this section may be allowed by amendment to the pleadings only after the exchange of initial disclosures . . . and the plaintiff establishes prima facie proof of a triable issue.

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-102(1.5)(a).

[ 5]Although Ms. Hamric’s action sounds in tort law, on appeal, the parties do not contend that tort principles provide the framework for the choice-of-law analysis regarding the liability release. Thus, we reach no conclusion as to whether Colorado law or Texas law would govern if tort principles played a role in the choice-of-law analysis.

[ 6]While the magistrate judge incorrectly stated the standard governing WEI’s motion for summary judgment, it is not apparent the magistrate judge’s analysis and conclusion that WEI was entitled to summary judgment hinged on Ms. Hamric’s failure to identify evidence supporting each element of her negligence claim. Rather, the magistrate judge correctly granted WEI summary judgment based on the liability release and WEI’s affirmative defense.

[ 7]WEI has advanced inconsistent positions on whether the Registration Form and Medical Form comprised a single agreement. Although on appeal WEI argues the forms constitute a single agreement releasing liability, WEI’s Answer to Ms. Hamric’s Complaint treats the two forms as separate agreements, stating that “[d]ecedent Gerald Hamric executed a valid and enforceable liability release. Decedent Gerald Hamric also executed a medical evaluation.” App. Vol. I at 32 (emphasis added).

[ 8]Although we conclude that Colorado law, not Texas law, controls the validity of the liability release, infra at 28-33, Section II(C)(3), Texas law likewise permits a court to read separate but related documents together when determining the intent of the parties, see Fort Worth Indep. Sch. Dist. v. City of Fort Worth, 22 S.W.3d 831, 840 (Tex. 2000) (“The City’s argument ignores well-established law that instruments pertaining to the same transaction may be read together to ascertain the parties’ intent, even if the parties executed the instruments at different times and the instruments do not expressly refer to each other, and that a court may determine, as a matter of law, that multiple documents comprise a written contract. In appropriate instances, courts may construe all the documents as if they were part of a single, unified instrument.” (footnotes omitted)).

[ 9]Ms. Hamric also argues that the question of whether Mr. Hamric and WEI entered into a liability release was a question of fact for a jury. But Ms. Hamric withdrew her fact-based challenge to the authenticity of the forms. Further, under Colorado law, “[t]he determination of the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court to determine.” Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). And, where a liability release has force only if it is “clear and unambiguous,” id., the question of the existence of a liability release and its validity are one in the same because if the language relied on by a defendant does not form a valid release, then no liability release exists.

[ 10] The omitted language marked by the ellipses also required a signor/participant to hold federal and state agencies harmless for injuries or death that might occur as a result of WEI-led activities on federal or state land. Like the rest of the release, this language is plain and clear such that any reasonably educated individual would understand the nature of the release as to these third parties.


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

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

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

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

Plaintiff: Carol J. McCoy

Defendant: PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

Carol J. McCoy, a single person, Respondent,

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

and

BRUNSWICK CORPORATION, a foreign corporation, Defendant.

No. 54400-8-II

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

May 11, 2021

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Veljacic, J.

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

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

FACTS

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

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

CPat25.

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

CP at 25.

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

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

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

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

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

CP at 140-41.

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

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

ANALYSIS

I. Standard of Review

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

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

II. Legal Principles

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

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

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

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

III. Analysis

A. Conspicuousness of the Waiver Provision

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

1. The Waiver Provision is Set Apart from Other Provisions

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

2. The Heading of the Waiver Provision is Clear

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

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

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

4. The Signature Line

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

a. The Signature Line is Below the Waiver Provision

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

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

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

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

c. The Required Signature Relates to the Waiver Provision

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

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

B. Opportunity to Examine the Agreement

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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


In a strange round about way, Missouri Appellate Court finds release stops tubing hill claim, but only after release identified the risk the plaintiff complained of.

Court comes to the conclusion the release is valid, but starts at the very beginning of the law and circles continuously to get there.

The Good News is releases are valid under Missouri’s law. The bad news is, you might never know from this decision.

Ferbet v. Hidden Valley Golf and Ski, Inc. and Peak Resorts, Inc.,

State: Missouri, Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

Plaintiff: Douglas E. Ferbet

Defendant: Hidden Valley Golf and Ski, Inc. and Peak Resorts, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent maintenance and operation of the tubing hill

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Release

Year: 2020

Summary

Plaintiff was snow tubing, and his foot got caught in a hole or divot breaking his leg. The plaintiff signed a release, which stopped the lawsuit. The court reviewed all the possible ways the plaintiff could win and lose the lawsuit in this 12-page opinion.

Facts

Hidden Valley’s snow tubing operation, located on a hillside adjacent to its ski resort, consists of a series of parallel and adjacent lanes descending down the hill. Customers slide down the lanes while perched on rubber inner tubes provided to them by Hidden Valley. Hidden Valley maintains the surface of the lanes covered in snow and ice and separates the lanes from each other by raised rows of packed snow and ice.

On January 25, 2013, when Ferbet arrived with his family at the ticket window, he was presented with this one-page, single-spaced, form agreement. He signed and dated the agreement in the spaces designated at the bottom, purchased tickets, and then proceeded to the tubing hill. Hidden Valley provided Ferbet an inner tube to use to slide down any of the tubing lanes he chose. And during what would turn out to be Ferbet’s last slide of the day, his right foot lodged into a crevice in the sliding surface fracturing his tibia and fibula when his momentum carried the rest of his body forward.

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

This court decided to write a law school analysis of the law concerning outdoor recreation injuries. The problem was the decision is extremely difficult to read because it keeps circling back on itself to bring up new legal topics.

The first issue the court reviewed was whether the release contained assumption of the risk language specific to the injury the plaintiff suffered.

Here, since Hidden Valley has asserted the release as an affirmative defense, we review de novo the legal and fact questions (1) whether the release before us is enforceable to release Ferbet’s claims as a matter of law, and (2) whether Hidden Valley has established as a matter of undisputed fact that the injury-causing negligent conduct alleged by Ferbet is within the purview of this release.

I’ve argued that releases need this language for years. However, my argument is based on proving assumption of the risk if the release is thrown out by the court. Here, the appellate court seems to require the language in a release in Missouri, but never comes right out and says so.

The first analysis the court undertook was whether the release met Missouri’s law. This is a common analysis of any case where a release is used to stop the lawsuit. The second analysis, whether the thing that caused the plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release, is also sometimes seen in reviewing releases. In that analysis, the issue is, was the release written broadly enough to cover the injury the plaintiff is complaining about.

However, in this case, the court wanted to know if the release specifically looked at the specific issue that caused the plaintiff’s injury. Did the release cover the cracks and divots in the snow where the plaintiff caught his foot?

First looking at whether the release was valid under Missouri’s law the court reviewed Missouri’s law.

It is a “well-established rule of construction that a contract provision exempting one from liability for his or her negligence will never be implied but must be clearly and explicitly stated.” In doing so, courts must ensure that the exculpatory clause complies with the bright-line test established in Alack, the seminal case on this question, requiring that the words “negligence” or “fault” or their equivalents be used conspicuously so that a clear and unmistakable waiver and shifting of risk occurs.

Here is where the case starts to veer into new areas. The exact same clause the court is reviewing was already found valid in a prior case involving the same defendant on the same tubing hill with a different plaintiff seven years earlier.

Moreover, this Court has already considered this exact same release in Guthrie v. Hidden Valley Golf and Ski, Inc., 407 S.W.3d 642 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013) (Van Amburg, J., dissenting), in which a divided panel of this Court affirmed summary judgment in Hidden Valley’s favor and found that the language in paragraph 7 releasing Hidden Valley from its future negligence was sufficiently clear and conspicuous. Id. at 648. There, Guthrie’s foot was broken when another snow tuber collided with him in the run-out portion of the hill, the area where all of the snow tubers end their runs. So, Guthrie differs somewhat from this case because of the mechanism of injury which was a collision with another snow tuber, a risk the release covered repeatedly and extensively in paragraph 2 and again in the 8th bullet point of paragraph 3, while here the injury was allegedly caused by the condition of the premises.

Normally once a court finds a release valid in a prior case, they won’t even review the latest decision, they court just issues an order saying the prior decision is controlling. Here, they acknowledge the prior case and still analyzed every possible aspect of release and assumption of risk law in Missouri.

The court found the language of the release was valid. The court also found the word negligence was a necessary requirement of the release.

The court then quoted the decision forming the basis for release law in Missouri, which stated the word negligence was not necessary as long as similar language was used and also requires a notification to the defendant of the specific risks of the activity.

Alack instructs that doing so would be insufficient because the agreement must not only pass the bright-line conspicuity test by employing the word “negligence” or its equivalent, but it also must notify the participant of the specific nature of the claims he or she is releasing.

I believe that the word negligence is not required under Missouri’s law, but I would not bet on it. If you are using a release in Missouri, make sure your release says you are not liable for your own negligence.

The court, after finding the release was valid because it was identical to a release in a prior decision, reviewed all aspects of the document, starting with whether or not the release met Missouri’s requirements for a contract.

Since this is a contract, we apply our rules of contract interpretation to determine whether the language of the agreement should be construed to encompass Ferbet’s specific claim of negligence and whether Hidden Valley is released from that claim. The Supreme Court in Alack framed the issue thusly: “There must be no doubt that a reasonable person agreeing to an exculpatory clause actually understands what future claims he or she is waiving.” “Because standardized contracts address the mass of users, the test for reasonable expectations is objective, addressed to the average member of the public who accepts such a contract, not the subjective expectations of an individual adherent

The cardinal principle of contract interpretation is to ascertain the intention of the parties and to give effect to that intent. The terms of a contract are read as a whole and are given their plain, ordinary, and usual meaning. Courts prefer a contract construction that gives meaning to all contract provisions and we avoid construing the contract so as to leave portions meaningless and inexplicable. Under the doctrine of contra proferentem, the language of the contract is construed against the drafting party. And this doctrine is enhanced in this case because we strictly construe contracts that seek to exonerate a party from acts of future negligence against the party claiming the benefit of that provision.

This is a pretty good analysis of contract law for any state. However, it is pages longer than any other decision reviewing a release as a contract, 99% of which do so in a paragraph.

The court then concluded that it was their job to determine if a reasonable party would have understood what they were signing.

Here, our task is to determine whether a reasonable person would clearly understand and be put on notice that he or she was releasing Hidden Valley from liability for a claim arising from an injury suffered as a result of Hidden Valley negligently maintaining in a dangerous condition the surface of the sliding area so that parts of the body extending from the tube would not become lodged in the sliding surface and cause injury.

It is that last section, that departs from all other reviews of releases. Whether the plaintiff knew, by reading the release, that his food could become lodged in a hole in the ice causing him injury. Normally, the analysis is, did the release say the plaintiff could be injured and was that clear and unambiguous.

The court then looked at inherent risk to determine if the risk of a hole in the snow and ice was inherent in tubing. A first in release law, but here the court found a way to tie it back in by including another area of the law never reviewed when looking at release law.

First, it looks at whether term inherent risks as mentioned in the release, define the inherent risks of the sport.

Unfortunately, while Hidden Valley tells its customers in paragraph 1 that “there are inherent and other risks associated with the sport . . .” it does not identify or define in the contract which risks are inherent and which are the “other risks.”

Inherent risks are identified as such because you assume them no matter what. You know the inherent risks of a sport or activity, by law. There is no need to list them in a release.

The court then looks to Missouri’s law to define inherent risks.

Our Supreme Court has defined a risk that is “inherent” to an activity as something “structural” or involving the “constitution or essential character” of the activity. And, generally, a participant is deemed to have assumed the risk of injury from the inherent risks of an activity that are known and understood, and the defendant is not liable for injuries stemming from such inherent risks because no duty is owed as to those risks.

The Missouri Supreme Court stated that a participant is “…deemed to have assumed the risk of injury from the inherent risks of an activity that are known and understood…” Why would there be any requirement to list them in a release? You know what they are. In fact, any releases that only protects the defendant from the inherent risks are worthless. You can’t sue for the inherent risks of a sport or activity. Therefore, you release does not need to protect you from the inherent risks. A release must protect you from the risks of the sport or activity that are not inherent.

If your release only protects you from claims from the inherent risks of a sport or activity send me a copy. jim@rec-law.us And get a new release written.

The court then veered into assumption of the risk under Missouri’s law. The case that was referenced to define inherent risks, and this court then determined a further review of assumption of the risk was needed.

Judge Wilson expounded on the history and current state of Missouri law regarding assumption of the risk. Coomer [a legal decision] identified three types of assumption of the risk, “express assumption of the risk,” “implied primary assumption of the risk,” and “implied secondary assumption of the risk.” For our purposes, implied primary assumption of the risk and express assumption of the risk are helpful to illustrate the concept of inherent risks raised by Hidden Valley in the participation agreement with Ferbet and the impact of assumption of the risk on duty. Implied primary assumption of the risk bars a plaintiff from recovery when the plaintiff has knowingly and voluntarily encountered risk that is inherent in the nature of the defendant’s activity. In express assumption of the risk, which is directly applicable to this case, the plaintiff makes an express statement that he is voluntarily accepting a specified risk and is barred from recovering damages for an injury resulting from that risk. The plaintiff’s consent relieves the defendant of any duty to protect the plaintiff from injury and as a result, the defendant cannot be negligent.

The definitions are the same as in most other states. What is confusing is why the court is taking this circuitous route to get to its decision? If the release is valid, it stops the claims, whether or not the risk is assumed or not in most states, including Missouri.

The court then attempted “tied” everything together, unsuccessfully.

Application of these principles to this case illustrates the circumstances to which the release here applies and those to which it may not and also the extent to which assumption of the risk principles may apply. It is for that reason that we have incorporated into our legal rationale these assumption of the risk principles even though the trial court relied solely on the release for its grant of summary judgment. Disposition of this case requires application of the release and of assumption of the risk.

The court circled back to the facts in this case by setting forth the analysis of the facts of the case. The court stated if the risk encountered by the plaintiff was an inherent risk of the activity, and the defendant did not increase that risk, there is no duty owed to the plaintiff. No duty, means there cannot be negligence.

Thus, if Ferbet’s injury resulted from a known and understandable risk deemed to be inherent to the sport of snow tubing, and Hidden Valley did not negligently enhance or increase that inherent risk, then the release language in paragraph 7 is not relevant nor applicable because Hidden Valley owed Ferbet no duty with respect to risks inherent to snow tubing. But if Hidden Valley negligently enhanced or increased that inherent risk, then the release language in the agreement is applicable and operative and we would look to the agreement as a whole to determine whether that enhanced risk was covered by the release.

A defendant owes no duty to anyone for the inherent risks of the activity. That is a basic year two of law school analysis.

However, if the defendant enhanced or increased the risk, then the risk is not inherent and whether or not the defendant is liable is based on the validity of the risk. Again, year two basic law school analysis.

Neither analysis has anything to do with release law. Is the release a valid contract? Doe the release meet the requirements of the state law on releases? If so, case over.

The court then looked at the issue if the risk was not an inherent risk.

In addition, if Ferbet’s injury was not the result of an inherent risk, but was the result of negligence on the part of Hidden Valley, then we apply the release and our analysis is whether that “other risk” was adequately covered by the release such that Ferbet was on notice that he was releasing Hidden Valley for its negligence in causing or creating the risk which resulted in his injury.

The analysis is correct, it is just written in a way that is confusing to read and seems to start a discission, leave it and then circle back to it. On top of that, it does not matter if the release is valid.

The court circled back again and reviewed if the risk suffered by the plaintiff was inherent in the activity.

We turn now to the crevice in the sliding surface that caused Ferbet’s injury and we find that an uneven sliding surface and the potential risks it creates for snow tubers are inherent risks of snow tubing because they are “structural” to the activity and involve the “essential character” of snow tubing.

Then the court changes its mind……. again. “But how uneven can the surface be and still be considered an inherent risk?

After more analysis, the court concluded the risk was not inherent and if the claim was to be stopped it must rely upon the release. Which it could have found in the first paragraph of the decision.

As a result, we find that to the extent the particular variation that resulted in Ferbet’s injury was the result of Hidden Valley’s negligence, then this release extinguished that claim.

The court found the risk was not inherent, and the release stopped the claim. (Inherent risks, if an issue for the decision, are usually determined by the trier of fact, the jury.)

The court took off on another deviation, one which I found entertaining and correct. Many releases have stupid language in them because they are written by attorneys who don’t understand releases or written by non-attorneys. One of those phrases is the person accepts the facilities as is.

Before we turn to Ferbet’s remaining points, we briefly address paragraph 4 in which Hidden Valley seeks to exonerate itself by having the participant accept the snow tubing facility “AS IS” and that “NO WARRANTIES” are being made with respect to the snow tubing facility. These are terms of art with specific meanings in the context of the sale of goods and the sale of real estate. But these concepts have no role in this case involving a business inviting a customer onto their premises for a fee to participate in a recreational activity. Hidden Valley’s customers are not buyers and there is little if any opportunity for them to inspect the snow tubing facility before executing the release and paying their money or even before plunging down the hill.

If your release uses the language “as is” or “no warranties” send me a copy. jim@rec-law.us And get a new release written.

The court points out that the language is from the sale of goods and real estate and has no place in a release. On top of that, you are asking a person, who probably has never seen the activity to agree it is OK. If there is an opportunity for a release to be invalidated, it is by forcing the signor to agree to something that they cannot legally agree to.

The plaintiff argued the snow tubing hill was a common carrier, which requires the highest level of care. The court quickly found a tubing hill is not a common carrier.

In Missouri, neither the common carrier designation nor the application of the highest degree of care has ever been extended to amusement parks or recreation areas such as ski resorts or snow tubing hills.

After that the issue of whether the plaintiff knew what he was signing came back, and the court dismissed the claim with this statement.

It has been uniformly held that a person who can read, and is in no way prevented from reading a written contract before he signs it, is bound by its terms, and cannot void it on the ground that he did not know its contents when he signed it.”). Ferbet testified that nothing prevented him from reading the document.

Which seems to be contrary to its statement where the court determined if the plaintiff would have been fully informed of the possible risks as I quoted above.

Here, our task is to determine whether a reasonable person would clearly understand and be put on notice that he or she was releasing Hidden Valley from liability for a claim arising from an injury suffered as a result of Hidden Valley negligently maintaining in a dangerous condition the surface of the sliding area so that parts of the body extending from the tube would not become lodged in the sliding surface and cause injury.

After twelve pages, the court concluded the defendant was not liable.

So Now What?

There is a great analysis of how the legal system looks; it is just rarely done outside of law school. However, reading and understanding the decision the way it jumps around makes it very difficult.

The decision makes several great points; it is just maddening to try to find them and understand them in the circular decision.

What is confusing it the courts’ statement about wanting the release to identify the inherent risks of the activity. Inherent risks are known by people under the law and do not need to be identified. You can’t sue over the inherent risks because they are inherent, and you know them.

The good news is Missouri allows the use of a release, if it is carefully written correctly.

If you email me, a release with either of the language pointed out above, include your mailing address, and I’ll send you a sticker or magnet or something cheap and kitschy!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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

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

This book will explain releases and other defenses you can use to put yourself in a position to stop lawsuits and claims.

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

This book is designed to help you rest easy about what you need to do and how to do it. More importantly, this book will make sure you keep your business afloat and moving forward.

You did not get into the outdoor recreation business to worry or spend nights staying awake. Get prepared and learn how and why so you can sleep and quit worrying.

                                              Table of Contents

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

Chapter 2    U.S. Legal System and Legal Research

Chapter 3    Risk 25

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

Chapter 5    Law 57

Chapter 6    Statutes that Affect Outdoor Recreation

Chapter 7    Pre-injury Contracts to Prevent Litigation: Releases

Chapter 8    Defenses to Claims

Chapter 9    Minors

Chapter 10    Skiing and Ski Areas

Chapter 11    Other Commercial Recreational Activities

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

Chapter 13    Rental Programs

Chapter 14    Insurance

         $99.00 plus shipping

 

 

 

 

Artwork by Don Long donaldoelong@earthlink.net

 


What went wrong and how to beat the lawsuit when a guide sues to recover fees, he paid to climb mountain Everest after the trip was cancelled? Several things.

The client was not properly educated pre-trip, and the paperwork did not cover the right issues and/or say the right things.

All over the news, this past ten days is a story about a lawsuit by a Mt. Everest commercial client who is suing his guide service for a refund when the trip was canceled. After arriving in base camp, the trip was canceled because the Khumbu Icefall had a 15 story serac over hanging the route. The outfitter and the other clients decided to bail because of the risk.

I’m even quoted in one article in Outside Magazine.

A Tech CEO Suing His Guide Could Change Everest Travel

CEO Sues Climbing Guide – Could Set a Terrible Precedent for the Travel Industry

It is not the first time that I’ve heard or been involved in these types’ lawsuits. I knew of one from 20+ years ago where the threatened lawsuit was over a refund because the client did not summit Mt. Everest. I never heard what the outcome was.

One of my clients was threatened with a similar lawsuit. The client wanted his money back because he did not summit. I responded to the client’s demand letter listing every Everest summiteers I knew who would testify about the chances of submitting. I never heard anything else.

These refund attempts happen on mountains all over the world.

Usually these start with a guide service needing clients to stay alive or making a profit or not investigating the client thoroughly. When a climbing guide is broke, they have a tendency to say anything to get money in the door or take anyone. Worse are the ones that can right a check without hesitation or who come with a “climbing resume” but only with guide services.

Climbing with a guide is awesome, but the guide makes all the decisions, no matter what the agreement says and how the issue is phrased and the client never engages his brain or understands how decisions are made when climbing a mountain.

Everyone once in a while it is the client who is trying to save face with his friends and neighbors because he did not summit. Getting his money back proves it was not his fault, that he did not summit.

The next step in the process is education. Clients need to learn two things from the start.

  • Their chances of summiting are slim or low based on the mountain.
  • The money they pay to summit is spent way before the client ever sets foot in the country where he is climbing.

No matter the mountain your chances of summiting are based on a lot of factors.

  • The mountain
  • The guide service
    • What the guide service does to get you off the mountain before you can summit

The mountain is obvious, how many days in what conditions and can you survive.

At the same time, there are unscrupulous guide services.

Guide services have been playing games with clients for decades. One game that used to be played on Denali was running the client up the mountain before the client could acclimatize and getting the client sick. This was obvious when you looked at the schedule. There was never enough time between the next load of clients landing on the glacier to acclimatize and summit before the guide had another group to lead.

A different game is still being played on Kilimanjaro. No one tells clients that the hike through the jungle to the base camp is going to leave them and their gear soaking wet. I’ve heard of trips were every single client spent the first two nights shivering in wet sleeping bags before giving up and heading home. No one says to use a waterproof stuff sack or a garbage bag to protect your gear, so thousands each year get to the base of the mountain and turn around.

I’ve not heard of Everest guide services playing any of these games. I do know that your chances of summiting and living are higher based on the amount of money you pay. The past ten years, most of the fatalities have come from guide services that are locally run and very inexpensive compared to everyone else.

I also have only heard great things from the defendant in this case, Garret Madison.

The money paid is gone before you arrive.

Think about the food you will be eating on Mt. Everest. It is purchased in the US, packed for transportation to Katmandu, repacked for shipping to basecamp and repacked for carrying up the mountain. The cost of shipping and packing far outweighs the cost of the food. All of this is done before a US client leaves the US.

Airline tickets, hotel rooms and transportation inside Nepal are paid for in advance. Local guides are hired and paid for, or they find someone different to work for. Competition on Mt. Everest is stiff, so there are plenty of job opportunities for all aspects of getting to basecamp and who you will be climbing with.

Gear is always brought back to the US, cleaned, checked, replaced and then shipped back to Nepal, or used on other mountains in between seasons.

Most of the money you pay to climb a mountain is spent before you leave the US. There are no refunds for food shipped to basecamp, there are no refunds if you can’t summit. I would guess if you wanted some of your money back you can take thirty days of dehydrated food back home with you……. Most is given to the locals and the Sherpa who live on it.

The best way to stop any lawsuit is education and paperwork.

The agreement between the guide and the client must have the following.

  1. The guide is in command, makes mistakes but is in control. Decisions made by the guide are final yet you are in control of your life. You can ignore them at your own risk.
  2. You can’t sue and if you do, you will owe me money for breach of the covenants that go with this contract.
  3. If you do sue, you have to sue me in my little home town a long way from where you live.
  4. You must purchase travel insurance to protect your investment because I’m not going to.

The guide from the articles might have screwed up. To get the client off their back, he might have said something about a refund. The guide also did not do a good job of explaining with the other clients who were leaving what was going on and why. The plaintiff client was left out of the conversation.

However, climbing Everest is not a guaranty, and no guide will ever bet on who will summit and who will not because the odds are stacked and change constantly.

Worse, it is obvious that this plaintiff thinks his luck is pretty good or the amount of money he paid is too much to lose, e way he puts little value on his life.

Guide says to go home, too dangerous! my response is get out of my way!

Do Something

If you want to climb big mountains and intend to hire a guide to do so.

  1. Get in shape
  2. Learn how to climb and climb well. If you can’t run up your local mountains without fear or concern, don’t leave them.
  3. Go climb big mountains with and without guides. Learn how to make decisions and why on when to climb, where to camp, what to do and when to go home.
  4. Expect to spend a lot of money, go cheap you might never go home.
  5. Communicate. Make sure all the promises your guide makes are in writing.
  6. Cowboy up if you can’t get to the top, you probably ignored steps 1-4.
  7. Your money is gone and will not be coming back.

If you are a guide service.

  1. Have enough guts to withstand angry clients because you can’t keep them all happy.
  2. Get good contracts and releases. Get agreements written by an attorney who knows what a mountain is, what making decisions means and has made those decisions and most importantly knows what goes into the agreement and why!
  3. Understand that marketing makes promises that risk management has to pay for is true. You tell a client, he or she will summit, you better have a way to get their butt to the top, or you will be in court.
  4. Make sure your insurance covers advertising, and you have a comprehensive policy to cover those lawsuits that arise more than the negligence lawsuits do.
  5. Tell everyone you cannot guaranty they can get out of basecamp, even get to basecamp, let alone summit.
  6. Get good contracts and releases!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Putting a saddle on a horse does not turn a livery into a saddle manufacturer. Release stops negligence claims and law stops product liability claims.

A woman who fell off a horse while on a horseback ride. She sued for negligence, which the release stopped, product liability which the law stopped and willful and wanton conduct, which will proceed to trial.

Messer v. Hi Country Stables Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2675, 2013 WL 93183

State: Colorado; United States District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Alva Messer

Defendant: Hi Country Stables Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligence; product liability; and, willful and wanton conduct

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Mostly for defendant, however plaintiff could continue on willful and wanton claims

Year: 2013

Summary

A woman purchased a trail ride from the defendant. On the ride, her saddle slipped, and she fell off the horse. She sued for negligence which the release stopped, product’s liability, which failed because the stable is not a manufacturer and willful and wanton conduct. The court allowed the willful and wanton claim to proceed.

Facts

On July 16, 2009, Plaintiff Alva Messer purchased a guided horseback ride from Hi County Stables. Defendant HCS operates commercial horse-back riding at Glacier Creek Stables in Rocky Mountain National Park (“RMNP”). HCS is one of two equestrian companies owned by Rex Walker. The other equestrian company is Sombrero Ranches, Inc. (“SRI”). Before beginning any guided horseback ride, both companies require customers to sign an exculpatory contract, titled “Release” (hereafter “the Release” or “Release Forms”). The Release Forms for HCS and SRI are identical, except for the name of the company being released from liability. The Release Forms for HCS and SRI are printed in tablets containing 100 tear-away forms per tablet. Once printed, the printing company delivers the tablets to the offices of HCS and SRI.

At the start of the 2009 riding season, one tablet of Release Forms labeled SRI was placed in a box of office supplies for delivery to HCS. For reasons that are unexplained by Defendant, those same Release Forms—which Released SRI from liability—were used by HCS at Glacier Creek Stables on July 16, 2009.

Typically, when customers arrive at HCS, they are informed that they must sign a Release. Amongst other employees at HCS, Dallas Marshall informs customers that they are required to sign the Release and “mark their riding ability.”

When the Messers arrived at HCS on July 16, 2009, Marshall followed her normal practice and informed the Messers of the Release. She also requested that they indicate their riding ability, which Plaintiff did. Following this, and before commencing the guided horseback ride, Plaintiff signed the Release. The Release expressly provides that the customer “understands. . .the specific risks. . .arising from riding a horse. . .and that the [customer] nevertheless intentionally agree[s] to assume these risks.”

After signing the Release, Plaintiff entered the corral where she was assigned her horse before commencing the trail ride. The wrangler who led the guests on Plaintiff’s trail ride was Terry Humphrey.

Plaintiff encountered problems with her saddle during the trail ride which required adjustment by Plaintiff and Humphrey.

At the midway point, the Messer group stopped to take a rest break. Plaintiff encountered further problems with her saddle—including slippage of the saddle to the horse’s right.

Sometime later, as Plaintiff’s horse was stepping down a “rock stair” in the trail, Plaintiff fell off the right side of the horse (the “Incident.”) Plaintiff allegedly sustained serious injuries and economic loss resulting from the Incident.

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

The first issue was the fact the release that was signed did not name the proper defendant. Two stables were owned by the same person, each with different names. Each had a release that named it as the entity being protected. Somehow, a pad of the wrong releases ended up at the defendant, and the release signed by the plaintiff had the name of a different stable on it then where she was riding.

To make changes in a contract like this is called reformation. The court can reform a contract if the party’s intention when signing the contract is the same, and the language does not express the correct intention of the parties.

Reformation of a written instrument is appropriate only when the instrument does not represent the true agreement of the parties and the purpose of reformation is to give effect to the parties’ actual intentions.” Mutual mistake of a contract provides grounds for reformation if the written instrument “does not express the true intent or agreement of the parties.”

A mutual mistake must have occurred for a reformation to be effective.

An “essential prerequisite to a court’s power to reform a contract on the ground of mutual mistake is the existence of a prior agreement that represents the actual expectations of the parties and provides the basis upon which a court orders reformation.”

Because it was obvious that the plaintiff intended to go on a horseback ride with the defendant, where she signed the release, where she paid her money and where she took the ride, the court had no problems correcting the mutual mistake and placing the correct language in the release. This meant placing the name of the defendant in the position of the person to be protected by the release.

Accordingly, the Court finds that there was a mutual mistake at the time the Release was entered into. Mutual intent of the parties was to enter into an agreement whereby HCS would be released from certain claims. This provides the equitable basis to grant the relief. The Court orders that the name “Sombrero Ranches, Inc.” (SRI) be deleted and substituted with “Hi Country Stables” (HCS) in the Release.

The next issue was the validity of the release itself. Under Colorado law, there is a four-part test that a release must pass to be valid.

To determine whether the Release bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim, the Court must consider four factors: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.

The first three parts of the test the court quickly covered. Prior Colorado Supreme Court cases held that a recreational activity owes no duty to the public; horseback riding is not an essential service that would bar the release under part two of the test and there was no evidence the release was entered into unfairly.

The fourth test the court also found was valid with this release.

With respect to the fourth factor, the Court looks to the language of the Release to elicit its intent. The Court must determine “whether the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and whether this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.”

It was obvious that the intent of the parties was to decide in advance who would pay for the injuries of any patron of the ride. The release in this case repeatedly used the word negligence throughout the document so the plaintiff knew the purpose of the release. The release also pointed out specific risks of horseback riding that the signor could suffer.

The release was valid to stop the negligence claims.

The next issue was the product liability claim. The plaintiff argued that since the defendant had placed the saddle in the stream of commerce, by placing it on the horse, it was liable for any injuries caused by the defectiveness of the saddle.

The defendant argued that the release stopped this claim also. However, the law in Colorado is that a release cannot stop a product liability claim.

That case held that an agreement releasing “a manufacturer from strict products liability for personal injury, in exchange for nothing more than an individual consumer’s right to have or use the product, necessarily violates the public policy of this jurisdiction and is void.”

The court found the product liability claim was not barred by the release. However, the court did hold that just placing a saddle on a horse for a trail ride does not create a product liability claim for defective equipment in Colorado. Horseback riding is a service; it is not a manufacturing process. Placing a saddle on the horse does not change that. The horse-riding service could not exist (for 99.9% of the people) without the saddle.

Plaintiff entered into a contract for a guided five-hour horseback ride through RMNP. This service primarily relied upon a horse (which is not a product) and a saddle (which incidental to that service). Without a product, the product liability claims cannot succeed.

The saddle was not an item manufactured by the defendant; it was incidental to the service being offered by the defendant and so the product liability claim failed. Finally, the defendant was not a manufacturer of saddles.

The final issues were the claims for willful and wanton conduct. A release cannot bar claims that are greater than negligence, willful and wanton conduct or gross negligence.

Willful and wanton conduct claims are mental state claims. Meaning the claim goes to the actions, the mental state of the defendant in ignoring or creating the issue. This require conscious thought, not simple failure. “…willful and wanton conduct requires a mental state “consonant with purpose, intent and voluntary choice.”

The court then allowed the plaintiffs claims based on willful and wanton conduct of the defendant to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

First, there is a need to look at the product liability claim. Not in the fact that most recreation businesses are manufacturing items, but because they are repairing them. Although you can find outfitter made items such as old raft frames, most items used now days are manufactured by a third party. However, many outfitters and recreation businesses do repair items.

Repairing an item may bring the outfitter into the trial under a product liability claim in many states. The outfitter by making repairs has entered into the stream of commerce between the manufacturer and the end user. The outfitter is no longer a user of the product, but a manufacturer of the product.

Remember there are some items you should never repair or that may be illegal to repair.

PFD’s cannot be repaired by law. Climbing harnesses or any other item where the failure would result in catastrophic injury or death or where the manufacturing process is protected by statute or standard should never be repaired.

The reformation issue was stupid. The cost of printing one set of releases on tan paper and the other on white would have eliminated this problem. Other examples would be putting the page numbers on the bottom right of one release and the center or top of the other. Locating the logo of the defendant in a different location on each release would have worked. Anything to that any employee can recognize that they are using the wrong release.

Some day there will be a horseback riding case that does not involve a slipping saddle. Why there still are, is a mystery to me, and I grew up with horses.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

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Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

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

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Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Western Division

November 15, 2018, Decided; November 15, 2018, Filed

5:17-CV-05047-JLV

Reporter

Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; and Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; Plaintiffs, vs. Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner, Defendant.

Subsequent History: Objection overruled by, Adopted by, Summary judgment granted by, in part, Summary judgment denied by, in part Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49327 (D.S.D., Mar. 25, 2019)

Counsel:  [*1] For Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a minor, other, I.R., Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a minor, other, I.R., Plaintiffs: Kenneth E. Barker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Barker Wilson Law Firm, LLP, Belle Fourche, SD.

For Union Resort, LLC, doing business as Mystic Miner, Defendant: Shane E. Eden, LEAD ATTORNEY, Davenport, Evans, Hurwitz & Smith, LLP, Sioux Falls, SD.

Judges: VERONICA L. DUFFY, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: VERONICA L. DUFFY

Opinion

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the court on the amended complaint of Brad and Tara Reed as conservators of I.R., their minor daughter. See Docket No. 16. The Reeds allege claims of negligence and gross negligence against defendant Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner (defendant) arising out of a tubing accident at defendant’s ski resort. Id. This matter rests on the court’s diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

Defendant has now filed a motion for summary judgment. See Docket No. 21. The Reeds oppose the motion. See Docket No. 30. The motion was referred to this magistrate judge for a recommended disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the order of referral dated November 11, 2018 (Doc. 42), and the [*2]  October 16, 2014, standing order of the Honorable Jeffrey L. Viken, Chief United States District Judge.

FACTS

Defendant filed a statement of undisputed material facts, Docket No. 22, to which the Reeds have responded, Docket No. 31. The following facts have been drawn from those pleadings with disputes or discrepancies as noted.

On March 13, 2015, Brad and Tara Reed brought their children to the defendant’s resort near Lead, South Dakota, for an afternoon of recreational snow tubing.1 The resort was owned and operated by Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner. Among the Reeds’ children with them that day was seven-year-old I.R. Accompanying the Reeds were another couple and Alex, a social worker from the Philippines.

Upon arriving shortly before noon, the Reed party entered the lodge area where customers are required to check in and purchase admission tickets for the resort. The Reeds purchased snow tubing day passes for themselves and their children, including I.R. As a condition of allowing I.R. to use the resort, Union required the Reeds to agree to a written release of liability. The Reeds signed the release and printed the names of each of their children, including I.R., as participants. [*3] 

The Reeds understood the document was a release of liability agreement and that, by signing, they would be relinquishing certain unspecified rights. They did not ask any questions about the release. The release informed resort participants that tubing activities are extremely hazardous and can result in personal injury. The Reeds understood that tubing carried with it a degree of risk, including risk of trauma to the head, and that I.R. would be exposed to this risk.

After signing the release and paying the admission fee, the Reeds and their kids received individual tickets for the tube park. Those tickets included additional warnings.

At the resort, there are numerous bright red signs that provide instructions and warnings to participants. Among the messages on some of the signs was a warning that collisions with other tubers was one of the dangers of tubing. Other signs instructed the tubers to follow the attendant’s instructions and to wait for the attendant’s signal before starting [down the tube run]. The Reeds do not recall whether they saw or read any of these signs.

The Reeds were directed to select tubes from the resort’s selection of tubes, which they did. Defendant had approximately [*4]  50 to 70 tubes in inventory at the time, but there is no evidence how many of these tubes had already been selected by prior guests. No employee of defendant selected the tubes for the Reeds. Several defendant employees testified at their depositions that it was a practice at the resort to leave tubes with tears in the bottoms in circulation for guests to use. The employees explained that such tubes were slower and slower equated to safer in their minds.

During the Reeds’ stay at the resort, they went down the tube runs approximately 15 to 20 times. Two of the four tube runs at the resort were open that day. During the Reeds’ runs, there were two defendant employees at the bottom of the tube runs assisting guests with the tow rope (which towed guests to the top of the run).

On approximately two of the Reeds’ 15-20 tubing runs, there was a young man at the top of the tube runs who also appeared to be a resort employee with a radio in his possession. However, the young man never monitored the tube runs, never gave instructions to tubers, and never staged tubers going down the tube runs. “Staging” means controlling the entry of guests onto the tube runs to ensure that the prior tuber has [*5]  finished the run and cleared the area before the next tuber is allowed to begin his or her descent. There was no staging and, instead, tubers decided themselves when to begin their descent, a situation Brad Reed described as a “free-for-all.”

At approximately 2 p.m., the Reeds decided to take one last run down the tube runs before leaving the resort. Up to this point, the Reeds had experienced no concerns or incidents. Up to this final run, I.R. had always completed her run down the slope as part of a group or with one of her parents. On the final run, she asked to be allowed to go down the tube run by herself, to which her parents agreed. Mrs. Reed told I.R. they would go down the run together, parallel to each other in each of the two open tube runs. At this point, Alex was directly behind I.R. in line for the same tube lane. Mr. Reed was behind Alex in the same line.

Once both lanes were clear, Mrs. Reed and I.R. began their descents. Mrs. Reed went all the way down the run, but I.R.’s tube stopped approximately 3/4 of the way down the slope. While I.R. was stopped, Alex began her descent before I.R. cleared the lane. When Alex’s tube reached I.R.’s tube, they collided. No defendant [*6]  employee told Alex to begin her descent, but no defendant employee was present at the top of the run to tell her, instruct her, or prevent her from beginning her descent until I.R. cleared the lane.

From the top of the slope, Mr. Reed testified Alex should have been able to see I.R. had not cleared the lane had Alex been paying attention. See Docket No. 25-5 at p. 7 (depo. pp. 25-26). Mr. Reed himself was able to observe the collision from his vantage point at the top of the slope. Id. at p. 6 (depo. pp. 22-24).2

After the accident, the Reeds observed an approximately 8-inch hole in the bottom of I.R.’s tube that had filled with snow. Defendant asserts it was its policy to stow the tubes under the deck each night and to pull them out the next day for guests’ use. Defendant asserts employees were directed to observe the tubes for significant tears or defects and to remove defective tubes during this process. However, several defendant employees testified they left tubes with tears in their bottoms in rotation for guest use because the tears would slow the tuber down as they descended the slope. Employees believed a slower descent was a safer descent.

If a lightweight child descended the slope with [*7]  a tube with a tear in it, sometimes the tube would stop mid-way down the slope and a defendant employee would have to walk up the slope to retrieve the child. In such an instance, the defendant employee at the bottom of the slope would radio the employee at the top and tell them to stop sending guests down the slope until the child was retrieved and taken to the bottom.

No photograph was taken of I.R.’s tube at the beginning of the day, after the accident, or at any other time on the day of the accident. It is unknown if the tear in the bottom of her tube was there from the start of the day or whether the tear occurred during the Reeds’ use of the tube that day. The Reeds mixed and mingled the various tubes they checked out, so several members of the Reeds’ group could have used the accident tube at various times of the day.

The accident tube was the only tube checked out by the Reed group that had a tear in it. The Reeds did not notice the tear until after I.R.’s injury. The Reeds did not inform anyone at the resort about the tear in the tube after the accident occurred. There is no evidence that any defendant employee had specific knowledge that the Reeds had checked out a tube with [*8]  a tear in it on the day of the accident, though defendant employees had general knowledge that such tubes were often retained in inventory because they were perceived to be “safer” because they were slower.

From the beginning of the 2010-11 season through the end of the 2014-15 season, defendant had incident reports of 17 collisions of tubers. During that same time frame, there were 72 total incident reports.3 Several of these collisions between tubers occurred within a few weeks and, in two examples, a few days, of I.R.’s collision. Specifically, there were 5 incident reports involving collisions between tubers going down the tube lane between December 30, 2014, and February 27, 2015. None of defendant’s incident reports record whether a hole in a tube contributed to the incident.

Defendant maintains that it had a proper protocol of having at least one employee at the top of the tube run and one employee at the bottom of the tube run at all times. The employee at the top of the tube run was supposed to “stage” the tubers going down. The employee at the bottom of the tube run would retrieve items lost by tubers going down the slope (hats, mittens, etc.) and also retrieve guests whose [*9]  tubes stopped without fully descending the slope.

The Reeds assert defendant was chronically understaffed and that defendant made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run the day of I.R.’s accident. Defendant asserts the Reeds have no evidence to support the assertion that the decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run was a deliberate decision.

DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

The court must view the facts, and inferences from those facts, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S. Ct. 993, 8 L. Ed. 2d 176 (1962)); Helton v. Southland Racing Corp., 600 F.3d 954, 957 (8th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). Summary judgment will not lie if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1994).

The burden is placed on the moving party to establish both the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Once the movant has met its burden, the nonmoving party may not simply rest on the allegations in the pleadings, but [*10]  must set forth specific facts, by affidavit or other evidence, showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256; Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e) (each party must properly support its own assertions of fact and properly address the opposing party’s assertions of fact, as required by Rule 56(c)).

The underlying substantive law identifies which facts are “material” for purposes of a motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id. (citing 10A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice And Procedure § 2725, at 93-95 (3d ed. 1983)). “[T]he 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.” Id. at 247-48.

Essentially, the availability of summary judgment turns on whether a proper jury question is presented: “The inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial—whether, in other words, there are any genuine [*11]  factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Id. at 250.

B. Does the Release Signed by the Reeds Bar Their Claims?

Defendant’s first argument in favor of its summary judgment motion is that the clear and plain language of the release signed by the Reeds bars their claims and that there is no overriding public policy that serves to neutralize the release.

South Dakota law4 provides that a valid release of liability bars claims for ordinary negligence, but does not bar claims for gross or willful negligence or recklessness. Holzer v. Dakota Speedway, Inc., 2000 SD 65, 610 N.W.2d 787, 792-93 (S.D. 2000). The Reeds do not argue that the release was invalid in any way or that the activity I.R. was engaged in when she was injured was outside the scope of the release. In fact, the Reeds concede that their first claim in their amended complaint for ordinary negligence is barred by defendant’s release. See Docket No. 30 at p. 5. Accordingly, the court recommends that defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to the Reeds’ claim for ordinary negligence, count one of the amended complaint, be granted.

C. Are There Material Factual Disputes as to Gross Negligence?

Defendant argues the facts alleged [*12]  by the Reeds, even if true, allege a claim for ordinary negligence only, not gross negligence. Thus, since ordinary negligence is barred by the release, defendant argues it should be granted summary judgment on the Reeds’ gross negligence claim too.

Under South Dakota law, the phrase “gross negligence” is synonymous with the phrase “willful and wanton misconduct.” Fischer v. City of Sioux Falls, 919 N.W.2d