The Estate of Joseph R. Kane, v. Epley’s Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48179
The Estate of Joseph R. Kane, deceased; Stacie Kane, individually, and as guardian of Joseph P. Kane; and Thomas Kane, individually, Plaintiffs, vs. Epley’s Inc., an Idaho corporation, Defendant.
Case No.: 3:15-cv-00105-EJL-REB
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF IDAHO
2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48179
March 28, 2017, Decided
March 28, 2017, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: Estate of Kane v. Epley’s Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 170316 (D. Idaho, Dec. 5, 2016)
COUNSEL: [*1] For Estate of Joseph R Kane, deceased, Stacie Kane, individually, and as guardian of Joseph P Kane, Joseph P Kane, Thomas Kane, individually, Plaintiffs: Theron A Buck, LEAD ATTORNEY, Frey Buck, P.S., Seattle, WA; Thomas Daniel Frey, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Frey Buck, P.S., Seattle, WA.
For Epley’s, Inc., an Idaho corporation, Defendant: Caitlin Elizabeth O’Brien, LEAD ATTORNEY, Winston & Cashatt, Lawyers, Coeur d’Alene, ID; Patrick J Cronin, LEAD ATTORNEY, Winston & Cashatt, Lawyers, Spokane, WA.
JUDGES: Honorable Ronald E. Bush, Chief United States Magistrate Judge.
OPINION BY: Ronald E. Bush
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER RE:
PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT TO ASSERT PUNITIVE DAMAGE CLAIM
(Docket No. 17)
PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION TO STRIKE DEFENDANT’S “SUR REPLY” TO PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT TO ADD PUNITIVE DAMAGES
(Docket No. 39)
Now pending before the Court is Plaintiffs’ (1) Motion to Amend Complaint to Assert Punitive Damage Claim (Docket No. 17), and (2) Motion to Strike Defendant’s “Sur Reply” to Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend Complaint to Add Punitive Damages (Docket No. 39). Having carefully considered the record, heard oral argument, and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the [*2] following Memorandum Decision and Order:
Joseph R. Kane died after being ejected from a raft on a section of the Lower Salmon River known as “Slide Rapid.” Mr. Kane was part of a Boy Scouts of America (“BSA”) group, composed of minors and other adults — the majority of whom had no “whitewater” experience whatsoever. The group booked their trip with Defendant Epley’s Inc. (“Epley’s”), a licensed outfitter in the state of Idaho that offers guided rafting tours on the Salmon River and Snake River.
Through this action, Plaintiffs (to include the estate of Mr. Kane, his wife Stacie Kane, and sons Thomas and Joseph P. Kane) claim that Epley’s conduct — in particular, its decision to run the Slide Rapid at flows above 23,000 cubic feet per second (“cfs”) — breached the standard of care applicable to outfitters and guides under chapter 12, Title 6, Idaho Code and that said breach was a direct and proximate result of Mr. Kane’s death. See generally Pls.’ Compl., ¶¶ 4.1-4.12 (Docket No. 1). Plaintiffs specifically allege:
Defendant’s conduct was wrongful and otherwise breached its standard of care by taking Joseph R. and Thomas down the river and through the Slide when they knew or [*3] should have known that the river’s flow was in excess of 23,500 cfs, and knowing that these extreme conditions would produce incredibly dangerous Class V or Class VI rapids. Defendant’s guides’ decision to run these rapids not only ignored the rafter’s inexperience, it was also contrary to the express written recommendations of the BLM’s published handbook for rafting the Lower Salmon River. Defendant’s actions were wrongful in the face of a known, significant risk that was unknown to the Plaintiffs.
Id. at ¶ 4.5. Since the action’s inception, the above-referenced breach-of-the-standard-of-care allegations have further evolved into the bases for Plaintiff’s at-issue Motion to Amend Complaint to Assert Punitive Damage Claim.1
1 Even so, these allegations were preliminarily tested in the context of Defendant’s intervening Motion for Summary Judgment. See MSJ (Docket No. 16). U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge denied that Motion, concluding that questions of fact populated the interwoven issues of (1) the proper standard of care involved, (2) whether Defendant breached such standard of care, and (3) whether Defendant’s conduct proximately caused Plaintiffs’ injury and/or any actual loss or damage. See generally 12/6/16 MDO, pp. 16-30 (Docket No. 44).
According to Plaintiffs, Epley’s not only ignored and misrepresented to the group the extreme risks presented by the water levels forecasted to be encountered at Slide Rapid on June 27, 2014 (thus permitting the trip’s June 24, 2014 launch in the first instance), its later decision to actually continue through Slide Rapid on June 27, 2014 at flows in excess of 23,500 cfs represented an extreme deviation from industry standards. See generally Mem. in [*4] Supp. of Mot. to Am., pp. 5-17 (Docket No. 17, Att. 1). Plaintiffs argue:
Despite the dangerous conditions produced by the high flow levels, Defendant authorized the trip to commence as planned on June 24, 2014. Defendant’s manager [(Blackner)] admits that he told the group that the river level would slacken by the time they reached the Slide on the fourth day of the trip, a fact admitted by Blackner and reflected in pre-trip emails by group members. Notably, Blackner told the group he expected the river would be down to 17,000 cfs by the time they hit the Slide. Blackner asserts he was relying on on-line river forecasts by the National Weather Service (“NWS”) vis-a-vis [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] (“NOAA”) and [U.S. Geological Survey] (“USGS”), in making this claim.
In fact, however, the water level forecasted by the NWS model as of the morning of the trip launch (June 24) for June 27 — the day the group was scheduled to hit the Slide — was not 17,000; it was approximately 21,000 cfs, Class V-VI water. Moreover, while earlier forecast modeling had predicted that the flow levels might recede below 20,000 cfs, the actual flow measurements taken by the . . . USGS show [*5] that the river had remained steadily above 23,000 cfs for the four days before launch date, flatly belying the earlier forecast models. Defendant’s manager and guides were aware of this flow before the trip began. Moreover, rain was forecast for the area during the trip. In short, there was no earthly reason to believe the water level would decrease significantly from the 23,400 cfs level on launch date by the time the Boy Scouts hit the Slide; all extant evidence and forecasts unequivocally established the Slide would be Class V water on June 27. Notwithstanding the extreme water level, the inexperienced, unfit passengers and the want of cause to believe the river volume would drop, Defendant launched the excursion.
Prior to launch, the Defendant prepared no plan whatsoever to avoid or safely transit the Slid should the water level remain at ClassV level. There were several options available. Defendant could have arranged to take the group off the river at Eagle Creek, the last overnight stop before the Slide. It could have arranged for a larger, motorized raft to transit the group. It could have arranged for jet boat transit at the Slide. Defendant took none of these prudent steps. [*6]
On June 26,2014, the scout group landed and took out at Eagle Creek to spend the night. This was the group’s last overnight location before reaching the Slide. Eagle Creek was also the last place where the group could have readily exited the river on land. The guides were aware that the river had not changed appreciably since the launch level of 23,400 cfs. Indeed, on the morning of June 27, after spending the night at Eagle Creek, Epley’s guides could see with the naked eye that the river flow had actually increased overnight. Defendant’s guides knew that these extreme flows would produce Class V or VI rapids at the Slide. Despite this knowledge, prior to and after reaching Eagle Creek, the Defendant’s agents made no plan to avoid the Slide in the event the water level did not recede, no plan to remove the group at Eagle Creek, and no plan to bring extra assets to the area of the Slide to relieve the obvious risk posed by the rapid. The guides had access to a satellite phone, but they opted to not use it to verify water levels or explore options for avoiding the Slide, notwithstanding that it had “constantly” rained following the June 24 launch. . . . .
Id. at pp. 5-6 (internal citations omitted, [*7] italics in original, underlining added); see also id. at pp. 14, 16 (“Based on the evidence presented here, it can be inferred that Blackner intentionally or with gross negligence misled the group (and possibly his lead guide) to believe the Slide would be safely navigable by June 27. . . . . There [was] no rational justification for allowing this group to launch on June 24, other than for financial gain.”); id. at p. 16 (“Simply put, once the group left on June 24, Epley’s plan was to send the group through the Slide regardless of conditions, risk of injury or death to riders, or industry standards. . . . . The decision by the guides to authorize the trip to continue through the Slide after reaching Eagle Creek on June 26 also constitutes an extreme deviation from industry standards. The trip should have unquestionably been terminated when the guides recognized that the flows had not dropped since June 24.”).2
2 Plaintiffs also claims that Epley’s use of inexperienced and inadequately trained guides contributes to the milieu of conduct auguring in favor of a punitive damages claim against Epley’s. See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Am., pp. 14, 16 (Docket No. 17, Att. 1) (“There is no dispute that the guides selected by lead boatman Mike Cornforth for the trip had never transited the Slide at levels near 23,000 cfs. Accordingly, they lacked any training or experience whatsoever to manage the extreme conditions presented by the Slide at that level. . . . . Epley’s decision to permit commencement of the trip on June 24, with minors as young as 14 and unfit 50-year-olds, at flows in excess of 23,000 cfs, under the supervision of inexperienced and unqualified guides, with no alternative safety plan in place, constituted an extreme deviation from the standard of care.”).
Epley’s disputes these claims outright, but alternatively argues that, even if true, they operate only to support claims that it was grossly negligent or reckless. See generally Opp. to Mot. to Am., pp. 12-19 (Docket No. 22). In short, attacking the quantum of Plaintiffs’ proffered evidence, Epley’s argues [*8] that, “[t]he mere fact of a tragic death during a high risk recreational activity does not create the necessary fraud, malice, outrage, or oppression” to warrant a claim for punitive damages. Id. at p. 12; see also id. at p. 15 (“Ultimately, even Plaintiffs’ evidence regarding the water levels do not rise to any necessary level of proof that Epley’s acted maliciously, outrageously, fraudulently, or oppressively.”); id. at p. 17 (“The Plaintiffs’ evidence fails to rise to the level of reasonable likelihood of proving fraud, oppression, malice, or outrage.”); id. at p. 19 (“[Plaintiffs’] evidence in this motion at best claims that [Epley’s] was grossly negligent or reckless, but nowhere explains or establishes fraud, oppression, malice, or outrage necessary to amend to add punitives.”).
A. Punitive Damages: Legal Standard
Claims for punitive damages are governed by Idaho Code § 6-1604, which provides:
In any action seeking recovery of punitive damages, the claimant must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, oppressive, fraudulent, malicious or outrageous conduct by the party against whom the claim for punitive damages is asserted.
I.C. § 6-1604(1).
Whether to allow a claim of punitive damages is a substantive question controlled by Idaho law. See Windsor v. Guarantee Trust Life Ins. Co., 684 F. Supp. 630, 633 (D. Idaho 1988). Ultimately, [*9] an award of punitive damages requires a bad act and a bad state of mind. See Todd v. Sullivan Const. LLC, 146 Idaho 118, 191 P.3d 196, 201 (Idaho 2008). The defendant must (1) act in a manner that was an extreme deviation from reasonable standards of conduct with an understanding of — or disregard for — the likely consequences, and must (2) act with an extremely harmful state of mind, described variously as with malice, oppression, fraud, or outrageousness. See Myers v. Workmen’s Auto Ins. Co., 140 Idaho 495, 95 P.3d 977, 983 (Idaho 2004); see also I.C. § 6-1604.3
3 The Idaho Supreme Court has recognized that, since the enactment of Idaho Code § 6-1604 in 1987, gross negligence or deliberate or willful conduct is not sufficient for an award of punitive damages. See Cummings v. Stephens, 157 Idaho 348, 336 P.3d 281, 296, n.5 (Idaho 2014) (“Since the enactment of the statute, gross negligence or deliberate or willful conduct is not sufficient for an award of punitive damages.”). Accordingly, the undersigned disagrees with Plaintiffs’ to the extent they ask the Court to infer that a harmful state of mind can be satisfied by a defendant’s gross negligence. See, e.g., Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Am., p. 10 (Docket no. 17, Att. 1); compare with Opp. to Mot. to Am., p. 10 (Docket No. 22) (“A party seeking punitive damages must prove defendant’s action constituted an extreme deviation from reasonable standards of conduct, which was done with knowledge of the likely consequences, and an ‘extremely harmful state of mind.’ However, that ‘extremely harmful state’ can no longer be termed gross negligence or recklessness.”) (internal citations omitted, emphasis in original).
At trial, the party alleging punitive damages must satisfy this standard by clear and convincing evidence. See I.C. § 6-1604(1). However, for purposes of a motion to amend, the party seeking to add a claim for punitive damages does not need to meet this high burden; rather, the party need only show “a reasonable likelihood of proving facts at trial sufficient to support an award of punitive damages.” See I.C. § 6-1604(2). Therefore, although FRCP 15(a) encourages the trial court to liberally grant motions to amend pleadings, this policy is substantially tempered by the requirements under Idaho law. That is, plaintiff may add a claim for punitive damages only if they establish a reasonable likelihood of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant’s conduct was oppressive, fraudulent, [*10] malicious, or outrageous.
Since plaintiffs are only required to demonstrate a “reasonable likelihood” of establishing their entitlement to punitive damages, on motions to amend to assert a claim for punitive damages under Idaho Code § 6-1604(2), courts apply the same standard it would apply in resolving an FRCP 50 motion at the close of plaintiffs’ case. See Bryant v. Colonial Sur. Co., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22414, 2016 WL 707339, *3 (D. Idaho 2016). That is, evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, with the benefit of all legitimate inferences without assessing credibility. See id. (citing E.E.O.C. v. Go Daddy Software, Inc., 581 F.3d 951, 961 (9th Cir. 2009)).
It is in the trial court’s discretion to decide whether to submit the punitive damages issue to the jury. See Manning v. Twin Falls Clinic & Hosp., Inc., 122 Idaho 47, 830 P.2d 1185, 1190 (Idaho 1992). As a matter of substantive law, it is well established in Idaho that punitive damages are not favored and should be awarded only in the most unusual and compelling circumstances, and are to be awarded cautiously and within narrow limits. See id. at 1185; see also Jones v. Panhandle Distribs., Inc., 117 Idaho 750, 792 P.2d 315 (Idaho 1990); Soria v. Sierra Pac. Airlines, Inc., 111 Idaho 594, 726 P.2d 706 (Idaho 1986); Cheney v. Palos Verdes Inv. Corp., 104 Idaho 897, 665 P.2d 661 (Idaho 1983); Linscott v. Rainier Nat’l Life Ins. Co., 100 Idaho 854, 606 P.2d 958 (Idaho 1980).
B. Plaintiffs May Assert a Claim for Punitive Damages Against Epley’s
This lawsuit and the instant Motion to Amend are focused on the decisions surrounding the events leading up to June 27, 2014 — the day Mr. Kane, his son, and the rest of the rafters in their group encountered Slide Rapid. The evidentiary record about such decisions [*11] (viewed in light most favorable to Plaintiffs), gives rise to a reasonable likelihood of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that Epley’s engaged in a bad act, with a bad state of mind, so as to warrant a claim for punitive damages.
1. Bad Act: Extreme Deviation From Reasonable Standards of Conduct
Plaintiffs point out that, in the days leading up to, and including, the June 24, 2014 launch, Defendant’s manager and guides were aware that water levels on the Salmon River consistently measured higher than 23,000 cfs and that, on June 24, 2014, the water level forecasted for June 27, 2014 (the day the group was scheduled to reach Slide Rapid) was approximately 21,000 cfs. See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Am., pp. 2-6, 11, 14 (Docket No. 17, Att. 1) (citing Ex. D (Blackner Dep. at p. 96) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3); Ex. F (Cornforth Dep. at p. 21) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3); Ex. L (USGS Discharge Data), to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 4); Ex. M (Northwest River Forecast Center (“NWRFC”) River Flow Forecast), to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 24)).4 Still, Epley’s decided to proceed with the trip and, according to Plaintiffs, did so with “no plan whatsoever” to address the [*12] anticipated flow levels at Slide Rapid in the event water flow volumes remained dangerously high. See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Am., pp. 6-7, 15-16 (Docket No. 17, Att. 1) (citing Ex. D (Blackner Dep. at pp. 107-08) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3)).5
4 It is undisputed that, at levels over 20,000 cfs, Slide Rapid represents either Class V (expert) or Class VI (extreme and exploratory) waters. See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Am., pp. 4, 7, 14 (Docket No. 17, Att. 1) (citing Ex. B (BLM Guide) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3); Ex. D (Blackner Dep. at p. 86) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3); Ex. Q (Ranck Dep. at pp. 16-17) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 6); Ex. E (Estes Dep. at pp. 18-19) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3)).
5 According to Defendant’s lead guide, Mr. Cornforth, “regardless of the height of the river when [the party] got to Slide [Rapid],” his only plan was “to try to stay river left and go through it.” Ex. F (Cornforth Dep. at p. 22) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3).
Flow levels did not appreciably change over the course of the trip and, on the morning of June 27, 2014, Defendant’s guides could see that the river flow had actually increased overnight as the party camped at Eagle Creek (the last overnight location before reaching Slide Rapid). See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Am., p. 7 (Docket No. 17, Att. 1) (citing Ex. F (Cornforth Dep. at pp. 59-60) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3); Ex. G (Sharp Dep. at pp. 34-36) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 4); Ex. P (Sharp Witness Statement) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 6)). Still, Defendant decided to proceed through Slide Rapid with allegedly unqualified guides, foregoing options to use an available satellite phone to discuss potentially safer options for the relatively inexperienced group, portage around Slide Rapid,6 or altogether exit the river on land at Eagle Creek (the last place where the group could have readily done so). See Mem. in [*13] Supp. of Mot. to Am., pp. 6-7, 15-16 (Docket No. 17, Att. 1) (citing Ex. D (Blackner Dep. at p. 154) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3; Ex. F (Cornforth Dep. at pp. 22, 29-30) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3); Ex. O (Sears Expert Report, p. 6) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 6); Ex. W (Nicolazzo Report, p. 3), to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. ).
6 Plaintiffs claim that another outfitter, Exodus River Adventures, ran the Lower Salmon River during the same time frame and, on June 26, 2014, portaged around Slide Rapid rather than running it at similar flows. See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Am., p. 7 (Docket No. 17, Att. 1) (citing Ex. D (Blackner Dep. at p. 154) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3)); but see Ex. Q (Ranck Dep. at p. 30) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 6) (testifying that portaging Slide Rapid was not a viable option: “It is a steep slope with sharp rocks. Lots of ledges. Loose rocks. Having middle-aged parents. Some of which were overweight. They would have been more than capable to do so on maybe a beach or a smaller rock outcropping. But they wouldn’t have been able to get safely over that rock slide by themselves. Especially carrying gear.”).
For its part, Epley’s disputes Plaintiffs’ contentions about forecasted flows for Slide Rapid in the days leading up to June 27, 2014, believing them to be lower. See Opp. to Mot. to Am., pp. 4-5, 14 (Docket No. 22) (“Despite Plaintiffs’ incorrect assertions, the Northwest River Forecast website continued to predict that the Lower Salmon River water level would drop to below 20,000 cfs by the time the group was to reach the Slide.”) (citing Ex. L (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, Northwest River Forecast Center River Flow and Stage Forecasts) to Cronin Decl. (Docket No. 22, Att. 3). Consistent with this, the BLM officials present at the launch site on June 24, 2014, neither warned the group not to go, nor stated any concern about the water levels whatsoever. See Opp. to Mot. to Am., [*14] p. 6 (Docket No. 22) (citing Ex. A (Blackner Dep. at p. 113) to Cronin Decl. (Docket No. 22, Att. 2). And, as to precautions taken before hitting Slide Rapid itself, Epley’s notes that its guides (who it contends were state-licensed and experienced) conducted a safety talk on the morning of June 27, 2014 and, before reaching the rapids, pulled the group’s rafts to shore to scout and pick the safest line to run — the “Sneak” down the left bank, with identified spots to “eddy out” at the bottom of the run “in case any individuals fell out during the rapid and they needed to perform a rescue.” Opp. to Mot. to Am., pp. 6, 15-17 (Docket No. 22) (citing Ex. P (Ranck Dep. at pp. 29-31) to Cronin Decl. (Docket No. 22, Att. 3)).
The extent to which the parties’ above-referenced arguments define the standard of care orbiting Defendant’s actions leading up to Mr. Kane’s death is clearly disputed. Judge Lodge stated as much when considering Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, discussing the relevant standard of care as follows:
A question of fact exists, however, concerning what the standard of care is in this case; i.e., what ordinary care Epley’s, as an outfitter, owed to Plaintiffs, as its [*15] customers/participants. The parties dispute the testimony of the expert witnesses offered to opine regarding the standards of the profession and the use/relevance of certain public information and industry publications to define the standard of care — in particular the standard of care in the profession for outfitters running the Slide Rapid above 20,000 cfs.
Each sides’ expert witnesses offer differing opinions concerning the standard of care applicable to the circumstances presented in this case. In his report, the Defendant’s expert, Gary Lane, states that he used a 25,000 cfs cut-off for running commercial trips at the Slide Rapid but that “it has long been the standard practice and is the practice today for commercial outfitters on the Lower Salmon River to take commercial trips down the Lower Salmon, including the Slide Rapid, at flows up to and exceeding 25,000 cfs” and concludes that Epley’s conformed to the standard of care expected of outfitters and guides rafter the Lower Salmon at the Slide Rapid with this group, gear, and at water levels higher than 20,000 cfs. Plaintiffs’ expert, on the other hand, conclude the Defendant violated the standard of care with regard to running [*16] the Slide Rapid above 20,000 cfs under the circumstances of this case. Resolving the disputed questions presented by the experts’ testimonies requires the weighing of evidence and credibility determinations which must be done at trial.
12/6/16 MDO, pp. 19-20 (Docket No. 44) (internal citations omitted).7 And, whether these same arguments reflect Defendant’s breach of any duty owed to Plaintiffs is also disputed, with Judge Lodge similarly ruling:
For the same reasons discussed above with regard to duty, the Court finds a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendant breached the standard of care applicable in this case. This case presents the classic example of a battle of experts where both sides have presented contradicting testimony from experts concerning whether the Defendant breached a duty of care owed to Plaintiffs. Further, the facts surrounding events in question relevant to the breach issue are in dispute. For instance, the conditions presented on the day in question; what the guides knew regarding the water flow level of the Slide Rapid; whether there was a rescue plan and if that plan was followed; and any safety procedures in place and used by the guides. [*17] The jury, as the finder of fact, must consider all of the disputed facts, the credibility of the witnesses, and the weight of the evidence in order to determine whether Defendant breached its duty. Therefore, summary judgment is denied on this question.
Id. at p. 23.
7 Judge Lodge also considered the “public information and industry publications” for the purposes of determining the appropriate standard of care for Idaho outfitters running commercial trips on the Lower Salmon River generally, and when Slide Rapid experiences high flows. See 12/6/16 MDO, pp. 20-22 (Docket No. 44). This examination included the BLM’s Lower Salmon River Boater’s Guide, the American Whitewater Safety Code, outfitter websites, and industry blogs (including one by Defendant’s expert, Gary Lane). However, they also didn’t highlight the standard of care as a matter of law. See id. at p. 22 (“While these materials do not, in and of themselves, define the standard of care, and their admissibility and/or use at trial is not decided here, the materials do show a genuine issue of material fact is present in this case concerning the applicable standard of care.”).
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, and giving Plaintiff the benefit of all legitimate inferences without assessing credibility, Plaintiffs have established a reasonable likelihood of proving by clear and convincing evidence that Defendant acted in a manner that was an extreme deviation from reasonable standards of conduct with an understanding (as an experienced outfitter) of — or disregard for — the likely consequences of those actions. See, e.g., Morningstar Holding Corp. v. G2, LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12355, 2012 WL 287517, at *14 (D. Idaho 2012) (“It is true that ‘[w]here evidence is conflicting, and where it can be said that if one theory of the case is correct there may be ground for the imposition of exemplary damages, the matter is properly submitted to the jury’ to determine the correct theory.”) (quoting Williams v. Bone, 74 Idaho 185, 259 P.2d 810, 813 (Idaho 1953)). As already indicated by Judge Lodge, it will be for the jury to resolve the issue of the actual standard of care involved and, relatedly, whether Epley’s breached [*18] that same standard in the days and moments leading up to Mr. Kane’s death. See supra.
2. Bad State of Mind: Acting With An Extremely Harmful State of Mind
Plaintiffs assert that Epley’s, through its manager, Mr. Blackner, told Marelene Schaefer, who organized the event for the BSA, that (1) Defendant followed “BLM criteria” in determining whether to launch on the Lower Salmon Rive, and (2) they would not launch if the water was above 20,000 cfs. See Reply in Supp. of Mot. to Am., p. 2 (Docket No. 27) (citing Ex. B (Schaefer Dep. at pp. 25-28, 30) to Buck Decl. (Docket No. 21, Att. 3)). Plaintiffs also contend that Mr. Blackner assured Ms. Schaefer that he was monitoring river flows, even expressing concern that they might not be able to launch on the date planned and that they may have to “take an alternative trip if the water was over 20,000 cfs.” See Reply in Supp. of Mot. to Am., p. 2 (Docket No. 27) (citing Ex. B (Schaefer Dep. at pp. 27-29) to Buck Decl. (Docket No. 21, Att. 3)).
But, according to Plaintiffs, at the June 24, 2014 launch Mr. Blackner did not tell Ms. Schaefer (who was also present with the inspection team at the launch) that the water level was above 23,000 cfs, but [*19] did say that the water levels would be dropping to 17,000 cfs at Slide Rapid and, if they did not drop in time, they could alter the plan and take out at Eagle Creek or run a different route. See Reply in Supp. of Mot. to Am., p. 2 (Docket No. 27) (citing Ex. B (Schaefer Dep. at p. 46) to Buck Decl. (Docket No. 21, Att. 3);8 Ex. D (Blackner Dep. at pp. 91- 93) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3)). Mr. Blackner allegedly made these representations despite the fact that river level forecasts for June 27, 2014 (the day the group was scheduled to reach Slide Rapid) was, in reality, approximately 21,000 cfs. See Reply in Supp. of Mot. to Am., pp. 2-3 (Docket No. 27) (“Blackner admitted that he checked the USGS website that provided actual and forecasted river levels; consequently, he knew his statement that the river would be at 17,000 cfs by June 27 was false.”) (citing Ex. D (Blackner Dep. at pp. 91-93) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3); Ex. M (NWRFC River Flow Forecast), to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 24)). In other words, Plaintiffs argue that Mr. Blackner purposely misled Ms. Schaefer and, thus, the group by failing to inform them of actual (as of the June 24, 2014 launch date) and [*20] projected (for the anticipated encounter with Slide Rapid on June 27, 2014) river flows — that is, it was fraudulent and outrageous for Mr. Blackner to say that the forecasted flow for Slide Rapid on June 27, 2014 was 17,000 cfs, when, in actuality, it was much higher.
8 Whether Ms. Schaefer actually understood if Defendant would either take out at Eagle Creek or cancel the as-planned trip altogether is unclear, with Ms. Schaefer testifying:
Q: Okay. And that if [the river levels did not drop], according to what you’ve testified earlier, they could alter the plan and take out before they got to the Slide?
A: Well, their alternate plan was to run a different route, not to pull out before the Slide. There’s a place to pull out I think.
Ex. B (Schaefer Dep. at p. 46) to Buck Decl. (Docket No. 21, Att. 3). Even so, the gist of this testimony is that Ms. Schaefer understood that, at certain flows, there would be no launch. See id. at p. 63 (“Well, I’m saying you saw where [Mr. Blackner] had an alternative if they could not launch and run the river the way that we had planned.”). The Court understands that the alternative trip was from Vinegar Creek to Pine Bar. See Ex. D (Blackner Dep. at pp. 92-93) to Frey Decl. (Docket No. 17, Att. 3).
Again, Epley’s takes issue with Plaintiffs’ representation of what was actually forecasted for Slide Rapid as of June 24, 2014. See supra. Epley’s does acknowledge the dueling factual accounts of what was said between Mr. Blackner and Ms. Schaefer surrounding the circumstances in which the group would (or would not) proceed with the as-planned trip, in the face of dangerous high river flow levels. See Reply in Supp. of MSJ, p. 3 (Docket No. 25) (“While it is disputed what Roger Blackner may have told Marlene Schaefer regarding what level he would run the Slide Rapid at prior to the June 24, 2014 trip, nothing [*21] that the Plaintiffs cite establishes that Roger, or any other Epley’s personnel, testified the water was over the Epley’s limit, or the industry standard.”).
And, as before, such evidence and inferences must be viewed to Plaintiffs’ benefit when considering Plaintiffs’ efforts to amend their Complaint to assert a claim for punitive damages. When doing so, Plaintiffs have established a reasonable likelihood of proving by clear and convincing evidence that Epley’s not only acted in a manner that was an extreme deviation from reasonable standards of conduct with an understanding of — or disregard for — the likely consequences of those actions (see supra), but also did so with a harmful state of mind when viewing Mr. Blackner’s statements to Ms. Schaefer as fraudulent and/or outrageous. See Morningstar, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12355, 2012 WL 287517 at *14 (discussing role of jury to resolve conflicting evidence in context of exemplary damages). Whether Epley’s actually acted with such a harmful state of to support an award of punitive damages is therefore a question for the jury, and not the subject of this Memorandum Decision and Order.9
9 To be clear, the undersigned is granting Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend Complaint to Assert Punitive Damages Claim. However, the fact of doing so does not guarantee the claim will go to the jury. Judge Lodge will preside over the trial of the case and it will be within Judge Lodge’s province to decide, after hearing the evidence, whether the jury should decide the issue of punitive damages at trial. See, e.g., Clark v. Podesta, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 103637, 2016 WL 4179851, at *8 (D. Idaho 2016) (Judge Lodge stating on that facts of that case: “It is premature for the Court to make a binding decision on punitive damages until the close of evidence. Only then can the Court determine if evidence has been presented that Podesta acted with the requisite state of mind to allow punitive damages to be considered by the jury. Accordingly, the Court will allow the motion to amend the Complaint but will reserve ruling on whether such claim will be decided by the jury. . . .”).
Based on the foregoing, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:
1. Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend Complaint to [*22] Assert Punitive Damage Claim (Docket No. 17) is GRANTED; and
2. Plaintiffs’ Motion to Strike Defendant’s “Sur Reply” to Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend Complaint to Add Punitive Damages (Docket No. 39) is DENIED as moot.
DATED: March 28, 2017
/s/ Ronald E. Bush
Honorable Ronald E. Bush
Chief U. S. Magistrate Judge
Griffith v. Jumptime Meridian, LLC, 2017 Ida. LEXIS 90
Seth Griffith, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Jumptime Meridian, LLC, an Idaho Limited Liability Company, Defendant-Respondent.
Docket No. 44133-2016, 2017 Opinion No. 29
SUPREME COURT OF IDAHO
2017 Ida. LEXIS 90
April 10, 2017, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Ada County. Hon. Deborah A. Bail, District Judge.
DISPOSITION: The judgment of the district court is affirmed.
COUNSEL: Eric Clark, Clark & Associates, Eagle, argued for appellant.
William Fletcher, Hawley Troxell Ennis & Hawley LLP, Boise, argued for respondent.
JUDGES: EISMANN, Justice. Chief Justice BURDICK, and Justices JONES, HORTON and BRODY CONCUR.
OPINION BY: EISMANN
This is an appeal out of Ada County from a judgment dismissing an action brought against JumpTime Meridian, LLC, by Seth Griffith seeking damages for an injury he received while attempting a triple front flip when he was seventeen years of age. We affirm the judgment of the district court.
On January 11, 2014, seventeen-year-old Seth Griffith (“Plaintiff”) was seriously injured when he attempted a triple front flip into a pit filled with foam blocks (“foam pit”) at an indoor trampoline park owned and operated by JumpTime Meridian, LLC (“JumpTime”). Plaintiff went to the facility with his girlfriend and her younger brother and sister. Plaintiff initially played with the brother on trampolines for about ten or fifteen minutes, and [*2] then they went to an area where there were runway trampolines. Plaintiff spent about fifteen to twenty minutes doing front flips, back flips, and cartwheels on the runway trampolines, and he taught the brother to do a front flip. He then started showing off to the brother, doing various gymnastic tricks. He jumped up, did a back flip, jumped up, and did another back flip, and a female JumpTime employee, who was monitoring the foam pit area, told him it was pretty cool.
The facility had foam pits, one large (sixteen feet by eighteen feet) and one small (nine feet by sixteen feet). The large foam pit had twin trampolines that were each twelve feet long leading to it, and the small foam pit had a 58-foot-long trampoline runway leading to it.
Plaintiff’s girlfriend and her sister were near the large foam pit. He walked over to where they were and talked to them. While he was there, he jumped into the large foam pit a few times. He then spent about 45 minutes “kind of horsing around on both the runway trampoline and the foam pit and the twin trampolines.” After he did a double front flip into the small foam pit, the monitor came up to him and asked if he had ever done a double before. He [*3] answered that he had, and she said, “Oh, that was pretty sweet.” As he continued performing double front flips into the small foam pit, he noticed that doing them was easier than it used to be for him. He decided to try a triple front flip. When he attempted it, he did not rotate far enough and landed on his head and neck, suffering a cervical dislocation and fracture, which required a fusion of his C6 and C7 vertebrae.
Plaintiff filed this action alleging that JumpTime negligently caused his injury. He contended that because he was under the age of eighteen, JumpTime had a duty to supervise him. He had been intentionally landing the double front flips on his back in the pit. He testified that he did so “because you don’t want to land on your feet because you can bash your head against your knees.” JumpTime’s written policy manual instructed its employees with respect to the foam pit to “[f]ollow the rules outlined on the wall and continuously enforce it.” There were signs on the walls near the two pits that instructed customers to land on their feet. A large sign painted on the wall next to where the runway trampoline ended at the small foam pit said:
• Jump feet first into the pit
• Land on [*4] your feet and seat
• No landing on your head or Stomach
Just past the small foam pit was a sign titled “FOAM PIT RULES,” which included the admonition: “WHILE YOU JUMP: DO NOT land on head, neck or belly. NO DIVING; FEET FIRST.” A third sign located on the wall near the large foam pit was titled “FOAM PIT PATRON RESPONSIBILITY CODE,” and it included the admonition, “Jump and land on two feet.” Plaintiff contended that had the attendant told him to land on his feet, he would not have attempted the triple front flip.
JumpTime moved for summary judgment alleging that there was no negligence, based upon the opinion of an expert that industry standards permitted landing a front flip into a foam pit on one’s feet, buttocks, or back, and that there was no evidence of causation. In response, Plaintiff contended that the signs on the wall stating how to land in the foam pit established the standard of care and that because of the attendant’s failure to admonish him for landing incorrectly, he was not discouraged from attempting a more difficult maneuver like a triple front flip. The district court granted JumpTime’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Plaintiff had failed to produce evidence [*5] of negligence and causation. Plaintiff then timely appealed.
Did the District Court Err in Granting JumpTime’s Motion for Summary Judgment?
When reviewing on appeal the granting of a motion for summary judgment, we apply the same standard used by the trial court in ruling on the motion. Infanger v. City of Salmon, 137 Idaho 45, 46-47, 44 P.3d 1100, 1101-02 (2002). We construe all disputed facts, and draw all reasonable inferences from the record, in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 47, 44 P.3d at 1102. Summary judgment is appropriate only if the evidence in the record and any admissions show that there is no genuine issue of any material fact regarding the issues raised in the pleadings and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.
The elements of common law negligence have been summarized as (1) a duty, recognized by law, requiring a defendant to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s conduct and the resulting injuries; and (4) actual loss or damage.” Alegria v. Payonk, 101 Idaho 617, 619, 619 P.2d 135, 137 (1980). In this case, there were no facts in the record showing a causal connection between JumpTime’s alleged negligence and Plaintiff’s injury.
The issue of causation is why Plaintiff attempted the triple front flip. He did not tell [*6] anyone he was going to attempt it, nor is there any evidence indicating that the monitor knew or should have known that he would try a triple front flip. Plaintiff argues on appeal that he is “entitled to the reasonable inference that had JumpTime enforced its rules and interceded when [he] was landing improperly and dangerously on his back, [he] would not have felt emboldened and would never have attempted a triple flip.”
First, there is no evidence that it was dangerous to land on one’s back. Even Plaintiff testified that he believed it was safer because it avoided the risk of hitting his face with his knees.
Second, Plaintiff did not testify during his deposition that had the monitor admonished him to land on his feet that he would not have attempted the triple front flip, nor did he testify that the conduct of the monitor was part of that decision. He testified that he decided to attempt the triple front flip because completing the double front flips was easier than previously had been for him, that he was having to come out of his rotation earlier than he previously had to, and that he was confident he was in the air long enough to do a triple front flip, which would be exciting. [*7]
Plaintiff testified that performing the double front flips was easier than it previously had been for him.
Q. Well, tell me everything. Let’s just move in chronological order about what is happening and work up to the incident. So if you are at that point, then go ahead.
A. After about 45 minutes of just kind of horsing around on both the runway trampoline and the foam pit and the twin trampolines, I got onto the runway trampoline, plus the foam pit, and I kind of noticed I had been doing doubles easier than what I was normally used to, like I was just either spinning faster or getting higher. It was just easier than what I was accustomed to. So I decided to go for a triple.
He was asked why he attempted the triple front flip, and he did not answer that JumpTime was in any way responsible for that decision. He said that when doing double front flips he had to come out of his rotation earlier than he previously had to and he thought he had enough air to perform a triple front flip.
Q. Okay. So was the reason that you attempted this triple flip in the small foam pit just because it had a longer runway?
A. No. I had been doing doubles easier, like I was—I had to break from my rotation earlier [*8] than I previously would have to. So it was like I was having more time in the air to actually do the flips. So I kind of thought that I would be able to have enough air to do a triple.
He also stated that he was confident he could perform the triple front flip and was excited to try.
Q. Did you have any concerns about being able to do the triple without hurting yourself?
A. No. The time when I was about to do it I was pretty confident that I could.
. . . .
Q. Were you nervous at all before attempting the triple?
A. No. I was actually pretty excited about it.
Q. Why would you say that?
A. Just because, like I used to be an avid gymnastics person, so doing a new trick, like if I could—like if I added a 360 onto a front flip, I’d get pretty excited. If I did like an aerial for the first time, like I got excited. So new things kind of excited me.
Plaintiff’s testimony does not support an inference that JumpTime was in any way responsible for his decision to try the triple front flip. Therefore, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment to JumpTime based upon the lack of evidence regarding causation.
Is Either Party Entitled to an Award of Attorney Fees on Appeal?
Both parties [*9] request an award of attorney fees on appeal pursuant to Idaho Code section 12-121..An award of attorney fees under that statute will be awarded to the prevailing party on appeal only when this Court is left with the abiding belief that the entire appeal was brought, pursued, or defended frivolously, unreasonably, or without foundation. McGrew v. McGrew, 139 Idaho 551, 562, 82 P.3d 833, 844 (2003); Benz v. D.L. Evans Bank, 152 Idaho 215, 231-32, 268 P.3d 1167, 1183-84 (2012). Because Plaintiff is not the prevailing party on appeal, he is not entitled to an award of attorney fees under that statute. VanderWal v. Albar, Inc., 154 Idaho 816, 824, 303 P.3d 175, 183 (2013). Although it is a close question, we decline to award attorney fees on appeal to JumpTime because we do not find that this appeal meets the requirements for such an award.
We affirm the judgment of the district court, and we award Respondent costs, but not attorney fees, on appeal.
Chief Justice BURDICK, and Justices JONES, HORTON and BRODY CONCUR.
Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663
Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in her Own Right, Appellant v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, Appellee
No. 3049 EDA 2013
SUPERIOR COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA
2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663
November 15, 2016, Decided
November 15, 2016, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Order Entered September 30, 2013. In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Civil Division at No(s): April Term, 2012 No. 1417.
Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 2015 PA Super 273, 2015 Pa. Super. LEXIS 862 (Pa. Super. Ct., 2015)
JUDGES: BEFORE: GANTMAN, P.J., FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., BENDER, P.J.E., BOWES, PANELLA, SHOGAN, LAZARUS, OLSON and OTT, JJ. OPINION BY OLSON, J. Gantman, P.J., Bender, P.J.E., Bowes, Shogan and Ott, JJ., join this Opinion. Ford Elliott, P.J.E., files a Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in which Panella and Lazarus, JJ. join.
OPINION BY: OLSON
OPINION BY OLSON, J.:
Appellant, Michele Valentino (in her own right and as administratrix of the estate of Derek Valentino), appeals from an order entered on September 30, 2013 in the Civil Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County granting summary judgment on behalf of Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC (Appellee). After careful consideration, we affirm.
In 2010, Appellee organized an event known as the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon Sprint (the Triathlon). Three events comprised the Triathlon: a one-half mile swim, a 15.7 mile bicycle race, and a three and one-tenth mile run. Trial Court Opinion, 8/14/14, at 2. The swimming portion of the competition occurred in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [*2]
To compete in the Triathlon, each participant was required to register for the event. As part of the registration process, participants paid a fee and electronically executed a liability waiver form.1 Each participant also completed and submitted a registration form to obtain a number and a bib to wear on the day of the race. Mr. Valentino electronically registered as a participant in the Triathlon on January 24, 2010.
1 Among other things, the lengthy form stated that Mr. Valentino “underst[ood] and acknowledge[d] the physical and mental rigors associated with triathlon,” “realize[d] that running, bicycling, swimming and other portions of such [e]vents are inherently dangerous and represent[ed] an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits,” and, “underst[ood] that participation involves risks and dangers which include, without limitation, the potential for serious bodily injury, permanent disability, paralysis and death [as well as] dangers arising from adverse weather conditions, imperfect course conditions, water, road and surface hazards, equipment failure, inadequate safety measures, participants of varying skill levels, situations beyond the immediate control of [Appellee], and other presently unknown risks and dangers[.]” Appellee’s Motion [*3] for Summary Judgment Ex. G, 8/5/13. The form further provided that Mr. Valentino “underst[ood] that these [r]isks may be caused in whole or in part by [his] actions or inactions, the actions or inactions of others participating in the [e]vent, or the acts, inaction or negligence of [Appellee]” and that he “expressly assume[d] all such [r]isks and responsibility for any damages, liabilities, losses or expenses” that resulted from his participation in the event. Id. The liability waiver form also included a provision stating as follows: “[Mr. Valentino] further agree[s] that if, despite this [a]greement, he, or anyone on [his] behalf, makes a claim of [l]iability against [Appellee], [he] will indemnify, defend and hold harmless [Appellee] from any such [l]iability which [it] may  incur as the result of such claim.” Id.
In block capital lettering above the signature line, the liability waiver provided that Mr. Valentino’s acceptance of the agreement confirmed that he read and understood its terms, that he understood that he would surrender substantial rights (including the right to sue), and that he signed the agreement freely and voluntarily. Id. Lastly, the form states that acceptance of the agreement constituted “a complete and unconditional release of all liability [*4] to the greatest extent allowed by law.” Id.
On June 26, 2010, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Mr. Valentino entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first part of the Triathlon. He never completed the swimming portion of the competition or any other part of the race. The following day, on June 27, 2010, divers retrieved his body from the Schuylkill River.
Appellant (Mr. Valentino’s widow) filed her original complaint on April 12, 2012, asserting wrongful death and survival claims against various defendants, including Appellee. Thereafter, she amended her complaint on June 22, 2012. All of the defendants filed preliminary objections on June 22, 2012. On July 27, 2012, the trial court sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections and struck all references in Appellant’s amended complaint that referred to outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages. The court concluded that these allegations were legally insufficient since the alleged facts showed only ordinary negligence. In addition, the court struck paragraphs 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) in the amended complaint on grounds that those averments lacked sufficient specificity. The defendants answered the amended complaint [*5] and raised new matter on August 9, 2012.
Shortly after discovery commenced, the defendants moved for summary judgment in December 2012. The trial court denied that motion on January 29, 2013. Eventually, Appellant stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants except Appellee. At the completion of discovery, Appellee again moved for summary judgment on August 5, 2013. The trial court granted Appellee’s motion on September 30, 2013.2 Appellant sought reconsideration but the trial court denied her request. Appellant then filed a timely notice of appeal on October 23, 2013. Pursuant to an order of court, Appellant filed a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal in accordance with Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b). Subsequently, the trial court explained its reasons for sustaining Appellee’s preliminary objections in an opinion issued on March 18, 2014. In a separate opinion issued on August 14, 2014, the trial court set forth its rationale for granting Appellee’s motion for summary judgment.3
2 Because the trial court previously sustained preliminary objections to Appellant’s claims of outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages, we read the trial court’s summary judgment order as dismissing [*6] claims of ordinary negligence that comprised Appellant’s survival and wrongful death actions. In reaching this decision, the court relied upon the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino.
3 This Court filed its decision in Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 2013 PA Super 232, 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 2890, 189 L. Ed. 2d 838 (2014) on August 12, 2013, holding that [HN1] a non-signatory wrongful death claimant was not bound by an arbitration agreement signed by a decedent. Owing to our decision in Pisano, the trial court in its Rule 1925(a) opinion urged this Court to vacate the order granting summary judgment as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.
On December 30, 2015, a divided three-judge panel of this Court affirmed, in part, and reversed, in part, the rulings issued by the trial court. Specifically, the panel unanimously affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining Appellee’s preliminary objections. In addition, the panel unanimously agreed that: (1) the completion of discovery and the further development of the factual record defeated application of the coordinate jurisdiction rule and eliminated factual issues surrounding Mr. Valentino’s execution of the liability waiver; (2) Appellant’s failure to state viable claims involving recklessness, outrageousness, and intentional [*7] misconduct on the part of Appellee mooted Appellant’s argument that a contractual waiver of such claims would be ineffective; and, (3) there was no basis to consider the sufficiency of the testimony of Appellant’s expert since the trial court did not address that issue. Citing Pisano, however, two of the three members of the petite panel concluded that the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino did not apply to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the agreement.4 Consequently, this Court vacated summary judgment in favor of Appellee as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.5 Thereafter, both Appellant and Appellee requested reargument en banc. By order filed on March 11, 2016, this Court granted en banc reargument and withdrew our opinions of December 30, 2015. We now address the following questions:
1. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections  where, when the material facts set forth in the [a]mended [c]omplaint, as well as all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, are accepted as true, it cannot be said with certainty that [Appellee’s] actions were not sufficiently reckless, outrageous and/or egregious to warrant an award of punitive damages?
2. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred [*8] in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections  and striking paragraph[s] 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) of the [a]mended [c]omplaint where these averments, and the [a]mended [c]omplaint in general, were sufficiently specific to enable [Appellee] to respond and prepare a defense?
3. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] second [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the issue of waiver and release was previously decided in the [o]rder of January 29, 2013 that denied [Appellee’s] first [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment, and the [c]ourt was precluded by the coordinate jurisdiction rule from revisiting the question?
4. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where, when the record is viewed in the light most favorable to [Appellant], questions of fact remain as to whether the purported release in question was effectively executed by the decedent and, if it was, whether it was enforceable?
5. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the report issued by Mark Mico fully and adequately addressed the questions of duty, breach of duty and causation and, in addition, he was fully qualified to render opinions in these regards?
Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 7-8.
4 Distinguishing the arbitration clause at issue in Pisano, the dissent found that Appellant’s claims were subject [*9] to the liability waiver under which Mr. Valentino expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon since Appellant’s wrongful death action required her to demonstrate that Mr. Valentino’s death resulted from tortious conduct on the part of Appellee.
5 Our ruling did not purport to alter the trial court’s reliance on the liability waiver as grounds for entering summary judgment as to Appellant’s survival claims.
In the first issue, Appellant asserts that the trial court erred in sustaining the preliminary objections and striking all references to outrageous acts, gross negligence, and reckless conduct. Appellant also asserts that the trial court erred in dismissing her claims for punitive damages. The basis for these contentions is that, when the allegations set forth in the amended complaint are taken as true, the pleading asserts a claim that, “[Appellee] intentionally created a situation where swimmers [went] into a river with inadequate supervision and no reasonable means of rescue if they got into trouble.” Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 22 (emphasis in original).
The standard of review we apply when considering a trial court’s order sustaining preliminary objections is [*10] well settled:
[HN2] [O]ur standard of review of an order of the trial court overruling or [sustaining] preliminary objections is to determine whether the trial court committed an error of law. When considering the appropriateness of a ruling on preliminary objections, the appellate court must apply the same standard as the trial court.
[HN3] Preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer test the legal sufficiency of the complaint. When considering preliminary objections, all material facts set forth in the challenged pleadings are admitted as true, as well as all inferences reasonably deducible therefrom. [HN4] Preliminary objections which seek the dismissal of a cause of action should be sustained only in cases in which it is clear and free from doubt that the pleader will be unable to prove facts legally sufficient to establish the right to relief. If any doubt exists as to whether a demurrer should be sustained, it should be resolved in favor of overruling the preliminary objections.
HRANEC Sheet Metal, Inc. v. Metalico Pittsburgh, Inc., 2014 PA Super 278, 107 A.3d 114, 118 (Pa. Super. 2014).
[HN5] In Pennsylvania, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” Hutchison v. Luddy, 582 Pa. 114, 870 A.2d 766, 770 (Pa. 2005), quoting, Feld v. Merriam, 506 Pa. 383, 485 A.2d 742, 747 (Pa. 1984). [HN6] “As the name suggests, [*11] punitive damages are penal in nature and are proper only in cases where the defendant’s actions are so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton or reckless conduct.” Hutchison, 870 A.2d at 770. [HN7] To support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk. Id. at 772. [HN8] “Ordinary negligence, involving inadvertence, mistake or error of judgment will not support an award of punitive damages.” Hutchinson v. Penske Truck Leasing Co., 2005 PA Super 179, 876 A.2d 978, 983-984 (Pa. Super. 2005), aff’d, 592 Pa. 38, 922 A.2d 890 (Pa. 2007).
Appellant’s amended complaint alleges that Mr. Valentino died while swimming in the Schuylkill River during the Triathlon. The amended complaint alleges further that Appellee was inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees. These allegations, however, averred nothing more than ordinary negligence arising from inadvertence, mistake, or error in judgment; they do not support a claim involving outrageous [*12] behavior or a conscious disregard for risks confronted by Triathlon participants. Hence, the trial court correctly dismissed Appellant’s allegations of outrageous and reckless conduct and properly struck her punitive damage claims.
In the second issue, Appellant asserts that the trial court erred in sustaining the preliminary objections and striking paragraphs 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) from her amended complaint. Appellant maintains that these averments are sufficiently specific to enable Appellee to respond to Appellant’s allegations and to formulate a defense in this case.
Contrary to Appellant’s argument, we agree with the trial court’s assessment that the challenged portions of the amended complaint are too vague and ambiguous to satisfy the requirements found in Pa.R.C.P. 1019. [HN9] Under Rule 1019, “[t]he material facts on which a cause of action or defense is based shall be stated in a concise and summary form.” Pa.R.C.P. 1019. [HN10] “Pennsylvania is a fact-pleading state; a complaint must not only give the defendant notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, but the complaint must also formulate the issues by summarizing those facts essential to support the claim.” Feingold v. Hendrzak, 2011 PA Super 34, 15 A.3d 937, 942 (Pa. Super. 2011).
The challenged provisions of [*13] Appellant’s amended complaint referred only to “dangerous conditions” (¶ 22(a)), “warnings” (¶ 22(c)), “failures to reasonably plan, operate, supervise, and organize the event” (¶ 22(e)), and “failures to employ adequate policies, procedures, and protocols in conducting the event” (¶ 22(m)) as the basis for her claims. Upon review, we concur in the trial court’s determination that this boilerplate language was too indefinite to supply Appellee with adequate information to formulate a defense.
Appellant cites the decision of the Commonwealth Court in Banfield v. Cortes, 922 A.2d 36 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007) as supportive of her contention that the amended complaint set forth material facts with sufficient specificity. Banfield, however, is distinguishable. In that case, a group of electors filed suit alleging that the Secretary of the Commonwealth, in certifying the use of certain electronic systems in elections, failed to adopt uniform testing procedures that addressed the security, reliability, and accuracy of voting systems. The Secretary requested an order directing the plaintiffs to re-plead their allegations with greater specificity. In rejecting this request, the Commonwealth Court explained that in challenging the adequacy of the testing [*14] features inherent in the newly adopted electronic voting systems, the plaintiffs provided sufficient facts to enable the Secretary to prepare a defense. Id. at 50.
Here, in contrast, Appellant referred vaguely, and without elaboration, to unspecified dangerous conditions, indefinite warnings, and generic failures to reasonably plan and employ adequate policies in carrying out the Triathlon. Moreover, even if Appellee possessed some knowledge of the facts around which Appellant’s allegations centered, this alone would not relieve Appellant of her duty to allege material facts upon which she based her claims. See Gross v. United Engineers & Constructors, Inc., 224 Pa. Super. 233, 302 A.2d 370, 372 (Pa. Super. 1973). Thus, Appellant’s reliance on Banfield is unavailing and we conclude that the trial court committed no error in striking paragraphs 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) from the amended complaint.
The final three claims challenge the entry of summary judgment in favor of Appellee. Our standard of review over such claims is well settled.
[HN11] Th[e] scope of review of an order granting summary judgment is plenary. Our standard of review is clear: the trial court’s order will be reversed only where it is established that the court committed an error of law or clearly abused its discretion. [HN12] Summary judgment is [*15] appropriate only in those cases where the record clearly demonstrates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The reviewing court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, resolving all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact against the moving party. When the facts are so clear that reasonable minds cannot differ, a trial court may properly enter summary judgment.
Atcovitz v. Gulph Mills Tennis Club, Inc., 571 Pa. 580, 812 A.2d 1218, 1221-1222 (Pa. 2002).
Appellant advances several arguments in support of her contention that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. First, Appellant asserts that the coordinate jurisdiction rule precluded the trial court from addressing Appellee’s motion since a prior summary judgment motion was denied. Second, Appellant contends that genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Mr. Valentino actually executed a liability waiver form barred the entry of summary judgment in Appellee’s favor. Appellant next maintains that a plaintiff cannot contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct and that, as a result, the liability waiver executed in this case is incapable of extinguishing [*16] such claims. Appellant also asserts that, pursuant to our prior decision in Pisano, a decedent’s liability waiver is ineffective as to non-signatory third-party wrongful death claimants. Lastly, Appellant claims that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation. We address these contentions in turn.
We begin with Appellant’s claim alleging that the coordinate jurisdiction rule precluded consideration of Appellee’s motion for summary judgment since the trial court denied a prior summary judgment motion. [HN13] The coordinate jurisdiction rule holds that, “upon transfer of a matter between trial judges of coordinate jurisdiction, a transferee trial judge may not alter resolution of a legal question previously decided by a transferor trial judge.” Zane v. Friends Hospital, 575 Pa. 236, 836 A.2d 25, 29 (Pa. 2003). An exception to this rule applies, however, “when there has been a change in the controlling law or where there was a substantial change in the facts or evidence.” Id. We agree with the trial court that the completion of discovery and the development of a more complete record defeated application of [*17] the coordinate jurisdiction rule in this case. Hence, this contention merits no relief.
Appellant next advances a claim asserting that genuine issues of fact surrounding Mr. Valentino’s execution of the liability waiver preclude summary judgment in favor of Appellee. In developing this contention, Appellant draws our attention to differences between the version of the liability waiver introduced in support of Appellee’s first motion for summary judgment and the version submitted in support of its second motion. Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 37-41. Appellant notes that the second version was two and one-half pages in length while the first version was only two pages. Appellant also notes that the second version bore the date “2011” while the event occurred in 2010. Lastly, the second version included the words “Yes, I agree to the above waivers” above the signature line while the first version did not.
There is ample support for the trial court’s finding that Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver when he electronically registered for the Triathlon. See Trial Court Opinion, 8/14/14, at 4 (“In the second motion for summary judgment, it is undisputed that a waiver was among the [*18] decedent’s possessions, prior to being discovered in the Schuykill River.”). The record shows that Appellee retained the services of ACTIVE Network (ACTIVE) to implement the online registration process for the Triathlon. ACTIVE implemented the required specifications for online registration, including guidelines for specific waiver and assumption of the risk language, supplied by Appellee and USA Triathlon (USAT), the national governing body of the sport of triathlon. USAT sanctioned the Triathlon because Appellee followed USAT registration guidelines.
Appellee also demonstrated that no one could participate in the Triathlon without registering online, a process that could not be completed without the execution of a liability waiver. It is not disputed that Mr. Valentino registered online by completing the required process. He paid his registration fee with a credit card issued in his name and for which he retained exclusive possession.
Appellee also offered the affidavit of Eric McCue, the general manager of ACTIVE, to explain why the appearance of the liability waiver varied between the submission of the first and second motions for summary judgment. According to Mr. McCue’s affidavit, [*19] “ACTIVE’s computer system condenses older registration and waiver documents for storage purposes, making any printed version of the older retained registration and waiver documents appear smaller than when they were viewed online by the reader/registrant.” Appellee’s Motion for Summary Judgment Ex. L at ¶ 9, 8/5/13. Mr. McCue also stated that “the reader/registrant would view the online registration for the subject event exactly as it appears on Exhibit B [of Appellee’s August 5, 2013 motion for summary judgment] on his or her computer screen.” Id. at ¶ 10. Appellant offered no evidence to dispute Mr. McCue’s affidavit testimony.
Lastly, Appellee relied upon the deposition testimony of witnesses to demonstrate that Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver during the electronic registration process. At her deposition, Appellant admitted she had no reason to believe that Mr. Valentino did not read and understand the liability waiver or that he did not sign it during the registration process. In addition, Appellee pointed to the deposition testimony of Andrea Pontani, Mr. Valentino’s friend. Ms. Pontani testified that Appellant and Mr. Valentino were aware of the liability waiver because [*20] they spoke with her about it before the competition, stating that Mr. Valentino signed the form and presented it in order to obtain his competitor’s bib during the registration process on the day of the event. Based upon the forgoing, we agree with the trial court that Appellant presented no evidence raising a genuine issue of fact as to whether Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver at issue in this case.
We turn next to Appellant’s position that, even if Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver, the agreement is unenforceable with regard to claims asserting reckless or intentional conduct. Here, however, we have previously affirmed the trial court’s determination that Appellant did not state viable claims involving reckless or intentional conduct. See infra. As such, Appellant’s contention cannot serve as a basis for disturbing the trial court’s summary judgment order, which dismissed allegations of ordinary negligence comprising Appellant’s wrongful death and survival actions.6
6 Appellant does not challenge the substantive validity of the liability waiver as a bar to her claims of ordinary negligence. Consequently, we need not address the validity of the exculpatory provisions [*21] in the context of this case.
Appellant forwards a claim that our decision in Pisano bars Appellee’s reliance on a liability waiver to defend wrongful death claims asserted by a non-signatory statutory claimant. See Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 45-47; see also Trial Court Opinion, 8/14/14, at 5. In Pisano, a nursing home resident signed a contract agreeing to submit all claims against the home to binding arbitration. When the resident died, the administrator of the resident’s estate asserted wrongful death claims against the home and the home invoked the arbitration clause. The trial court denied the home’s petition to compel arbitration. On appeal, this Court affirmed, concluding that the arbitration clause was not binding against wrongful death claimants who did not sign the agreement because they possessed a separate and distinct right of action. Pursuant to this holding, Appellant maintains that since she did not sign the liability waiver executed by her late husband, the contractual waiver cannot be asserted as a bar to her wrongful death claims. We disagree.
The statute authorizing wrongful death claims in Pennsylvania provides as follows:
§ 8301. Death action
(a)General rule.– An [*22] action may be brought [for the benefit of the spouse, children or parents of the deceased], under procedures prescribed by general rules, to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another if no recovery for the same damages claimed in the wrongful death action was obtained by the injured individual during his lifetime and any prior actions for the same injuries are consolidated with the wrongful death claim so as to avoid a duplicate recovery.
42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8301 (emphasis added) (sometimes referred to as “Wrongful Death Act”). Eight decades ago, our Supreme Court interpreted a prior, but similar, version of the statute. The Court made clear that the statute contemplated that a claimant’s recovery required a tortious act on the part of the defendant:
[W]e have held that [HN14] a right to recover must exist in the party injured when he died in order to entitle those named in the act to sue. We have therefore held, in order that the death action impose no new and unjust burden on the defendant, that where the deceased would have been barred by contributory negligence, or by the statute of limitations, the parties suing for his death [*23] are likewise barred. We have announced the principle that the statutory action is derivative because it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action. Its derivation, however, is from the tortious act, and not from the person of the deceased, so that it comes to the parties named in the statute free from personal disabilities arising from the relationship of the injured party and tort-feasor.
Kaczorowski v. Kalkosinski, 321 Pa. 438, 184 A. 663, 664 (Pa. 1936) (internal citations omitted; emphasis added).
Our decision in Pisano limited a decedent’s authority to diminish or alter a non-signatory third-party claimant’s procedural election to pursue a claim in the forum of his or her choice. That decision, however, did not purport to undermine the fundamental principle that [HN15] both an estate in a survival action, and a statutory claimant in a wrongful death action, shoulder the same burden of proving that tortious conduct on the part of the defendant caused the decedent’s death. Under Pisano, [HN16] “wrongful death actions are derivative of decedents’ injuries but are not derivative of decedents’ rights.” Pisano, 77 A.3d at 659-660. Thus, while a third party’s wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s right of action, [*24] a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.
As suggested above, [HN17] Pennsylvania case law has long held that a wrongful death claimant’s substantive right to recover is derivative of and dependent upon a tortious act that resulted in the decedent’s death. Our reasoning in Sunderland v. R.A. Barlow Homebuilders, 2002 PA Super 16, 791 A.2d 384 (Pa. Super. 2002), aff’d, 576 Pa. 22, 838 A.2d 662 (Pa. 2003) illustrates this point:
[HN18] A wrongful death action is derivative of the injury which would have supported the decedent’s own cause of action and is dependent upon the decedent’s cause of action being viable at the time of death. [Moyer v. Rubright, 438 Pa. Super. 154, 651 A.2d 1139, 1143 (Pa. Super. 1994)]. [HN19] “As a general rule, no action for wrongful death can be maintained where the decedent, had he lived, could not himself have recovered for the injuries sustained.” Ingenito v. AC & S, Inc., 430 Pa. Super. 129, 633 A.2d 1172, 1176 (Pa. Super. 1993). Thus, although death is the necessary final event in a wrongful death claim, the cause of action is derivative of the underlying tortious acts that caused the fatal injury. Id.
Sunderland, 791 A.2d at 390-391 (emphasis added; parallel citations omitted).
Applying these settled principles in the present case, we conclude that [HN20] a decedent may not compromise or diminish a wrongful death claimant’s right of action without consent. Nevertheless, a third-party wrongful death claimant is subject to substantive defenses supported by the decedent’s [*25] actions or agreements where offered to relieve the defendant, either wholly or partially, from liability by showing that the defendant’s actions were not tortious. Here, Mr. Valentino, in registering online for the Triathlon, executed a detailed liability waiver under which he expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon and agreed to indemnify Appellee for liability stemming from his involvement in the event. The valid liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino was available to support Appellee’s claim that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of taking part in the competition and that, therefore, Appellee’s actions were not tortious. Since Appellant’s wrongful death claims required her to establish that Appellee’s conduct was tortious, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee.
Appellant construes Pisano as holding that a wrongful death claimant’s rights are wholly separate, in all contexts and for all purposes, from not just the “rights” of a decedent but also the injuries sustained by a decedent. This reading of Pisano conflates the concept of a right of action under Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Act, referring [*26] to the non-derivative right of a statutory claimant to seek compensation, with the principle that a claimant’s substantive right to obtain a recovery always remains, even in the wake of Pisano, “depend[ant] upon the occurrence of a tortious act.” Pisano, 77 A.3d at 654 (emphasis added). The issue in Pisano was whether a wrongful death claimant should be bound by an arbitration clause that he did not sign. This is a uniquely procedural issue that differs greatly from the enforcement of a valid liability waiver such as the one at issue in the present case. An arbitration clause dictates the forum where a litigant may present his claim. The terms of such a clause do not fix substantive legal standards by which we measure a right to recovery. Because the decedent signatory agreed to submit his claim to arbitration, his claim is subject to the compulsory provisions of the agreement. [HN21] A non-signatory wrongful death claimant, on the other hand, cannot be compelled to present his claim to an arbitrator since he has not consented to arbitration and since he possesses an independent, non-derivative right to air his claim in the forum of his choice.
A liability waiver, however, operates quite differently from an arbitration clause. [*27] By executing a liability waiver, the decedent signatory acknowledges and assumes identified risks and pledges that the defendant will not be held liable for resulting harms. If the decedent executes the waiver in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner (as here), the waiver is deemed valid and it shifts the risk of loss away from the defendant and onto the decedent. In effect, an enforceable waiver under which the decedent assumes specified risks transforms the nature of the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the decedent from tortious to non-tortious. Since Pisano retains the requirement that the decedent’s death result from a tortious act, even non-signatory wrongful death claimants remain subject to the legal consequences of a valid liability waiver.
Appellant also overinflates the importance of the presence of a wrongful death claimant’s signature when evaluating the enforceability of a liability waiver. Under Pisano, a wrongful death claimant possesses an independent, non-derivative right of action that cannot be subject to compulsory arbitration in the absence of consent. Thus, to enforce an arbitration clause in the wrongful death context, the claimant’s signature is necessary [*28] to demonstrate that she agreed to submit her claim to binding arbitration. The same is not true for a liability waiver, however. As explained above, [HN22] a valid waiver signed only by the decedent transfers the risk of harm from the defendant to the decedent, effectively rendering the defendant’s conduct non-tortious. Since the wrongful death claimant’s substantive right of recovery presupposes tortious conduct on the part of the defendant, the claimant’s signature on the waiver is unnecessary.
Although we have uncovered no recent Pennsylvania case law that discusses the application of a valid waiver in a subsequent wrongful death action, several decisions from California are instructive on this point. These cases illustrate that, [HN23] while a valid waiver does not bar a wrongful death claim, it can support a defense asserting that the alleged tortfeasor owed no duty to the decedent:
[HN24] Although a wrongful death claim is an independent action, wrongful death plaintiffs may be bound by agreements entered into by decedent that limit the scope of the wrongful death action. Thus, for example, although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his heirs’ wrongful [*29] death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk.
Ruiz v. Podolsky, 50 Cal. 4th 838, 114 Cal. Rptr. 3d 263, 237 P.3d 584, 593 (Cal. 4th 2010). Hence, [HN25]
where a decedent executes a valid waiver:
the express contractual assumption of the risk, combined with the express waiver of defendants’ negligence, constitute[s] a complete defense to the surviving heirs’ wrongful death action. This is different than holding th[at the wrongful death] action is barred.
Scroggs v. Coast Community College Dist., 193 Cal.App.3d 1399, 1402, 239 Cal. Rptr. 916 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 1987); Eriksson v. Nunnink, 233 Cal. App. 4th 708, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2015); Madison v. Superior Court 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 250 Cal. Rptr. 299 (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. 1988).
These cases align with Pennsylvania law in a way that the decisional law of other states does not. For example, in Gershon v. Regency Diving Center, Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720 (N.J. Super. 2004), the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court rejected the rationale in Madison and the other California cases, noting that the California approach was “internally inconsistent” since it allowed claimants to file a lawsuit that ultimately would not succeed. This reasoning constitutes a one-dimensional view of the issue. Take, for example, a case in which the decedent executes a valid liability waiver, as here. Thereafter, the defendant raises a successful assumption of the risk defense against the decedent’s estate in a survival action. Under the holding in Gershon, the defendant cannot raise the defense in a companion wrongful death action. [*30] Gershon thus trades one “inconsistency” for another since it allows a wrongful death action to proceed in the face of a valid waiver that precludes a related survival action. Since the same underlying conduct by the defendant is the focus of scrutiny in this hypothetical situation, it is entirely consistent to reject a wrongful death claim where a valid waiver precludes recovery in a related survival action.7
7 This Court recently required consolidation of related wrongful death and survival actions since wrongful death beneficiaries cannot be compelled to arbitrate wrongful death claims. Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 2015 PA Super 64, 113 A.3d 317 (Pa. Super. 2015), appeal granted, 122 A.3d 1036 (Pa. 2015). However, our Supreme Court overruled our decision in Taylor, concluding that the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 2, preempted application of Pa.R.C.P. 213(e) (requiring consolidation of survival and wrongful death actions at trial) and required arbitration of survival claims where a valid and enforceable arbitration clause exists. Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 2016 Pa. LEXIS 2166, 2016 WL 5630669 (Pa. 2016).
Our conclusion that Appellee may rely on a liability waiver signed only by the decedent to defeat Appellant’s wrongful death claims is undiminished by Pennsylvania case law holding that a settlement and release agreement does not bind non-signatories. See, e.g., Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (Pa. 1989). In Buttermore [*31] , James Buttermore sustained injuries in an automobile accident. Eventually, he resolved his claims against the tortfeasor in exchange for the sum of $25,000.00 and executed a release and settlement agreement in which he agreed to release any and all persons from liability, whether known or unknown. Later, Buttermore and his wife initiated an action against Aliquippa Hospital and certain physicians claiming that treatment he received aggravated the injuries he sustained in the accident. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the strength of the release. Our Supreme Court held that the release barred Buttermore’s claims against all tortfeasors, including those who were unnamed. The Court further held, however, that Buttermore’s wife had an independent cause of action for loss of consortium, which was not barred by the release since she did not sign the agreement.
A pair of examples illustrates the distinction between the situation in Buttermore and the situation presently before us. In the first example, the driver of car A operates his vehicle on a public highway. He is injured after a rear-end collision caused by the driver of car B. Litigation ensues between the two drivers and, [*32] eventually, the driver of car A resolves his claims against the driver of car B for the sum of $30,000.00. At that time, the driver of car A executes a release and settlement agreement, releasing all persons from liability — whether known or unknown — for claims stemming from injuries and losses he sustained in the accident. His spouse does not sign the release. As in Buttermore, the release signed by the driver of car A bars all claims he initiates in the future but does not bar loss of consortium claims or wrongful death claims (should he succumb to his injuries) brought by his spouse, who possesses independent causes of action. In this scenario, the execution of the release manifests the driver of car A’s agreement to forgo all future claims but does not establish his assumption of the risk of operating his vehicle. Nothing in the release suggests that the driver of car A intended to shift the risk of loss away from the driver of car B and onto himself. Indeed, the execution of the release after the injury-causing accident leaves no room for the inference that he assumed this risk of negligence on the part of the driver of car B. Since nothing in the release precludes a finding [*33] that the driver of car B acted tortiously, the release has no preclusive effect on the spouse’s right to seek damages in the context of a subsequent loss of consortium or wrongful death action.
In the second example, the driver of car A decides to participate in a demolition derby. As a condition of entry, he voluntarily executes a liability waiver under which he assumes the risk of participation in the event and waives all potential claims against other participants and event organizers. Again, the spouse of the driver of car A does not sign the liability waiver. During the demolition derby, the driver of car A sustains injuries and eventually dies as a result of a collision with another participant. In this scenario, loss of consortium and wrongful death claims asserted by the spouse of the driver of car A are subject to the liability waiver. This is because the driver of car A expressly manifested his intent to assume the risk of participating in the demolition derby, thereby shifting the risk of loss or injury away from other participants and event organizers. Unlike the release and settlement agreement in the first example that said nothing about assumption of the risk or any other [*34] substantive basis to oppose tort liability, the liability waiver in this hypothetical supports a complete bar to financial responsibility for injury and losses and bears directly on the formula by which we assess whether a defendant acted tortiously in causing damages. Because even non-signatory wrongful death claimants bear the burden of proving that tortious conduct caused the decedent’s death, their claims are subject to liability waivers under which the deceased assumed the risk of engaging in a particular activity.8 As the circumstances before us more closely reflect this second example, the instant appeal calls for application of the principles alluded to in prior Pennsylvania cases and specifically articulated in the California line of authority. See infra. Thus, we are not persuaded that Pennsylvania case law construing the applicable scope of release and settlement agreements undermines our conclusion that Appellant’s wrongful death claims are subject to the liability waiver signed by Mr. Valentino.
8 [HN26] Although strictly construed, Pennsylvania law recognizes the enforceability of valid liability waivers, particularly in cases where the injured party elects to engage in activities [*35] that entail an obvious risk of injury or loss. See, e.g., Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738 (Pa. Super. 2016) (en banc) (gym membership), appeal denied, 2016 Pa. LEXIS 1407, 2016 WL 3910827 (Pa. 2016). We would substantially reduce the utility of liability waivers if we were to hold that they are enforceable only against signatories, but not against non-signatory wrongful death claimants. Moreover, it would be extremely impractical to expect defendants to acquire signatures from all such potential plaintiffs. Indeed, it should almost go without saying that event organizers and hosts of activities that entail a risk of injury would likely cease operations if valid liability waivers could not be enforced against non-signatory statutory claimants such as Appellant.
For related reasons, we conclude that the decision in Brown v. Moore, 247 F.2d 711 (3rd Cir. 1957), cert. denied, 355 U.S. 882, 78 S. Ct. 148, 2 L. Ed. 2d 112 (1957) is also unpersuasive. In that case, Brown, a neurotic, entered a sanitarium for treatment which included electrical shock therapy. While in the sanitarium, Brown fell down a flight of stairs. After the fall, sanitarium employees picked Brown up by his extremities, causing paralysis. Upon entry into the sanitarium, Brown and his wife signed a release relieving the sanitarium and its employees from liability for injuries resulting from his mental health [*36] treatment, including electro-shock therapy or similar treatments. As Brown’s widow and the executrix of his estate, Brown’s wife brought claims under the Wrongful Death Act on behalf of herself and her three minor children, as well as a Survival Act claim. The court’s opinion in Brown suggested that the release was sufficient to alleviate the defendants’ liability under the Survival Act and to defeat Brown’s widow’s claims under the Wrongful Death Act since the decedent and Brown’s wife signed the agreement. Nevertheless, the court opined that Brown’s children could recover on their wrongful death claims since they were non-signatories. We find it significant, however, that immediately before reaching this conclusion, the court concluded that Brown’s treatment following his fall down the stairs was unrelated to his treatment for his mental health issues, which was the subject of his release. In essence, then, the court held that while Brown may have assumed the risk of electro-shock therapy or similar treatments, he did not assume the risk of faulty medical treatment for injuries sustained during his fall. Accordingly, Brown does little to support Appellant’s claim before us.9
9 As our [*37] analysis suggests, [HN27] courts must exercise great care and caution to differentiate between an agreement that addresses only the procedural rights of a signatory (i.e., an arbitration agreement) or a signatory’s right to pursue further claims (i.e., a release and settlement agreement) from an agreement that goes further and unambiguously manifests a signatory’s intent to assume the risk of involvement in a particular event or activity (i.e., a liability waiver). This is because the former binds only the parties to the agreement while the latter extends to non-signatory third-parties. We accord broader reach to liability waivers under which the signatory assumes a particular risk because, where valid, such agreements support a complete bar to tort liability and therefore form an important part of the assessment of whether tortious conduct brought about injury, loss, or death. A court’s examination of this issue necessarily will involve the nature and purpose of the agreement, as expressed in the exculpatory language of the instrument, together with the circumstances under which the parties entered the contract. The analysis should not be limited simply to the label applied to the agreement [*38] and, occasionally, will ask whether the signatory expressly assumed the precise risk that resulted in his injury. In Brown, for example, we doubt whether the release should have been given preclusive effect at all since the precise injury sustained in that case fell outside the scope of the exculpatory waiver.
The learned Dissent rejects the conclusion that assumption of the risk and the liability waiver support the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of Appellee. The Dissent instead argues that, “Pisano is clear that a wrongful death action is an independent cause of action, created by statute, and is not derivative of the decedent’s rights at the time of death.” Dissenting Opinion at 8. This position overlooks settled Supreme Court precedent and over eight decades of Pennsylvania case law holding that wrongful death actions are derivative of “the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action.” Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (noting that wrongful death action would be barred by affirmative defenses such as contributory negligence or statute of limitations); see also Sunderland, 791 A.2d at 390-391; Moyer, 651 A.2d at 1143; Ingenito, 633 A.2d at 1176. Not only does the Dissent ignore binding Pennsylvania precedent, the premise of the Dissent’s [*39] conclusion is unavailing.
Citing Pisano, the Dissent asserts that Appellant is not “bound” by the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino and, therefore, the agreement does not bar her from bringing a wrongful death action. Respectfully, these contentions miss the point. First, Appellant filed a wrongful death action in the venue of her choosing and no one asserts that the liability waiver precluded her from doing so. Second, since it is undisputed that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily executed the liability waiver, the issue of whether Appellant was “bound” by the waiver agreement is irrelevant to whether Appellee was entitled to an order granting summary judgment as to the negligence claims asserted in Appellant’s wrongful death action. We explain.
The record undeniably contains a valid waiver agreement. As such, the agreement itself constitutes tangible and, indeed, overwhelming proof that Mr. Valentino intelligently and willingly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon. This is so regardless of whether Appellant was “bound” by the agreement. The law is clear that a wrongful death claimant’s recovery must derive from a tortious actious act. Sunderland, 791 A.2d at 390-391. As even the Dissent [*40] concedes, “[a] wrongful death claimant [must] prove negligence.” Dissenting Opinion at 8, fn.6. The law is also clear that [HN28] the doctrine of assumption of the risk is a function of the duty analysis required in any negligence action and that summary judgment may be entered where the record discloses an absence of general issues of material fact. Thompson v. Ginkel, 2014 PA Super 125, 95 A.3d 900, 906-907 (Pa. Super. 2014), appeal denied, 630 Pa. 745, 108 A.3d 36 (Pa. 2015). Since assumption of the risk serves as a complete bar to tort recovery, Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2(2) permitted Appellee to seek summary judgment based upon Mr. Valentino’s voluntary and knowing assumption of the hazards attendant to triathlon participation. See Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc., 2000 PA Super 87, 749 A.2d 522, 527 (Pa. Super. 2000).10
10 In Staub, this Court explained:
[HN29] For summary judgment purposes, affirmative defenses are generally decided under Pa.R.Civ.P. 1035.2(1), where it is the moving party’s burden to establish the defense as a matter of law. Under [Howell v. Clyde, 533 Pa. 151, 620 A.2d 1107 (Pa. 1993) and Hardy v. Southland Corp., 435 Pa. Super. 237, 645 A.2d 839 (Pa. Super. 1994), appeal denied, 539 Pa. 679, 652 A.2d 1324 (Pa. 1994)], however, assumption of risk is now considered part of a “no-duty” analysis. As such, the doctrine now falls under the second type of summary judgment motion, described in Pa.R.Civ.P. 1035.2(2). Under Rule 1035.2(2), a party may obtain summary judgment by pointing to the adverse party’s lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim. . . . [HN30] One of the essential elements of a negligence claim is that [*41] the defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care. Under Rule 1035.2(2), the defendant’s method for pointing to a lack of evidence on the duty issue is to show that the plaintiff assumed the risk as a matter of law. This process will entail gathering and presenting evidence on the plaintiff’s behavior, and attempting to convince the court that the plaintiff knew the risk and proceeded to encounter it in a manner showing a willingness to accept the risk. Thus, for all practical purposes, the process for showing “no-duty” assumption of the risk under Rule 1035.2(2) is indistinguishable from showing assumption of the risk as an affirmative defense under Rule 1035.2(1).
Staub, 749 A.2d at 527. For purposes of proving negligence, the only legal duty referred to in this case is the one allegedly owed by Appellee to Mr. Valentino. The Dissent identifies no source and no proof of a separate and independent legal duty owed by Appellee to Appellant.
More broadly, we note that the Dissent places great weight on its contention that Appellant’s wrongful death action is not derivative of Mr. Valentino’s injuries. Notwithstanding, even a brief review of Appellant’s amended complaint and the submissions of the parties reveals that all of the allegations of negligence [*42] underpinning Appellant’s wrongful death claims involve legal duties, alleged breaches, proximate causation, and harms that focus exclusively upon Mr. Valentino. Thus, in substantive terms, the conclusion that Appellant’s wrongful death claims are derivative of the injuries sustained by Mr. Valentino is inescapable.
In this case, Appellant does not dispute that the liability waiver constituted an express assumption of the risk by Mr. Valentino. This confirms that Appellee owed no legal duty to Mr. Valentino and, therefore, Appellee cannot be found to be negligent. It follows, then, that the waiver agreement not only defeated the negligence claims asserted in the context of Appellant’s survival action, but also the negligence claims asserted in the context of Appellant’s wrongful death action. Appellee’s right to summary judgment simply did not depend upon Appellant’s execution of the agreement.11
11 The Dissent also makes the point that wrongful death claims are intended to compensate for the loss of the decedent. Wrongful death claims, however, were not intended to place new and unjust burdens on defendants and compensation is due only when tortious conduct results in death. In the present [*43] case, the trial court properly entered summary judgment because Appellant cannot demonstrate that Appellee was negligent, as Appellee owed no duty to Mr. Valentino. Thus, the goal of compensation does not support reversal of the trial court’s order. This holding does not “eviscerate” but wholly aligns with our Wrongful Death Statute, which imposes liability only where the defendant’s tortious conduct causes death. Compare Dissenting Opinion at 5.
We turn now to Appellant’s claim that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation. Here, Appellant relies on Mark Mico, an experienced triathlete, race director, and race management consultant. Mr. Mico concluded that Appellee’s negligence caused Mr. Valentino to drown in the Schuylkill River. Among other things, Mr. Mico stated in his report that Appellee failed to provide a sufficient number of lifeguards and allowed too many swimmers into the water during wave launches. He also stated that contestants were not permitted to wear buoyant wetsuits and that Appellee failed to provide to lifeguards [*44] appropriate instruction and training in open water safety. Mr. Mico opined that swimmers were given black swimming caps that offered poor visibility in open water. Finally, Mr. Mico stated that most lifeguards were familiar only with conditions in swimming pools, not open water.
In this case, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Appellee based upon the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino. The trial court did not consider the contents of Mr. Mico’s report and did not discuss the issue in its Rule 1925(a) opinion. Nonetheless, since our scope of review is plenary, we may and must examine Mr. Mico’s report to determine if it precludes the entry of summary judgment based on the liability waiver. We conclude that it does not.
Assuming for purposes of argument that Mr. Mico’s expert report establishes a prima facie case of negligence, the liability waiver operated to release Appellee from liability for negligence, and Appellant does not challenge the validity of the release on that basis. Furthermore, Mr. Mico’s conclusory opinion that Appellee’s “conduct was to such a degree of carelessness that it amounts to reckless disregard for the safety of its participants[,]” does not permit [*45] Appellant to avoid the liability waiver. Report of Michael Mico, 6/30/13, at unnumbered 7. As we previously determined, the trial court properly held that the facts alleged in the amended complaint did not support claims that Appellee acted outrageously, recklessly, or intentionally, and dismissed such claims with prejudice. Expert opinion to the contrary cannot alter that legal assessment. In particular, Mr. Mico’s report did not identify specific actions or omissions that rose to the level of reckless disregard. [HN31] Reckless disregard requires a different state of mind and a substantially greater knowledge of impending risks than ordinary negligence, not simply a higher degree of carelessness, a distinction the expert failed to appreciate.12 See Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1200 (Pa. 2012) ( [HN32] “Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.”) Consequently, nothing in Mr. Mico’s expert report alters our determination that the liability waiver is dispositive of Appellant’s wrongful death and survival claims.
12 Section 500 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts defines reckless disregard of safety as follows:
[HN33] The actor’s [*46] conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.
Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500.
In sum, [HN34] Pennsylvania law distinguishes a wrongful death claimant’s non-derivative right to bring an action from her derivative right to recover damages based upon a defendant’s tortious conduct. This distinction allows a defendant, like Appellee, to assert an express, contractual assumption of risk based upon a valid liability waiver against a wrongful death claimant, even where the claimant does not sign the liability waiver agreement. Applying these settled principles to the case at hand, the order granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee fully comports with prevailing Pennsylvania law. Thus, we affirm the court’s summary judgment order dismissing Appellant’s wrongful death and survival claims.
Gantman, P.J., Bender, P.J.E., Bowes, Shogan [*47] and Ott, JJ., join this Opinion.
Ford Elliott, P.J.E., files a Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in which Panella and Lazarus, JJ. join.
Because I conclude that Derek Valentino’s release agreement did not bind appellant and did not preclude her from bringing a wrongful death action, I must respectfully dissent from that part of the Majority’s Opinion. I join the Opinion in all other respects.
While the Majority attempts to distinguish Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (Pa. 1989), and Brown v. Moore, 247 F.2d 711 (3rd Cir. 1957), cert. denied, 355 U.S. 882, 78 S. Ct. 148, 2 L. Ed. 2d 112 (1957), I find those cases to be instructive. In Buttermore, James Buttermore was involved in an automobile accident, sustaining injuries. Buttermore, 561 A.2d at 734. He signed a release in settlement of his claim against the tortfeasor for the sum of $25,000, agreeing to release from liability any and all persons, known or unknown. Id. Subsequently, Buttermore and his wife instituted suit against Aliquippa Hospital and the treating physicians alleging that the treatment he received aggravated the injuries he sustained in the accident, worsening his condition. Id. at 734-735. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of Buttermore’s release. Id. at 735.
After first holding that the release applied to all tortfeasors, including the defendants, [*48] whether specifically named or not, the court in Buttermore turned to the matter of Buttermore’s wife’s loss of consortium claim: “That is not to say, however, that parties may bargain away the rights of others not a party to their agreement. That question rises here because a spouse not a party to the agreement seeks to sue in her own right for loss of consortium.” Id. at 735. The Buttermore court held that the wife had an independent cause of action for loss of consortium regardless of her husband’s release and settlement agreement: “The question is, does the wife, not a signatory to the agreement, have an independent right to sue for the injury done her. We answer that she does.” Id. at 736. See also Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 2013 PA Super 232, 77 A.3d 651, 658 (Pa.Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014), cert. denied, 134 S.Ct. 2890, U.S. , 189 L. Ed. 2d 838 (2014), citing Pennsylvania Railroad Co. v. Henderson, 51 Pa. 315, 317, 23 Legal Int. 284, 13 Pitts. Leg. J. 561 (1866) (“This suit is brought by the widow, and her right of action cannot be affected by any discharge or release of [husband] in his lifetime.”).
Similarly, in Brown v. Moore, the plaintiff, the widow and executrix of George Brown, brought a cause of action under the Wrongful Death Act for the benefit of herself and her three minor children, as well as a Survival Act claim. Id. at 714. Brown, a neurotic, was admitted to a sanitarium for treatment including electrical shock therapy, [*49] following which he fell down a flight of stairs. Id. at 715. After the fall, Brown was picked up by his extremities, with his head hanging down, resulting in paralysis. Id. Brown had signed a release agreeing to release the sanitarium and its employees from liability for any injury resulting from his treatment as a neurotic while at the sanitarium, including electro-shock therapy or treatment of a similar nature. Id. at 722. After concluding that Brown’s treatment following his fall down the stairs was unrelated to his treatment as a neurotic by electro-shock therapy or other similar therapeutic means, the Brown court stated,
[S]ince this case may well come before the reviewing Court we point out that even if the release were deemed sufficient to relieve the defendants of liability under the Pennsylvania Survival Act is [sic] could scarcely relieve them of liability under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act for that Act provides benefits not only for the widow of a deceased person but also for his children. Even assuming that the release was effective as to the plaintiff, who executed it as did Brown, nonetheless Brown’s children would be entitled to a recovery.
Id. (emphasis added).1
1 Brown was disapproved of by [*50] Grbac v. Reading Fair Co., 688 F.2d 215 (3rd Cir. 1982). However, Grbac was criticized by this court in Pisano:
In Grbac, the court of appeals held that a liability release executed by decedent was binding on the widow’s wrongful death claim. Id. at 217-218. Erroneously following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s holding in [Hill v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 178 Pa. 223, 35 A. 997, 39 Week. Notes Cas. 221 (Pa. 1896)], the court of appeals misinterpreted Pennsylvania law in holding that a “wrongful death action is purely derivative” in Pennsylvania. Id. at 217. The Grbac Court cites no further cases in support of its holding, and no binding Pennsylvania authority exists with a similar holding. In fact, the limited authority on this subject indicates the opposite conclusion of Grbac.
Pisano, 77 A.3d at 658.
Relying on California law, including Madison v. Superior Court, 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 250 Cal. Rptr. 299 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 1988), the Majority concludes that even if appellant can bring the wrongful death action, appellee had no duty to the decedent because of his complete waiver. According to the Majority, the decedent agreed to waive liability and assume all risks inherent to the dangerous activity of sprint triathlon; therefore, appellee owed the decedent no duty to protect him from injury. Therefore, even assuming appellant can sue for wrongful death, she cannot possibly recover where appellee has a complete defense based on the decedent’s assumption of the risk. [*51]
I view the Madison line of cases as creating a distinction without a difference, i.e., a wrongful death claimant can bring suit but will inevitably lose on summary judgment because of the decedent’s waiver of liability, to which the wrongful death claimant was not a party. Such a holding would effectively eviscerate the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute which creates an independent and distinct cause of action, not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death.2 I believe the better approach is outlined by the New Jersey Superior Court in Gershon v. Regency Diving Center, Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720 (N.J.Super. 2004), which explicitly rejected Madison and its progeny, aptly describing Madison’s holding as “paradoxical” and “internally inconsistent.” Id. at 725.3
2 The Pisano court explained that a wrongful death action is “derivative” of the original tort in the same way that a loss of consortium claim is derivative, in that both arise from an injury to another person. Pisano, 77 A.3d at 659. However, unlike, e.g., a stockholder’s derivative lawsuit or a subrogation action, loss of consortium and wrongful death claims are separate and distinct causes of action. Id. at 660.
3 “Although we acknowledge that the pronouncements of sister states are not binding authority on our courts, such decisions may be [*52] considered as persuasive authority.” Shedden v. Anadarko E&P Co., L.P., 2014 PA Super 53, 88 A.3d 228, 233 n.3 (Pa.Super. 2014), affirmed, 136 A.3d 485 (Pa. 2016).
In Gershon, the decedent was a scuba diver and signed up for advanced diving training. Id. at 723. As a condition of his participation, he executed a release agreement. Id. The decedent expressly waived liability, including for wrongful death, and assumed all risk. Id. The lower court held that while the exculpatory release signed by the decedent barred any survivorship claim which could have been asserted by his estate, it did not preclude an independent wrongful death action where the decedent’s heirs had not signed the agreement. Id. at 724. Relying on Madison, supra, the defendant, Regency Diving Center, argued that the release operated as a complete bar to all claims. Id.
On appeal, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, affirmed, holding that the decedent did not have the legal authority to bargain away his heirs’ statutory right to bring a wrongful death action:
The release agreement here was signed by decedent and defendants. It can therefore only bind these parties. On its face the release only manifests decedent’s intention to waive defendants’ duty of care pertaining to his personal safety. In order for such a waiver to also apply to decedent’s [*53] heirs, the agreement must manifest the unequivocal intention of such heirs to be so bound. The public policy underpinning the Wrongful Death Act requires that we narrowly construe any attempt to contractually limit or, as in this case, outright preclude recovery. Decedent’s unilateral decision to contractually waive his right of recovery does not preclude his heirs, who were not parties to the agreement and received no benefit in exchange for such a waiver, from instituting and prosecuting a wrongful death action.
Id. at 727.
The Gershon court also rejected the Madison line of cases as against the public interest4 intended to be protected by the Wrongful Death Act:
[T]he intended beneficiaries of the Act are deprived of their statutorily authorized remedy merely to provide defendants with an environment from which to operate their business, apparently free from the risk of litigation. Such a prospect would directly undermine the remedial purpose of the Act. Stated differently, even if decedent had the legal authority to bargain away the statutory right of his potential heirs, society’s interest in assuring that a decedent’s dependents may seek economic compensation in a wrongful death action outweighs [*54] decedent’s freedom to contract.
Id. at 728.5
4 As in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, exculpatory agreements are not favored by the law and must not contravene public policy. Id. at 726-727; Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190 (Pa. 2012).
5 As in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, the purpose of the wrongful death statute is to create a right of recovery for economic loss caused by the death of a family member, including children who were dependent upon the decedent for economic support. See Pisano, 77 A.3d at 658-659 (“In contrast [to a survival action], wrongful death is not the deceased’s cause of action. An action for wrongful death may be brought only by specified relatives of the decedent to recover damages in their own behalf, and not as beneficiaries of the estate. . . . This action is designed only to deal with the economic effect of the decedent’s death upon the specified family members.”) (citations omitted); see also Amato v. Bell & Gossett, 2015 PA Super 83, 116 A.3d 607, 625 (Pa.Super. 2015), appeal granted in part on other grounds, 130 A.3d 1283 (Pa. 2016) (“The purpose of the Wrongful Death Statute . . . is to compensate the decedent’s survivors for the pecuniary losses they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death. This includes the value of the services the victim would have rendered to his family if he had lived. A wrongful death action does not compensate the decedent; [*55] it compensates the survivors for damages which they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death.” (citations omitted)).
The Majority contends that allowing third-party claims including wrongful death where the decedent expressly assumed the risk of injury would expose insurers to increased liability, and that it is impractical to expect defendants to obtain releases from all potential plaintiffs. The court in Gershon addressed those concerns as follows:
We recognize that our decision today may prevent insurance carriers from obtaining complete releases from all possible wrongful death claims, except perhaps by the inclusion in any such agreement of all persons who subsequently are determined to be wrongful death beneficiaries under N.J.S.A. 2A:31-4. The policy favoring settlement and finality of claims, cannot defeat statutory rights created for the protection of survivors of one wrongfully killed.
Id. at 728-729, quoting Alfone v. Sarno, 87 N.J. 99, 432 A.2d 857 (N.J. 1981) (citations omitted).6
6 Presumably, there are still triathlons, road races, and similar events held in the State of New Jersey, despite the decision in Gershon. A wrongful death claimant would still have to prove negligence. I would also note that these liability waivers are contracts of adhesion, [*56] and a participant cannot compete without executing the waiver and agreeing to assume all risk.
Following Pisano, I conclude that Derek Valentino’s release agreement did not bind appellant and did not preclude her from bringing a wrongful death action. Pisano is clear that a wrongful death action is an independent cause of action, created by statute, and is not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death. Furthermore, I reject the Majority’s position that the decedent’s waiver of liability and assumption of the risk can be used as a complete defense to appellant’s claims. The release agreement was only between the decedent and appellee and has no effect on the decedent’s non-signatory heirs including appellant.
For these reasons, I would remand the matter for further proceedings, including for the trial court to consider the issue of Mr. Mico’s expert report. As such, I am compelled to respectfully dissent.
Panella and Lazarus, JJ. join this Concurring and Dissenting Opinion.
Kearney, v. Okemo Limited Liability Company, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106011
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
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
- THE PARTIES
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.
- 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).)
- FRIDAY APRIL 24
- 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.)
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
“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]
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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
U.S. District Court Judge
Myers v. Lutsen Mountains Corporation, 587 F.3d 891; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 25825
Douglas R. Myers, Appellant, v. Lutsen Mountains Corporation, Appellee.
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.
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
[*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).
[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).
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.
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
Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.
CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412
July 31, 2012, Decided
July 31, 2012, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)
CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure
COUNSEL: [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.
For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II
Jones, II, U.S.D.J.
Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1
1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).
T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment
T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.
Failure to Warn
Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).
2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.
Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).
T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:
o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.
o Plaintiff [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.
o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.
o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.
Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.
However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).
Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611. [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.
3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.
4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.
In sum, this evidence of record establishes [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.
Assumption of Risk
T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A., F. Supp. 2d , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.
5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).
Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.
6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).
Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed, [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).
Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7
7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.
Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.
Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages
Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.
As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).
Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.
III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment
Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9
8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.
9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.
Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.
10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.
11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s [*25] apparent invitation.
Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.
12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.
Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product. [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.
An appropriate Order follows.
AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:
- Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
- Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
- Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
- The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.
In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.
13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II
- DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.