Beth Stolting, et al., Plaintiffs vs. Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Inc. d/b/a Splash Mountain Water Park et al, Defendants
CIVIL ACTION NO. MJG-00-299
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26572
August 24, 2001, Decided
August 24, 2001, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Motion granted by Stolting v. Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Inc., 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26573 (D. Md., Aug. 24, 2001)
Affirmed by Stolting v. Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Inc., 37 Fed. Appx. 80, 2002 U.S. App. LEXIS 11925 (4th Cir. Md., 2002)
CORE TERMS: slide, pool, exit, patrons, ride, riding, water slides, warning, bottom, summary judgment, amusement park, feet, legs, intelligence, splash, depth, posted, notice, bent, risk of injury, moving party, reasonable jury, appreciated, disclaimer, non-moving, shallow, warned, owed, dangerousness, negligently
COUNSEL: [*1] For Beth Stolting, Plaintiff: Paul D Bekman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Salsbury Clements Bekman Marder and Adkins LLC, Baltimore, MD; Andrew M. Moskowitz, William D. Sanders, Alpert Butler and Sanders, P.C., West Orange, NJ.
For Rohan Cassells, Plaintiff: Andrew M. Moskowitz, LEAD ATTORNEY, Alpert Butler and Sanders, P.C., West Orange, NJ.
For Jollyroger Amusement Park, Inc., doing business as Splash Mountain Water Park, Defendant: J Paul Mullen, LEAD ATTORNEY, Phoenix, MD; Kathleen M Bustraan, Ward and Bustraan LLC, Towson, MD.
JUDGES: Marvin J. Garbis, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Marvin J. Garbis
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: SUMMARY JUDGMENT
The Court has before it Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment and the materials submitted by the parties relating thereto. The Court finds that a hearing is unnecessary.
A. Plaintiff’s Injury on the Shotgun Slide
On June 2, 1999, Plaintiffs Beth Stolting (hereinafter “Stolting”) and Rohan Cassells 1 (hereinafter “Cassells”), went to the Jolly Roger Amusement Park/Splash Mountain Park (hereinafter the “Park”) in Ocean City, Maryland. Stolting had been to water parks on “fifteen to twenty ” separate occasions and had been on water slides “hundreds of times,” [*2] but had never visited the Park. Stolting Dep. 29.
1 Now her husband and a plaintiff in the case.
At the entrance of the amusement park, a prominent disclaimer was posted. The sign read as follows:
The attractions contained within the Splash Mountain Waterpark are of a participatory nature and, as such, carry with them an inherent risk of injury. All guests agree, as a condition of admission, to use these facilities at their own risk.
Stolting read the sign upon entering the amusement park. She went on several water slides before arriving at the “Shotgun” 2 water slide (hereinafter “slide” or “ride”), which is the slide at issue in the instant case. Stolting Dep. 37. There were no posted instructions on how to ride the slide or any signs warning of the possible dangers posed by the slide. However, there were signs containing height restrictions, signs banning the use of inner tubes, and depth markers displaying the depth of the entry pool 3. Prior to riding the slide, Stolting watched others go down it. As Stolting prepared to go down the slide, she imitated the body positioning of those people who had previously been on the slide. With her knees bent at a “forty degree angle,” Stolting [*3] descended down the slide, hitting the bottom of the exit pool with her feet. Stolting Dep. 39- 40. Stolting does not remember how she landed or the positioning of her legs as she hit the water. Stolting Dep. 40- 41. However, she does allege that she felt her feet “hit the bottom of the pool . . . immediately” upon entering the exit pool. Stolting Dep. 44.
2 Also known as “the Cannonball Slide.”
3 The pool of water at the bottom of the slide is also referred to as the “entry” or “splash” pool.
At that point, Stolting lost her breath. She went to the side of the exit pool and was helped out of the pool and into a chair by lifeguards. At that time, Stolting complained of pain in her back, feet, and legs. The lifeguards gave Stolting ice and suggested that she should go to a hospital.
After resting for ten minutes, Stolting asked Cassells to take her to the Atlantic General Hospital in Ocean City, Maryland. 4 Stolting told the attending physician at the hospital that she was experiencing back and heal pain. The doctor took x-rays of Stolting’s heals, and then “told [her that] if [she] could walk out on crutches that [she] could leave.” 5 [*4] Stolting Dep. 50. Stolting was not given any medication.
4 Stolting never requested an ambulance.
5 No diagnosis was given.
During the next few days, she continued to rest and take Advil. Approximately one week later, Stolting was still experiencing pain and so, she decided to see Dr. Fischer (hereinafter “Fischer”). Fischer diagnosed Stolting with three fractured vertebrae. Stolting was told to remain on Advil and to continue bed rest. Fischer stated that it would take at least six months for her back to heal.
B. Prior Injuries on the Shotgun Slide
In recent years, several other patrons have complained of injuries allegedly sustained while riding the Shotgun slide. In 1997, Myron Custer (hereinafter “Custer”) reported a bruised heel from contacting the bottom of the exit pool of the Shotgun slide. Custer accused the Park of maintaining an unsafe ride.
In 1998, Michael Agnello Jr.(hereinafter “Agnello”), reported receiving injuries from riding the slide. Agnello Affi. After contacting the bottom of the exit pool, Michael complained of bruised legs and walking with a limp for a few days. The Park responded to complaints by stating that a licensed inspector from the Department of Labor Safety [*5] Inspection had investigated the slide and concluded that the slide met all of Maryland’s standards of safety.
C. Procedural Posture
In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs sue Defendants, Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Inc., Splash Mountain Water Park, and Bayshore Development Corporation. Plaintiffs allege that the Defendants’ negligence caused Stolting’s injuries. The Defendants deny negligence and assert an affirmative defense of the assumption of risk doctrine. By the instant motion, Defendants seek summary judgment on all claims.
II LEGAL STANDARD
In order for the Court to grant a motion for summary judgment, the evidence submitted to the Court must “show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A genuine issue of material fact is one which might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).
The burden of proof weighs heavily on the moving party to establish that there is a lack of evidence in support of the non-moving party’s claim. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324-25, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The moving party [*6] must demonstrate to the Court that, viewing all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, a reasonable jury could not find in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the moving party has carried its burden of proof, then the non-moving party must produce more than a “mere scintilla of evidence in support of an essential element” in order to prevent the court from granting summary judgment. Id. at 251.
A. Negligence claim
The Plaintiffs’ claim is based on three purported acts of negligence:
1) After being put on notice that patrons had been injured on the Shotgun slide, Defendants negligently failed to post signs warning of the dangerousness of the ride;
2) Defendants negligently failed to post instructions on how patrons should position their bodies when riding the slide; and,
3) Defendants negligently provided too shallow an exit pool at the bottom of the slide.
Under Maryland 6 law, Plaintiffs must establish four elements in order to prevail on a negligence claim: 1) that a duty was owed to the Plaintiffs by the Defendants; 2) a breach of that duty owed by the Defendants; 3) a causal relationship between the breach of that duty [*7] and the harm suffered; and 4) that damages were sustained. Yousef v. Trustbank Sav., F.S.B., 81 Md.App. 527, 536-36, 568 A.2d 1134 (1990).
6 This case is a diversity action. Since Stolting’s cause of action took place in Maryland, that state’s substantive law applies. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938).
1) Failure to Warn of Dangerousness
The Plaintiffs contend that the Park was on notice of the dangerousness of the Shotgun slide and should have posted signs warning of the dangers because other patrons had been injured on the slide. In support of their claim, Plaintiffs rely on prior injuries received by Custer and Agnello while they were on the Shotgun slide. The Plaintiffs maintain that notice of such injuries imposed a duty on the Park to post warning signs next to the ride.
The Plaintiffs argue that, as patrons of the Park, they were owed the highest standard of care. Tennant v. Shoppers Food Warehouse MD Corp., 115 Md.App. 381, 388, 693 A.2d 370 (1997), (citing Casper v. Chas F. Smith & Son, Inc., 71 Md.App. 445, 457, 526 A.2d 87 (1987), aff’d, 316 Md. 573, 578, 560 A.2d 1130 (1989)). According to Casper, however, reasonable or ordinary care is the highest standard of care owed to a business invitee. 71 Md. App. at 457. “The general [*8] rule is that the operator of a place of amusement owes to business invitees a non-delegable duty to use ordinary care and caution to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition.” Hawkins v. Southern Maryland Agricultural Fair Ass’n, 237 Md. 90, 94 (1964), 205 A.2d 286. An amusement park is not an insurer of the safety of persons using devices at the place of amusement, but only a proprietor bound to use ordinary care for the safety and protection of its patrons. See Carlin v. Krout, 142 Md. 140, 147, 120 A. 232 (1923). Hence, the Park’s duty towards its patrons is only to provide “ordinary and diligent care” in keeping the Shotgun slide in a “reasonabl[y] safe condition.” Id. at 146.
At issue is whether the Park breached this duty to provide “ordinary and diligent care” by not posting signs warning of the dangerousness of the Shotgun slide. The Plaintiffs contend that reports of injuries sustained from former patrons who used the ride put the Park on notice that the slide was dangerous. The Plaintiffs base their claim particularly on the testimony of Custer, who was allegedly injured from riding the Shotgun slide in 1997.
When Custer reported his injuries to the Park, he insisted that the slide [*9] was dangerous because the angle of slope was too steep. Custer’s claim is unsubstantiated. Indeed, a licensed inspector from Maryland investigated the ride and found that the Shotgun slide met the safety standards set out by Maryland law. In any event, Custer is by no means qualified to provide admissible opinion testimony that the angle of the slide was “too steep.” Moreover, his opinion is not based on any scientific principles and is no more than his grossly unqualified ipse dixit.
Although the Plaintiffs correctly state that “Maryland has gone almost as far as any state in holding that meager evidence of negligence is sufficient to submit the case to a jury,” the opinion offered by Custer is not enough to take the issue to a jury. State v. Thurston, 128 Md. App. 656, 662, 739 A.2d 940 (1999). The Plaintiffs have not presented evidence sufficient to establish that the Defendants had reason to believe the slide was so dangerous as to require a special warning next to it.
The Park did all it need have done by having the slide evaluated and vouched for by a licensed professional. Moreover, even if the Park were on notice of a dangerous condition posed by the Shotgun slide, the Park adequately warned [*10] patrons of the dangers of water slides by posting a disclaimer at the entrance of the amusement park. Stolting admitted in her deposition that she saw the disclaimer and that although she did not remember what it said, she read it. Stolting Dep. 90. The sign posted at the entrance of the Park expressly warned patrons that all rides within the Water park “carr[ied] with them an inherent risk of injury.” There is no evidence adequate to establish that a pertinent standard of care required additional warnings. Defs.’ Reply to Pls.’ Mot. for Summ. J. at 4.
2) No Posted Instructions
The Plaintiffs argue that the Park had an obligation to post instructions on how to ride the Shotgun slide. They offered Hanst’s purported “expert” opinion in support of this contention that patrons should have been told to keep their knees bent when riding down the slide 7. For the reasons stated in its Memorandum and Order re: Motion In Limine, issued this date, Hanst’s “expert” opinion has been held inadmissible.
7 Plaintiffs claim that riding with straight legs as opposed to bent knees caused the accident.
Moreover, even if Hanst’s opinion were considered, and there has been a duty to warn Plaintiff to keep her [*11] legs bent, the “negligent” failure to give the advice would be irrelevant. Stolting cannot establish causation. Stolting testified that her legs were bent at a “forty-degree angle” as she slid down the slide. Stolting Dep. 39-40. Thus, even if Plaintiffs had established a duty to instruct a breach of that duty, Plaintiffs cannot establish that the failure to instruct was a proximate cause of her injuries.
3) Depth of the Exit Pool
The Plaintiffs argue that the Defendants were negligent because the exit pool at the bottom of the Shotgun slide was too shallow. Plaintiffs base this claim on the opinion of Hanst who asserted that the exit pool should have been eight to ten feet. 8 As held in the Memorandum and Order re: Motion in Limine issued this date, Hanst’s expert opinion is inadmissible.
8 The exit pool is four to five feet deep. Hanst opined that it should have been four to five feet deeper than it was.
Additionally, both Olsen, the engineer, and the inspector from the Department of Inspection and Safety verified that the slide met the safety standards enforced by the state of Maryland. Even Hanst verified in his deposition that there was nothing in the inspector’s or the engineer’s [*12] reports with which he disagreed. In fact, Hanst’s own investigation of the slide, which consisted of riding the slide himself and watching others on the slide, did not produce any findings contradictory to those of the Defendants. Neither Hanst nor any of the people he watched on the slide were injured after making contact with the bottom of the exit pool.
There is no evidence sufficient to prove to a reasonable fact finder that Defendants negligently provided too shallow an exit pool. No reasonable jury could find that the Park was negligent by virtue of having an exit pool with a depth of “only” between four and five feet. 9
9 Indeed, a reasonable jury might even find that an eight to ten foot deep exit pool, as suggested by Hanst, could create a danger of drowning.
B, Assumption of Risk
The Court notes that even if Plaintiffs were able to establish that some negligence by Defendants caused the accident at issue, Defendants would still be entitled to summary judgment.
In Maryland, assumption of risk is an affirmative defense to a claim of negligence. ADM P’ship v. Martin, 348 Md. 84, 91, 702 A.2d 730 (1997). To establish an assumption of risk defense, the Defendants have the burden of demonstrating [*13] that the Plaintiffs: 1) had knowledge of the risk of danger; 2) appreciated the risk; and 3) voluntarily confronted the risk of danger. Id. at 90-91. An objective standard must be used in deciding “whether a plaintiff had knowledge and appreciation of the risk, . . . and a plaintiff . . . [cannot] say that he did not comprehend a risk which must have been obvious to him.” Id. (quoting Gibson v. Beaver, 245 Md. 418, 421, 226 A.2d 273 (1967)). Overall, the question of whether the plaintiff assumed the risk is usually a question for the jury, however, when it is clear that by using an objective test, “a person of normal intelligence in the position of the plaintiff must have understood the danger, the issue is for the court.” Schroyer v. McNeal, 323 Md. 275, 283-84, 592 A.2d 1119 (1991).
1) Knowledge of the Risk of Danger
Stolting’s experience riding water slides establishes that Stolting had knowledge of the risks she faced when she chose to ride the Shotgun slide. “Those who participate or sit as spectators at sports and amusements may be taken to assume the known risks of being hurt by roller coasters, flying baseballs, [or] hockey pucks . . . .” Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 68, at 485-86 (5th ed. 1984). [*14] Moreover, Stolting in fact read the sign warning of the danger.
2) Appreciation of the Risk
If any person of normal intelligence in [one’s same] position would have understood the danger one faced, then one has appreciated the risk. Leakas v. Columbia Country Club, 831 F.Supp. 1231, 1236 (D. Md. 1993). The Court determined in Leakas that a “twenty-six year old, experienced swimmer,” had the “knowledge and appreciation of the risk of diving into shallow water because any person of normal intelligence in Leakas’ position must have understood the danger.” Leakas, 831 F.Supp. at 1236. Moreover in Casper, the court held that a stream covered over by a sheet of ice was an “open and obvious danger,” which every child could understand and appreciate. Casper v. Chas F. Smith & Son, Inc., 71 Md.App. 445, 458, 526 A.2d 87 (1987), aff’d, 316 Md. 573, 578, 560 A.2d 1130 (1989).
In the case at Bar, Stolting’s age, education and experience on water slides clearly establishes that she was able to appreciate the risk.
Plaintiffs, relying on Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, Inc., argue that even though Stolting might have had knowledge of a risk based on her experience, she did not appreciate the risk posed by the Shotgun [*15] slide. Md. State Fair and Agric. Soc’y, Inc. v. Lee, 29 Md.App. 374, 380-81, 348 A.2d 44 (1964) (holding that racetrack owners’ negligence in leaving track sandy created a hidden and unforeseeable danger, which caused plaintiff’s injuries). The facts of Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, Inc., however, are distinguishable from those in the instant case.
In Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, Inc., the Court held that the dangers posed by the negligent conditions (in particular a sandy track) would not necessarily have been comprehended by “any person of normal intelligence in [the plaintiff’s] position.” 29 Md.App. at 381. In the instant case, there is no danger that a person of ordinary intelligence could not have fully appreciated. There is no evidence of any hidden or unforeseeable dangerous condition that caused Stolting’s injuries. In fact, the evidence establishes that the risk posed by the water slide was an open and obvious risk of which Plaintiff (and all other park patrons) was expressly warned. The risk could be, and should have been, appreciated by Stolting and any other reasonable person.
3) Voluntarily Confronted the Risk of Danger
Finally, the Defendants argue that [*16] in addition to knowing and appreciating the risk, Stolting voluntarily confronted the risk. The Defendants rely on the decision in Leakas in which the Court determined that Leakas assumed the risk when he chose to dive into a pool “of unknown depth.” 831 F.Supp. at 1237. Like the plaintiff in Leakas, Stolting “voluntarily encounter[ed] the danger.” Id. After reading the disclaimer at the front of the Park, watching other patrons maneuver themselves down the slide, and relying on her prior experiences on water slides, Stolting chose to ride the Shotgun slide. Of her own free will, Stolting voluntarily made the decision to go on the ride and take her chances even though, as she was specifically warned, the rides in the Park “carry with them an inherent risk of injury.”
The court concludes that any reasonable jury would have to find that Stolting assumed the risk of injury on the Shotgun slide by having knowledge of the risk, appreciating the risk, and voluntarily confronting the risk of danger. Hence, Stolting’s negligence claim, even if viable, would be barred by the assumption of risk doctrine.
For the foregoing reasons:
1. [*17] Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.
2. Judgment shall be entered by separate ORDER.
SO ORDERED this 24th day of August, 2001.
/s/ Marvin J. Garbis
Marvin J. Garbis
United States District Judge
By separate Order issued this date, the Court has granted summary judgment to the Defendants.
1. Judgment shall be, and hereby is, entered in favor of Defendants JOLLY ROGER AMUSEMENT PARK, INC. d/b/a SPLASH MOUNTAIN WATER PARK and Bayshore Development Corporation against Plaintiffs Beth Stolting and Rohan Cassells dismissing all claims with prejudice with costs.
2. Any and all prior rulings disposing of any claims against any parties are incorporated by reference herein.
3. This Order shall be deemed to be a final judgment within the meaning of Rule 58 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
SO ORDERED this 24th day of August, 2001.
/s/ Marvin J. Garbis
Marvin J. Garbis
United States District Judge
Gillette v. All Pro Sports, LLC., 2013 Fla. App. LEXIS 19432; 38 Fla. L. Weekly D 2573
Carol Ann Gillette, Appellant, v. All Pro Sports, LLC., D/B/A Family Fun Town, Appellee.
Case No. 5D12-1527
COURT OF APPEAL OF FLORIDA, FIFTH DISTRICT
2013 Fla. App. LEXIS 19432; 38 Fla. L. Weekly D 2573
December 6, 2013, Opinion Filed
NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE MOTION FOR REHEARING AND DISPOSITION THEREOF IF FILED
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]
Appeal from the Circuit Court for Volusia County, Terence R. Perkins, Judge.
COUNSEL: D. Paul McCaskill of David & Philpot, P.A., and J. Michael Matthews of J. Michael Matthews, P.A. Maitland, for Appellant.
Bruce R. Bogan of Hilyard, Bogan & Palmer, PA, Orlando, for Appellee.
JUDGES: TORPY, C.J., LAWSON and WALLIS, JJ., concur.
Appellant challenges a summary final judgment in favor of Appellee on her complaint for injuries she received in a Go-Kart accident at a facility operated by Appellee. Appellant contends that Appellee’s employee negligently increased the Go-Kart speed during a race, causing her to lose control of the Go-Kart and crash into the railing. The lower court held that a waiver and release form signed by Appellant precluded her negligence action. We reverse.
The sole issue on appeal is whether the waiver and release signed by Appellant effectively precludes an action based on Appellee’s purported negligence. The document provides in material part as follows:
WAIVER AND RELEASE FROM LIABILITY FOR GO CARTS AND TRACK
In consideration for being permitted to drive Go Karts at Family Fun Town, 401 S. Volusia Avenue, Orange City, Florida, I acknowledge and agree as follows:
1. I HAVE READ [*2] THE RULES FOR OPERATING THE Go Karts, and accept full responsibility for obeying the rules and all other posted rules and warning signs;
2. I understand that the course of [sic] which the Go Karts operate has curves, which require a degree of skill and responsibility to navigate safely. I have the necessary skill and will exercise the responsibility necessary to operate the Go Karts and navigate the course safely;
3. The Go Karts are controlled by individual drivers, who are capable of making mistakes and intentionally causing harm to others. I could be potentially injured, disabled, or killed, whether by my own actions (or inactions) or the actions or inactions of another driver. I freely and knowingly assume this risk. I take full responsibility for any claims or personal injury, death, or damage to personal property arising out of my use of the G [sic] Karts and/or the Go Kart track, whether to me or to other people. On behalf of myself, my heirs, my assigns and my next of kin, I waive all claims for damages, injuries and death sustained to me or property that I may have against Family Fun Town, and its members, managers, agents, employees, successors, and assigns (each a “Released [*3] Party”).
4. I have been provided the opportunity to inspect the Go Karts and the track prior to signing this Waiver AND Release, and the conditions of each is completely satisfactory to me. If they were not, I would not sign this document or operate or ride in the Go Karts and the track are [sic] completely satisfactory to me.
5. I understand that the terms of this release are contractual and not a mere recital, and that I have signed this document of my own free act.
I have read this waiver and release in its entirety. I understand that I am assuming all the risk inherent in operating and/or riding the Go Karts on the track. I understand that it is a release of all claims that I may have against any released part [sic]. I understand that this is the entire agreement between me and any released party and that it cannot be modified or changed in any way by the representation or statements by any released party or by me. I voluntarily sign my name as evidence of my acceptance of all the provisions in this waiver and release and my agreement to be bound by them.
Clauses that purport to deny an injured party the right to recover damages from another who negligently causes injury are strictly [*4] construed against the party seeking to be relieved of liability. UCF Athletics Ass’n v. Plancher, 121 So. 3d 1097, 1101 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013) (citing Cain v. Banka, 932 So. 2d 575 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006); Sunny Isles Marina, Inc. v. Adulami, 706 So. 2d 920 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998)). To be effective, the wording of such clauses must be so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away. Raveson v. Walt Disney World Co., 793 So. 2d 1171, 1173 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001) (citing Lantz v. Iron Horse Saloon, Inc., 717 So. 2d 590, 591 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998)).
Here, the release does not expressly state that it includes Appellee’s negligence and, when the document is considered in its totality, it is not clear that negligence of the sort here was intended to be within the scope of the release.
REVERSED AND REMANDED.
TORPY, C.J., LAWSON and WALLIS, JJ., concur.
Deshaun Ketler and Brittany Ketler, his wife, Plaintiff-Below, Appellant, v. PFPA, LLC, a Delaware Corporation, d/b/a Planet Fitness, Defendant-Below, Appellee.
No. 319, 2015
SUPREME COURT OF DELAWARE
2016 Del. LEXIS 19
December 2, 2015, Submitted
January 15, 2016, Decided
THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION IN THE PERMANENT LAW REPORTS. UNTIL RELEASED, IT IS SUBJECT TO REVISION OR WITHDRAWAL.
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware. C.A. No. N14C-12-235.
Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 2015 Del. Super. LEXIS 270 (Del. Super. Ct., June 3, 2015)
DISPOSITION: Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.
COUNSEL: Edward T. Ciconte, Esquire, Adam F. Wasserman, Esquire, Ciconte, Scerba & Kerrick, LLC, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellant.
Gary H. Kaplan, Esquire, Jessica L. Tyler, Esquire, Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellee.
JUDGES: Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA, and VAUGHN, Justices.
OPINION BY: VAUGHN
Plaintiffs-Below/Appellants DeShaun Ketler and Brittany Ketler appeal from a Superior Court order granting Defendant-Below/Appellee PFPA, LLC’s (“Planet Fitness”) motion for judgment on the pleadings. DeShaun Ketler was injured while using exercise equipment in a Planet Fitness facility. The Ketlers claim that the injuries were caused by negligence on the part of Planet Fitness. The Superior Court found that the Ketlers claim was barred by a signed release of liability. It determined that a release which allows a party to avoid liability for its own negligence is permissible under Delaware Law if the release is unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy. It further determined that the release satisfied all three criteria. [*2] On appeal, the Ketlers contend that the Superior Court erred because the release is ambiguous, unconscionable, and against public policy. We approve the Superior Court’s determinations and affirm.
In 2010, DeShaun joined Planet Fitness at a cost of $10 per month.1 DeShaun signed a membership agreement, which contained the following:
I understand and expressly agree that my use of this Planet Fitness facility . . . involves the risk of injury to me or my guest whether caused by me or not. I understand that these risks can range from minor injuries to major injuries including death. In consideration of my participation in the activities and use of the facilities offered by Planet Fitness, I understand and voluntarily accept this risk and agree that Planet Fitness . . . will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury. . . resulting from the negligence of Planet Fitness or anyone on Planet Fitness’ behalf whether related to exercise or not. Accordingly, I do hereby forever release and discharge Planet Fitness from any and all claims, demands, injuries, damages, actions or causes of action. I further understand and acknowledge that Planet [*3] Fitness does not manufacture fitness or other equipment in its facilities, but purchases and/or leases equipment, and therefore Planet Fitness may not be held liable for defective products.2
In April 2013, DeShaun was injured when a cable broke on a seated rowing machine that he was using at Planet Fitness.
1 Devana Fitness, LLC was the franchisee of the Planet Fitness location on the date the Membership Agreement was executed. On July 31, 2012, prior to Ketler’s incident, Devana Fitness, LLC assigned its rights and interests in, and under, all Membership Agreements to PFPA, LLC.
2 Appellant’s Op. Br. App. at A8.
This Court has previously recognized that [HN1] a release of prospective negligence may be valid.3 Such a release must be “‘clear and unequivocal’ to insulate a party from liability . . . .”4 The release provision involved here expressly releases Planet Fitness from any liability for any injury resulting from the negligence of Planet Fitness, whether related to exercise or not. It expressly releases Planet Fitness from any and all claims or causes of action. The provision’s language is clear and unequivocal.
3 Riverbend Cmty., LLC v. Green Stone Eng’g, LLC, 55 A.3d 330, 336 (Del. 2012).
4 Id. (quoting State v. Interstate Amiesite Corp., 297 A.2d 41, 44 (Del. 1972)).
[HN2] It must also not be unconscionable. Unconscionability is a concept that [*4] is used sparingly.5 Traditionally, an unconscionable contract is one which “no man in his senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and as no honest or fair man would accept, on the other.”6 “But mere disparity between the bargaining powers of parties to a contract will not support a finding of unconscionability.”7 “[T]here must be an absence of meaningful choice and contract terms unreasonably favorable to one of the parties.”8 There is no deprivation of meaningful choice if a party can walk away from the contract.9 Here, DeShaun was free to accept the Planet Fitness membership or not. The Superior Court did not err in concluding that the release is not unconscionable.
5 See Progressive Int’l Corp. v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 2002 Del. Ch. LEXIS 91, 2002 WL 1558382, at *11 (Del. Ch. July 9, 2002) (discussing the reluctance of courts to apply the doctrine).
6 Reserves Mgmt., LLC v. Am. Acquisition Prop., LLC, 86 A.3d 1119, 2014 WL 823407, at *9 (Del. 2014) (internal quotations omitted).
8 Tulowitzki v. Atl. Richfield Co., 396 A.2d 956, 960 (Del. 1978).
9 See Graham v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 565 A.2d 908, 913 (Del. 1989) (finding the doctrine of unconscionability inapplicable, in part, because the plaintiffs had the opportunity to cancel the insurance policy); Progressive, 2002 Del. Ch. LEXIS 91, 2002 WL 1558382, at *11 (rejecting the plaintiff’s unconscionability argument, in part, because nothing had prevented the plaintiff from walking away from a contract with allegedly unfavorable terms).
Finally, [HN3] the release must not violate public policy. The public policy of this state is typically [*5] determined by the Delaware General Assembly. No Delaware statute has been identified which bears on the validity of a release of prospective negligence. The Ketlers argue that the release violates the public policy embodied in the principle that a property owner has a duty to make his property safe for business invitees. However, a general release by its nature releases a party from a potential liability otherwise imposed by law. The public policy involved must be one which disapproves of the release.
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Superior Court is AFFIRMED.
Gomes v. Boy Scouts of America, et al., 51 Misc. 3d 1206(A); 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1088; 2016 NY Slip Op 50444(U)Posted: June 17, 2016
Davide E. Gomes, Plaintiff, against Boy Scouts of America, et al., Defendants.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY
51 Misc. 3d 1206(A); 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1088; 2016 NY Slip Op 50444(U)
March 10, 2016, Decided
NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.
PRIOR HISTORY: Gomes v. Boy Scouts of America, 2013 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4622 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., Oct. 9, 2013)
COUNSEL: [*1] For plaintiff: Scott W. Epstein, Esq., Antich, Erlich & Epstein, LLP, New York, NY.
For Council and Troop 141: Brian P. Morrissey, Esq., Connell Foley, LLP, New York, NY.
JUDGES: Barbara Jaffe, JSC.
OPINION BY: Barbara Jaffe
Barbara Jaffe, J.
By notice of motion, defendants Northern New Jersey Council, Inc., Boy Scouts of America (Council) and Boy Scout Troop 141 (troop) (collectively, defendants) move pursuant to CPLR 3212 for an order granting them summary dismissal of the complaint against them. Plaintiff opposes.
I. PERTINENT BACKGROUND
By decision and order dated October 8, 2013 (NYSCEF 110), I granted defendant Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) motion for an order summarily dismissing the complaint against it. As set forth therein, the background of the case is as follows:
On July 24, 2005, plaintiff, then a 13-year-old Boy Scout, was participating in a Boy Scout excursion at Floodwood Mountain Scout Reservation in the Adirondacks. Plaintiff was a member of Boy Scout Troop 141. He and other scouts were accompanied by volunteer [**2] adult leaders. Near or in the shower house at the Reservation, plaintiff sustained head injuries.
In accident and witness reports created after the accident, the other scouts who were at the showers [*2] at the time of plaintiff’s accident stated that they saw plaintiff run from the shower area and discovered him lying prone on the ground and bleeding. None of them saw him fall.
In his amended complaint, plaintiff alleges that as he was walking along the common area and/or grassy area at or near the showers, he fell due to defendants’ failure to keep the area safe, in good repair, well-lit and free from obstruction or defect and supervise him and the other scouts.
In plaintiff’s supplemental verified bill of particulars, he describes the dangerous condition which caused his fall as follows: “that the area in front of the showers where the [ ] accident occurred was not lit, and/or was poorly lit, and/or was inadequately lit; was raised and un-leveled, and had rocks and/or tree limbs/branches strewn about it,” all of which defendants had constructive notice.
At an examination before trial held on December 16, 2011, plaintiff testified that he did not recall his accident or what had caused his fall, and that his last memory before falling was of walking to the showers. At the time of his accident, it was dark outside and there was no lighting outside the showers, although it was lit inside, [*3] and he noticed that there were many rocks on the ground around the shower house. He was wearing a working head lamp as he approached the showers.
On this motion, the following relevant facts are undisputed:
(1)Council owns and operates Floodwood and Troop made reservations to attend camp there;
(2)plaintiff had been a scout for several years and had attended previous camping trips;
(3)defendants Lopes and Figueiredo were the two adult Troop leaders in charge of plaintiff’s troop at Floodwood;
(4)the night of plaintiff’s accident, he and the other Troop members were told to put equipment into the Troop’s van and take showers at the camp’s shower house;
(5)of the five other Troop members that accompanied plaintiff to the shower house that night, one was 14 years old, one was 15 years old, and three were 16 years [**3] old;
(6)the adult leaders did not accompany them to the van or the shower house;
(7)the shower house was used by both female and males at alternating hours, and the Troop members had to wait until 10 pm to use it; and
(8)there had been no prior incidents of misbehavior during the trip or among the Troop members.
The New York State Department of Health (DOH) promulgates [*4] specific rules for children’s camps. (10 NYCRR § 7-2 et al.). As pertinent here, the regulations require adequate supervision, and that “as a minimum . . . there shall exist visual or verbal communications capabilities between camper and counselor during activities and a method of accounting for the camper’s whereabouts at all times.” (10 NYCRR § 7-2.5[o]).
Council’s written plan for Floodwood requires that supervision of campers “be maintained for the duration (24/7) of their stay at the camp.” (NYSCEF 174). Council’s Leaders Guide for Floodwood provides that “running and horseplay have no place at Scout Camps,” and all scout units must have two adult leaders with the unit at all times. (NYSCEF 175).
At a deposition held on December 16, 2011, plaintiff testified that he had been a scout since age nine, and that while a scout he participated in monthly weekend scout camping trips. During the trips, the Troop leaders would show the scouts how to use tools, and gather firewood; when gathering firewood, the scouts would go into the woods using the buddy system, which requires that scouts be accompanied by at least one other scout. When the scouts went to the bathroom, they also used the buddy system. At a camp attended [*5] by the Troop the week before the one at Floodwood, plaintiff visited the shower facilities using the buddy system or with several scouts. At Floodwood too, the buddy system was used. (NYSCEF 162).
According to plaintiff, the main purpose of the trip to Floodwood was to take a 15-mile canoe trip. On the day of the accident, the scouts and the Troop leaders spent time outside in their campsite within the camp, where “there was a little bit of horsing around,” “a little bit of pushing, playing around,” and all of the scouts were pushing and shoving each other during and after a game of touch football, which the leaders told them to stop. As he walked to the shower house the night of his accident, plaintiff wore a functioning headlamp; the area around the shower house was dark. He does not recall what happened from the time the group walked to the shower house to when he regained consciousness on the ground, bleeding from his head. (NYSCEF 162).
It is undisputed that other scouts reported that while they were in the shower house, plaintiff took a water pump from the wall and squirted water on them. When one of the scouts told him to stop, plaintiff ran out of the shower house and fell to [*6] the ground. None of the scouts knew what had caused the fall. (NYSCEF 167-171, 176).
Pictures taken by the parties at Floodwood after the accident depict the shower house as a building stationed in a large clearing or space in front of a wooded area. (NYSCEF 161; 192).
According to the Troop leaders present that day, it was not scouts’ practice to have adult leaders accompany scouts to camp showers. Both leaders testified that they had known plaintiff and the other scouts for several years, had been with them at another camp the week before they went to Floodwood, and had had no disciplinary issues or previous incidents of misbehavior between them. The leaders testified that Scout protocol differentiated between active activities, such as swimming or rock climbing, and passive activities, such as going to shower or the bathroom or retrieving firewood, and that active activities required adults to be present while passive activities did not necessarily require an adult presence. (NYSCEF 163, 164).
Lopes testified that they defined supervision as permitting the scouts to travel throughout the camp as long as the leaders knew their whereabouts, and that he believed that Scout guidelines [*7] prohibited the leaders from walking the scouts to the shower house and waiting outside while they showered in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety. He testified that it was a three to five-minute walk from the Troop’s campsite to the shower house. (NYSCEF 164).
Figueiredo testified that the Troop’s campsite was located approximately a three-minute walk from the parking lot, that the shower house was located in the general camp, and that it was a three to four-minute walk from the Troop’s campsite to the shower house. He found out about plaintiff’s accident when two of the scouts found him at their campsite, and when he arrived at the shower house, he found plaintiff sitting on the ground in front of the shower house. He investigated the incident by interviewing the other scouts, and concluded that the other scouts were inside the shower house when plaintiff fell outside the shower house. (NYSCEF 163).
Figueiredo testified that although they did not accompany the scouts to the bathroom or shower, they had them use the buddy system and knew their whereabouts and when to expect them to return, which he defined as their supervision of the scouts:
[t]hey were not in a vast wilderness, they [*8] were in a camp. So there are other people in camp, so they’re within earshot of a number of people that are in camp. It is not like . . . I sent them out into the African plains; there were other people around. They were reasonably within earshot to a bunch of people and I knew their whereabouts.
At an examination before trial held on March 16, 2012, Grey Rolland, Council’s director of support services, testified, as pertinent here, that he was unaware of any other injuries to scouts at Floodwood before or after plaintiff’s accident, and that plaintiff and the other scouts used the buddy system, which Rolland considers adequate. He did not believe that the adult Troop leaders should have accompanied the scouts to the shower house given the BSA prohibition against permitting adults and youths in shower houses together, and he asserted that it would not be considered “appropriate” for the adults to escort the scouts to the shower house. He acknowledged that if a Troop leader observed scouts running around or engaging in horseplay, it was incumbent upon the leader to tell them to stop. (NYSCEF 165).
Richard Saunders testified at an EBT that at the time of plaintiff’s accident, [*9] he was 18 years old and employed at Floodwood as a camp health officer. He described Floodwood as a “high-adventure base” for scouts older than 13 to do back-country exploring. After the accident, he completed a form as required by the DOH, on which he noted, under the category “Supervision During Incident,” that the “activity was inadequately addressed in the written plan,” by which he intended to convey that he had reviewed the scout’s written plan for the trip and saw [**4] nothing therein related to supervision of the scouts while in the shower house. He also wrote that no camp staff was present when the accident occurred. Although Saunders had first written that the supervision was “adequate,” he changed it to “inadequate” based on the absence of an adult when plaintiff was injured. Saunders had never before filled out such a form, nor was it part of his job.
Saunders described Floodwood as consisting of a main camp area, which includes the buildings where food is organized and meetings occur, and the individual campsites which are approximately a five-minute walk away. The shower house was located between the campsites and the camp buildings. He estimated that the shower house was [*10] a two-minute walk from the Troop’s campsite and in “an area where boys don’t want to have adults and it would be illegal to have them being watched while showering.” As a scout and troop member attending camps like Floodwood, Saunders recalled that adult leaders did not escort scouts to the showers or stand outside while the scouts showered. (NYSCEF 166).
DOH investigated the incident, after which it and Council entered into a stipulation providing that DOH had alleged that Council had violated various camp regulations, including those relating to the supervision of scouts, and that the parties were thereby settling the matter by Council agreeing not to contest it, paying a fine, and submitting a revised camp safety plan. Additionally, by its terms, the stipulation is
not intended for use in any other forum, tribunal or court, including any civil or criminal proceeding in which the issues or burden of proof may differ, and is made without prejudice to [Council’s] rights, defenses and/or claims in any other matter, proceeding, action, hearing or litigation not involving [DOH] [and] is not intended to be dispositive of any allegations of negligence that may be made in a civil action for [*11] monetary damages.
By affidavit dated August 3, 2015, Michael J. Peterson states that he is an expert on camp and conference center management, and opines, based on his experience and review of relevant documentation in this case, that defendants violated the DOH regulation which requires, at a minimum, visual or verbal communications capabilities between a camper and a counselor, and that plaintiff’s accident was reasonably foreseeable as the scouts were allowed to remain “totally unsupervised and unregulated for a lengthy period of time in a potentially dangerous/hazardous environment.” He also posits that if the Troop leaders had accompanied the scouts to the shower house, “the level of horse play outside the shower house would have been minimal to non-existent, the boys would have taken their showers without incident, and safely returned to their camp site.” He also states that the defendants should have provided adequate lighting around the shower house. (NYSCEF 193).
Defendants deny that they were negligent in any manner related to the physical conditions outside the shower house as they were the ordinary and expected conditions present in a wooded camp. [*12] Troop denies having had any obligation to maintain the area. Defendants also deny having breached a duty to supervise plaintiff absent any prior incidents between plaintiff and any [**5] other Troop member that would have put them on notice of the need to supervise them more closely, and argue that plaintiff’s injury or misbehavior was not reasonably foreseeable. They observe that plaintiff cannot remember how he was injured or whether his injuries were caused by a premises condition or an assault by another scout, and deny having had notice of any prior incidents or accidents around the shower house. (NYSCEF 151).
Plaintiff argues that his inability to remember the accident permits a relaxed standard of proof on summary judgment, and contends that there are two possible explanations for his accident: (1) that he was struck over the head with a blunt object by a fellow scout, or (2) that he tripped and fell while running over the uneven and non-illuminated area around the shower house, and that in either scenario, the accident would not have happened if defendants had adequately supervised that night. He asserts that a jury could conclude that a reasonably prudent parent would not permit [*13] six minors “to wander around the woods at 10:00 pm, for an indefinite period of time, without any adult supervision whatsoever,” and maintains that any “horseplay” should have and would have been discouraged by the Troop leaders. He also observes that defendants violated their own policies by failing to have a troop leader with the troop “at all times” or “for the duration (24/7)” of their trip. (NYSCEF 190).
Plaintiff relies on the stipulation entered into between defendants and DOH, Saunders’s conclusion that factors contributing to the incident included inadequate supervision, and Peterson’s opinion, to demonstrate the lack of adequate supervision. He also argues that Council had a duty to illuminate the area around the shower house, which he characterizes as a “rugged” and “uneven and unpaved camp area containing, inter alia, grass, dirt, rocks, trees, and tree roots.” (Id.).
In reply, defendants maintain that they established, prima facie, their lack of prior knowledge or notice of any scout misbehavior at the camp or any dangerous condition around the shower house. They deny that plaintiff offers evidence that he suffers from any medical condition causing a failure of memory, and [*14] assert that his inability to remember the incident does not warrant relieving him of his burden of proof. They also dispute that the scouts were “traipsing or wandering” through the woods, observing that both Troop leaders testified that they were within the camp, not the woods, where they were within earshot, and were directed to go to the shower house, which they did. (NYSCEF 200).
Defendants also contend that Peterson’s expert affidavit is based on speculation, and that his reliance on the DOH requirement of visual or verbal communication capabilities during “activities” is inapplicable as showering or walking to the shower house is not an activity within the meaning of the rule. They observe that Peterson cites no regulations that defendants allegedly violated relating to the lighting around the shower house, that Peterson never inspected the area, and that in any event, the conditions alleged are ordinary elements of a wooded area. They also deny that Saunders’s statements in the DOH form constitute party admissions, as his completion of the form was not within the scope of his authority at Floodwood. (Id.).
“The proponent of a summary judgment motion must make a prima [*15] facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, tendering sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of any material issues of fact.” (Ayotte v Gervasio, 81 NY2d 1062, 1062, 619 N.E.2d 400, 601 N.Y.S.2d 463  [citation [**6] omitted]; Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 N.Y.S.2d 316 ). “Failure to make such showing requires denial of the motion, regardless of the sufficiency of the opposing papers.” (Winegrad, 64 NY2d at 853; see also Lesocovich v 180 Madison Ave. Corp., 81 NY2d 982, 985, 615 N.E.2d 1010, 599 N.Y.S.2d 526 ).
Once the proponent’s prima facie burden is satisfied, the opposing party bears the burden of presenting evidentiary facts sufficient to raise triable issues of fact. (Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 NY2d 557, 562, 404 N.E.2d 718, 427 N.Y.S.2d 595 ; CitiFinancial Co. [DE] v McKinney, 27 AD3d 224, 226, 811 N.Y.S.2d 359 [1st Dept 2006]). Summary judgment may be granted only when it is clear that no triable issues of fact exist (Alvarez v Prospect Hosp., 68 NY2d 320, 324, 501 N.E.2d 572, 508 N.Y.S.2d 923 ), and “should not be granted where there is any doubt as to the existence of a triable issue” of fact (Am. Home Assur. Co. v Amerford Intl. Corp., 200 AD2d 472, 473, 606 N.Y.S.2d 229 [1st Dept 1994]; see also Color by Pergament, Inc. v Pergament, 241 AD2d 418, 420, 660 N.Y.S.2d 431 [1st Dept 1997] [“Summary judgment is an exercise in issue-finding, not issue determination, and may not be granted when material and triable issues of fact are presented”]). The court must examine the evidence in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. (Martin v Briggs, 235 AD2d 192, 196, 663 N.Y.S.2d 184 [1st Dept 1997]).
A plaintiff who, due to a failure of memory, cannot describe what led to his injury is not held to as high a degree of proof on his or her cause of action. (Noseworthy v City of New York, 298 NY 76, 80 N.E.2d 744 ; see Bah v Benton, 92 AD3d 133, 936 N.Y.S.2d 181 [1st Dept 2012] [plaintiff who presented medical evidence establishing loss of memory due [*16] to accident at issue entitled to lesser standard of proof applicable to party unable to present party’s version of facts]). However, even when a plaintiff suffers from amnesia, he is not relieved of the obligation to provide “some proof from which negligence can be reasonably inferred.” (Alotta v Diaz, 130 AD3d 660, 11 N.Y.S.3d 868 [2d Dept 2015]; see Schechter v Klanfer, 28 NY2d 228, 269 N.E.2d 812, 321 N.Y.S.2d 99  [even if amnesiac plaintiff is held to lesser degree of proof, it does not “shift the burden of proof or eliminate the need for plaintiffs to introduce evidence of a prima facie case”]; Santiago v Quattrociocchi, 91 AD3d 747, 937 N.Y.S.2d 119 [2d Dept 2012] [same]).
A. Did defendants breach their duty to supervise plaintiff?
A person, other than a parent, who undertakes to control, care for, or supervise an infant, is required to use reasonable care to protect the infant . . . Such a person may be liable for any injury sustained by the infant which was proximately caused by his or her negligence. While a person caring for entrusted children is not cast in the role of an insurer, such an individual is obligated to provide adequate supervision and may be held liable for foreseeable injuries proximately resulting from the negligent failure to do so.
(Alotta v Diaz, 130 AD3d 660, 11 N.Y.S.3d 868 [2d Dept 2015], quoting Appell v Mandel, 296 AD2d 514, 745 N.Y.S.2d 491 [2d Dept 2002]).
A “summer camp is duty-bound to supervise its campers as would a parent of ordinary prudence in comparable [*17] circumstances.” (Phelps v Boy Scouts of Am., 305 AD2d 335, 762 N.Y.S.2d 32 [1st Dept 2003]). And, while the degree of supervision required depends on the surrounding circumstances, “constant supervision in a camp setting is neither feasible nor desirable.” (Id. at 335-6).
The standard for determining whether a duty to supervise a minor has been breached is “whether a parent of ordinary prudence placed in the identical situation and armed with the same [**7] information would invariably have provided greater supervision.” (Mayo v New York City Tr. Auth., 124 AD3d 606, 3 N.Y.S.3d 36 [2d Dept 2015], quoting Mary KK v Jack LL, 203 AD2d 840, 611 N.Y.S.2d 347 [3d Dept 1994]).
Moreover, “in determining whether the duty to provide adequate supervision has been breached in the context of injuries caused by the acts of fellow [campers], it must be established that [camp] authorities had sufficiently specific knowledge or notice of the dangerous conduct which caused the injury, that is, that the third-party acts could reasonably have been anticipated.” (Ragusa v Town of Huntington, 54 AD3d 743, 864 N.Y.S.2d 441 [2d Dept 2008], quoting Mirand v City of New York, 84 NY2d 44, 637 N.E.2d 263, 614 N.Y.S.2d 372 ). Although if an accident occurs in “so short a span in time that even the most intense supervision could not have prevented it, any lack of supervision is not the proximate cause of the injury and summary judgment in favor of the . . . defendants is warranted.'” (Atehortua v Lewin, 90 AD3d 794, 935 N.Y.S.2d 102 [2d Dept 2011], quoting Nash v Port Wash. Union Free School Dist., 83 AD3d 136, 922 N.Y.S.2d 408 [2d Dept 2011]).
1. Was the supervision adequate?
Even though plaintiff does not remember the accident, the [*18] other boys’ versions of it are consistent and uniform, and present the following picture: Plaintiff and the other scouts walked to the shower house and went inside without incident, whereupon plaintiff obtained a water pump and started spraying water on them. When one of the scouts told plaintiff to stop, he ran out of the shower house, and fell.
Plaintiff’s contention is that for defendants’ supervision to have been adequate that night, the Troop leaders should have escorted or walked the scouts to the shower house, waited outside while they showered, and then walked them back to their campsite. As it is undisputed that the scouts ranged in age from 13 to 16, that they were at Floodwood to learn skills related to survival in the woods and to partake in a 15-mile canoe trip, that the scouts utilized a buddy system when at various camps and that Troop leaders never escorted them to the bathrooms or showers, that the shower house was approximately a three to five-minute walk from their campsite, and that the shower house was located within the camp area where other campers and adults were present and within earshot, defendants have demonstrated that a parent of ordinary prudence placed [*19] in the identical situation and armed with the same information would not have provided greater supervision than that provided by defendants.
Moreover, a parent who permits his or her child to attend an overnight camping trip in the woods where the child will be taught skills related to understanding and surviving outdoor conditions, is presumably aware of the hazards and risks of injury associated with such conditions, and it would be illogical for that same parent to require or believe it necessary for the child to be escorted personally to and from every area within the camp. Such a degree of supervision “in a camp setting is neither feasible nor desirable” (Phelps v Boy Scouts of Am., 305 AD2d 335, 762 N.Y.S.2d 32 [1st Dept 2003]), and camps “cannot reasonably be expected to continuously supervise and control all of [the campers] movements and activities” (Harris v Five Point Mission – Camp Olmstedt, 73 AD3d 1127, 901 N.Y.S.2d 678 [2d Dept 2010]).
On point is Kosok v Young Men’s Christian Assn. of Greater New York, where a group of boys at a summer camp injured the plaintiff while playing a prank involving attaching a pail to a fishing rod and letting it descend onto the heads of other unsuspecting boys. The group of boys, ranging in age from 12 to 15, occupied a cabin by themselves; the camp counselor did not stay [*20] in [**8] the cabin with them during the midday break. The Court dismissed the case, finding that there was no negligence by defendants in failing to supervise “the rest period of boys of high-school age for a short period.” (24 AD2d 113, 264 N.Y.S.2d 123 [1st Dept 1965], affd 19 NY2d 935, 228 N.E.2d 398, 281 N.Y.S.2d 341 ). The Court observed that ” [r]emembering that this is a Summer camp, it will be seen that constant supervision is not feasible . . . Nor is it desirable. One of the benefits of such an institution is to inculcate self-reliance in the campers which an overly protective supervision would destroy.” (24 AD2d at 115; see also Gustin v Assn. of Camps Farthest Out, Inc., 267 AD2d 1001, 700 N.Y.S.2d 327 [4th Dept 1999] [same]).
Plaintiff’s reliance on Phelps v Boy Scouts of Am. is misplaced. As I held in granting summary judgment to Boy Scouts of America:
In Phelps . . . “very young campers” were placed in bunks at a camp with “much older campers,” who allegedly assaulted the young campers . . . The court also allowed that very young campers often require closer supervision than older campers, and that placing the younger campers in the bunks with the older campers was an apparent violation of camp policy.
Here, there is no issue of very young campers being unsupervised or placed in risky circumstances as plaintiff and his fellow scouts were all teenagers and there is no evidence that [*21] any camp policy was violated . . .
(305 AD2d 335, 762 N.Y.S.2d 32 [1st Dept 2003]).
Moreover, plaintiff’s reliance on Saunders’s conclusion or opinion in the DOH report that the accident was caused by inadequate supervision is not conclusive here, not only because he had no authority to bind defendants to his conclusion, but also based on the circumstances that he was an 18-year old who had never before filled out or even seen a DOH report, and who had received no training or guidance as to how it should be filled out or the meanings of the terms therein. In any event, Saunders testified that he wrote that there was inadequate supervision based only on the fact that the Troop leaders were not physically present at the time of the accident, which is an insufficient basis for the conclusion.
Plaintiff’s submission of the stipulation between DOH and defendants to establish that there was inadequate supervision is barred by the stipulation’s own terms.
Peterson’s expert opinion is based on speculation and is conclusory, and he cites no regulation or requirement that specifies that adequate supervision in this context means that the Troop leaders were required to escort the scouts to the shower house and wait outside until they finished [*22] showering. Indeed, any claim that such supervision is required in camps is undermined by the undisputed fact that at the camp that the scouts attended a week before going to Floodwood, the scouts went to the shower house unescorted and used only the buddy system. Reliance on the DOH requirement of “visual or verbal communication” between campers and counselors and Council’s plan for Floodwood which required the supervision of campers “24/7” is misplaced as neither requires that the Troop leaders be constantly present with the scouts. (See eg, Harris v Five Point Mission – Camp Olmstedt, 73 AD3d 1127, 901 N.Y.S.2d 678 [2d Dept 2010] [while expert concluded that camp was negligent in failing to provide plaintiff with shin guards during soccer game in which he was injured, he failed to allege that camps generally provide shin guards during games or that rules requiring use of shin guards in soccer leagues have been implemented by or [**9] accepted as accepted practice at camps]; Cherry v State of New York, 42 AD2d 671, 344 N.Y.S.2d 545 [4th Dept 1973], affd 34 NY2d 872, 316 N.E.2d 713, 359 N.Y.S.2d 276  [where camper was injured when nail he struck with hammer while building tent platform struck him, expert’s opinion that the camp was required to provide campers with safety goggles was expert’s personal opinion and neither statute nor regulations required goggles]). [*23]
References to the “traipsing” or “wandering” in the woods unsupervised have no basis in the record; the scouts remained in the camp and never went into the woods. Moreover, the accident did not occur in the woods, and there is no correlation between the woods and plaintiff’s accident.
In any event, whether or not defendants’ supervision of plaintiff was adequate is irrelevant if the accident was not foreseeable or was not proximately caused by the allegedly inadequate supervision.
2. Was plaintiff’s accident foreseeable?
As it is reasonably inferred that the accident occurred as described by the other scouts, there is no evidence suggesting that defendants were on notice that plaintiff and/or the scouts would engage in any dangerous conduct or misbehavior at the shower house. Moreover, even if some of the behavior was foreseeable, plaintiff’s bolting from the shower house, and subsequent fall, was not a foreseeable consequence of any misbehavior.
Kosok is again on point here, with the Court finding that “[a]ssuming that the boys were reasonably quiet – and there is no indication that they were not – no occasion for looking in on them was presented.” The Court also observed that:
[a] certain amount [*24] of horseplay is almost always to be found in gatherings of young people, and is generally associated with children’s camps. It is only to be discouraged when it becomes dangerous. Nothing in the incident itself or surrounding circumstances indicates any notice to defendant that such was likely to result here.
(24 AD2d at 115; see also Gibbud v Camp Shane, Inc., 30 AD3d 865, 817 N.Y.S.2d 435 [3d Dept 2006] [same]).
Even if plaintiff had been assaulted by a fellow scout rather than having tripped and fallen, there is no evidence that defendants were on notice of the possibility of an assault. (See eg Alvero v Allen, 262 AD2d 434, 692 N.Y.S.2d 116 [2d Dept 1999] [boy scout sued troop leader for injury caused by snowball fight; absent proof that leader had notice of ongoing and dangerous snowball fight, plaintiff could not prevail on inadequate supervision claim]; see also Osmanzai v Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, Inc., 116 AD3d 937, 983 N.Y.S.2d 848 [2d Dept 2014] [injury caused by impulsive, unanticipated act of fellow camper ordinarily will not give rise to negligence claim absent proof of prior conduct that would have given notice to protect against injury-causing act]).
As it is undisputed that defendants had no notice of the possibility of misbehavior among the scouts, they have established that plaintiff’s accident was not foreseeable.
3. Was plaintiff’s accident proximately caused by defendants’ allegedly inadequate [*25] supervision?
Even if the Troop leaders had escorted the scouts to the shower house and stood outside while they showered, the alleged misbehavior occurred inside the shower house, and thus the leaders would neither have observed it nor been in a position to stop it. And unless the leaders blocked the entrance, they would not have been able to stop plaintiff from running out of the shower house and falling down.
Plaintiff’s and Peterson’s belief that the mere presence of the Troop leaders outside the shower house would have been sufficient to stop any horseplay from taking place inside is not only speculative, but unwarranted as the scouts had engaged in horseplay earlier that day while the leaders were with them. (See eg, Stephenson v City of New York, 85 AD3d 523, 925 N.Y.S.2d 71 [1st Dept 2011], affd 19 NY3d 1031, 978 N.E.2d 1251, 954 N.Y.S.2d 782  [suggestion that student’s assault on plaintiff would have been prevented by his mother accompanying her almost 14-year-old son to school every day did not rise above speculation]; see also Lizardo v Bd. of Educ. of City of New York, 77 AD3d 437, 908 N.Y.S.2d 395 [1st Dept 2010] [rejecting plaintiff’s expert’s assertion that collision between children would have been preventable by teacher watching play more closely, and opinion that incident might have been prevented by closer supervision valid only in retrospect]; Walsh v City School Dist. of Albany, 237 AD2d 811, 654 N.Y.S.2d 859 [3d Dept 1997] [finding unpersuasive allegation [*26] that presence of supervisor could have kept plaintiff and fellow student attentive and injury would have been prevented]).
In any event, the accident occurred too quickly to enable the Troop leaders to prevent it had they been outside the shower house. As in Kosok, “[e]ven if the cabin counsellor had been within earshot of the cabin, it is difficult to see how the accident would have been prevented.” (24 AD2d at 115; see Harris v Five Point Mission – Camp Olmstedt, 73 AD3d 1127, 901 N.Y.S.2d 678 [2d Dept 2010] [as plaintiff was injured at camp during 15-second time span, camp established that it did not negligently supervise him]; see also Jorge C. v City of New York, 128 AD3d 410, 8 N.Y.S.3d 307 [1st Dept 2015] [defendant established that student’s injury did not arise from inadequate supervision, but from impulsive and unanticipated acts of fellow student of finding balloon, filling it with water, and attempting to throw it at plaintiff, and plaintiff running away and looking backwards rather than ahead]).
Moreover, it was plaintiff’s own impulsive and reckless conduct in squirting the other scouts with the water pump and then running out of the shower house, that led to his injury. (See Gibbud v Camp Shane, Inc., 30 AD3d 865, 817 N.Y.S.2d 435 [3d Dept 2006] [plaintiff’s own impulsive and reckless act in grabbing camp counselor from behind, causing counselor to drop plaintiff and fracture plaintiff’s [*27] ankle, led to his injury]).
Thus, as the accident occurred in a very short time span and as plaintiff’s own impulsive conduct led to his injury, defendants have demonstrated that there is no proximate cause between their allegedly inadequate supervision and plaintiff’s accident.
B. Did Council breach their duty to illuminate adequately the area around the shower house?
Plaintiff has not identified what caused him to fall, whether it was part of the shower house or something on the ground, either a rock or tree branch or uneven patch of dirt. Absent any such evidence and even if plaintiff is unable to recall, there is no basis on which it may be found that plaintiff’s injury was proximately caused by the lack of lighting around the area. (See Lynn v Lynn, 216 AD2d 194, 628 N.Y.S.2d 667 [1st Dept 1995] [plaintiff’s amnesia did not reduce her burden of proving that allegedly defective condition of stairway was proximate cause of fall]).
Moreover, plaintiff was wearing a working headlamp at the time of the incident, and neither plaintiff nor his expert identified a regulation or rule requiring defendants to light the area around the shower house at all or in any particular manner.
Plaintiff was able, however, to recall the conditions outside of the [*28] shower house, which consisted of typical conditions in any wooded or camp area, i.e., rocks, dirt, branches, etc., and [**10] having been on several camp trips, was presumably aware of the existence and risks of such conditions. He did not identify or recall any unusual, unexpected, or dangerous conditions, nor have any such conditions been alleged.
In Kimbar v Estis, a young camper had wandered off a camp path at night and hit a tree. The Court found that the camp owners had no duty to illuminate the path in the absence of any particular danger on the path, finding:
We have before us a simple camper-camp relationship and the rustic, outdoor camp life that is the very raison d’e tre [sic] of summer establishments such as defendants’. There are certain risks incidental to camping, but these are part of an adventurous summer camp life, and are necessarily assumed by those who would participate therein . . .
Indeed, it is expected that a camp will have trees, that paths will lead through woods and that woods will be dark at night. It is not to be anticipated that floodlights will be supplied for campers through woodland paths. One naturally assumes many ordinary risks when in the woods and in [*29] the country trails are not smooth sidewalks, paths are not paved, trees, brush and insects are to be expected, and even snakes may appear occasionally. These and more are all a part of accepted camp life.
To hold summer camps to a duty of floodlighting woods would not only impose upon them a condition almost impracticable under many circumstances but would be unfair, as well, to the youth who seek the adventure of living closer to nature, participating in outdoor astronomical study at night or bird study before dawn, or when overnight hikes take them for study and adventure far from any source of electrical power. Such a duty, in short, would frequently compel camps to keep boys confined after dark and thereby effectively spell the end of some of the most desirable activities of real camping life.
1 NY2d 399, 135 N.E.2d 708, 153 N.Y.S.2d 197 ).
Defendants thus establish that they breached no duty to illuminate the area around the shower house and that, in any event, the area did not constitute a dangerous condition for which they may be held liable. (See Torres v State of New York, 18 AD3d 739, 795 N.Y.S.2d 710 [2d Dept 2005] [park owner not liable for injury sustained when plaintiff tripped over tree stump in park; “landowners will not be held liable for injuries arising from a condition on the property [*30] that is inherent or incidental to the nature of the property, and that could be reasonably anticipated by those using it”]; Mazzola v Mazzola, 16 AD3d 629, 793 N.Y.S.2d 59 [2d Dept 2005] [dismissing claim by infant plaintiff who tripped and fell over exposed tree roots in backyard as alleged defect was inherent to nature of land]; Moriello v Stormville Airport Antique Show & Flea Market, Inc., 271 AD2d 664, 706 N.Y.S.2d 463 [2d Dept 2000] [owner of field not liable for injuries to plaintiff who tripped on flat rock while walking on unpaved roadway; rock was inherent to nature of unpaved roadway]; Csukardi v Bishop McDonnell Camp, 148 AD2d 657, 539 N.Y.S.2d 408 [2d Dept 1989] [campground owner not liable to person who tripped over grass-covered stump in wooded area, as stump was incidental to nature of campground and could be reasonably anticipated by persons traversing wooded area]; Alcantara v Fed. Girl Scout Councils of Nassau County, Inc., 24 AD2d 585, 262 N.Y.S.2d 190 [2d Dept 1965] [plaintiff could not recover for injury sustained at camp when she tripped over tree stump; [**11] defendant conducted rustic outdoor camp and paths were unpaved, and condition of premises was thus incidental to nature of camp and to be ordinarily expected by plaintiff]).
For all of these reasons, it is hereby
ORDERED, that the motion of defendants Northern New Jersey Council, Inc., Boy Scouts of America and Boy Scout Troop 141 for summary judgment dismissing the action against them is granted, and the complaint is dismissed as against them, [*31] with costs and disbursements to said defendants as taxed by the Clerk upon the submission of an appropriate bill of costs, and is further
ORDERED, that the clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly.
Barbara Jaffe, JSC
DATED: March 10, 2016
New York, New York
Lee Bergin, et al., Appellants, vs. Wild Mountain, Inc. d/b/a Wild Mountain Ski Area, Respondent.
COURT OF APPEALS OF MINNESOTA
2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 212
March 17, 2014, Filed
NOTICE: THIS OPINION WILL BE UNPUBLISHED AND MAY NOT BE CITED EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY MINNESOTA STATUTES.
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]
Chisago County District Court File No. 13-CV-11-695.
COUNSEL: For Appellants: James P. Carey, Marcia K. Miller, Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey, Ltd., Minneapolis, Minnesota.
For Respondent: Brian N. Johnson, John J. Wackman, Peter Gray, Nilan Johnson Lewis, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota.
JUDGES: Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Bjorkman, Judge; and Hooten, Judge.
OPINION BY: HOOTEN
In this personal-injury action, appellants-skiers sued respondent-ski resort for damages resulting from a skiing accident. Appellants challenge the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of respondent, arguing that the district court erred by (1) denying their motion to amend the complaint to add allegations of reckless, willful, or wanton conduct; (2) determining that an exculpatory clause bars their claim of ordinary negligence; and (3) applying the doctrine of primary assumption of risk to bar their claim of ordinary negligence. Because respondent’s conduct does not give rise to a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence, and because the exculpatory clause is enforceable to bar a claim of ordinary negligence, we affirm.
Appellants Lee and Cathy Bergin sued respondent [*2] Wild Mountain, Inc. d/b/a Wild Mountain Ski Area for injuries that Lee sustained while skiing at Wild Mountain. The Bergins sought damages for Lee’s physical injuries, loss of wages and earning ability, loss of property, and medical expenses, as well as for Cathy’s loss of services, companionship, and consortium. Following discovery, Wild Mountain moved for summary judgment. The pleadings and discovery reveal the following.
In March 2010, Robert Knight purchased over the internet 2010-2011 season passes to Wild Mountain for himself, the Bergins, and another individual. To complete the purchase, Knight agreed to a season-pass agreement which included a release of liability:
I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms is a hazardous sport that has many dangers and risks. I realize that injuries are a common and ordinary occurrence of this sport. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the area facility and premises, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury, death or property damage, and release Wild Mountain Ski & Snowboard Area . . . and its agents, employees, directors, officers and shareholders from [*3] any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises and facilities, the operations, actions or omissions of employees or agents of the area, or my participation in skiing or other activities at the area, accepting myself the full responsibility for any and all such damage of injury of any kind which may result.
In accordance with Minnesota law, nothing in this Release of Liability should be construed as releasing, discharging or waiving claims I may have for reckless, willful, wanton, or intentional acts on the part of Wild Mountain Ski & Snowboard Area, or its owners, officers, shareholders, agents or employees.
Knight [*4] did not ask Lee about the release of liability before agreeing to it. Lee wrote a check to Knight for the Bergins’ season passes. In his deposition, Lee admitted that he authorized Knight to purchase the season passes, that he had purchased season passes to Wild Mountain since 2001 and had agreed to a release of liability each year, that he understood the release of liability, and that he would have authorized Knight to purchase the season passes had he known about the release of liability.1
1 The Bergins do not appeal the district court’s determination that Lee is bound by the season-pass agreement even though he did not execute it himself.
On the morning of November 28, 2010, the Bergins arrived at Wild Mountain to pick up their season passes and ski. The season pass is a wallet-sized card with Lee’s name and picture on the front and the following language on the back:
I agree and understand that skiing and snowboarding involve the risk of personal injury and death. I agree to assume those risks. These risks include trail conditions that vary due to changing weather and skier use, ice, variations in terrain and snow, moguls, rocks, forest growth, debris, lift towers, fences, mazes, snow [*5] grooming, and snowmaking equipment, other skiers, and other man-made objects. I agree to always ski and snowboard in control and to avoid these objects and other skiers. I agree to learn and obey the skier personal responsibility code.
The Bergins and their friends skied “The Wall,” a double-black-diamond trail. At the top of The Wall, Lee observed that there were mounds of snow on the skiers’ left side of the run. Thinking that the left side was not skiable terrain, Lee skied down the right side. Then, at the bottom of the hill in the flat transition or run-out area, Lee encountered a “mound of snow” that he could not avoid. He hit the snow mound, flew up six to ten feet in the air, and landed on his back and the tails of his skis. Lee estimated that the snow mound was “maybe a little bigger” and “maybe a little taller” than a sofa, and that “there was no sharp edges defining” it. After the fall, Lee underwent surgery on his back and is partially paralyzed.
Daniel Raedeke, the president of Wild Mountain, testified by affidavit that Wild Mountain started making snow on The Wall on November 25, three days before Lee’s accident. On the morning of November 26, snowmaking ceased and The [*6] Wall was opened for skiing. According to Raedeke, “hundreds of skiers took thousands of runs down The Wall prior to” Lee’s accident. Raedeke added:
At the completion of snowmaking activities, there were some terrain variations at various points throughout the entire Wall run from top to bottom and side to side. Terrain variations from snowmaking are common at Minnesota (and Midwest) ski areas, particularly early in the season as ski areas rely on machine-made snow to get the areas open. It is very common for terrain variation to be encountered by skiers in Minnesota and elsewhere and they are generally well-liked, particularly by expert level skiers like [Lee].
Raedeke testified that “Wild Mountain received no reports of anything being hazardous or even out-of-the ordinary on The Wall.”
The Bergins submitted the affidavits of two ski-safety experts, Seth Bayer and Richard Penniman. Bayer testified that Wild Mountain “engaged in snow-making activity, intentionally created the hazard [Lee] encountered by creating large mounds of man-made snow . . . then intentionally left the snow-making mound in the run-out or transition area.” According to Bayer, Wild Mountain “knew or should have known [*7] that the snow-making mound in the transition area created a hazard and should have groomed out the mound or further identified the mound as a hazard.” He added that Wild Mountain failed to follow professional safety standards in making and grooming the snow.
Similarly, Penniman testified that complying with professional safety standards “would have entailed grooming out the snow making mounds; putting fencing around the snow making mounds; and warning skiers of the mounds with a rope barricade and caution signs.” He testified that “Wild Mountain’s failure to have a consistent and structured snow making and grooming policy, which specifically addressed the [professional safety standard], caused or contributed to the unsafe decision to leave a large mound of man-made snow in the transition area between the bottom of The Wall ski trail and the chair lift.” According to Penniman, “snow making mounds are not an inherent risk to the sport of skiing.”
Following discovery and Wild Mountain’s motion for summary judgment, the Bergins moved to amend their complaint to add a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. In April 2013, the district court denied the Bergins’ motion and granted summary [*8] judgment in favor of Wild Mountain. This appeal follows.
[HN1] After a responsive pleading is served, “a party may amend a pleading only by leave of court or by written consent of the adverse party; and leave shall be freely given when justice so requires.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 15.01. [HN2] “We review a district court’s denial of a motion to amend a complaint for an abuse of discretion.” Johnson v. Paynesville Farmers Union Co-op. Oil Co., 817 N.W.2d 693, 714 (Minn. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 1249, 185 L. Ed. 2d 180 (2013). [HN3] “A district court should allow amendment unless the adverse party would be prejudiced, but the court does not abuse its discretion when it disallows an amendment where the proposed amended claim could not survive summary judgment.” Id. (citations omitted).
[HN4] Summary judgment is proper “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 either party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. [HN5] A genuine issue of material fact does not exist “when the nonmoving party presents evidence which merely creates a metaphysical doubt [*9] as to a factual issue and which is not sufficiently probative with respect to an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case to permit reasonable persons to draw different conclusions.” DLH, Inc. v. Russ, 566 N.W.2d 60, 71 (Minn. 1997). [HN6] On appeal, “[w]e view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted. We review de novo whether a genuine issue of material fact exists. We also review de novo whether the district court erred in its application of the law.” STAR Ctrs., Inc. v. Faegre & Benson, L.L.P., 644 N.W.2d 72, 76-77 (Minn. 2002) (citations omitted).
The Bergins moved to amend their complaint to add the allegation that Lee’s accident “was a result of the reckless, willful, or wanton conduct” of Wild Mountain. They assert that Wild Mountain “knew or should have known that a large, un-marked, un-groomed, mound of snow in the transition area between ‘The Wall’ and a chair lift . . . created a significant risk of physical harm to skiers.” The district court concluded that, although Wild Mountain would not be prejudiced if the motion to amend was granted,2 the motion must still be denied because the proposed claim “would not survive [*10] summary judgment, as [Wild Mountain’s] conduct does not, as a matter of law, rise to the level of reckless, willful or wanton.”
2 Wild Mountain does not challenge this finding on appeal.
The Bergins argue that the district court erred as a matter of law by “[r]equiring [them] to move to amend the [c]omplaint.” They assert that “Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 9.02 does not require plaintiffs to plead allegations of reckless, willful, or wanton conduct with particularity.” See Minn. R. Civ. P. 9.02 (stating that “[m]alice, intent, knowledge, and other condition of mind of a person may be averred generally”). Accordingly, they contend that the district court should have examined whether Wild Mountain committed greater-than-ordinary negligence based on the complaint and discovery.
The Bergins’ reliance on rule 9.02 is misplaced. [HN7] Although the Bergins were not required to plead a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence with particularity under rule 9.02, they still had to plead it with “a short and plain statement . . . showing that [they are] entitled to relief” under Minn. R. Civ. P. 8.01, which they failed to do by pleading only a claim of “negligence and carelessness.” See L.K. v. Gregg, 425 N.W.2d 813, 819 (Minn. 1988) [*11] (stating that pleadings are liberally construed to “give adequate notice of the claim” against the defending party); cf. State v. Hayes, 244 Minn. 296, 299-300, 70 N.W.2d 110, 113 (1955) (concluding that “both at common law and by virtue of long-established usage,” the term “carelessness” in a criminal statute is “synonymous with ordinary negligence”).3
3 We also note that the district court did not require the Bergins to move to amend their complaint. Following a hearing on the summary judgment motion, the district court sent a letter to the parties, stating that “[a]t the Summary Judgment Motion Hearing, [the Bergins] moved the Court to amend the Complaint” and that “[t]he Court will leave the record open” for them to file the motion. The district court simply responded to the Bergins’ desire to amend the complaint without requiring them to do so.
Turning to the Bergins’ substantive argument, they assert that “there are questions of fact regarding whether Wild Mountain engaged in reckless or willful or wanton conduct that . . . preclude summary judgment.” [HN8] “[R]eckless conduct includes willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others . . . .” Kempa v. E.W. Coons Co., 370 N.W.2d 414, 421 (Minn. 1985).
The [*12] actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.
Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965) (emphasis added); see also 4 Minnesota Practice, CIVJIG 25.37 (2006). “Willful and wanton conduct is the failure to exercise ordinary care after discovering a person or property in a position of peril.” Beehner v. Cragun Corp., 636 N.W.2d 821, 829 (Minn. App. 2001), review denied (Minn. Feb. 28, 2002).
The Bergins argue that their expert affidavits support their claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. We are not persuaded for three reasons.
First, [HN9] “[a]ffidavits in opposition to a motion for summary judgment do not create issues of fact if they merely recite conclusions without any specific factual support.” Grandnorthern, Inc. v. W. Mall P’ship, 359 N.W.2d 41, 44 (Minn. App. 1984). Bayer’s testimony that Wild [*13] Mountain “knew” that the snow mound was hazardous is speculation because there is no evidence that Bayer knew Wild Mountain employees’ state of mind before Lee’s fall and injury.
Second, the Bergins misunderstand the “had reason to know” standard for establishing a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. The Bergins contend that they need not prove knowledge to establish a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence and that it is enough that Wild Mountain “should have known” that the snow mound was hazardous. But [HN10] knowledge separates the “had reason to know” standard from the “should have known” standard:
(1) The words “reason to know” . . . denote the fact that the actor has information from which a person of reasonable intelligence or of the superior intelligence of the actor would infer that the fact in question exists, or that such person would govern his conduct upon the assumption that such fact exists.
(2) The words “should know” . . . denote the fact that a person of reasonable prudence and intelligence or of the superior intelligence of the actor would ascertain the fact in question in the performance of his duty to another, or would govern his conduct upon the assumption that [*14] such fact exists.
Restatement (Second) of Torts § 12 (1965) (emphases added). Accordingly, Bayer’s testimony that Wild Mountain “should have known” that the snow mound was hazardous is insufficient to establish the state of mind necessary to establish a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence.
Finally, the expert affidavits are insufficient to establish that Wild Mountain had reason to know that the snow mound was hazardous. According to Bayer and Penniman, the snow mound was hazardous because skiers do not expect a snow mound in the transition run-out area and because the lighting condition obscured the snow mound. Assuming that these alleged facts are true, nothing in the record suggests that Wild Mountain had knowledge of these facts from which to infer that the snow mound was hazardous. Rather, Raedeke’s testimony shows that Wild Mountain received no complaints from hundreds of skiers who skied The Wall before Lee’s accident. The expert affidavits are, at most, evidence that a reasonable person managing the ski operation would not have created, or would have marked, the snow mound in the run-out area. This evidence shows only ordinary negligence.
Because the evidence is insufficient [*15] to establish that Wild Mountain engaged in conduct constituting greater-than-ordinary negligence, the district court correctly determined that a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence would not survive a motion for summary judgment. Accordingly, the district court acted within its discretion by denying the Bergins’ motion to amend their complaint to add a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. See Johnson, 817 N.W.2d at 714 (stating that [HN11] a district court “does not abuse its discretion when it disallows an amendment where the proposed amended claim could not survive summary judgment”).
The Bergins also argue that the district court “did not address the evidence that created questions of material fact regarding Wild Mountain’s reckless, willful, or wanton conduct.” But the district court examined Wild Mountain’s conduct and concluded that it “does not meet the standards for gross negligence, willful and wanton conduct, or reckless conduct (as defined by both parties).” The district court’s discussion of Lee’s knowledge of the inherent risks of skiing–while perhaps extraneous–does not indicate that the district court failed to analyze Wild Mountain’s conduct.
The Bergins argue [*16] that the district court erred by determining that the exculpatory clause bars the Bergins’ claim of ordinary negligence. [HN12] The interpretation of a written contract is a question of law reviewed de novo. Borgersen v. Cardiovascular Sys., Inc., 729 N.W.2d 619, 625 (Minn. App. 2007). [HN13] Under certain circumstances, “parties to a contract may . . . protect themselves against liability resulting from their own negligence.” See Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 922-23 (Minn. 1982) (considering exculpatory clauses in construction contracts and commercial leases). “A clause exonerating a party from liability,” known as an exculpatory clause, is enforceable if it: (1) is “unambiguous”; (2) is “limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only”; and (3) does not violate public policy. See id. at 923. “An exculpatory clause is ambiguous when it is susceptible to more than one reasonable construction.” Beehner, 636 N.W.2d at 827.
The district court concluded that Wild Mountain’s exculpatory clause is enforceable because it is unambiguous and bars only ordinary-negligence claims. The Bergins contend that the exculpatory clause is ambiguous because “there are questions of fact [*17] regarding whether the [season-pass card] was part of the exculpatory contract.” They assert that the exculpatory clause and the language on the season-pass card “construed together are overly broad and ambiguous” because the season-pass card contains a non-exhaustive list of risks while the season-pass agreement expressly excludes greater-than-ordinary negligence from the scope of the exculpatory clause. We are not persuaded.
Because [HN14] a contract ambiguity exists only if it is “found in the language of the document itself,” we consider whether the season-pass card is a part of the season-pass agreement between Lee and Wild Mountain. See Instrumentation Servs., Inc. v. Gen. Res. Corp., 283 N.W.2d 902, 908 (Minn. 1979). [HN15] “It is well established that where contracts relating to the same transaction are put into several instruments they will be read together and each will be construed with reference to the other.” Anchor Cas. Co. v. Bird Island Produce, Inc., 249 Minn. 137, 146, 82 N.W.2d 48, 54 (1957). Here, the contractual relationship between Lee and Wild Mountain was formed when the online season-pass agreement was executed more than eight months before Lee picked up the season-pass card. [*18] As the district court correctly concluded, the season-pass card itself is not a contract. Although the season-pass card contains language emphasizing the inherent risk of skiing, it does not contain an offer by Wild Mountain to be legally bound to any terms. See Glass Serv. Co., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 530 N.W.2d 867, 870 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. June 29, 1995). And as a corollary, Lee could not have accepted an offer that did not exist. The season-pass card is an extrinsic document that does not create an ambiguity in the season-pass agreement.
The Bergins rely on Hackel v. Whitecap Recreations, 120 Wis. 2d 681, 357 N.W.2d 565 (Wis. Ct. App. 1984) (Westlaw). There, a skier was injured when he was “caught in a depression apparently caused by the natural drainage of water.” 120 Wis. 2d 681, at *1. The ski resort “denied liability on the basis of language printed on the lift ticket purchased by” the skier. Id. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that summary judgment was improper because “[w]hether the printed language on the ski ticket was part of the contractual agreement between the parties is a question of fact.” Id. Based on Hackel, the Bergins argue that “there are [*19] questions of fact regarding whether the [season-pass card] was part of the exculpatory contract.”
The Bergins’ reliance on Hackel is misplaced. As an unpublished opinion issued before 2009, Hackel has neither precedential nor persuasive value in Wisconsin. See Wis. R. App. P. 809.23(3) (Supp. 2013). Even if it were, Wisconsin’s adoption of a common-law rule is “not binding on us as authority.” See Mahowald v. Minn. Gas Co., 344 N.W.2d 856, 861 (Minn. 1984) (examining other jurisdictions’ standards of tort liability). Substantively, the questions of fact that precluded summary judgment in Hackel are absent here. In Hackel, the only language alleged to be exculpatory was printed on the back of a lift ticket, which the skier did not sign. 120 Wis. 2d 681, at *1. This language did not expressly release the ski resort from liability, but it listed the risks that the skier agreed to assume. Id. The Wisconsin court concluded that a fact issue exists as to whether the language could be construed to mean “that skiers assume inherent risks of the sport without relieving [the ski company] of its own negligence” or that “[t]he language might also be construed as an exculpatory clause.” 120 Wis. 2d 681, Id. at *2. Another [*20] question of fact that precluded summary judgment was “whether the [unsigned] ticket was intended as part of the contract.” 120 Wis. 2d 681, Id. at *1 n.1. Here, unlike in Hackel, neither the existence of an exculpatory clause nor the intention that it be a part of the contract is in question. It is undisputed that Lee agreed to the exculpatory clause in the season-pass agreement before receiving the season-pass card.
Even if the season-pass card and season-pass agreement are construed together, they do not create an ambiguity. [HN16] “Terms in a contract should be read together and harmonized where possible,” and “the specific in a writing governs over the general.” Burgi v. Eckes, 354 N.W.2d 514, 518-19 (Minn. App. 1984). Accordingly, the season-pass agreement’s specific language excluding greater-than-ordinary negligence from the scope of the exculpatory clause supersedes the season-pass card’s general language on the inherent risks of skiing. The district court correctly determined that the exculpatory clause is limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only and granted summary judgment in favor of Wild Mountain.
Because we conclude that an unambiguous and enforceable exculpatory clause [*21] bars the Bergins’ claim of ordinary negligence, we decline to reach the issue of whether the doctrine of primary assumption of risk also bars the claim of ordinary negligence.
Junyi Xu, Plaintiff-Appellant, and Haini Hou, Plaintiff, v Hiedi Gay, d/b/a Vital Power Fitness Center, Defendant-Appellee.
COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN
257 Mich. App. 263; 668 N.W.2d 166; 2003 Mich. App. LEXIS 1505
March 4, 2003, Submitted
June 24, 2003, Decided
PRIOR HISTORY: [***1] Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 1999-016321-NO.
DISPOSITION: Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.
COUNSEL: Mark Granzotto, P.C. (by Mark Granzotto) and Donald L. Bramlage, Jr., P.C. (by Donald L. Bramlage, Jr.), for the plaintiff, Detroit, Farmington Hills.
Coticchio & Associates, P.C. (by Stephen A. Coticchio), for the defendant, Mt. Clemens.
JUDGES: Before: Hoekstra, P.J., and Smolenski and Fort Hood, JJ.
OPINION BY: Michael R. Smolenski
[*264] [**167] SMOLENSKI, J.
In this wrongful-death action, plaintiff Junyi Xu, as personal representative for the estate of decedent Ning Yan, appeals as of right the trial court’s entry of two orders granting summary disposition in favor of defendant Hiedi Gay, doing business as Vital Power Fitness Center. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.
In February 1999, Ning Yan went to defendant’s fitness center to use a one-week complimentary pass. Yan visited the fitness center on February 16 and 18, 1999. Each time he visited he was required [**168] to sign-in and did so. At the top of the sign-in sheet was a paragraph that purportedly constituted a release of liability.
On February 18, 1999, while using one of the treadmills, Yan fell and hit his head. The head injury Yan sustained was severe, and he died on March 12, 1999. The parties dispute the circumstances of Yan’s fall. Plaintiff contends that Yan stumbled while jogging and that the belt of the treadmill threw Yan back into the wall or [***2] the window ledge, which were only 2-1/2 feet behind him. Defendant asserts that Yan was ill and fell down, hitting his head on the floor. No one actually saw Yan hit the wall, floor, or window ledge.
On July 22, 1999, plaintiff filed this suit alleging ordinary negligence by defendant, loss of consortium, and wrongful death. Defendant filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), arguing that the release at the top of the sign-in sheet that Yan signed precluded any claims of ordinary negligence against defendant. Following a hearing on May 10, 2000, the trial court agreed with defendant, and on May 19, 2000, the Court granted defendant’s motion regarding the claim of ordinary negligence, but also granted plaintiff leave to file his second amended complaint, which was actually filed on April 5, 2000, without the court’s permission, and alleged a claim of gross negligence against defendant. 1
1 Plaintiff’s first amended complaint was filed on February 16, 2000, and added Unisen, Inc, the manufacturer of the treadmill as a defendant. The claims against Unisen were dismissed on October 4, 2001, pursuant to a settlement agreement, and it is not a party to this appeal.
[***3] [*266] In July 2001, defendant renewed her motion for summary disposition to dismiss plaintiff’s claims of gross negligence and wrongful death. 2 On September 12, 2001, following a hearing, the trial court concluded that reasonable minds could not differ and there was insufficient evidence to support a claim of gross negligence. Therefore, because the wrongful-death claim was derivative, both claims failed. On September 24, 2001, the trial court entered an order granting defendant summary disposition on plaintiff’s remaining claims pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(10).
2 Defendant originally filed her second motion for summary disposition in June 2000. The trial court denied the motion in August 2000, with the option to renew the motion at the completion of discovery. The motion for summary disposition in July 2001 was actually the third such motion.
[HN1] Summary disposition against a plaintiff’s complaint is proper if there is a valid release of liability between the parties. MCR 2.116(C)(7). A motion under MCR 2.116(C)(10) [***4] tests the factual support for a claim. Spiek v Dep’t of Transportation, 456 Mich. 331, 337; 572 N.W.2d 201 (1998). We review de novo a trial court’s decision on a motion for summary disposition. Id.
When reviewing a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), an appellate court accepts all the plaintiff’s well-pleaded allegations as true, and construes them most favorably to the plaintiff, unless specifically contradicted by documentary evidence. Sewell v Southfield Public Schools, 456 Mich. 670, 674; 576 N.W.2d 153 (1998). The court must consider all affidavits, pleadings, depositions, admissions, and [*267] documentary evidence filed or submitted, and the motion should be granted only if no factual development could provide a basis for recovery. Skotak v Vic Tanny Int’l, Inc, 203 Mich. App. 616, 617; 513 N.W.2d 428, mod on other [**169] grounds Patterson v Kleiman, 447 Mich. 429, 526 N.W.2d 879 (1994).
Similarly, when deciding a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a court must consider the pleadings, affidavits, depositions, admissions, [***5] and other documentary evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Ritchie-Gamester v City of Berkley, 461 Mich. 73, 76; 597 N.W.2d 517 (1999). If the evidence fails to establish a genuine issue regarding any material fact, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Maiden v Rozwood, 461 Mich. 109, 120; 597 N.W.2d 817 (1999).
Plaintiff first argues that the trial court erred in dismissing his gross-negligence claim pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(10). Plaintiff asserts that, on the basis of the facts of this case, it was possible for a reasonable jury to conclude that defendant was grossly negligent, and, thus, summary disposition was inappropriate. We disagree.
Historically, for a claim of gross negligence to survive under Michigan common law, the plaintiff had to show that defendant knew or should have known of the plaintiff’s precedent negligence, and by defendant’s subsequent negligence caused injury to the plaintiff. Gibbard v Cursan, 225 Mich. 311, 319; 196 NW 398 (1923); Fuga v Comerica Bank-Detroit, 202 Mich. App. 380, 383; 509 N.W.2d 778 (1993). [***6] Common-law gross negligence is not a higher degree of [*268] negligence, but rather ordinary negligence of the defendant that follows the negligence of the plaintiff. Jennings v Southwood, 446 Mich. 125, 130; 521 N.W.2d 230 (1994).
However, this common-law definition was rejected by our Supreme Court in Jennings, supra. The Jennings Court reasoned,
Gibbard’s formulation of gross negligence is really the doctrine of last clear chance in disguise; accordingly, its usefulness is dubious at best in light of our holding in Petrove [v Grand Trunk W R Co, 437 Mich. 31, 33; 464 N.W.2d 711 (1991)].
* * *
This is an instance in which precedent fails to promote justice. We have repudiated the traditional justification for Gibbard’s gross negligence. [HN2] Contributory negligence no longer holds a place in Michigan jurisprudence, compelling the demise of its attendant legal theories. “The reasons for the old rule no longer obtaining, the rule falls with it.” Montgomery v Stephan, 359 Mich. 33, 49; 101 N.W.2d 227 (1960). [ Jennings, supra at 132-133.]
The [***7] Jennings Court acknowledged that it needed to adopt a new definition of gross negligence, and noted that most jurisdictions did not agree on an exact definition. Id. at 135-136.
Jennings involved the applicability of gross negligence in the context of the emergency medical services act (EMSA), MCL 333.20901 et seq. Therefore, instead of embarking on an analysis of the various standards used in different jurisdictions, the Court turned to the definition of gross negligence provided in the government tort liability act (GTLA), MCL 691.1401 et seq. Because the EMSA and the GTLA shared the same purpose–insulating employees from ordinary negligence liability, the Court adopted the [HN3] GTLA [*269] definition as the standard for gross negligence under the EMSA Id. at 136-137. Gross negligence is defined in the GTLA as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of [**170] concern for whether an injury results.” Id. at 136. See also MCL 691.1407(2)(c).
This definition is used in many other Michigan statutes that provide limited immunity to certain groups, but allow liability for gross negligence. [***8] See MCL 257.606a (Michigan Vehicle Code); MCL 324.81131 and MCL 324.81124 (Recreational Use Act); MCL 500.214 (Insurance Code); MCL 600.2945 (Revised Judicature Act). Additionally, Michigan’s standard jury instruction for gross negligence also incorporated the GTLA’s definition. M Civ. SJI2d 14.10.
[HN4] A contractual waiver of liability also serves to insulate against ordinary negligence, but not gross negligence. Lamp v Reynolds, 249 Mich. App. 591, 594; 645 N.W.2d 311 (2002). Thus, because the underlying purpose is the same, we adopt the statutory definition of gross negligence as defined in the GTLA and incorporated into the EMSA by the Jennings Court. Therefore, applying this definition, the question becomes whether reasonable minds could differ regarding whether defendant’s conduct was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted to decedent. Jennings, supra; Vermilya v Dunham, 195 Mich. App. 79, 83; 489 N.W.2d 496 (1992). We find that [***9] reasonable minds could not. 3
3 We note that the parties and case law often use the terms “gross negligence” and “willful and wanton misconduct” interchangeably, and often the terms are misused or misapplied. Thone v Nicholson, 84 Mich. App. 538, 546-552; 269 N.W.2d 665 (1975). On appeal, plaintiff alleges that the trial court erred in dismissing his gross negligence and/or willful and wanton misconduct claim. However, these terms are separate concepts. Id. Common-law gross negligence referred to the last-chance doctrine. Id. [HN5] While willful and wanton misconduct is established “‘if the conduct alleged shows an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalent of a willingness that it does.'” Jennings, supra at 138, quoting Burnett v City of Adrian, 414 Mich. 448, 455; 326 N.W.2d 810 (1982).
[*270] As evidence of defendant’s gross negligence, plaintiff offered the testimony of Dr. Mark Rabinoff, [***10] an expert in recreational safety. Rabinoff testified with respect to the industry’s standard of care regarding the safety distance behind treadmills, which should be a minimum of five feet. Rabinoff admitted that these are only recommended standards and are not mandatory. Rabinoff also stated that a similar accident was sure to happen again if the treadmill was not moved farther from the wall. However, we note that there was no evidence establishing that Yan actually hit his head on the wall, as opposed to the floor.
Defendant admitted that she knew a treadmill user could stumble while on the moving belt. However, defendant denied knowing that such a loss of balance could cause the user to be propelled backwards off the treadmill. Rabinoff testified that defendant’s statement was “the dumbest statement I have ever heard from anyone I think in thirty years who had anything to do with the fitness field about a treadmill.” Further, Rabinoff found defendant’s lack of knowledge regarding safety standards for a fitness club to be incredulous, stating that defendant was “the worst, poorly educated owner/operator of a health club I have ever seen in twenty-five years . . . .” The evidence [***11] also indicated that the treadmills were placed in their current positions by the fitness club’s previous owner. Defendant bought the club approximately one year before the accident, and did not move the treadmills.
[*271] Plaintiff also asserted that the manufacturer recommended that the treadmill be [**171] placed at least five to six feet from a wall. However, plaintiff offered no admissible evidence to establish this point. Maiden, supra at 123. In fact, the evidence showed that the manufacturer of this treadmill had no setback recommendation in its operator’s manual for the model of treadmill involved in this case.
Essentially, plaintiff argues that there were industry standards, that defendant should have known about these standards, and that defendant’s ignorance of and failure to implement these standards constituted gross negligence. However, this establishes a case of ordinary negligence, not gross negligence. [HN6] Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence. Maiden, supra at 122-123. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, we find that reasonable minds could not differ; defendant’s [***12] mere ignorance does not constitute conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted to Yan. Jennings, supra; Vermilya, supra. Therefore, we hold that the trial court did not err in granting summary disposition in favor of defendant on plaintiff’s gross-negligence claim.
Plaintiff next argues that the trial court erred in dismissing his ordinary-negligence claim against defendant because the language at the top of the sign-in sheet did not constitute a release of liability. We agree.
The top of defendant’s sign-in sheet reads as follows:
[*272] I understand that Vital Power Fitness Center reserves the right to revoke my membership for failure to respect the center’s rules and policies. I also understand that Vital Power Fitness Center assumes no responsibility for any injuries and/or sicknesses incurred to me or any accompanying minor person as a result of entering the premises and/or using any of the facilities. I additionally understand that I am not entitled to [a] refund on my membership fee or daily visit. MEMBERSHIP AND DAILY FEES ARE NEITHER REFUNDABLE NOR TRANSFERABLE.
The parties do not dispute that Yan [***13] signed this sheet on February 16, 1999, his first visit, and on February 18, 1999, the day of his accident.
This Court outlined the applicable law in Wyrembelski v St Clair Shores, 218 Mich. App. 125, 127; 553 N.W.2d 651 (1996), stating:
” [HN7] A release of liability is valid if it is fairly and knowingly made. The scope of a release is governed by the intent of the parties as it is expressed in the release. [ Adell v Sommers, Schwartz, Silver & Schwartz, PC, 170 Mich. App. 196, 201; 428 N.W.2d 26 (1988) (citations omitted).]
If the text in the release is unambiguous, we must ascertain the parties’ intentions from the plain, ordinary meaning of the language of the release. The fact that the parties dispute the meaning of a release does not, in itself, establish an ambiguity. A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. If the terms of the release are unambiguous, contradictory inferences become “subjective, and irrelevant,” and the legal effect of the language is a question of law to be resolved summarily. [quoting Gortney v Norfolk & W R Co, 216 Mich. App. 535, 540; 549 N.W.2d 612 (1996).]
A release is knowingly made even if it is not labeled a “release,” or the releasor fails to read its terms, or thought [***14] the [**172] terms were different, absent fraud or intentional misrepresentation designed to induce the [*273] releasor to sign the release through a strategy of trickery. Dombrowski v City of Omer, 199 Mich. App. 705, 709-710; 502 N.W.2d 707 (1993). A release is not fairly made if “(1) the releasor was dazed, in shock, or under the influence of drugs, (2) the nature of the instrument was misrepresented, or (3) there was other fraudulent or overreaching conduct.” Skotak, supra at 618.
Plaintiff asserts that the meaning of the second sentence turns on the word “assume.” Plaintiff contends that because “assume” means to voluntarily take on, the meaning of the sentence is that defendant would not voluntarily take responsibility for decedent’s injuries, not that decedent was waiving his right to sue for injuries sustained. Plaintiff also argued below that the release was not effective because it did not contain the word “release” or another word with a similar meaning. Defendant argues that the language of the release is clear and subject to only one interpretation, i.e., defendant will not assume responsibility for any injuries and thus, will [***15] not be held liable for them. Therefore, we must first determine whether the language at the top of the sign-in sheet constitutes a release by unambiguously expressing defendant’s intent to disclaim liability for its own negligence. [HN8] “The fact that the parties dispute the meaning of a release does not, in itself, establish an ambiguity.” Cole v Ladbroke Racing Michigan, Inc, 241 Mich. App. 1, 14; 614 N.W.2d 169 (2000).
In Skotak, supra, the plaintiff alleged that James Skotak died after suffering a heart attack while sitting in the defendant’s steam room and that the defendant was negligent in not ensuring that its staff was properly trained in responding to such emergencies. The [*274] decedent’s membership agreement included a release that stated:
“F. By the use of the facilities of Seller and/or by the attendance at any of the gymnasiums owned by Seller, the Member expressly agrees that Seller shall not be liable for any damages arising from personal injuries sustained by the Member or his guest in, on or about the premises of the said gymnasiums or as a result of their using the facilities and the equipment therein. By the execution of this [***16] agreement Member accepts full responsibility of [sic] any such injuries or damages which may occur to the Member or guest in, on or about the premises of the said gymnasiums and further agrees that Seller shall not be liable for any loss or theft of personal property. Member assumes full responsibility for any injuries, damages or losses which may occur to Member or guest, in, on or about the premises of said gymnasiums and does hereby fully and forever release and discharge Seller and all associated gymnasiums, their owners, employees and agents from any and all claims, demands, damages, rights of action, or causes of action, present or future, whether the same be known or unknown, anticipated, or unanticipated, resulting from or arising out of the Member’s or his guests [sic] use or intended use of the said gymnasiums or the facilities and equipment thereof.” [ Id. at 618-619.]
This Court found that the release “clearly expresses defendant’s intention to disclaim liability for all negligence, including its own.” Id. at 619.
Similarly, in Cole, supra at 14, this Court held that the release the plaintiff signed “clearly [***17] expressed defendant’s intention to disclaim liability for all injuries, including those attributable to its own negligence.” In that case, the pertinent part of the release read:
[**173] “The undersigned acknowledges that due to the unique combination of dangerous factors in the restricted area [*275] associated with the stabling, exercising and training of a large number of horses, and the presence of tradespeople, jockeys, owner and other personnel in the area, there are inherent dangers in the restricted area which Ladbroke cannot eliminate after exercising reasonable care.
“In acknowledgment of the dangerous conditions and inherent risks associated with the restricted area, the undersigned hereby voluntarily assumes all risks of any injury that the undersigned may sustain while on the premises of Ladbroke and hereby waives all liability against Ladbroke, its officers, employees and agents.” [ Id. at 4-5.]
With these cases as guidance, we simply cannot read the purported release in the instant case as releasing defendant from liability stemming from its own negligence. We find that the language in the alleged release is unambiguous, and clearly states that defendant would not [***18] assume responsibility for “any injuries and/or sicknesses incurred to [sic] me or any accompanying minor person as a result of entering the premises and/or using any of the facilities.” However, this provision does not inform the reader that he is solely responsible for injuries incurred or that he waives defendant’s liability by relinquishing his right to sue, nor does it contain the words “waiver,” “disclaim,” or similar language that would clearly indicate to the reader that by accepting its terms he is giving up the right to assert a negligence claim. While such words are not necessary to create a release, Klann v Hess Cartage Co, 50 Mich. App. 703, 705; 214 N.W.2d 63 (1973), we believe that, [HN9] at a minimum, a release should explicitly inform the reader regarding the effect of the release. 4 Therefore, we find [*276] that the language at the top of defendant’s sign-in sheet was insufficient to operate as a release, absolving defendant of any liability for its own negligence, and plaintiff is not barred from pursuing his ordinary-negligence claim against defendant. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court erred in granting defendant summary disposition in regards [***19] to plaintiff’s ordinary-negligence claim.
4 We note that this Court held that the release in Hall v Joseph, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued March 2, 1999 (Docket No. 206282), “plainly and unambiguously provided that AAA was not to be liable for any actions of the third-party contractors providing emergency road service,” and, therefore, the plaintiffs were barred from seeking damages from AAA for the third-party’s actions. The release provision stated:
Understandably, in providing Emergency Road Service, AAA Michigan cannot and does not assume responsibility for the actions of independent service facility personnel. These facilities serve as independent contractors and are not employees or agents of AAA Michigan. Any damages resulting from their actions are the sole responsibility of the facility and should be reported immediately to the service facility owner before repairs are made.
The first sentence contains language similar to that at issue in this case–the defendant “does not assume responsibility . . . .” However, the release in Hall continues and provides clarification regarding the effect of this phrase–the third-party was solely responsible for any damages–while the alleged release in this case did not. We recognize that this case provides no precedential value, MCR 7.215(A)(1), and cite it only as an example of the additional language defendant could have included in her release to clearly convey that defendant was disclaiming liability.
Plaintiff also argues that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition on [**174] his wrongful-death claim because the release, even if valid, only precluded a cause of action by Yan, not his family members. We agree that plaintiff’s wrongful-death claim is not barred, but for a different reason.
MCL 600.2922(1) provides:
[HN10] [*277] Whenever the death of a person or injuries resulting in death shall be caused by wrongful act, neglect, or fault of another, and the act, neglect, or fault is such as would, if death had not ensued, have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages, the person who or the corporation that would have been liable, if death had not ensued, shall be liable to an action for damages, notwithstanding the death of the person injured, and although the death was caused under circumstances that constitute a felony.
The language of the statute is clear. [HN11] If a decedent could not have maintained the claim, his family members cannot recover under the wrongful-death statute.
Indeed, this Court recently stated:
” [HN12] The personal representative . . . who asserts a cause of action on behalf of a deceased stands in the [***21] deceased’s place for all purposes incident to the enforcement of that claim, including the rights and privileges personal to the decedent in his lifetime.”
Even though the wrongful death act is for the benefit of certain persons, the cause of action is a derivative one whereby the personal representative of the deceased stands in the latter’s shoes. [ Allstate Ins Co v Muszynski, 253 Mich. App. 138, 142; 655 N.W.2d 260 (2002) (citations omitted).]
Here, because Yan, had he survived, would have been able to maintain an ordinary-negligence claim against defendant, on the basis of our decision above, plaintiff can maintain an action for damages on the basis of the ordinary negligence of defendant. Therefore, we find that the trial court erred in granting defendant summary disposition and dismissing plaintiff’s wrongful-death claim.
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.
/s/ Michael R. Smolenski
/s/ Joel P. Hoekstra
/s/ Karen M. Fort Hood
Petitioner: Salynda E. Fleury, individually on behalf of Indyka Norris and Sage Norris, and as surviving spouse of Christopher H. Norris, v. Respondent: IntraWest Winter Park Operations Corporation.
Supreme Court Case No. 14SC224
SUPREME COURT OF COLORADO
2016 CO 41; 2016 Colo. LEXIS 532
May 31, 2016, Decided
THIS OPINION IS NOT THE FINAL VERSION AND SUBJECT TO REVISION UPON FINAL PUBLICATION
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Court of Appeals Case No. 13CA517.
DISPOSITION: Judgment Affirmed.
OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: -The definition of “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” in Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-103(3.5) (2015) of the Ski Safety Act of 1979, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 33-44-101 to -114 (2015), specifically included snow conditions “as they exist or may change;” -This phrase encompassed an in-bounds avalanche, which was the movement, or changing condition, of snow; -Although the resort was aware of avalanche warnings, the unstable snow on the run where an avalanche occurred, and the areas within the resort that were most susceptible to avalanches, and it neither closed the run nor posted signs to warn skiers of the avalanche risk, it was not liable for a skier’s death from an in-bounds avalanche, pursuant to Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-112 (2015).
OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.
CORE TERMS: snow, avalanche, skiing, skier, avalanches, ski area, inherent danger, terrain, ski, powder, in-bounds, encompass, weather, pack, ice, variations, steepness, slope, inherent risk, collisions, warning, slush, lift, natural objects, immunity, resort, packed, sport, wind, rock
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
Governments > Legislation > Interpretation
[HN1] The definition of “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” in Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-103(3.5) (2015) of the Ski Safety Act of 1979, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 33-44-101 to -114 (2015), specifically includes snow conditions as they exist or may change. This phrase encompasses an in-bounds avalanche, which is, at its core, the movement, or changing condition, of snow.
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
Governments > Legislation > Interpretation
[HN2] The statutory definition of risks of skiing specifically lists “snow conditions as they exist or may change” as an inherent danger and risk of skiing. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-103(3.5) (2015). This phrase encompasses an in-bounds avalanche, which is, at its core, the movement, or changing condition, of snow. Therefore, an in-bounds avalanche qualifies as an inherent risk of skiing under the Ski Safety Act of 1979, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 33-44-101 to -114 (2015).
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
Governments > Legislation > Interpretation
Civil Procedure > Appeals > Standards of Review > Fact & Law Issues
Civil Procedure > Appeals > Standards of Review > De Novo Review
[HN3] Whether the term “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” as defined in Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-103(3.5) (2015) encompasses in-bounds avalanches is a question of statutory interpretation that is reviewed de novo.
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
[HN4] The the Ski Safety Act of 1979, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 33-44-101 to -114 (2015), recognizes that certain dangers and risks inhere in the sport of skiing, regardless of any and all reasonable safety measures which can be employed by ski area operators. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-102 (2015). It therefore provides that no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-112.
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
[HN5] The the Ski Safety Act of 1979, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 33-44-101 to -114 (2015), specifically defines “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” as those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing, including changing weather conditions; snow conditions as they exist or may change, such as ice, hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow; surface or subsurface conditions such as bare spots, forest growth, rocks, stumps, streambeds, cliffs, extreme terrain, and trees, or other natural objects, and collisions with such natural objects; impact with lift towers, signs, posts, fences or enclosures, hydrants, water pipes, or other man-made structures and their components; variations in steepness or terrain, whether natural or as a result of slope design, snowmaking or grooming operations, including but not limited to roads, freestyle terrain, jumps, and catwalks or other terrain modifications; collisions with other skiers; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-103(3.5) (2015).
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
[HN6] The Ski Safety Act of 1979, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 33-44-101 to -114 (2015), specifically excludes the negligence of a ski area operator as set forth in Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-104(2) (2015) from the definition of inherent dangers and risks of skiing and does not immunize operators for injuries caused by the use or operation of ski lifts.
Governments > Legislation > Interpretation
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
[HN7] The term “injury” as used in the Ski Safety Act of 1979, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 33-44-101 to -114 (2015), includes death.
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
Governments > Legislation > Interpretation
[HN8] The phrase “snow conditions as they exist or may change” in Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-103(3.5) (2015) encompasses avalanches that occur within the bounds of a ski resort. A “condition” is simply a mode or state of being, or more specifically, the physical state of something. A “snow condition,” therefore, is simply a mode or state of being or the physical state of snow. To put it differently, a snow condition is a description of the snow at any given time. Section 33-44-103(3.5) lists ice, hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow as examples of snow conditions–that is, ways in which to describe the physical state of the snow at any particular time.
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
Governments > Legislation > Interpretation
[HN9] Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-103(3.5) (2015) contemplates that the snow conditions may change. § 33-44-103(3.5) lists “snow conditions as they exist or may change” as an inherent risk of skiing. One obvious way in which a snow condition “may change” is through movement of the snow, including by wind and gravity. And at its core, an avalanche is moving snow caused by gravity. The dictionary definition of avalanche is a large mass of snow, ice, earth, rock, or other material in swift motion down a mountainside or over a precipice. Although this definition could include snowless rockslides or landslides, in practice, avalanche usually refers to the snow avalanche.
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
[HN10] An avalanche is one way in which snow conditions may change for purposes of the definition of inherent dangers and risks of skiing in Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-103(3.5) (2015).
Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities
[HN11] Because an avalanche is, at its essence, the movement of snow, and is therefore a way in which snow conditions may change, Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-103(3.5) (2015) covers in-bounds avalanches. It follows that § 33-44-112 precludes skiers from suing operators to recover for injuries resulting from in-bounds avalanches.
Governments > Legislation > Statutory Remedies & Rights
[HN12] A statute may modify or restrict a common law right only to the extent embraced by the statute.
Ski Safety Act of 1979–Statutes–Immunity Statutes–Plain Language–Plain, Ordinary, Common, or Literal Meaning–Public Amusement and Entertainment–Skiing and Snowboarding
The Colorado Supreme Court holds that an avalanche that occurs within the bounds of a ski resort qualifies as an “inherent danger and risk of skiing” under the Ski Safety Act of 1979, §§ 33-44-101 to -114, C.R.S. (2015). The definition of “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” in section 33-44-103(3.5), C.R.S. (2015), specifically includes “snow conditions as they exist or may change.” By its plain meaning, this phrase encompasses an in-bounds avalanche, which is, at its core, the movement, or changing condition, of snow. As such, section 33-44-112, C.R.S. (2015), precludes skiers from recovering for injuries resulting from in-bounds avalanches.
COUNSEL: Attorneys for Petitioner: Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardine, PC, James G. Heckbert, Diane Vaksdal Smith, Nelson P. Boyle, Englewood, Colorado.
Attorneys for Respondent: Rietz Law Firm, LLC, Peter W. Rietz, Kimberly A. Viergever, Brian A. Birenbach, Dillon, Colorado.
Attorney for Amici Curiae Association of Professional Patrollers and Fédération Internationale [**2] des Patrouilles de Ski: Gassman Law Firm LLC and Community Legal Center, Edward C. Gassman, Loveland, Colorado.
Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Colorado Ski Country USA, Inc.: Davis Graham and Stubbs LLP, Jordan Lipp, John M. Bowlin, Denver, Colorado; Colorado Ski Country USA, Inc., Melanie Mills, Denver, Colorado.
Attorney for Amicus Curiae Colorado Trial Lawyers Association: Heideman Poor LLC, John F. Poor, Denver, Colorado.
JUDGES: JUSTICE EID delivered the Opinion of the Court. JUSTICE MÁRQUEZ dissents, and JUSTICE GABRIEL joins in the dissent.
OPINION BY: EID
JUSTICE EID delivered the Opinion of the Court.
[*1] In this case, we determine whether an avalanche that occurs within the bounds of a ski resort qualifies as an “inherent danger and risk of skiing” under the Ski Safety Act of 1979, §§ 33-44-101 to -114, C.R.S. (2015) (the “SSA” or “Act”). If so, the statute would preclude skiers from bringing claims against ski area operators for injuries resulting from these kinds of avalanches. See § 33-44-112, C.R.S. (2015).
[*2] Here, petitioner Salynda E. Fleury brought a negligence and wrongful death suit against respondent IntraWest Winter Park Operations Corporation (“Winter Park”) after her husband was killed in an in-bounds avalanche at its resort. Fleury [**3] claims that, although Winter Park knew that avalanches were likely to occur in the area where her husband was skiing that day, it neither warned skiers about this risk nor closed the area. Winter Park filed a motion for a determination of law under C.R.C.P. 56(h) and for judgment on the pleadings under C.R.C.P. 12(c), arguing that in-bounds avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing as defined in the SSA and that the SSA therefore precluded the lawsuit. The trial court agreed and dismissed the action pursuant to section 33-44-112.
[*3] The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal in a split decision. The majority concluded that avalanches fall within the statutory meaning of the phrase “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” because they result from “snow conditions as they exist or may change,” “changing weather conditions,” and “variations of steepness or terrain,” all of which are specifically enumerated as “inherent dangers and risks” under the statutory definition. Fleury v. IntraWest Winter Park Operations Corp., 2014 COA 13, ¶¶ 15-16, ___ P.3d ___. Judge J. Jones dissented, arguing that the statute neither expressly nor by clear implication included in-bounds avalanches as an inherent risk of skiing. Id. at ¶ 29 (J. Jones, J., dissenting).
[*4] We granted certiorari and now affirm. [HN1] The definition of “inherent dangers [**4] and risks of skiing” in section 33-44-103(3.5), C.R.S. (2015), specifically includes “snow conditions as they exist or may change.” This phrase encompasses an in-bounds avalanche, which is, at its core, the movement, or changing condition, of snow. We therefore affirm the decision of the court of appeals.
[*5] We accept as true the following allegations from the complaint. See Melat, Pressman & Higbie, L.L.P. v. Hannon Law Firm, L.L.C., 2012 CO 61, ¶ 7, 287 P.3d 842, 845 (citing Abts v. Bd. of Educ., 622 P.2d 518, 521 (Colo. 1980)).
[*6] On January 22, 2012, Christopher H. Norris was killed in an avalanche while skiing on the “Trestle Trees” run within the bounds of Winter Park Resort. In the days leading up to his death, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center had predicted heavy snow storms and issued an avalanche warning to last through January 23. It warned skiers to “[b]e careful near or below any slope over 30 degrees” and cautioned that “the weak snowpack will not be able to handle even [a] modest new load” of snow from the coming storms. Prior to the arrival of these storms, the existing snow base on the Trestle Trees run had grown weak and unstable, which made it prone to avalanches. Winter Park knew about the avalanche warnings, the unstable snow on the Trestle Trees run, and the areas within the resort that were most susceptible to avalanches on January 22, [**5] including Trestle Trees, but it neither closed the run nor posted signs to warn skiers of the avalanche risk.
[*7] After her husband’s death, Fleury brought negligence and wrongful death claims against Winter Park. Winter Park filed a motion for a determination of law under C.R.C.P. 56(h) and for judgment on the pleadings under C.R.C.P. 12(c), arguing that the SSA barred the lawsuit because avalanches constitute an inherent risk of skiing under the statutory definition.
[*8] The trial court granted the motion. It found that the allegations in the complaint indicated that the fatal avalanche resulted from a combination of “changing weather conditions,” “snow conditions,” and “variations in steepness or terrain” as enumerated in section 33-44-103(3.5). The court rejected Fleury’s argument that the statute needed to expressly enumerate the term “avalanches” for avalanches to be covered as an inherent risk because section 33-44-103(3.5) uses the non-exclusive term “including” before listing examples of inherent risks. As such, it dismissed the complaint with prejudice.
[*9] In a split decision, the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal. Fleury, ¶ 28. The majority agreed with the trial court that the word “including” was “illustrative and not, as Ms. Fleury argues, confined [**6] to the identified dangers” in the statute because it is “a word of extension or enlargement.” Id. at ¶ 11. It went on to conclude that avalanches result “from certain conditions of snow, and the degree of danger is affected by ‘changing weather conditions’ across ‘variations of steepness or terrain.'” Id. at ¶ 15. Consequently, the court held that the term “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” under section 33-44-103(3.5) encompasses avalanches. Id. at ¶ 16.
[*10] In dissent, Judge Jones objected that the majority “cobbl[ed] together three categories of covered dangers and risks” to conclude that avalanches are covered under the definition even though they are not expressly included in it. Id. at ¶ 38 (J. Jones, J., dissenting). He argued that this approach violated the rule that statutory grants of immunity must be strictly construed, and characterized an avalanche as an “event–one that not even necessarily involves snow,” as distinguished from “changing weather conditions,” “snow conditions,” or “variations in steepness or terrain.” Id. at ¶¶ 38, 42, 43-45. Finally, Judge Jones asserted that avalanches do not always result from the mere combination of these three factors, because other factors, including human action, [**7] can also cause them independently. Id. at ¶ 46. Thus, even if the majority was correct to aggregate the different categories under the statute, Judge Jones contended that the statute still did not unambiguously encompass avalanches. Id. at ¶ 48. For these reasons, he would have reversed the trial court. Id. at ¶ 29.
[*11] We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals’ decision and now affirm.1 [HN2] The statutory definition specifically lists “snow conditions as they exist or may change” as an “inherent danger and risk of skiing.” § 33-44-103(3.5). This phrase encompasses an in-bounds avalanche, which is, at its core, the movement, or changing condition, of snow. We therefore hold that an in-bounds avalanche qualifies as an inherent risk of skiing under the SSA.2
1 We granted certiorari to review the following issue:
Whether, for the purposes of the Ski Safety Act (“SSA”) of 1979, codified at sections C.R.S. 33-44-101 to -114 (2014), the term “inherent dangers and risks of skiing,” as defined in C.R.S. 33-44-103(3.5) (2014), encompasses avalanches that occur within the bounds of a ski resort, in areas open to skiers at the time in question.
2 Because we find that the enumerated term “snow conditions as they exist or may change” encompasses in-bounds avalanches, [**8] we do not reach the question of whether the term “including” as used in section 33-44-103(3.5) is exclusive or non-exclusive.
[*12] [HN3] Whether the term “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” as defined in section 33-44-103(3.5) encompasses in-bounds avalanches is a question of statutory interpretation that we review de novo. Hunsaker v. People, 2015 CO 46, ¶ 11, 351 P.3d 388, 391.
[*13] [HN4] The SSA recognizes that certain dangers and risks “inhere in the sport of skiing, regardless of any and all reasonable safety measures which can be employed” by ski area operators. § 33-44-102, C.R.S. (2015). It therefore provides that “no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” § 33-44-112.3 [HN5] The Act specifically defines “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” as
those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing, including changing weather conditions; snow conditions as they exist or may change, such as ice, hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow; surface or subsurface conditions such as bare spots, forest growth, rocks, stumps, streambeds, cliffs, extreme terrain, and trees, or other natural objects, and collisions with such natural objects; impact with lift towers, [**9] signs, posts, fences or enclosures, hydrants, water pipes, or other man-made structures and their components; variations in steepness or terrain, whether natural or as a result of slope design, snowmaking or grooming operations, including but not limited to roads, freestyle terrain, jumps, and catwalks or other terrain modifications; collisions with other skiers; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.
§ 33-44-103(3.5) (emphasis added). [HN6] The Act specifically excludes “the negligence of a ski area operator as set forth in section 33-44-104(2)” from this definition and does not immunize operators for “injur[ies] caused by the use or operation of ski lifts.” Id.
3 We have construed [HN7] the term “injury” to include death. Stamp v. Vail Corp., 172 P.3d 437, 447 (Colo. 2007).
[*14] [HN8] The phrase “snow conditions as they exist or may change” encompasses avalanches that occur within the bounds of a ski resort. A “condition” is simply a “mode or state of being,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 473 (2003), or more specifically, “the physical state of something,” Merriam–Webster Online Dictionary, https://perma.cc/E4DZ-9UZA . A “snow condition,” therefore, is simply a “mode or state of being” or “the physical state” of snow. To put it differently, a snow condition is a description of the snow at any [**10] given time. Section 33-44-103(3.5) lists “ice, hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow” as examples of snow conditions–that is, ways in which to describe the physical state of the snow at any particular time.
[*15] [HN9] The statute also contemplates that the snow conditions “may change.” § 33-44-103(3.5) (listing “snow conditions as they exist or may change” as an inherent risk of skiing (emphasis added)). One obvious way in which a snow condition “may change” is through movement of the snow, including by wind and gravity. And at its core, an avalanche is moving snow caused by gravity. The dictionary definition of “avalanche” is “a large mass of snow, ice, earth, rock, or other material in swift motion down a mountainside or over a precipice.” Webster ‘s Third New Inter national Dictionary 150 (2003); see also The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 383 (4th ed. 2000) (defining “avalanche” as “[a] fall or slide of a large mass, as of snow or rock, down a mountainside”). Although this definition could include snowless rockslides or landslides, “[i]n practice, [‘avalanche’] usually refers to the snow avalanche.” Nat’l Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin., Avalanche [**11] , Nat’l Weather Serv. Glossary, https://perma.cc/VYR3-CXAZ ; see also Nat’l Avalanche Ctr., Avalanche, Encyclopedia, https://perma.cc/LRR7-K782 (defining “avalanche” as “[a] mass of snow sliding, tumbling, or flowing down an inclined surface” and explaining the types of avalanches, all of which involve moving snow). These sources confirm that an avalanche is most commonly understood as the movement of snow down a mountainside or other incline.
[*16] At bottom, then, [HN10] an avalanche is one way in which snow conditions may change. As alleged here, snow conditions started with fresh snow on unstable snowpack, and, within moments, changed to a mound of snow at the bottom of the incline. We therefore conclude that Norris’s death is alleged to have been caused by changing snow conditions.
[*17] Adopting the reasoning of the dissenting judge below, Fleury argues that an avalanche is “an event,” not a snow condition, and that therefore an avalanche does not fall within the statutory language. See Fleury, ¶ 42 (J. Jones, J., dissenting). This interpretation, however, ignores the fact that the language covers snow conditions as they “exist” or “may change.” [HN11] Because an avalanche is, at its essence, the movement of snow, and is therefore a way in which snow conditions may change, we hold that section 33-44-103(3.5) covers [**12] in-bounds avalanches. It follows that section 33-44-112 precludes skiers from suing operators to recover for injuries resulting from in-bounds avalanches.4
4 Because we conclude that the phrase “snow conditions as they exist or may change” encompasses in-bounds avalanches, we need not consider Fleury’s additional argument, based on the dissent, that “a statute’s grant of immunity must be strictly construed.” Fleury, ¶ 38 (J. Jones, J., dissenting); see Ryals v. St. Mary-Corwin Reg’l Med. Ctr., 10 P.3d 654, 661 (Colo. 2000) [HN12] (“A statute may modify or restrict a common law right only to the extent embraced by the statute.”).
[*18] For these reasons, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals.
JUSTICE MÁRQUEZ dissents, and JUSTICE GABRIEL joins in the dissent.
DISSENT BY: MÁRQUEZ
JUSTICE MÁRQUEZ, dissenting.
[*19] Today the majority holds that an avalanche that kills a skier on a designated, open run at a ski area is nothing more than a “changing snow condition,” maj. op. ¶ 16, and thus one of the “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” for which ski resorts are immune from liability under the Ski Safety Act of 1979, §§ 33-44-101 to -114, C.R.S. (2015) (the “SSA”). To arrive at this conclusion, the majority construes the statutory phrase “snow conditions as they . . . may change” in section 33-44-103(3.5) to encompass the movement of snow, “including [**13] by wind and gravity,” maj. op. ¶ 15, such that an avalanche–the swift sliding or tumbling of a large mass of snow, ice, earth, rock, or other material down a mountain incline–is merely a “change” in the “condition” of the snow. Because the majority’s construction of section 33-44-103(3.5) is wholly unconvincing, I respectfully dissent.
I. Principles of Statutory Construction
[*20] We review issues of statutory interpretation de novo. Robinson v. Colo. State Lottery Div., 179 P.3d 998, 1003 (Colo. 2008). When interpreting language in a statute, courts are guided by familiar principles of statutory construction. Our aim is always to ascertain and give effect to the General Assembly’s intent. Roup v. Commercial Research, LLC, 2015 CO 38, ¶ 8, 349 P.3d 273, 275. We give words their plain and ordinary meaning, id., and we examine the statutory language in the context of the statute as a whole, Foiles v. Whittman, 233 P.3d 697, 699 (Colo. 2010). We will not read into a statute language that does not exist. Boulder Cty. Bd. of Com’rs v. HealthSouth Corp., 246 P.3d 948, 954 (Colo. 2011). Finally, “when the legislature speaks with exactitude, we must construe the statute to mean that the inclusion or specification of a particular set of conditions necessarily excludes others.” Lunsford v. W. States Life Ins., 908 P.2d 79, 84 (Colo. 1995).
II. The Ski Safety Act
[*21] The purpose of the Ski Safety Act is to define the legal responsibilities, rights, and liabilities of ski area operators and of the skiers who use their facilities. § 33-44-102, C.R.S. (2015); Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70, 74 (Colo. 1998). Because [**14] certain dangers “inhere in the sport of skiing,” § 33-44-102, the General Assembly has limited ski area operators’ tort liability by granting them immunity for “injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing,” § 33-44-112, C.R.S. (2015). The SSA defines “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” in section 33-44-103(3.5), C.R.S. (2015), listing seven categories of hazards: (1) “changing weather conditions,” (2) “snow conditions as they exist or may change,” (3) “surface or subsurface conditions,” (4) impact with natural and man-made objects commonly encountered on the slopes, (5) “variations in steepness or terrain,” (6) “collisions with other skiers,” and (7) “the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.”1
1 Section 33-44-103(3.5) reads, in its entirety:
“Inherent dangers and risks of skiing” means those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing, including changing weather conditions; snow conditions as they exist or may change, such as ice, hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow; surface or subsurface conditions such as bare spots, forest growth, rocks, stumps, streambeds, cliffs, extreme terrain, and trees, or other natural objects, and collisions with such [**15] natural objects; impact with lift towers, signs, posts, fences or enclosures, hydrants, water pipes, or other man-made structures and their components; variations in steepness or terrain, whether natural or as a result of slope design, snowmaking or grooming operations, including but not limited to roads, freestyle terrain, jumps, and catwalks or other terrain modifications; collisions with other skiers; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities. The term “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” does not include the negligence of a ski area operator as set forth in section 33-44-104(2). Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the liability of the ski area operator for injury caused by the use or operation of ski lifts.
[*22] The provision further elucidates some of these categories through examples. For instance, “surface or subsurface conditions” include “bare spots, forest growth, rocks, stumps, streambeds, cliffs, extreme terrain, and trees, or other natural objects, and collisions with such natural objects.” Id. “[V]ariations in steepness or terrain” include but are not limited to “roads, freestyle terrain, jumps, and catwalks or other terrain modifications.” Id. And the [**16] statute describes “impact” with specific objects, namely “lift towers, signs, posts, fences or enclosures, hydrants, water pipes, or other man-made structures and their components.” Id. Relevant here, “snow conditions as they exist or may change” means conditions such as “ice, hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow.” Id. Given the extensive list of inherent dangers in section 33-44-103(3.5), skiers and snowboarders assume much of the risk of engaging in snow sports, even within the boundaries of a ski area. And yet, nowhere in the statute does the term “avalanche” appear.
[*23] The majority nevertheless concludes that the statutory phrase “snow conditions as they . . . may change” in section 33-44-103(3.5) encompasses the “movement” of snow, maj. op. ¶ 15, such that an avalanche is simply a “change” in the “condition” of the snow. This interpretation is untenable for a host of reasons.
[*24] As an initial matter, because the SSA’s grant of immunity to ski area operators abrogates remedies available at common law, we must construe the statute strictly. Henisse v. First Transit, Inc., 247 P.3d 577, 579 (Colo. 2011). Thus, “if the legislature wishes to abrogate rights that would otherwise be available under the common law, it must manifest [**17] its intent either expressly or by clear implication.” Vigil v. Franklin, 103 P.3d 322, 327 (Colo. 2004).
[*25] Although the majority does not address the issue, Winter Park contends that section 33-44-103(3.5) must be construed broadly because it introduces the categories of dangers and risks with the word “including.” Ordinarily, the word “including” is construed expansively, such that placing “including” before a list of examples does not confine the meaning of the term to the specific examples listed. Preston v. Dupont, 35 P.3d 433, 438 (Colo. 2001).
[*26] However, viewed in the context of section 33-44-103 as a whole, the use of the term “including” at the beginning of subsection (3.5) does not function to expand the list of “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” that follow; rather, it serves to limit it. Elsewhere in section 33-44-103, which provides the definitions for terms used in the SSA, the General Assembly used “including” coupled with expansive language. For example, “Freestyle terrain” “includes, but is not limited to,” terrain parks and other features. § 33-44-103(3.3). “Skiing” “includes, without limitation,” all manner of snow sports. § 33-44-103(8). A “skier” is a person who uses the facilities of a ski area, “including but not limited to” ski slopes and trails. Id. Most significantly, subsection (3.5), the provision at issue here defining the “inherent dangers and risks of skiing,” describes [**18] “variations in steepness or terrain” as “including but not limited to” various types of natural and man-made terrain. § 33-44-103(3.5). In contrast, the General Assembly omitted this expansive additional language from the term “including” at the head of subsection (3.5). Courts must presume that the legislature did not make this choice idly; instead, “the use of different terms signals an intent on the part of the General Assembly to afford those terms different meanings.” Robinson, 179 P.3d at 1010. Thus, we can infer from the language of section 33-44-103 as a whole that the term “including” as used at the beginning of subsection (3.5) was intended to limit, not expand, the list of “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” that follow.
[*27] The history of this provision confirms this legislative intent. When first introduced, the 1990 amendment that added what is now subsection (3.5) defined “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” as those dangers or conditions “including, but not limited to,” various hazards. However, in comments before the House Committee on State Affairs, Representative McInnis, a sponsor of the bill, explained that the original bill was amended to remove the phrase “but not limited to,” and that this change was intended to narrow the provision:
We have stricken the words ‘but [**19] not limited to,’ so that it simply reads, ‘the sport of skiing, including,’ and then it goes on to say, ‘changing weather conditions, snow conditions,’ and so forth. . . . It’s a slight narrowing of the amendment, and it’s a clarification that the items that follow are the inherent risks and dangers that are being referred to.
Hearing on S.B. 90-80 Before the H. Comm. on State Affairs, 57th Gen. Assemb., 2nd Sess. (March 13, 1990) (statement of Rep. McInnis) (emphases added). In short, given this legislative intent, and given that the SSA abrogates the common law, we must construe the “inherent dangers and risks” in section 33-44-103(3.5) narrowly.
[*28] Second, as a matter of statutory construction and common sense, I simply cannot agree with the majority that the phrase “snow conditions as they . . . may change” can be construed to encompass the “movement” of snow. Maj. op. ¶¶ 15-16. The majority acknowledges that the term “condition” means “simply a ‘mode or state of being,’ or more specifically, ‘the physical state of something.'” Id. at ¶ 14 (citation omitted). I agree. Logically, then, a snow “condition” refers to the physical state of snow, as illustrated by the examples listed in the statute: “ice, hard [**20] pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow.” § 33-44-103(3.5). Each example describes a physical property or quality of the snow itself. On any given day on the slopes, skiers necessarily encounter one or more of these snow conditions.
[*29] By contrast, an avalanche is “an event–one that not even necessarily involves snow.” Fleury v. IntraWest Winter Park Operations Corp., 2014 COA 13 (J. Jones, J., dissenting). In short, an avalanche is not a “physical state” of snow but a term that describes the movement of snow. Indeed, the majority recognizes that an avalanche describes an episode: a “fall or slide of a large mass . . . down a mountainside,” or a “mass of snow sliding, tumbling, or flowing down an inclined surface.” Maj. op. ¶ 15. Yet subsection (3.5) does not include the “movement” of snow among the “inherent dangers and risks” of skiing. Under the canon of statutory construction known as noscitur a sociis, “a word may be known by the company it keeps.” St. Vrain Valley Sch. Dist. RE-1J v. A.R.L., 2014 CO 33, ¶ 22, 325 P.3d 1014, 1021-22 (applying the canon by looking to the other terms grouped in a Colorado Governmental Immunity Act waiver for guidance in interpreting the term “public facility”). Here, the term “snow conditions” plainly refers to the physical state or [**21] quality of the snow itself: powder, packed powder, ice, slush, etc. Applying the canon of noscitur a sociis, a snow “condition” does not also contemplate the “movement” of snow–a wholly different concept. Indeed, in its own version of the SSA, the Idaho legislature recognized the obvious distinction between snow “conditions” and the “movement” of snow by separately providing that skiers assume the risk for both “snow or ice conditions” and “any movement of snow including, but not limited to, slides, sloughs or avalanches.” Idaho Code Ann. § 6-1106 (2015) (emphases added).
[*30] The majority nevertheless concludes that the phrase “snow conditions as they exist or may change” in subsection (3.5) encompasses the movement of snow by reasoning that the avalanche that killed Salynda Fleury’s husband was merely a “changing condition” of snow. But as discussed above, the “condition” of the snow refers to its physical quality (powder, ice, slush)–not an event, and not the snow’s location (piled on a precipice, nestled in tree branches, or lying at the base of a mountain). Consequently, a “change” in the “condition” of the snow under subsection (3.5) does not refer to a change in its location–or as the majority puts it, from “fresh snow on unstable snowpack” [**22] to “a mound of snow at bottom of the incline.” Maj. op. ¶ 16. Rather, a “change” in the “condition” of the snow simply refers to changes from one physical state or quality to another. Over the course of a few days or even a few hours, fresh “powder” can change to “packed powder.” A storm can change “hard pack” back to deep “powder.” On a spring day, “ice” can change to “hard pack,” to “slush,” and so on. But a “change” in the “condition” of snow hardly contemplates a change in the snow’s location, let alone an event like an avalanche. Accordingly, I simply cannot subscribe to the majority’s logic that the General Assembly intended “snow conditions as they exist or may change” to include avalanches.
[*31] Finally, the majority’s construction of this phrase cannot be squared with the remainder of the statute. The many hazards listed in section 33-44-103(3.5) as “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” are common, everyday conditions that any skier or snowboarder reasonably can expect to encounter on open portions of in-bounds ski areas. Importantly, each of these hazards represents dangers or risks that are either largely within a skier’s control (e.g., avoiding collisions with objects or other skiers, skiing within [**23] ability) or capable of being perceived, anticipated, assessed, and generally avoided by the skier’s choice (e.g., weather conditions, snow conditions, or terrain). See § 33-44-103(3.5).
[*32] But an avalanche is categorically different. Unlike weather, snow conditions, or terrain, the average skier lacks the training or resources to perceive and assess the risk of an avalanche on any given slope on any given day. Notably, the SSA allocates to ski area operators the risk of other hazards that fall outside of a skier’s ability to control or anticipate, but are within the ability of the ski area operator to mitigate or reasonably protect skiers therefrom. These include any “injury caused by the use or operation of ski lifts,” id., and injuries resulting from a ski area operator’s violation of SSA requirements like posting informative signage, § 33-44-106, C.R.S. (2015). Yet the majority’s construction of “snow conditions as they exist or may change” runs contrary to the rest of subsection (3.5) and allocates the risk of injury and death from an in-bounds avalanche not to ski area operators–which have the information, expertise, and resources to perceive and mitigate avalanche danger and protect skiers–but instead to the skiing public, which [**24] does not.
[*33] Perhaps the majority assumes that in-bounds avalanches can occur only on expert runs or in back bowl areas and that experienced skiers who venture onto steep, snowy slopes are knowledgeable about avalanche danger and rightly should assume the risk. However, the Trestle Trees area where Christopher Norris died was not a backcountry area but rather an open, designated run at Winter Park. Further, many expert slopes join beginner trails near the base of the mountain or have beginner-level catwalks that cross the expert runs. Under today’s holding, even a family of novice skiers traversing the mountain must be expected to look uphill, gauge the steepness of the slope, the quantity of fresh snow, and the multitude of other factors that avalanche forecasters consider, and assume the risk of being swept away by an avalanche.
[*34] Fleury alleges that Winter Park knew or should have known that the Trestle Trees area was likely to experience dangerous avalanches on the day of Norris’s death because avalanche warnings predicted heavy snows on a weak and unstable snowpack. Maj. op. ¶ 6. Despite these warnings, Winter Park neither closed the Trestle Trees nor warned skiers of the avalanche [**25] risk. Id. Certainly, ski area operators have ample incentive to mitigate the risk of avalanches and to protect skiers within their ski areas, lest the public take their ski vacations elsewhere. And without question, ski area operators go to great lengths to mitigate avalanche risk. But after today’s holding, Winter Park effectively has no duty at all to warn skiers of avalanche risk or to close a dangerous run based on such risk: the SSA does not require ski area operators to mitigate avalanches or to issue avalanche warnings, and the majority’s ruling today abrogates any common law duty of care to do so.2 In fact, under today’s holding, a ski area operator will be immune from liability for injuries from avalanches regardless of the circumstances–arguably even for avalanches triggered by the operator’s own negligent or reckless actions.3
2 The SSA does require ski area operators to print lift tickets containing a warning to skiers of the “inherent dangers and risks of skiing,” using language drawn from section 33-44-103(3.5). § 33-44-107(8)(c), C.R.S. (2015). Interestingly, this required lift ticket warning notifies skiers that they assume the risk of injury from a host of hazards, specifically: “[c]hanging weather conditions; existing and changing [**26] snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.” Id. Like subsection (3.5), nowhere in this required warning does the term “avalanche” appear. And for the reasons stated above, I gravely doubt a skier would infer from this list that “avalanches” naturally fall under the category of “changing snow conditions.”
3 In 1996, a ski patroller threw an avalanche charge from a chairlift at Loveland Ski Area in Colorado and triggered a “massive” avalanche that uprooted trees and destroyed the patroller’s own 1986 Honda Civic, parked in a lot at the base of the mountain. See John Meyer, Loveland’s Over the Rainbow was cleared by a human-set avalanche, The Denver Post, Oct. 15, 2012, http://perma.cc/C9T4-6A28 .
[*35] I note that my view of section 33-44-103(3.5) does not lead to unlimited liability for ski area operators. A plaintiff such as Fleury still must prove Winter Park’s negligence, and it is likely that ski area operators’ mitigation efforts ordinarily would meet any reasonable duty of care. Moreover, the SSA limits ski area operators’ liability in other ways, including a two-year statute of limitations [**27] for all actions to recover damages for injury caused by the maintenance, supervision, or operation of a ski area, § 33-44-111, C.R.S. (2015), and a one-million-dollar cap on damages that may be recovered by a skier injured while using a ski area, § 33-44-113, C.R.S. (2015).
[*36] In sum, although the General Assembly easily could have added “avalanches” to its extensive list of inherent dangers and risks in subsection (3.5), it chose not to. Unlike the majority, I would not add words to that provision to create immunity where none presently exists but would instead leave that decision to the legislature.4 Because the existing statutory definition of “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” does not include avalanches, and because I cannot accept the majority’s strained logic that an avalanche is merely a “change” in the “condition” of the snow, I respectfully dissent.
4 I note that other states’ versions of the SSA expressly allocate avalanche liability between ski area operators and skiers. A previous version of Montana’s statute defined “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” as including “avalanches, except on open, designated ski trails.” Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-702(2)(c) (2013). This section was amended in 2015 to provide that avalanches do not qualify as inherent dangers “on [**28] open, machine-groomed ski trails.” See 2015 Mont. Laws 299 (emphasis added). Alaska requires ski area operators to prepare and implement a plan of operation each ski season that includes provisions for avalanche control and rescue, Alaska Stat. § 05.45.040 (2015), and a ski area operator that violates this provision is negligent and may be held civilly liable, id. at § 05.45.020.
I am authorized to state that JUSTICE GABRIEL joins in this dissent.