In re Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121565

In re Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, as owner of a certain 20′ 2007 Baja Islander 202 for exoneration from or limitation of liability, Plaintiff.

Case No. 2:09-CV-637-TC-PMW

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF UTAH, CENTRAL DIVISION

2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121565

August 29, 2014, Decided

August 29, 2014, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: In re Aramark Sports & Entm’t Servs., LLC, 289 F.R.D. 662, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42692 (D. Utah, 2013)

CORE TERMS: boat, wind, weather, lake, mile, rental, weather forecast, advisory, marina, forecast, zone, morning, bridge, rope, vessel, life jackets, gusts, mph, claimant, privity, high winds, channel, radio, rent, foreseeable, allision, mooring, rig, boating, manager

 

COUNSEL:  [*1] For Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, a Delaware limited liability company, as owner of a certain 20″ 2007 Baja Islander 202 for exoneration from or limitation of liability, In Re, Counter Defendant: John R. Lund, LEAD ATTORNEY, SNOW CHRISTENSEN & MARTINEAU, SALT LAKE CITY, UT; Matthew W. Starley, LEAD ATTORNEY, SNOW CHRISTENSEN & MARTINEAU (ST GEORGE), ST GEORGE, UT; Terence S. Cox, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Marc A. Centor, PRO HAC VICE, COX WOOTTON GRIFFIN HANSEN & POULOS LLP, SAN FRANCISCO, CA.

For Taranto, Terry The Estate and Heirs of, Taranto, Maryanne The Estate and Heirs of, Defendants, Counter Claimants: Daniel Thomas Benchoff, Marvel Eugene Rake, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEYS, PRO HAC VICE, RAKE PETTI PC, PHOENIX, AZ; Robert S. Prince, LEAD ATTORNEY, KIRTON MCCONKIE, SALT LAKE CITY, UT.

For Prescott, Robert The Estate and Heirs of, Prescott, Katherine The Estate and Heirs of, Defendants, Counter Claimants, Counter Defendants: Casey W. Stevens, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, STEVENS & WILLIAMSON PC, ALPHARETTA, GA; Daniel Thomas Benchoff, Marvel Eugene Rake , Jr., LEAD ATTORNEYS, PRO HAC VICE, RAKE PETTI PC, PHOENIX, AZ; Robert S. Prince, LEAD ATTORNEY, KIRTON MCCONKIE, SALT [*2]  LAKE CITY, UT.

For James Brady, Heather Brady, Defendants: Jeffery Scott Williams, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jeffrie L. Hollingworth, NELSON CHRISTENSEN HOLLINGWORTH & WILLIAMS, SALT LAKE CITY, UT; William D. Holm, LEAD ATTORNEY, John T. Masterson, PRO HAC VICE, JONES SKELTON & HOCHULI PLC, PHOENIX, AZ.

For Baja Marine, Defendant: Alex B. Marconi, Craig A. Logsdon, LEAD ATTORNEY, Patrick X. Fowler, PRO HAC VICE, SNELL & WILMER (AZ) ONE ARIZONA CTR, PHOENIX, AZ; Elisabeth M. McOmber, LEAD ATTORNEY, SNELL & WILMER (UT), SALT LAKE CITY, UT.

JUDGES: TENA CAMPBELL, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: TENA CAMPBELL

OPINION

FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC (Aramark) owns a fleet of boats on Lake Powell that it rents to the public. On April 25, 2009, one of the Aramark power boats sank with six people on board. Four people, Terry and Maryanne Taranto, and Robert and Katherine Prescott, died in the accident. Two people, James and Heather Brady, survived.

Aramark filed a petition in this court to limit its liability under the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501-30512, from claims made by the Taranto Estates, the Prescott Estates and James and Heather Brady (the Claimants). The court held a [*3]  five-day bench trial to resolve the questions of whether any negligent conduct by Aramark employees caused the injury and whether Aramark had privity with the negligent actor or knew of the negligent conduct.

Because the court concludes that negligent conduct by Aramark employees was a cause of the injuries and also concludes that Aramark had privity and/or knew of the negligent conduct, the court denies Aramark’s petition to limit its liability.

FINDINGS OF FACT

  1. THE PARTIES
  1. Aramark

Aramark is a concessionaire for the National Park Service (NPS) in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. As concessionaire, Aramark operates the Wahweap Marina, located on Lake Powell just south of the Utah-Arizona border. Aramark operates other marinas on Lake Powell north of the Utah-Arizona border: Dangling Rope, Halls Crossing and Bullfrog.

Aramark will rent a power boat to anyone who is eighteen years or older and has a valid driver’s license. No previous boating experience is required.

Lake Powell’s main channel is 186 miles long when the lake is at high water. In the spring, the water is cold and the weather is frequently windy. The weather is erratic and can quickly change. In April, wind speeds [*4]  often exceed thirty miles an hour and can even reach fifty miles an hour. The weather can be calm at one part of the lake but have high winds and waves at another.

  1. The Claimants

James Brady, Robert Prescott, and Terry Taranto were retired police officers with the St. Petersburg, Florida Police Department. From time to time, they got together socially with their wives. Heather Brady, James Brady’s wife, had recently retired from the St. Petersburg Fire Department after twenty-six years as a firefighter and EMT.

In April 2009, the three couples (the Prescott Party) went on vacation together to Lake Powell. Robert Prescott had previously visited Arizona and Lake Powell and, in Heather Brady’s words, “Bob [Prescott] was familiar with the area so he just lined up all of the places we would go.” (Trial Transcript dated March 4, 2014 (“March 4 Tr.”) at 392 (Dkt. No. 310).)

  1. FRIDAY APRIL 24
  1. Arrival at Wahweap Marina

Members of the Prescott Party arrived at Lake Powell on Friday, April 24, 2009, and checked in at the resort at the Wahweap Marina area. The Bradys and the Prescotts, who arrived at Wahweap Marina on Friday before the Tarantos, went to Aramark’s boat rental office to rent a [*5]  boat for the next day. Phyllis Coon, a rental agent for Aramark, and Karen Ambrosius, Wahweap Marina general manager and the person in charge of boat rentals, were in the office. Mr. Brady, Mr. Prescott, and Ms. Coon discussed Mr. Brady’s previous boating experience,1 the Prescott Party’s plans to travel to Rainbow Bridge, which would take a full day, and the weather forecast for Saturday, April 25, the day the Prescott Party would be on the lake. The weather forecast, which was based on National Weather Service data collected at 3:44 a.m. that Friday morning, predicted the weather on Saturday, April 25 as “Breezy, with a south southwest wind, between 15 and 23 mph, with gusts as high as 37 mph.” (National Weather Service 7-Day Forecast, Ex. J-7.) Given the weather forecast, Ms. Coon suggested that they “might be more comfortable” on one of the tour boats that was available “because it was chilly on the lake and that going in the power boat they would need to go straight up to Rainbow Bridge just to ensure that they get up there, and then stop at Dangling Rope on the way back to fuel up.” (March 4 Tr. at 360 (Dkt. No. 310).) Mr. Brady and Mr. Prescott declined Ms. Coon’s suggestion [*6]  of a tour boat trip, and Mr. Prescott signed the rental contract for a Baja 202 Islander, number 647 (Boat 647). Mr. Prescott was given a copy of the weather forecast (Ex. J-7). Ms. Coon told Mr. Prescott that he would be given an updated weather report the next day before the Prescott Party departed on the boat. But this did not happen.

1 James Brady has some boating experience. He began boating as a young boy, “maybe as early as 10 riding on the boat. Dad and I would fish. From there, high school years running up and down the beach. A friend of mine had a boat. Running up and down the beach. And then my brother, who is now a licensed captain, he went into the fishing scene, so I [rode] on boats with him before, mullet boat.” (Id. at 465 (Dkt. No. 310-1).) Mr. Brady has owned several boats, including a 17-foot Mitchell, a 21-foot Mako, and “a couple Voyagers” (a Voyager is sport fishing boat). (Id.) When asked what percentage of his boating experience was in a lake and what percentage was in an ocean, Mr. Brady answered, “95 gulf or bay inland intercoastal and 5 percent lake.” (Id. at 472-73.) He estimated that the coldest water he had been in was “70, I believe 70, 72 degrees, [in] Florida.” (Id. at 473.)

  1. Boat 647

Boat 647 is just [*7]  over twenty feet in length and can hold eight passengers. U.S. Coast Guard regulations do not require boats over twenty feet in length to have positive flotation, and Boat 647 did not. (A boat with positive flotation has the ability to float and not sink for a period of time even if filled with water.) Boat 647 had a marine band radio that could receive and monitor both the hailing channel (channel 16) and the weather channel. Type II PFDs (life jackets) were on Boat 647.

The Baja 202 Islander is identified as a design category “C” boat that can withstand an upper limit wind speed of 31 miles per hour. (Baja Marine Owner’s Manual, Ex. C at 1.8.) The manual warns: “It is only the most experienced operators and crew that may be able to operate a boat safely under these conditions.” (Id.)

III. SATURDAY APRIL 25

  1. The Weather Forecasts

The National Weather Service maintains a website that is available to the public. Phyllis Coon testified that employees in Aramark’s boat rental office accessed the National Weather Service site for weather information. Moreover, it was Aramark employees’ general practice to keep the marine band radio on at the boat rental office during working hours to monitor [*8]  the weather.

The court reviewed several exhibits that showed the National Weather Service’s forecasts and advisories for April 24 and April 25, 2009. One of those exhibits included the National Weather Service 7-day forecast given to the Prescott Party, which read, “Breezy, with a south southwest wind, between 15 and 23 mph, with gusts as high as 37 mph.” (Ex. J-7.) That forecast, which was the only weather forecast given to the Prescott Party, was last updated at 3:44 a.m. on April 24. At various times after that, on April 24 and April 25, the National Weather Service updated the weather information that, if accessed through the website, would have been incorporated into a 7-day weather forecast similar to the one the Prescott Party received.

In its forecasting system, the National Weather Service divides the United States into geographical areas called “zones” and then issues forecasts for each zone. Two zones relevant to this case are (i) the Arizona Zone 5, which is a fairly small area, just below Lake Powell, and it includes Page, Arizona; and (ii) Utah Zone 21, which covers most of Lake Powell. Zone 21 forecasts give a more accurate prediction of weather conditions on Lake Powell, [*9]  but a comparison of the two zones’ forecasts for the relevant days showed that the forecasts contained similar data. (See Ex. A-120.)

Significantly, the National Weather Service updated the weather forecast at 3:18 p.m. on April 24 (almost twelve hours after issuance of the forecast data given to the Prescott Party) for Zone 5. That update announced a wind advisory in effect from 8 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 25, predicting 20 to 35 mile an hour winds and gusts around 45 miles an hour in the late morning and afternoon. (Trial Transcript dated March 7, 2014 (“March 7 Tr.”) at 907 (Dkt. No. 313-1).) A new 7-day forecast, if generated for the Prescott Party when they arrived to pick up Boat 647, would have reflected these changes (i.e., increases in wind speed) and a new wind advisory.2 And shortly before 3 a.m. for Zone 21 the National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for Lake Powell effective from noon on Saturday until 6 p.m. that evening, predicting sustained winds increasing to 25 to 35 miles an hour and gusts to around 55 miles an hour late in the afternoon. (Id. at 902.) A few minutes later, at 3:10 a.m., the National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for Zone 5, Glen Canyon [*10]  and Page, that would be in effect from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 25. (Ex. K. at 40.) That forecast predicted “South winds 15 to 20 mph with gusts to around 35 mph shifting to the southwest 20 to 30 mph with gusts to around 45 mph in the late morning and afternoon.” (Id.)

2 The National Weather Service issues advisories to inform the public about potentially hazardous situations. (March 7 Tr. at 885.)

Alton Ketchersid, Aramark’s resident district manager for water operations at Lake Powell, testified that it was his general practice to print the weather forecast at his home each morning at about 6 a.m. so he could distribute it to the administrative office and to the lodge. In his absence, Carrie Markus, an Aramark employee, would distribute it. Both Mr. Ketchersid and Ms. Markus were gone on April 24 and April 25, 2009.

  1. Pre-Departure Briefing

Because the Prescott Party had asked to leave early the morning of September 25, Bob Graham, a boat rental instructor for Aramark, met them on the dock at about 7:30 a.m. that morning (the boat rental office opened at 8 a.m.). Mr. Graham, who was not a witness at trial but testified through deposition, testified that he gave the Prescott [*11]  Party instructions about the use of the radio, the location of the PFDs, the route to Rainbow Bridge, and the weather forecast (the same one given to the Prescott Party the day before (Ex. J-7)).

According to Mr. Graham, before he met the Prescott Party that morning, he had gone to the rental office before it opened and looked at the weather forecast on the computer. But he testified that the weather forecast he viewed was the same one the Prescott Party had been given the day before.

Mr. Graham testified that he told Mr. Prescott that wind gusts around 37 to 40 miles an hour could be dangerous and that he recommended that the Prescott Party go directly to Rainbow Bridge and return. He told them, “You don’t have time to go sightseeing, to do anything else except go up there and get back before the weather turns bad on you.” (Dep. of Robert Graham at 21.) The Bradys do not remember this discussion.

  1. Stopping Boat Rentals

Aramark did not have a written policy addressing when it would stop renting boats because of weather conditions. But Alton Ketchersid testified that “if we were standing on the dock and the wind was blowing 31 miles an hour, we would not rent the boat, no.” (Trial Transcript [*12]  dated March 3, 2014 (“March 3 Tr.”) at 101 (Dkt. No. 312).) He explained that “it was not a good practice” to do so. (Id. at 102.) He acknowledged that if the wind speed exceeded 31 miles an hour on the lake, it could be “dangerous” for those on the boats. (Id. at 103.) Mr. Ketchersid testified that the decision whether to stop boats from leaving the marina was “mainly based on the safety of the guests.” (Id. at 105.)

Phyllis Coon believed that Aramark had “a general practice” of “shut[ting] down all rentals” if there were sustained winds of thirty miles an hour. (March 4 Tr. at 336 (Dkt. No. 310).) Aramark also would not rent boats if wind or weather advisories were issued.

Jon Maris, who was the former Aramark Director of Operations, testified that if he read a wind advisory predicting gusts of 55 miles an hour, he would shut down rentals. (Dep. of Jon Maris at 47.)

Karen Ambrosius, in her deposition testimony, testified that “[w]here we had sustained winds, . . . meaning constant winds of 30 miles per hour we would not send a boat out.” (March 3 Tr. at 226 (Dkt. No. 312-1) (quoting deposition testimony).) Ms. Ambrosius had the authority and discretion to decide if boat rentals should be shut down. She had previously exercised that [*13]  authority, shutting down boat rentals if sustained winds reached thirty miles an hour or if the National Weather Service had issued a wind advisory.

Robert Grippentog, who with other family members, runs Las Vegas Boat Harbor on Lake Mead, testified in his deposition that his business does not rent power boats if the sustained wind speeds are 25 miles an hour. (Dep. of Robert Grippentog, Jr. at 43.)

According to Horace Schuler, the general manager of Lake Mohave Resort outside of Bullhead City, Arizona, if the weather forecast was for sustained winds of 25 to 35 miles an hour, gusting to 55 miles an hour, the resort would not rent ski boats. (Dep. of Horace Schuler at 105.)

  1. Karen Ambrosius Stops Boat Rentals

Ms. Ambrosius testified that she was unaware of either the updated weather forecasts or the wind advisories. Ms. Ambrosius claimed that it was not until approximately 10:30 a.m., when she heard the National Weather Service wind advisory on Channel 16, that she knew that high winds were predicted. According to Ms. Ambrosius, she then walked outside and looked at the lake. Only then did she decide to end boat rentals.

Ms. Ambrosius also testified that the Prescott Party had told her [*14]  that they would be gone for only half a day. This testimony is contrary to the testimony of Ms. Coon, James Brady, Heather Brady and Robert Graham.

When asked what steps she had taken to alert the Prescott Party of the high winds, Ms. Ambrosius testified that both she and her office manager called the dispatch at the National Park Service and told them that the boat was late. But there is no record of any calls being made to the National Park Service until after Boat 647 had sunk. (Ex. J-39 at BAJA00036, Ex. J-40.) According to Steve Luckesen of the National Park Service, if calls had been made to the National Park Service, they would be reflected in the National Park Service log. (Dep. of Steve Luckesen at 517.)

She also claimed that she called the Aramark parts room, asked that if there was a chase boat available, and said “let them know that we have a boat that is late.” (March 3 Tr. at 250-51 (Dkt. No. 312-1).) Nothing in the record supports this claim, and Ms. Ambrosius admitted that she could not testify that she sent a chase boat to search for Boat 647.

Ms. Ambrosius did not attempt to call Dangling Rope Marina to have personnel there warn the Prescott Party of the high winds although [*15]  she knew that the Prescott Party would stop there to refuel. She did not notify any of the tour captains to watch for Boat 647 and alert them of the danger. She did not attempt to call the Prescott Party on the marine radio. (Although that would have been futile because Mr. Brady did not turn on Boat 647’s radio.) In sum, the court finds that Ms. Ambrosius did nothing to locate Boat 647.

  1. The Prescott Party’s Trip

The Prescott Party left the marina at about 8 a.m. James Brady was operating the boat because he had the most experience. During the trip to Rainbow Bridge, Heather Brady took photographs. Once they arrived at Rainbow Bridge, the party (with the exception of Katherine Taranto) hiked to the Rainbow Bridge monument. When they returned to the dock, they met some hikers who were waiting for a boat to arrive. James Brady tried to call Dangling Rope Marina to tell someone there about the hikers, but he could not contact the marina. He again turned off the radio.

The Prescott Party began the return trip to Wahweap Marina. They stopped, as they had been instructed to do, at Dangling Rope Marina to refuel. Once the boat had been refueled, the Prescott Party left. As they were leaving [*16]  Dangling Rope, Heather Brady saw both a tour boat and a National Park Service boat apparently headed toward Dangling Rope Marina.

  1. Boat 647 Sinks

After the Prescott Party left Dangling Rope, the channel became more open and the water was choppier. Heather Brady moved to the back seat to be more comfortable. No one in the Prescott Party was wearing a life jacket.

When they reached an area of the lake called Padre Bay (on the Utah side of the state line), the water grew rougher and spray came over the bow. Heather Brady felt water at her feet and she called to her husband. She heard him calling “mayday, mayday, mayday, vessel 647” over the radio. (March 4 Tr. at 411 (Dkt. No. 310).) She jumped out of the boat and grabbed one of the life jackets that floated by her. She swam with the life jacket to Terry Taranto and gave it to him. She grabbed another life jacket and swam to her husband. Then Terry Taranto “came over a wave and said, ‘I need a life jacket. I need a life jacket.'” (Id. at 414.) She found an extra life jacket and gave it to him. She and Jim Brady, using the life jackets they found floating in the water and a blue canvas bag that was also in the water, were able to reach a rock pile. [*17]  They climbed on the rock pile and waited until they were rescued by a National Park Service boat. The other members of the Prescott Party did not survive.

When Boat 647 was recovered, it did not have a breached hull. The boat had no value.

CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

Aramark has filed a petition under the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501-30512, seeking exoneration or limitation of liability under 46 U.S.C. § 30505 (titled “General limit of liability”). Section 30505 provides that “the liability of the owner of a vessel for any claim, debt, or liability described in subsection (b) shall not exceed the value of the vessel and pending freight.” 46 U.S.C. § 30505(a) (emphasis added). The Act does, however, create an exception to that general rule by defining “claim, debt, or liability”: “claims, debts, and liabilities subject to limitation under subsection (a) are those arising from any embezzlement, loss, or destruction of any property, goods, or merchandise shipped or put on board the vessel, any loss, damages, or injury by collision, or any act, matter, or thing, loss, damage, or forfeiture, done, occasioned, or incurred, without the privity or knowledge of the owner.” 46 U.S.C. § 30505(b) (emphasis added).

Courts use a two-step inquiry to determine whether a petitioner is entitled to exoneration or [*18]  limitation of liability when sued for negligence. “First, the court must determine what acts of negligence . . . caused the accident. Second, the court must determine whether the shipowner had knowledge [of] or privity [with the person who committed] those same acts of negligence . . . .” Farrell Lines, Inc. v. Jones, 530 F.2d 7, 10 (5th Cir. 1976). The claimant bears the burden of proving negligence and if successful, the burden shifts to the shipowner to prove lack of knowledge or privity. Id.

  1. ARAMARK’S NEGLIGENCE

Torts occurring on navigable waters are governed by maritime law. “The elements of a maritime negligence cause of action are essentially the same as land-based negligence under the common law.” Withhart v. Otto Candies, L.L.C., 431 F.3d 840, 842 (5th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). A claimant must prove “a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, breach of that duty, injury sustained by [the] plaintiff, and a causal connection between [the] defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury.” In re Cooper/T. Smith, 929 F.2d 1073, 1077 (5th Cir. 1991).

  1. Duty/Breach

“Under Maritime law, a plaintiff is owed a duty of ordinary care under the circumstances.” In re Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC, 624 F.3d 201, 211 (5th Cir. 2010). “We hold that the owner of a ship in navigable waters owes to all who are on board for purposes not inimical to his legitimate interests the duty of exercising reasonable care under the circumstances [*19]  of each case.” Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 632, 79 S. Ct. 406, 3 L. Ed. 2d 550 (1959).

The court in In re Signal Int’l, LLC, 579 F.3d 478 (5th Cir. 2009), gave a thorough analysis of duty in a maritime negligence action. In Signal, the owner of two barges named the MISS TIFF and the JACK KING filed a petition under the Limitation of Liability Act, when the two barges broke loose from their moorings during Hurricane Katrina and allided3 with a bridge located approximately 4.7 miles away on Interstate 10 in Mississippi. The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) repaired the bridge and opposed Signal’s petition. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the order of the trial court denying, after a bench trial, exoneration but granting limitation of liability.

3 “An allision is a collision between a moving vessel and a stationary object.” Signal, 579 F.3d at 484 n.4 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

The trial court found that Signal had used “an improvised, untested method” of securing the two vessels and that Signal’s negligence caused the allision. Id. at 486. Signal argued that it was entitled to exoneration because the damage to the bridge was not a foreseeable consequence of its negligent mooring of the two vessels. The Fifth Circuit rejected Signal’s argument:

The critical question in this case is whether the allision with the Interstate [*20]  10 bridge was a harm of the general sort to an entity of a general class that a reasonably thoughtful person might have anticipated to result from Signal’s negligent mooring of the MISS TIFF and the JACK KING in light of the anticipated natural forces wrought by Hurricane Katrina. As the question makes clear, our analysis does not focus on the particular allision site, but the general risk of allision; it does not focus on MDOT, but on the class of property owners in the paths available to the runaway barges.

Id. at 492. The court cautioned: “The test of foreseeability is not measured against normal conditions, but those that were anticipated or reasonably should have been anticipated.” Id. at 493. Looking at the facts of the case, the court concluded that “the approaching hurricane, the expected height and predicted movement of the storm surge, and the topology of the Pascagoula River basin gave rise to the need to moor the barges and made this allision a foreseeable consequence of negligence in that mooring.” Id.

Here, the court concludes that Aramark breached its duty of reasonable care when it allowed the Prescott Party to leave the morning of April 25, 2009. The court bases this conclusion on the following: [*21]

  1. The weather forecasts and wind advisories

As detailed above, the forecast at 3:18 in the afternoon on April 24 for Zone 5 showed that a wind advisory was in effect from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on April 25. Then, around 3 a.m., April 25, the National Weather Service issued wind advisories for both Zone 5 and Zone 21. Yet Ms. Ambrosius denied having seen or heard any forecast that contained that information. According to Ms. Ambrosius, the first she was aware of the wind advisory was when she heard the information on Channel 16 around 10 a.m. the morning of the 25th. But throughout Ms. Ambrosius’ testimony, as the court has noted above, her recounting of the events of April 24 and 25 differed significantly from other evidence. For that reason, the court concludes that Ms. Ambrosius did not have an accurate memory about those events and the court cannot rely on her testimony.

Aramark, primarily Ms. Ambrosius, had a duty to be advised of the current weather forecasts and wind advisories before allowing any party to leave the marina in an Aramark power boat. This is particularly true because, as Aramark knew, in the spring, the weather changed constantly. Phyllis Coon testified that in the spring, [*22]  shutting down rentals was considered almost on “an hourly basis” because of the erratic weather. (March 4 Tr. at 337 (Dkt. No. 310).) And “[s]pringtime is always windy on the lake.” (Dep. of Donald Scott Bergantz at 107.)

Moreover, the water could be very cold in April which could lead to hypothermia if boat passengers were in the water.

  1. Boat 647

The boat owner’s manual cautioned that when wind speeds reached 31 miles an hour, only experienced operators might be able to safely operate the boat. Yet Aramark rented to anyone eighteen years or older, with a valid driver’s license, without regard to that person’s previous boating experience.

Because Boat 647’s length exceeded twenty feet, the boat did not have positive flotation and could not remain afloat when filled with water.

The court, when it considers these facts, concludes that Aramark had frequently in the past recognized that high winds could be dangerous to boaters. Aramark should have been aware, if it was not, that high winds were forecast for April 25, 2009. And it was foreseeable to Aramark that if those who had rented Baja 202 Islanders for a trip on Lake Powell the morning of April 25, 2009, were allowed to depart, the boats could sink [*23]  because of the high winds. It was further foreseeable to Aramark that if the boats sank, particularly in the cold April water, the passengers could suffer injury and even death. Aramark breached that duty when it allowed the Prescott Party to leave.

  1. Causation

Aramark’s negligence is actionable only if its action was the legal cause of the Claimants’ injuries, which is “something more than ‘but for’ causation, and the negligence must be a ‘substantial factor’ in the injury.'” Donaghey v. Ocean Drilling & Exploration Co., 974 F.2d 646, 649 (5th Cir. 1992), quoting Thomas v. Express Boat Co., Inc., 759 F.2d 444, 448 (5th Cir. 1985).

Here, the court concludes that Aramark’s failure to stop the Prescott Party from leaving was a substantial factor in the sinking of Boat 647 and the resulting harm. Even though Aramark argues that Boat 647 sank because of the actions of the Prescott Party, the court concludes that the failure to stop the boat from leaving was a substantial factor in the sinking of the boat.

In Thomas v. Express Boat Co., Inc., 759 F.2d 444 (5th Cir. 1985), Lance Thomas, a crewman aboard a rig supply boat, sued the operator of the boat, Express Boat, for injuries he sustained while mooring the rig supply boat to an offshore drilling rig. The rig was owned and operated by Penrod Drilling Company (Penrod). The lower court decided that Penrod was negligent because as part of the mooring [*24]  procedure, it had presented a frayed line to the rig supply boat. (A jury had previously found that Express Boat was negligent and returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Thomas.) The court allocated one-third of the responsibility to Penrod. On appeal, Penrod (and Mr. Thomas, whose damage award was effectively reduced by the allocation of fault) argued that the evidence was insufficient to prove that Penrod’s negligence was a legal cause of Mr. Thomas’ injuries. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision holding that Penrod’s negligence in presenting the frayed rope was more than “but for” causation of Mr. Thomas’ injury and was a “substantial factor in the injury.” Id. at 448. In response to appellants’ argument that the captain of the rig supply boat was negligent and caused the injury because he made the decision to bring in the frayed line, the court stated: “The danger in sending a frayed line to a vessel in such poor weather was certainly foreseeable. Although [Captain] Peterson also may have been negligent in deciding to bring in the line, this does [not] excuse Penrod’s negligence.” Id. The court noted that, “because Penrod’s negligence [in presenting the frayed rope] made [Captain [*25]  Peterson’s] decision necessary, the district court properly concluded that Penrod bears some responsibility for the accident.” Id.

Here, similar to the facts in Thomas, as this order details above, the danger of allowing the Prescott Party to depart the morning of April 25, 2009, certainly was foreseeable to Aramark.4 Regardless of whether the members of the Prescott Party made wrong choices while on the boat, the harm was, at least in part, the result of Aramark’s initial negligence and so Aramark “bears some responsibility for the accident.” Id.

4 See In re: Signal Int’l, LLC, 579 F.3d 478 (5th Cir. 2009), for a discussion of the role of foreseeability in both duty and causation: “We have historically considered foreseeability relevant to both the duty and proximate cause determinations.” Id. at 490 n.12 (citations omitted).

Whether the Prescott Party’s actions contributed to the loss must be resolved in another proceeding.

  1. PRIVITY

Because Claimants have proven negligence, the burden shifts to Aramark to show that it did not have knowledge of the acts of negligence and was not in privity with the negligent actor. Farrell Lines, Inc. v. Jones, 530 F.2d 7, 10 (5th Cir. 1976). “When a corporation owns the vessel, the test is whether culpable participation or neglect of duty can be attributed to an officer, managing [*26]  agent, supervisor, or other high-level employee of the corporation.” Carr v. PMS Fishing Corp., 191 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1999) (citations omitted).

Aramark has not met its burden. The testimony, including that of the general manager, Karen Ambrosius, was clear that the general manager had the discretion and authority to close boat rentals. In fact, it was Ms. Ambrosius who belatedly made the decision to close rentals on April 25, 2009.

III. CONCLUSION

The court denies Aramark’s petition to exonerate it or limit its liability. The court does not make any findings or reach any other conclusion regarding the other allegations of negligence asserted by the Claimants. It also makes no findings or conclusions concerning whether anyone in the Prescott Party was also negligent. These questions are to be resolved in another proceeding. The court ORDERS that all pending motions are denied as moot.

DATED this 29th day of August, 2014.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Tena Campbell

TENA CAMPBELL

U.S. District Court Judge

 

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Myers v. Lutsen Mountains Corporation, 587 F.3d 891; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 25825

Myers v. Lutsen Mountains Corporation, 587 F.3d 891; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 25825

Douglas R. Myers, Appellant, v. Lutsen Mountains Corporation, Appellee.

No. 09-1184

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

587 F.3d 891; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 25825

October 22, 2009, Submitted

November 25, 2009, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY:  [**1]

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota.

CASE SUMMARY:

PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Plaintiff skier sued defendant ski resort operator, asserting personal injury claims. The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota granted summary judgment in favor of the resort operator based on a release. The skier appealed.

OVERVIEW: The skier purchased a lift ticket at the ski resort and signed a written release of liability waiver. The skier was injured when he lofted into an area containing rocks and small trees. The district court found that the release signed by the skier precluded him from pursuing his claims. The appellate court determined that the release was enforceable under Minnesota law because (1) the language of the release expressly and unambiguously excluded from its coverage claims arising from reckless or intentional acts, (2) the release was not ambiguous, (3) regarding the skier’s argument that the release violated public policy because he had no bargaining power, there was no disparity of bargaining power since the service provided by the resort operator was not necessary and the skier could have gone elsewhere to ski, (4) regarding whether the release violated public policy, the appellate court predicted the Minnesota Supreme Court would hold skiing was not a public or essential service, and (5) the release was not invalidated by Minnesota’s Plain Language Contract Act and Minnesota’s Consumer Credit Sales Act.

COUNSEL: For Douglas R. Myers, Plaintiff – Appellant: James Walter Balmer, Stephanie M. Balmer, FALSANI & BALMER, Duluth, MN.

For Lutsen Mountains Corporation, Defendant – Appellee: Gregory Aaron Bromen, Brian N. Johnson, HALLELAND & LEWIS, Minneapolis, MN.

JUDGES: Before COLLOTON and BENTON, Circuit Judges, and PIERSOL 1, District Judge.

The Honorable Lawrence L. Piersol, United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, sitting by designation.

OPINION BY: Lawrence L. Piersol

OPINION

[*892]  PIERSOL, District Judge.

Douglas R. Myers (“Myers”) appeals an adverse grant of summary judgment. Myers was injured while skiing at Lutsen Mountains, a ski resort operated by Lutsen Mountains Corporation (“Lutsen”). He sued Lutsen, and the district court 2 granted Lutsen’s motion for summary judgment, holding that a release signed by Myers precluded him from pursuing his claims. This appeal followed. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

2 The Honorable John F. Forster, Jr., United States Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas, to whom the case was referred for decision by consent of the parties pursuant  [**2] to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

I

[HN1] We review de novo a district court’s grant or denial of summary judgment.  [*893]  Med. Liab. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Alan Curtis LLC, 519 F.3d 466, 471 (8th Cir. 2008). Summary judgment is appropriate when the record, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, demonstrates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

II

The facts of this case are essentially undisputed. On December 28, 2006, Myers and two of his friends left their homes in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, and drove approximately two hours to Lutsen, Minnesota. The three friends arrived in time to buy ski tickets before 9:30 a.m., when the ski lifts open at Lutsen. Myers has no memory of that day, but he agrees that he purchased a lift ticket and signed a written release of liability waiver. The release includes the following language:

PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.

I understand that skiing in its various forms, including snowboarding, involves risks, dangers and hazards that may cause serious personal injury or death and that injuries  [**3] are a common and ordinary occurrence. Risks include, but are not limited to, changes in terrain, weather and snow surfaces, ice, moguls, bare spots, debris, fences, posts, trees, lift equipment and towers, rope tows, light poles, signs, buildings, roads and walkways, ramps, half-pipes, padded and non-padded barriers, jumps and other terrain features, grooming equipment, snowmobiles, collisions with other persons and other natural and man-made hazards. I acknowledge that the risks in the sport of Alpine skiing can be greatly reduced by taking lessons, abiding by the Skier Responsibility Code, (known as Your Responsibility Code), and using common sense.

In consideration of the purchase of a lift ticket for Lutsen Mountains and use of its facilities, I RELEASE AND FULLY DISCHARGE Lutsen Mountains Corporation, its owners, officers, shareholders, agents and employees from any liability resulting from any personal injury to myself, including death, or damage to my property which is caused by the BREACH OF ANY EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTY or the NEGLIGENT ACT OR OMISSION of Lutsen Mountains Corporation, its owners, officers, shareholders, agents or employees in the design, location, construction,  [**4] inspection, maintenance and repair of the conditions on or about the premises or ski area or the operations of the ski area, including but not limited to:

. the design, location, construction, inspection, maintenance and repair of trails, ski runs, slopes, ramps, half-pipes and other terrain features;

. grooming, snow-making, snowmobile operation, ski-lifts, rope tows and ski-lift and rope tow loading and unloading operations;

. padding or non-padding of natural and man-made obstacles and hazards;

. posting or failure to post warnings, signs, fences or other barriers;

. classification and labeling of trails and ski runs; or

. maintaining or modifying variations in the surface, steepness and pitch of trails, ski runs, slopes, ramps and terrain features.

I accept full responsibility for any injuries or damages which may result from the participation in the sport, and it is  [*894]  my intent to HOLD HARMLESS Lutsen Mountains Corporation, its owners, officers, shareholders, agents or employees for any injury sustained by me, including death, while participating in the sport. I agree not to bring any action or suit against Lutsen Mountains Corporation, its owners, officers, shareholders, agents or employees  [**5] for any injury or damage.

In accordance with Minnesota law, nothing in this Release of Liability should be construed as releasing, discharging or waiving any claims I may have for reckless or intentional acts on the part of Lutsen Mountains Corporation, or its owners, officers, shareholders, agents or employees.

I HAVE CAREFULLY READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I AM AWARE THAT BY SIGNING THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, I AM WAIVING CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS, INCLUDING THE RIGHT TO SUE LUTSEN MOUNTAINS CORPORATION, ITS OWNERS, OFFICERS, SHAREHOLDERS, AGENTS OR EMPLOYEES FOR CERTAIN CLAIMS.

CAUTION: READ BEFORE SIGNING! THIS DOCUMENT AFFECTS YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL BAR YOUR RIGHT TO SUE!

At the bottom of the release, Myers printed his name, signed the document, and listed his age as 32.

At approximately 3:30 p.m. on December 28, 2006, Myers, a self-described expert skier at the time of the accident, was on Lutsen’s Lower Meadows trail when he skied over an edge of the course. At oral argument, Myers’ counsel indicated that this is an intermediate slope. Myers apparently lofted into an area containing rocks and small trees, and he was injured. He filed a personal injury  [**6] lawsuit against Lutsen in Minnesota district court based on diversity jurisdiction. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Concluding that the release Myers signed is valid under Minnesota law, the district court granted Lutsen’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed Myers’ complaint with prejudice. On appeal, Myers argues that the district court erred by holding the release is enforceable under Minnesota law.

III

Minnesota law applies in this diversity case. See Integrity Floorcovering, Inc. v. Broan-Nutone, LLC, 521 F.3d 914, 917 (8th Cir. 2008).  [HN2] Exculpatory clauses are enforceable in Minnesota as long as the clause (1) is not ambiguous, (2) does not release intentional, willful, or wanton acts, and (3) does not violate public policy. See Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 923 (Minn. 1982).

Myers first argues the release is ambiguous because it could be interpreted as waiving Lutsen’s liability for all types of claims and not just negligence. We disagree. The language of the release expressly and unambiguously excludes from its coverage claims arising from reckless or intentional acts, and the district court correctly found the release is not ambiguous.

Myers  [**7] next asserts the release violates public policy because he had no bargaining power; he had to sign the release or not ski at Lutsen.  [HN3] The Minnesota Supreme Court considers two factors to determine whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy: (1) whether there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties (a compulsion to sign the contract with an unacceptable provision  [*895]  and a lack of ability to negotiate the elimination of that provision), and (2) the type of service being offered or provided through the contract (one who provides a public or essential service is less likely to be exempted from liability for harm caused by negligently providing that service). See Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 923. Regarding the first factor, the Minnesota Supreme Court has explained that a disparity of bargaining power does not exist if the offered service is not necessary or if it could have been obtained elsewhere. See id. at 925. In Schlobohm, the court concluded there was no disparity in bargaining power when Schlobohm voluntarily joined a fitness center and signed a contract containing an exculpatory clause because there was no showing that the center’s services were necessary or that  [**8] the services could not have been obtained elsewhere. See id.

Relying primarily on Yang v. Voyagaire Houseboats, Inc., 701 N.W.2d 783 (Minn. 2005), Myers contends a disparity in bargaining power existed because it would have taken him over two hours to drive from Lutsen to the closest ski hill. In Yang, the Minnesota Supreme Court invalidated an exculpatory clause in the context of a houseboat rental agreement. See id. at 786. The court suggested there was a disparity in bargaining power because the plaintiff had paid a deposit of “a couple thousand” dollars, had not known about the release until he arrived at the place of business, several hours away from the plaintiff’s home, and the next nearest business providing the same services was over 65 miles away, see id. at 789 n. 3, but the essential nature of the service was the dispositive factor in the court’s conclusion that houseboat rental involves a public interest sufficient to invalidate the exculpatory agreement. See id. at 789. Yang lends little support to Myers’ argument that a disparity of bargaining power existed in this case. As did the Minnesota Supreme Court in Schlobohm, we find no disparity of bargaining power because  [**9] the service provided by Lutsen is not necessary, and Myers could have gone elsewhere to ski.

This brings us to the second factor considered by Minnesota courts to determine whether a release violates public policy: the type of service provided. Myers does not argue that Lutsen provides a public or essential service, and  [HN4] we predict the Minnesota Supreme Court would hold skiing is not a public or essential service. When considering whether a service is public or essential in this context, “courts consider whether it is the type [of service] generally thought suitable for public regulation. Types of services thought to be subject to public regulation have included common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers and services involving extra-hazardous activities.” Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 925. In Schlobohm, the Minnesota Supreme Court held the services furnished by the health club are not the type generally thought suitable for public regulation and do not involve an activity of great importance or of practical necessity. See id. at 925-26.

Yang is instructive on this issue. The Minnesota Supreme Court held the rental company was acting  [**10] both as a resort and as an innkeeper providing a public service when it offered houseboats for daily and weekly rentals. See Yang, 701 N.W.2d at 790. As a matter of public policy, the company could not circumvent its duty to protect guests by requiring them to release the company from liability for its negligence. See id. at 791. The court distinguished these types of  [HN5] services from those involving recreational activities which courts generally have held “do not  [*896]  fall within any of the categories where the public interest is involved.” Id. at 789 (quoting Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 925-26). The court specifically rejected the argument that renting houseboats is a purely recreational activity and is not a necessary or public service. See id. at 790.

[HN6] Whether recreational activities involve a public interest is a question the Minnesota Supreme Court has not yet squarely addressed. If the Minnesota Supreme Court has not spoken on an issue, the federal court must determine what decision the state court would make if faced with the same facts and issue. See Kovarik v. American Family Ins. Group, 108 F.3d 962, 964 (8th Cir. 1997). The federal court should consider relevant state court decisions,  [**11] “analogous decisions, considered dicta, . . . and any other reliable data.” Id. at 964 (quoting Ventura v. Titan Sports, Inc., 65 F.3d 725, 729 (8th Cir. 1995)). The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld liability releases in contracts for various types of recreational activities, finding the activities are not of great importance to the public or of practical necessity to anyone. See, e.g., Beehner v. Cragun Corp., 636 N.W.2d 821, 828 (Minn. App. 2001) (horseback riding); Malecha v. St. Croix Valley Skydiving Club, Inc., 392 N.W.2d 727, 731 (Minn. App. 1986) (sky diving). We recognize that skiing is an activity enjoyed by many, but we believe the Minnesota Supreme Court would conclude it is not a necessary or public service and would find the release signed by Myers does not violate public policy.

Finally, we disagree with Myers’ arguments that the release is invalidated by two Minnesota statutes, the Plain Language Contract Act and the Consumer Credit Sales Act.

Myers does not contest that the release, if valid, encompasses his claims against Lutsen. The release is valid under Minnesota law and, thus, we affirm the district court’s summary judgment for Lutsen.

 


Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

July 31, 2012, Decided

July 31, 2012, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)

CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure

COUNSEL:  [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.

For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II

OPINION

Jones, II, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1

1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and  [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which  [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).

T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.

Failure to Warn

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause  [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).

2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.

Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded  [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:

o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.

o Plaintiff  [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.

o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.

o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.

 

Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.

However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA,  [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).

Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611.  [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.

3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.

4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.

In sum, this evidence of record establishes  [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.

Assumption of Risk

T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A.,     F. Supp. 2d    , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish  [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.

5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).

Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased  [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff  [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.

6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to  [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006)  [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).

Punitive Damages

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled  [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed,  [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).

Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and  [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7

7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.

Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.

Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages

Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct  [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).

Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would  [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s  [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9

8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.

9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.

Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to  [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the  [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.

10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In  [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.

11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s  [*25] apparent invitation.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.

Conclusion

Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product.  [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.

An appropriate Order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:

  1. Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
  2. Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
  3. Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
  4. The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.

In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed  [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.

13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II

  1. DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.

 


Walker v. UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 5934

Walker v. UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 5934

Cynthia Walker, Individually and on Behalf of the Estate of Norman Walker; Stephen Walker; Stephanie Walker Hatton; Jordan Walker; and Caren Ann Johnson, Appellants v. UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs; WWGAF, Inc. d/b/a Rockin ‘R’ River Rides; William George Rivers; and Richard Duane Rivers, Appellees

  1. 03-15-00271-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 5934

June 3, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF COMAL COUNTY, 433RD JUDICIAL DISTRICT. NO. C2012-0796D, HONORABLE DIB WALDRIP, JUDGE PRESIDING.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

JUDGES: Before Justices Puryear, Goodwin, and Field.

OPINION BY: David Puryear

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Appellants Cynthia Walker, Individually and on Behalf of the Estate of Norman Walker; Stephen Walker; Stephanie Walker Hatton; Jordan Walker; and Caren Ann Johnson1 filed suit against appellees UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs; WWGAF, Inc. d/b/a Rockin ‘R’ River Rides; William George Rivers; and Richard Duane Rivers for injuries sustained when the Guadalupe River overran its banks during a flash flood in June 2010.2 The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of appellees. We affirm the trial court’s orders granting summary judgment.

1 Cynthia Walker was married to Norman Walker, and Stephen Walker, Stephanie Walker Hatton, and Jordan Walker are their children. Caren Johnson is married to Terry Johnson, Cynthia’s brother. Cynthia, Norman, Caren, and Terry were camping together at Camp Huaco Springs when they were caught in the flood. Norman died, while Cynthia, Terry, and Caren were injured. Caren and Cynthia sued for their own injuries. Cynthia also sued as a representative of [*2]  Norman’s estate and, along with her children, as a wrongful death beneficiary.
2 UME, Inc. operates Camp Huaco Springs, WWGAF operates Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, a river-tubing and recreation outfitter, and William and Richard Rivers own the two businesses.

Factual Summary

In June 2010, Cynthia and Norman Walker and Terry and Caren Johnson went to Camp Huaco Springs in their RV campers for a weekend of camping and river rafting. When they arrived at the campground, they were assigned two parking spaces. The Walkers and the Johnsons parked their campers as directed. On Saturday, the Walkers and the Johnsons took a canoe trip on the river and went to tour nearby caverns. When they returned to the campsite and went to bed, it was not raining. They had not heard any weather reports and did not know heavy rain was forecast for that night. Cynthia woke at about 6:00 a.m. to thunder and lightning. She looked out the window and saw Terry was screaming that they had to leave. Cynthia looked down and noticed that the river had risen to surround the two campers, causing them to begin floating. The Walkers and Johnsons were all swept downstream in the flood. Norman died in the flood. Cynthia, Terry, and [*3]  Caren were rescued miles downstream from the campsite and all required medical attention.

Appellants filed suit alleging negligence, premises liability, and gross negligence. They asserted that WWGAF was liable because it was a joint enterprise with UME and that the Rivers brothers were liable under a theory of alter ego. Appellants asserted that appellees knew that the campground was prone to flooding and failed: to warn appellants of that fact; to warn of the approaching storm; to prepare a plan for flood awareness, communication, and evacuation; to have and use speakers or sirens to warn of flooding; to employ someone to monitor the weather and warn and evacuate guests; to have an employee on site during severe weather; and to make reasonable modifications, have emergency communications, or educate guests about severe-weather risks.

UME and the Rivers brothers filed a traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment, asserting that the Texas Recreational Use Statute3 limited appellants to asserting a gross-negligence claim and that appellants could not show various elements of gross negligence; that there was no evidence that they had a duty to warn that the campground was in [*4]  a flood zone, to warn that severe weather was approaching, or to plan and prepare for flooding; that there was no evidence they had a duty to have and use speakers or sirens to warn guests; and that there was no evidence that appellants’ injuries were caused by any negligence on the part of UME or the Rivers brothers. UME and the Rivers brothers filed a separate motion for traditional and no-evidence summary judgment addressing appellants’ theories of alter ego and joint enterprise. WWGAF filed its own motion for summary judgment, asserting that it did not own or operate Camp Huaco, that it did not owe a duty to the Walkers and the Johnsons, and that it was a separate entity from Camp Huaco and could not be held liable under theories of joint enterprise or vicarious liability. The trial court signed several orders granting appellees’ motions for summary judgment without specifying the grounds.

3 See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 75.002 (owner, lessee, or occupant of agricultural land who invites another onto premises for recreation owes invitee same duty that would be owed to trespasser and only owes duty not to injure invitee wilfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence); see generally id. §§ 75.001-.007 (chapter 75, titled [*5]  “Limitation of Landowners’ Liability”).

Discussion

The first question to be addressed, the answer to which is dispositive of this appeal, is whether appellees owed any duty to the Walkers and the Johnsons. Even if we assume that the recreational use statute does not apply, we hold, as a matter of law, that appellees did not owe the Walkers and Johnsons a duty to warn of or ensure against rising river waters. Without such a duty, appellants’ premises-liability claims must fail.4

4 Although appellants alleged both negligence and premises-defect claims, “negligent activity encompasses a malfeasance theory based on affirmative, contemporaneous conduct bythe owner that caused the injury, while premises liability encompasses a nonfeasance theory based on the owner’s failure to take measures to make the property safe.” Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 776 (Tex. 2010); see Scurlock v. Pennell, 177 S.W.3d 222, 224-25 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2005, no pet.) (citing Timberwalk Apartments, Partners, Inc. v. Cain, 972 S.W.2d 749, 753 (Tex. 1998)) (“Recovery for a negligent activity requires that a person have been injured by the activity itself, rather than by a condition created by the activity; in contrast, recovery for premises liability depends upon a failure to use ordinary care to reduce or to eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a premises condition about which the owner or occupier [of [*6]  land] knows or, in the exercise of ordinary care, should know.”). The claims raised by appellants clearly alleged that appellees had failed to take various measures that would have made the campsite safe; they did not allege “contemporaneous conduct . . . that caused the injur[ies].” See Smith, 307 S.W.3d at 776. We therefore consider appellants’ claims under a theory of premises liability. Regardless of the theory under which they are analyzed, appellants’ claims would fail because, as we explain below, appellees did not owe the duty that appellants claim was breached. See General Elec. Co. v. Moritz, 257 S.W.3d 211, 217 (Tex. 2008) (“Like any other negligence action, a defendant in a premises case is liable only to the extent it owes the plaintiff a legal duty.”).

When an injured invitee asserts a premises-liability claim, she must show that the owner or occupier had actual or constructive knowledge of a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm and did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk and that such failure proximately caused her injury. CMH Homes, Inc. v. Daenen, 15 S.W.3d 97, 99 (Tex. 2000). We initially note that appellants do not assert that a condition on the premises caused the tragedy and thus was the basis for liability. Instead, the injuries suffered by appellants were caused by a rain-swollen [*7]  river that inundated the campground, a condition that came to the premises.

Regardless of that fact, Texas courts have consistently held as a matter of law that naturally occurring or accumulating conditions such as rain, mud, and ice do not create conditions posing an unreasonable risk of harm. M.O. Dental Lab v. Rape, 139 S.W.3d 671, 675-76 (Tex. 2004); see Scott & White Mem. Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 412-14 (Tex. 2010) (“Because we find no reason to distinguish between the mud in M.O. Dental and the ice in this case, we hold that naturally occurring ice that accumulates without the assistance or involvement of unnatural contact is not an unreasonably dangerous condition sufficient to support a premises liability claim.”); Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Surratt, 102 S.W.3d 437, 445 (Tex. App.–Eastland 2003, pet. denied) (landowner “does not have a duty to protect its invitees from conditions caused by a natural accumulation of frozen precipitation on its parking lot because such an accumulation does not constitute an unreasonably dangerous condition”).5 The basis for those rulings is that rain, dirt, and mud are naturally occurring conditions beyond a landowner’s control. See, e.g., M.O. Dental Lab, 139 S.W.3d at 676 (“rain is beyond the control of landowners” and “accidents involving naturally accumulating mud and dirt are bound to happen, regardless of the precautions taken by landowners”). Requiring a landowner to protect an invitee [*8]  from precipitation or other acts of nature would place an enormous burden on the landowner. See id.; see also Fair, 310 S.W.3d at 414 (requiring landowners “to guard against wintery conditions would inflict a heavy burden because of the limited resources landowners likely have on hand to combat occasional ice accumulations”).

5 See also State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp. v. Kitchen, 867 S.W.2d 784, 786 (Tex. 1993) (per curiam) (in premises defect case under Texas Tort Claims Act, supreme court held that “[w]hen there is precipitation accompanied by near-freezing temperatures, . . . an icy bridge is neither unexpected nor unusual, but rather, entirely predictable [and] is something motorists can and should anticipate when the weather is conducive to such a condition”); Brownsville Navigation Dist. v. Izaguirre, 829 S.W.2d 159, 160 (Tex. 1992) (“Plain dirt which ordinarily becomes soft and muddy when wet is not a dangerous condition of property for which a landlord may be liable.”); Lee v. K&N Mgmt., Inc., No. 03-15-00243-CV, 2015 WL 8594163, at *3-4 (Tex. App.–Austin Dec. 11, 2015, no pet.) (mem. op.) (plant that extended over edge of flowerbed was not unreasonably dangerous condition; “The Texas Supreme Court has held that certain naturally occurring substances generally do not pose an unreasonable risk of harm. . . . Under the facts of this case, the plant, like mud and dirt, may have formed a condition that posed a risk of harm, [*9]  but on this record, we cannot conclude that it was an unreasonable risk of harm.”); City of Houston v. Cogburn, No. 01-11-00318-CV, 2014 WL 1778279, at *4 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] May 1, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.) (“as a matter of law, naturally occurring conditions that are open and obvious do not create an unreasonable risk of harm for purposes of premises liability”; tree roots over which plaintiff tripped were “open and obvious and were a naturally occurring condition”).

Further, an invitee is or should be “at least as aware” as the landowner of visible conditions that have “accumulated naturally outdoors” and thus “will often be in a better position to take immediate precautions against injury.” M.O. Dental Lab, 139 S.W.3d at 676. In other words, as the supreme court has explained:

When the condition is open and obvious or known to the invitee, however, the landowner is not in a better position to discover it. When invitees are aware of dangerous premises conditions–whether because the danger is obvious or because the landowner provided an adequate warning–the condition will, in most cases, no longer pose an unreasonable risk because the law presumes that invitees will take reasonable measures to protect themselves against known risks, which may include a decision not to accept the invitation to enter onto the landowner’s premises. [*10]  This is why the Court has typically characterized the landowner’s duty as a duty to make safe or warn of unreasonably dangerous conditions that are not open and obvious or otherwise known to the invitee

Austin v. Kroger Tex., L.P., 465 S.W.3d 193, 203 (Tex. 2015) (citations omitted). Texas courts have repeatedly observed that a landowner “‘is not an insurer'” of an invitee’s safety and generally “has no duty to warn of hazards that are open and obvious or known to the invitee.” Id. at 203-04 (quoting Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 769 (Tex. 2010)). Texas courts have held in various contexts that flooding due to heavy rains is an open and obvious hazard. See, e.g., State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 288 (Tex. 2006) (“[T]he owner may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river, or even a concealed rattlesnake. But a landowner can be liable for gross negligence in creating a condition that a recreational user would not reasonably expect to encounter on the property in the course of the permitted use.”); City of Austin v. Leggett, 257 S.W.3d 456, 475 (Tex. App.–Austin 2008, pet. denied) (flooded intersection was readily apparent and presented obstacle that would be open and obvious to ordinary motorists).

We see no useful distinction to be drawn between ice and mud, which are natural conditions caused by rain and freezing temperatures, and rising [*11]  river waters, caused by a natural weather event over which appellees could exercise no control. See Fair, 310 S.W.3d at 414. The June 2010 flood was not a condition inherent in or on the land in question. Instead, the flooding was a condition that came to the campground as the adjacent river, the same river that made the land an attractive place to camp, rose due to heavy rains. The Walkers and the Johnsons had gone canoeing on the river the day before the flooding occurred, and thus they were obviously aware of the river’s proximity to their campsite. This situation is indeed a tragic one, but it is not one for which appellees can be held to bear legal responsibility. We hold that as a matter of law appellees had no duty to warn the Walkers and Johnsons of the possibility that the river they were camping beside might rise in the event of heavy rain, posing a risk to the campground.6

6 We further note that, even if the campground had posted warnings or issued flood cautions when the Walkers and Johnsons checked into the campsite, there is nothing in this record to indicate that events would have turned out any differently. The Walkers and Johnsons went to bed not having heard that heavy rains would approach [*12]  and slept heavily enough that none of them woke up during the storm or to warnings by the local sheriff’s officers, who drove through the campsite at about 4:00 a.m., blowing an airhorn and flashing their car’s lights as they announced over their PA system that the river was rising.

Conclusion

Because appellees did not owe a duty to warn of or attempt to make the campground safe against flooding of the adjacent river due to torrential rain, the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor. We affirm the trial court’s orders.

David Puryear, Justice

Before Justices Puryear, Goodwin, and Field

Affirmed

Filed: June 3, 2016

 


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

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

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

No. 328221, No. 328985

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

November 29, 2016, Decided

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

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

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

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

OPINION

Per Curiam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

/s/ Michael J. Kelly

/s/ Christopher M. Murray

/s/ Stephen L. Borrello

 


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

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

Marcella McGrath f/k/a Marcella Widger v. SNH Development, Inc. and John Doe, an unnamed individual

No. 07-C-0111

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY

2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45

May 19, 2008, Decided

NOTICE:

THE ORDERS ON THIS SITE ARE TRIAL COURT ORDERS THAT ARE NOT BINDING ON OTHER TRIAL COURT JUSTICES OR MASTERS AND ARE SUBJECT TO APPELLATE REVIEW BY THE NEW HAMPSHIRE SUPREME COURT.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Affirmed by McGrath v. SNH Dev., Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 969 A.2d 392, 2009 N.H. LEXIS 43 (2009)

JUDGES:  [*1] GILLIAN L. ABRAMSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE.

OPINION BY: GILLIAN L. ABRAMSON

OPINION

ORDER

The plaintiff commenced the instant action alleging negligence against the defendants, SNH Development, Inc. (“SNH Development”) and John Doe, an unnamed individual. The defendants now move for summary judgment, and the plaintiff objects.

For purposes of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the parties do not appear to dispute the following facts. SNH Development is a subsidiary of Peak Resorts, Inc. and owns and operates the Crotched Mountain Ski Area in Bennington, New Hampshire. On October 23, 2003, the plaintiff signed an application (the “application”) for a season pass to the Crotched Mountain Ski Area. The application provides:

I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing in its various forms is a hazardous sport, and I realize that injuries are a common occurrence. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the ski area facility, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury or death of property damage, release Crotched Mountain its owners and its agents, employees, directors, officers and shareholders from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage  [*2] which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises, the operations of the ski area including, but not limited to, grooming snow making, ski lift operations, actions or omissions of employees or age the area, or my participation in skiing, accepting myself the full responsibility

Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B. Moreover, on December 20, 2003, the plaintiff signed a Liability Release Agreement, which provides:

I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing in its various forms is a hazardous sport, and I realize that injuries are a common occurrence. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the area facility, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury or death or property damage, and release Peak Resorts, Inc, all of its subsidiaries, and its agents, employees, directors, officers, shareholders and the manufacturers and distributors of this equipment and the school and group organizers (collective “providers’), from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises, the operation of the area including, but not limited to grooming,  [*3] snowmaking, lift operations, actions or omissions of employees or agents of the areas, or my participating in skiing, snowboarding, blading, accepting myself the full responsibility.

Id. On February 20, 2004, the plaintiff was skiing 1 a trail at the Crotched Mountain Ski Area when an employee of SNH Development drove a snowmobile into the plaintiff’s path, causing a collision.

1 Some of the pleadings state that the plaintiff was skiing, while other’s state that the plaintiff was snowboarding.

The defendants now move for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff signed the application and the Liability Release Agreement, both of which are valid, enforceable exculpatory contracts. The plaintiff objects, arguing that the application and the Liability Release Agreement violate public policy and that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim.

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court “consider[s] the affidavits and other evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” White v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 151 N.H. 544, 547, 864 A.2d 1101 (2004).  [*4] The Court must grant a motion for summary judgment if its “review of the evidence does not reveal a genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law Id. A fact is material “if it affects the outcome of the litigation under the applicable substantive law.” Palmer v. Nan King Restaurant, 147 N.H. 681, 683, 798 A.2d 583 (2002).

New Hampshire law generally prohibits exculpatory contracts, but the Court will enforce them if; “(1) do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims were within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.” Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-267, 786 A.2d 834 (2001). Thus, the Court considers each of these requirements in turn.

Regarding the first requirement, an exculpatory contract violates public policy if a special relationship existed between the parties or if there was some other disparity in bargaining power. See Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 106, 509 A.2d 151 (1986) (“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does  [*5] not contravene public policy i.e that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.”).

A special relationship exists “[w]here the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service….” Id. The plaintiff contends that a special relationship existed between the parties because any person operating a snowmobile has a statutory duty to yield the right of way, RSA 215-C:49, XII (Supp. 2007), and because the Crotched Mountain Ski Area serves the public. Assuming that RSA 215-C:49, XII applies to the operation of a snowmobile on a privately owned ski area, the plaintiff has not offered any legal support for the conclusion that this statute somehow charges the defendants with a duty of public service. Moreover, the fact that the Crotched Mountain Ski Area serves the public is not conclusive. For example, Barnes, involved a negligence claim arising from a collision at an enduro kart racing facility. In Barnes, the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted that the defendant’s served the public but held that the defendant’s were not charged with a duty of public service because  [*6] Endurokart racing is not “affected with a public interest.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. Similarly, skiing is a recreational activity not affected with a public interest, and the Court finds that the defendant’s are not charged with a duty of public service.

The Plaintiff also contends that she was at an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power because all ski areas require skiers to sign releases. The Court disagrees.

This case … does not have any hallmarks of a disparity in bargaining power. The [skiing] service offered by the defendant is not a “matter of practical necessity.” Nor did the defendant in this ease have monopoly control over this service such that the plaintiff could not have gone elsewhere.

Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 418, 640 A.2d 777 (1994) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108). 2

2 The Plaintiff also argues that the application and the Liability Release Agreement violate public policy because they relieve the defendant’s from compliance with RSA chapter 215-C, which governs snowmobiles. Assuming that RSA chapter 215-C applies to the operation of a snowmobile on privately owned ski area, the application and the Liability Release Agreement would have no bearing on the enforcement of RSA chapter 215-C.  [*7] See RSA 215-C-32 (Supp.2007) (providing for the enforcement of RSA chapter 215-C).

“Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. “The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.” Wright v. Loon Mt. Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 169, 663 A.2d 1340 (1995). The Court

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

Id. (citations omitted) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107). The Court “will assess the clarity. the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining  [*8] isolated words and phrases. Id. at 169-170.

The plaintiff does not appear to dispute that she understood the import of the application or the Liability Release Agreement. Rather, the plaintiff argues that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim. Thus, the Court turns to the third requirement.

“[T]he plaintiff’s claims must have been within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement. The parties need not, however, have contemplated the precise occurrence that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries. They may adopt language to cover, a broad range of accidents….” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107 (citation omitted). To determine the scope of a release, the Court examines its language, strictly construing it against the defendant. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267.

Thus, in order to effectively release a defendant from liability for his own negligence, “the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” There is no requirement that the term “negligence” or any other magic words appear in the release as long “as the language of  [*9] the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.”

Audley, 138 N.H. at 418 (citations omitted) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107).

The plaintiff contends that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim because neither the application nor the Liability Release Agreement reference snowmobiles. As rioted above, the parties need not have contemplated a negligence claim arising from a snowmobile accident. Rather, it is sufficient that the parties adopted language to cover a broad range of accidents. The application releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence,” and the Liability Release Agreement releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in from negligence.” Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B. This language clearly states that the defendants are not responsible for the consequences of their negligence.

The Plaintiff also contends that the parties did  [*10] not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim because snowmobiles are not an inherent hazard of skiing. The plaintiff relies on Wright. In Wright, the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted:

The paragraphs preceding the exculpatory clause emphasize the inherent hazards of horseback riding. Because the exculpatory clause is prefaced by the term “therefore,” a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that

Wright, 140 N.H. at 170. Here, however, the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not mention the inherent hazards of skiing. Rather, the application and the Liability Release Agreement note that skiing is a hazardous sport and that injuries are a common occurrence and then, without using the term “therefore,” release the defendants from any and all liability. Because the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not use the phrase “inherent hazards of skiing” or the term “therefore,” this case is distinguishable from Wright. A reasonable person would have contemplated that the application and the  [*11] Liability Release Agreement would release the defendants from a negligence claim, whether nor not that claim arouse from an inherent hazard of skiing.

Based on the foregoing, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

So ORDERED.

 


Johnson v. Gibson, 358 Ore. 624; 369 P.3d 1151; 2016 Ore. LEXIS 129

Johnson v. Gibson, 358 Ore. 624; 369 P.3d 1151; 2016 Ore. LEXIS 129

Emily Johnson, Plaintiff, v. Scott Gibson and Robert Stillson, Defendants.

SC S063188

SUPREME COURT OF OREGON

358 Ore. 624; 369 P.3d 1151; 2016 Ore. LEXIS 129

November 13, 2015, Argued and Submitted

March 3, 2016, Decided

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Reconsideration denied by Johnson v. Gibson, 2016 Ore. LEXIS 281 (Or., Apr. 21, 2016)

PRIOR HISTORY:  [***1] US Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit 1335087. On certified questions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; certification order dated April 24, 2015; certification accepted June 4, 2015.

Johnson v. Gibson, 783 F.3d 1159, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 6551 (9th Cir. Or., 2015)

COUNSEL: Thane W. Tienson, Landye Bennett Blumstein LLP, Portland, argued the cause and filed the brief for plaintiff. With him on the brief was Christine N. Moore.

Harry Auerbach, Chief Deputy City Attorney, Portland, argued the cause and filed the brief for defendants. With him on the brief was Denis M. Vannier, Deputy City Attorney.

Kathryn H. Clarke, Portland, argued the cause and filed the brief for amicus curiae Oregon Trial Lawyers Association. With her on the brief was Shenoa L. Payne, Haglund Kelley LLP, Portland.

Thomas W. McPherson, Mersereau Shannon, LLP, Portland, filed the brief for amici curiae League of Oregon Cities, Association of Oregon Counties, Citycounty Insurance Services, Oregon School Boards Association, Special Districts Association of Oregon, and The International Municipal Lawyers Association.

Janet M. Schroer, Hart Wagner LLP, Portland, filed the brief for amicus curiae Oregon Association of Defense Counsel.

JUDGES: Before Balmer, Chief [***2]  Justice, and Kistler, Walters, Landau, Baldwin, Brewer and Nakamoto, Justices.*

* Linder, J., retired December 31, 2015, and did not participate in the decision of this case.

OPINION BY: WALTERS

OPINION

[**1152]  [*626]   WALTERS, J.

This case is before the court on two certified questions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. See ORS 28.200 – 28.255 (providing for certification of certain questions of Oregon law from specified federal courts and appellate courts of other states to Oregon Supreme Court). As framed by the Ninth Circuit, the questions are (1) whether individual employees responsible for repairing, maintaining, and operating improvements on City-owned recreational land made available to the public for recreational purposes are “owner[s]” of the land, as that term is defined in the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act, ORS 105.672 to 105.700,1 and therefore immune from liability for their negligence; and (2) if such employees are “owner[s]” under the Act, whether the Act, as applied to them, violates the remedy clause of Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution.2 We conclude that the individual employees in this case do not qualify as “owner[s]” under the Act, and that we need not address the second certified question.

1 ORS 105.672(4), which defines “owner” for purposes of the Act, was amended in 2009, and those changes [***3]  went into effect January 1, 2010. Or Laws 2009, ch 532, § 1. Plaintiff alleges that her injuries occurred in July 2009. We therefore assume, as do the parties, that the Ninth Circuit’s questions refer to the version of the statute in place at the time plaintiff’s injuries occurred. That statute is ORS 105.672(4) (2007).

The current version of ORS 105.672(4) provides: “‘Owner’ means the possessor of any interest in any land, such as the holder of a fee title, a tenant, a lessee, an occupant, the holder of an easement, the holder of a right of way or a person in possession of the land.”

2 The remedy clause provides: “[E]very man  [HN1] shall have remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property, or reputation.” Or Const, Art 1, § 10.

This case arose when plaintiff, who is legally blind, was injured when she stepped into a hole while jogging in a public park in the City of Portland (the City). Plaintiff filed a complaint against the City and defendants Gibson and Stillson. Defendant Gibson had created the hole to fix a malfunctioning sprinkler head; he was a park technician with primary responsibility for maintenance of the park. Defendant Stillson was the maintenance supervisor for all westside parks in the City.

[*627]  Plaintiff filed her [***4]  complaint in federal district court, invoking federal claim and supplemental jurisdiction. Plaintiff alleged, under federal law, that the City had violated Title II of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 USC sections 12131 to 12165, and, under state law, that all three defendants were liable for negligently causing her injuries. The City filed two motions: A motion to substitute itself as the sole defendant, pursuant to the Oregon Tort Claims Act (OTCA), ORS 30.260 to 30.302; and a motion for summary judgment.

The district court denied the City’s motion for substitution. Johnson v. City of Portland, CV No 10-117-JO (D Or Feb 10, 2011) (“Johnson I“). The court reasoned that substitution of the City would violate the remedy clause in Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution, because the City was immune from liability under the Public Use of Lands Act. Had the court substituted the City as the sole defendant in the case, the only defendant would have been immune and entitled to dismissal, leaving plaintiff without a remedy for her injury. Id.

The district court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, in part. The court granted the City summary judgment as to plaintiff’s federal ADA claim, leaving plaintiff’s negligence claim as her only remaining claim. The [***5]  district court declined to retain supplemental jurisdiction over that state law claim and dismissed the case. Id.

Plaintiff then filed a new complaint in federal court invoking diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiff again alleged a state law negligence claim against defendants Gibson and Stillson, and those defendants again filed a motion to substitute the City as the sole defendant under the OTCA. In Johnson II, the district  [**1153]  court agreed with the prior ruling in Johnson I that substitution of the City was not appropriate. Johnson v. Gibson, 918 F Supp 2d 1075, 1082 (D Or 2013). Then, the individual defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that they were immune from liability under the Public Use of Lands Act. Id. at 1083. The district court agreed, reasoning that employees who maintain land qualify as “owner[s]” under that Act, and that defendants Gibson and Stillson were therefore immune from liability.  [*628]  Id. at 1085. The court also held that the Public Use of Lands Act does not violate the remedy clause. Id. at 1088. The court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Id. at 1089. Plaintiff appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit certified to this court the two questions now before us.

We begin with the first question [***6]  posed and the text of the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act, which provides, in part:

[HN2] “Except as provided by subsection (2) of this section, and subject to the provisions of ORS 105.688, an owner of land is not liable in contract or tort for any personal injury, death or property damage that arises out of the use of the land for recreational purposes * * * when the owner of land either directly or indirectly permits any person to use the land for recreational purposes * * *. The limitation on liability provided by this section applies if the principal purpose for entry upon the land is for recreational purposes * * *.”

ORS 105.682(1). “Land” is defined as “all real property, whether publicly or privately owned.” ORS 105.672(3). “Owner” is defined as follows:

“‘Owner’ means the possessor of any interest in any land, including but not limited to possession of a fee title. ‘Owner’ includes a tenant, lessee, occupant or other person in possession of the land.”

ORS 105.672(4) (2007).

From that definition of “owner,” defendants make a three-step argument: First, that the definition of the term “owner” is ambiguous and is not limited to those with a legal interest in the land; second, that, considered in its proper context, the term includes owners’ employees and [***7]  agents; and third, that as City employees, defendants are entitled to recreational immunity.

Defendants’ argument focuses on the second sentence of the definition of “owner.” Defendants recognize that they do not qualify as “owner[s]” under the first sentence of that definition because they do not have legal title to, or a legal right in, the property where plaintiff was injured. However, they contend, the second sentence in the definition  [*629]  is broader, and it includes both persons who have a legal right in property–specifically, “tenant[s]” and “lessee[s]”–and those who do not–specifically, “occupant[s]” and those who are “in possession of the land.” Id. According to defendants, the dictionary definitions of those latter terms demonstrate that “owner[s]” include persons without legal or equitable title to, or interest in, land.

[HN3] A “possessor” is “one that possesses: one that occupies, holds, owns, or controls.” Webster’s Third New Int’l Dictionary 1770 (unabridged ed 2002). A “possessor” is also “one that holds property without title–called also naked possessor; contrasted with owner.” Id. (emphasis in original). “Possession” means “the act or condition of having in or taking into one’s control or holding at one’s disposal”; “actual [***8]  physical control or occupancy of property by one who holds for himself and not as a servant of another without regard to his ownership and who has legal rights to assert interests in the property”; “something owned, occupied, or controlled.” Id. “Occupy” means “to hold possession of”; “to reside in as an owner or tenant.” Id. at 1561. An “occupant” is “one who takes the first possession of something that has no owner”; “one who occupies a particular place or premises”; and “one who has the actual use or possession of something.” Id. 1560.

Like defendants, we surmise, from those definitions, that  [HN4] the terms “occupant” and “person in possession of the land” may include persons without legal or equitable title to, or interest in, the land. But that is not the only lesson we take from those definitions. Like plaintiff, we conclude that those terms describe persons who do more than  [**1154]  take up space on the land. Under those definitions, an “occupant,” or a “person in possession of the land” must have some control over the space, and, given the context in which those terms are used, it is likely that the control that the legislature intended is the ability to decide who may use the space or what use may be made [***9]  of it. The terms “occupant” and “person in possession of the land” are used in the same sentence as the terms “tenant” and “lessee.” ORS 105.672(4) (2007). Tenants and lessees have the ability to decide who may use the space that they control and for what purposes. Under noscitur a sociis, a maxim of statutory construction that  [*630]  tells us that the meaning of an unclear word may be clarified by the meaning of other words used in the same context, it is likely that the legislature intended that “occupant[s]” and “person[s] in possession of the land” have the same type of control as tenants and lessees. See State v. McCullough, 347 Ore. 350, 361, 220 P3d 1182 (2009) (so describing noscitur a sociis). Under that interpretation, only persons with authority to control and exclude from the land qualify as “owner[s]” of the land.

Further support for that interpretation is found in the context in which the term “owner” is used in the Act. The Legislative Assembly enacted  [HN5] the Public Use of Lands Act in 1971 “to encourage owners of land to make their land available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability toward persons entering thereon for such purposes.” Or Laws 1971, ch 780, § 2, codified as former ORS 105.660 (1971), now codified as amended as ORS 105.676 (emphasis added). The immunities [***10]  provided by the Act apply only if “[t]he owner makes no charge for permission to use the land.” Former ORS 105.688(2)(a) (2007), renumbered as ORS 105.688(3) (2010) (emphasis added). An individual without a right to exclude others from the land or to otherwise control use of the land does not have the decision-making authority that the statute contemplates–the authority to make the land available to the public or to charge for permission to use the land.

Defendants do not point us to any statutory context or legislative history that indicates that the legislature understood the terms “occupant” or “person in possession of the land” in ORS 105.672(4) (2007) to support the unbounded meaning that defendants ascribe to those terms.3 In fact, a case that defendants cite for a different proposition supports  [*631]  plaintiff’s narrow interpretation of those terms. In Elliott v. Rogers Construction, 257 Ore. 421, 433, 479 P2d 753 (1971), the court considered the standard of care that applied to a contractor that was building a road for its principal. In discussing that issue, the court observed that “[c]ases from other jurisdictions and legal writers do not treat a contractor as an occupier of land.” Id. at 432. In that case, the court was not interpreting the definition of “owner” in the Public Use of Lands Act, but its observation [***11]  about the legal meaning of the word “occupant” is consistent with our interpretation of that word as being limited to individuals with a right to control and exclude from the land.

3 Defendants do argue that the main sponsor of the bill that led to the current version of the Act stated that it was “designed to be very broad” and to “guarantee [landowners] that they [would not] be paying out of pocket for * * * allowing their property to be used.” Tape Recording, House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Agriculture and Forestry, HB 2296, Jan 30, 1995, Tape 4, Side A (statement of Rep Kevin Mannix). However, we do not find that general statement of purpose to be of assistance in determining the meaning of defined terms in the statute. See State v. Gaines, 346 Ore. 160, 171, 206 P3d 1042 (2009) (“[I]t is not the intent of the individual legislators that governs, but the intent of the legislature as formally enacted into law[.]”).

In this case, defendants do not argue that they had a right to exclude others from the land or to otherwise control the use of the land. Rather, they argue that the definition of “owner” is so ambiguous that it requires us to look beyond the words of the definition to the context surrounding ORS 105.682, particularly the [***12]  pre-existing common law. See Fresk v. Kraemer, 337 Ore. 513, 520-21, 99 P3d 282 (2004) (context includes pre-existing common law). Defendants contend that an examination of that pre-existing common law shows that the legislature must have intended “owner” to include persons who are employed  [**1155]  by, or are agents of, persons who are more classically denominated as owners.

Defendants argue that where land and property are concerned, the common law rule has long been that employees and agents have the same privileges and immunities as their principals. Defendants contend that, insofar as the legislature enacted and amended the Act in the context of that common law rule, it intended that that rule apply. Consequently, defendants assert, the legislature was not required to say explicitly what the common law already provides.

For the common law rule on which they rely, defendants point to two Oregon cases–Herzog v. Mittleman, 155 Ore. 624, 632, 65 P2d 384 (1937); and Elliott, 257 Ore. at 432-33. In the first of those cases, Herzog, the court examined a guest passenger statute that provided that a guest in a vehicle would have no cause of action against the owner or operator for damages unless the accident was “intentional on the  [*632]  part of [the] owner or operator or caused by his gross negligence or intoxication or his reckless disregard [***13]  of the rights of others.” Id. at 628. The question presented was whether a vehicle owner’s guest, who was operating the vehicle in question at the owner’s invitation, would be protected by the same rule on the theory that he was acting as the owner’s agent while driving the vehicle. The court looked to the Restatement (First) of Agency (1933) for assistance and began with section 343, which provides:

“An agent who does an act otherwise a tort is not relieved from liability by the fact that he acted at the command of the principal or on account of the principal, except where he is exercising a privilege of the principal, or a privilege held by him for the protection of the principal’s interest.”

Id. at 631 (internal quotation marks omitted). The court also looked to section 347 of the Restatement, which provides: “An agent who is acting in pursuance of his authority has such immunities of the principal as are not personal to the principal.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Finally, the court quoted comment a to that section:

“a. Persons may have a personal immunity from liability with respect to all persons and for all acts, as in the case of a sovereign, or for some acts, as in the case of an insane person, or as to some persons as in the [***14]  case of a husband to a wife. * * * Unlike certain privileges such immunities cannot be delegated. On the other hand where an immunity exists in order to more adequately protect the interests of a person in relation to his property, the agent may have the principal’s immunity. Thus, the servant of a landowner while acting in the scope of his employment is under no greater duties to unseen trespassers than is the landowner[.]”

Id. at 631-32 (internal quotation marks omitted) (omission in original).

Reasoning from those provisions, the court explained that although “it is well settled that an agent who violates a duty which he owes to a third person is answerable for the consequences thereof,” if the agent is “acting within the authority, and pursuant to the direction of the principal, the agent is entitled to the same immunities as the principal would be had the principal done the same act under the  [*633]  same circumstances and such immunities were not personal to the principal.” Id. at 632. Applying that legal authority to the facts at hand, the court concluded that the standard of care set out in the statute was not personal to the principal–the car owner–but that it also extended to the agent–a guest that the owner [***15]  had authorized to drive the car. Id. at 633. The court further concluded that the plaintiff could not recover from the defendant-agent without a showing that the defendant-agent was grossly negligent. Id.

In the second of the Oregon cases that defendants cite, Elliott, the court considered whether a contractor working on a landowner’s property had the same limited duty of care to trespassers and licensees as did the landowner. 257 Ore. at 431-33. In that case, an employee of a construction company that was building a road for the State Highway Department accidentally injured a pedestrian who was crossing a portion of the road that had not yet been opened to the public. Id. at 424. The  [**1156]  court explained that, “[b]eing ‘clothed with the rights of the owner,’ [the construction company] was only under a duty to the plaintiff’s decedent to abstain from inflicting injury willfully or by active negligence.” Id. at 433. Because the plaintiff had alleged that the company’s employee had acted with wanton misconduct, however, the court held that the lawsuit could proceed. Id. at 434-35. Thus, without discussing the issues in the same terms used in the Restatement (First) of Agency, the court implicitly concluded that the standard of care applicable to the landowner [***16]  was not personal to the landowner, but that it also extended to the landowner’s agent.

In this case, defendants’ reliance on Herzog and Elliott is misplaced. Defendants draw general conclusions from the results in those cases without recognizing the distinction that is explicit in Herzog and implicit in Elliott–that is, the distinction between immunities that are personal to the principal and those that may extend to a principal’s agent. Immunities provided to a principal may, but do not always, extend to the principal’s agents. That is clear not only from the comment to the Restatement quoted above, but also from a line of Oregon cases to which plaintiff calls our attention. In those cases, this court considered whether the  [*634]  sovereign immunity of governmental landowners precluding their liability for defective conditions on their streets extends to agents responsible for the repair of those streets. The first case in which the court contemplated that issue was Mattson v. Astoria, 39 Ore. 577, 65 P 1066 (1901).

In Mattson, the plaintiff was injured as a result of the city’s failure to keep a public street in repair and suitable for travel. Id. at 578. The plaintiff challenged a clause of the city charter that exempted the city and members of [***17]  its council from liability for such failure. Id. The court said the following:

“That it is within the power of a legislature to exempt a city from liability to persons receiving injuries on account of streets being defective or out of repair, is unquestioned. * * * But in such case the injured party is not wholly without remedy. He may proceed personally against the officers to whom the charter delegates the duty of keeping the streets in repair, and from whose negligence the injury resulted.”

Id. at 579. Since Mattson, the court has consistently recognized that the liability of a local government as landowner is distinct from the liability of employees and agents of the government. For instance, in Gearin v. Marion County, 110 Ore. 390, 396-97, 223 P 929 (1924), the court explained:

“The constitutional guaranty that ‘every man shall have remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property or reputation’ we think is self-executing and operates without the aid of any legislative act or provision. * * * It has, however, no application to an action sounding in tort when brought against the state or one of the counties of the state. In strict law neither the state nor a county is capable of committing a tort or lawfully authorizing one to be [***18]  committed. Counties, as well as the state, act through their public officials and duly authorized agents. The officers, agents, servants and employees of the state or a county, while in the discharge of their duties, can and sometimes do commit torts, but no lawful authorization or legal justification can be found for the commission of a tort by any such officer, agent, servant or employee. When a tort is thus committed, the person committing it is personally liable for the injury resulting therefrom. The wrongful act, however, is the act of the wrongdoer and not  [*635]  the act of the state or county in whose service the wrong-doer is then engaged. For the damages occasioned by the wrong thus committed it is within the power of the legislature to impute liability against the state or the county in whose service the wrongdoer is then engaged, or to exempt the state or county from such liability, but in either event the wrongdoer is himself personally responsible. It is the remedy against the wrongdoer himself and not the remedy which may or may not be imposed by statute against the state or county for the torts of its officers or agents  [**1157]  to which the constitutional guarant[y] applies.”

See also Rankin v. Buckman, et al., 9 Ore. 253, 259-63 (1881) (city [***19]  employees liable even when city is not).

From those cases, it appears that whether a principal’s immunity is personal to the principal or may extend to an agent is a matter of legislative choice subject to constitutional bounds. We presume that the legislature was aware of that existing law. Blachana, LLC v. Bureau of Labor and Industries, 354 Ore. 676, 691, 318 P3d 735 (2014). In addition, the Restatement (Second) of Agency section 347(1) (1958), which had been published by the American Law Institute when the Legislative Assembly enacted the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act in 1971, is in accord. It provides that “[a]n agent does not have the immunities of his principal although acting at the direction of the principal.” Id. Restatement section 347 comment a clarifies: “Immunities exist because of an overriding public policy which serves to protect an admitted wrongdoer from civil liability. They are strictly personal to the individual and cannot be shared.” Subject to constitutional limitations, the legislature must determine as a matter of public policy how broadly to extend immunities.

Consequently, we conclude that when the Legislative Assembly enacted the Public Use of Lands Act, legislators would not necessarily have assumed that granting immunity to landowners would also grant immunity to their employees and agents. The legal principles that [***20]  the court had previously applied, as well as the common law rules reflected in the restatements, recognized that the grant of immunity to a principal, particularly to a governmental principal, would not necessarily extend to the employees and agents of the  [*636]  principal. Whether a court would imply such an extension could depend, for instance, on whether the court considered the grant of immunity personal to the principal, or whether extension of immunity to an agent would eliminate a remedy that the Oregon Constitution requires.

In this case, in deciding whether to imply an extension of the immunity granted to “owner[s]” of land to their employees and agents, we first consider the statute’s text. Significantly, that text indicates that the legislature intended to extend the immunity of those who hold legal title to land to some others who stand in their stead–the owners of other lesser interests in land, including tenants and lessees, and those who qualify as “occupant[s]” or “person[s] in possession” of the land. The text does not, however, disclose a legislative intent to extend the immunity of owners to additional persons who stand in their stead, such as employees and non-employee agents.

Second, we look to the [***21]  statute’s context and legislative history and note that, when it was originally enacted in 1971, the Act was supported by owners of forestland who wished to open their lands to the public for recreational uses such as hunting and fishing. Testimony, Senate Committee on State and Federal Affairs, SB 294, March 1, 1971 (written statement of Sam Taylor, a proponent of the bill). When originally enacted, the Act provided that “[a]n owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the land safe for entry or use by others for any recreational purpose or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity on the land to persons entering thereon for any such purpose.” Or Laws 1971, ch 780, § 3. Thus, it appears that the legislature’s original intent was to relieve those who control the use of their land from responsibility to take affirmative steps to make their property safe for use by others; the legislature did not express an intent to benefit those who do not have the ability to make decisions about the use of land, or to relieve non-owners who commit negligent acts from responsibility for injuries caused by such acts.

The legislature amended the Act in 1995 to make it expressly [***22]  applicable to public landowners. Or Laws 1995, ch 456, § 1. However, neither that change nor other changes  [*637]  in the wording of the statute disclose an intent to change the purpose of the statute or to benefit additional classes of persons. Importantly, the legislature did not materially change the definition of owner in 1995. The 1971 Act provided that an “owner” is “the possessor of a fee title interest in any land, a tenant, lessee, occupant or other person in  [**1158]  possession of the land.” Or Laws 1971, ch 780, § 1. In 1995, the legislature broke the definition into two sentences and changed the phrase in the first sentence from “possessor of a fee title interest in any land” to “possessor of any interest in any land.” Or Laws 1995, ch 456, § 1. However, the legislature did not change the categories of persons to whom it granted immunity; in 1995, the legislature exempted the same persons from liability that it had exempted in 1971. When the legislature made the Public Use of Lands Act expressly applicable to public landowners in 1995, it did not demonstrate an intent to broaden the Act to benefit those who do not have the ability to make decisions about the use of land, or to relieve non-owners [***23]  who commit negligent acts from responsibility for injuries caused by such acts.

Defendants argue, however, that other statutory context points in that direction. Defendants call our attention to the fact that just four years earlier, in 1991, the legislature had amended the OTCA to provide that a claim against a public body is the sole remedy for the torts committed by employees of that public body. Or Laws 1991, ch 861, § 1. Defendants contend that, in light of that amendment, the Public Use of Lands Act must be read to shield governmental employees and agents; otherwise, the immunity it grants to governmental landowners would mean nothing. We disagree. The Public Use of Lands Act applies not only to public landowners, but also to private landowners. Just as it did before the amendment of the OTCA, the Public Use of Lands Act protects all “owner[s]” from liability in their capacity as “owner[s].” Just like private owners, public owners are exempt from liability for their own acts. The fact that public owners are not, in addition, exempt from liability for the acts of their employees or agents does not make the immunity granted by the Public Use of Lands Act illusory. The fact that public owners, like [***24]  private owners, are not shielded from liability if they employ non-owners who cause injury to  [*638]  others in the negligent performance of their duties does not mean that the Public Use of Lands Act has no purpose.

The legislature knows how to extend immunity to governmental employees and agents when it chooses to do so. See ORS 368.031 (immunizing counties and their officers, employees, or agents for failure to improve or keep in repair local access roads); ORS 453.912 (immunizing the state and local government and their officers, agents and employees for loss or injury resulting from the presence of any chemical or controlled substance at a site used to manufacture illegal drugs); ORS 475.465 (immunizing the state, DEQ, EQC, and their officers, employees, and agents from liability to a person possessing chemicals at alleged illegal drug manufacturing site).4 The legislature did not make that express choice in the Public Use of Lands Act. Should the legislature wish to extend the immunity provided to “owner[s]” to governmental employees and agents, it is free to do so, within constitutional bounds. However, we are unwilling to insert into the definition of “owner” in ORS 105.672(4) (2007) terms that the legislature did not include. See ORS 174.010 (office [***25]  of judge is to ascertain what is contained in statute, not to insert what was omitted or to omit what was inserted).

4 Another example, although enacted after the Public Use of Lands Act, is a 2011 statute that grants immunity relating to public trails. ORS 105.668(2) immunizes a “city with a population of 500,000 or more” and its “officers, employees, or agents” from liability for injury or damage resulting from the use of a trail or structures in a public easement or an unimproved right of way.

We answer the Ninth Circuit’s first certified question as follows:  [HN6] Individual employees responsible for repairing, maintaining, and operating improvements on Cityowned recreational land made available to the public for recreational purposes are not “owner[s]” of the land, as that term is defined in the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act. They are therefore not immune from liability for their negligence. We do not reach the second certified question concerning Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution.

The certified questions are answered.