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Ritari, JR v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., 2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

Ritari, JR v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., 2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

Ronald Ritari, JR. and Tama Ritari, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., doing business as Marquette Mountain, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 335870

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

October 24, 2017, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Motion granted by Ritari v. Peter E. O’Dovero, 2018 Mich. LEXIS 90 (Mich., Jan. 12, 2018)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Marquette Circuit Court. LC No. 16-054384-NO.

CORE TERMS: skiing, nastar, rope, training, ski, chair lift, racing, placement, sport, registration form, hazard, recreational, ski area, participating, skier, lift, competitive, competitor, hazardous, alpine, matter of law, clearance, snowboarding, season, risks associated, reverse side, unambiguous, susceptible, entangled, ambiguous

JUDGES: Before: K. F. KELLY, P.J., and BECKERING and RIORDAN, JJ.

OPINION

Per Curiam.

In this interlocutory appeal,1 defendant, Peter E. O’Dovero, Inc, d/b/a Marquette Mountain, challenges the trial court’s order denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) (release, immunity granted by law) and (C)(10) (no genuine issue of material fact, movant entitled to judgment as a matter of law). The case arises out of an incident at Marquette Mountain ski resort that occurred when plaintiff, Ronald Ritari, Jr., was riding up the ski hill on a chair lift and became entangled in a rope that had been installed underneath the lift, which pulled him off the lift and caused him to sustain serious injuries in the ensuing fall.2 Because material questions of fact remain, we agree with the trial court that summary disposition is inappropriate at this time.

1 Ronald Ritari Jr v Peter E O’Dovero, Inc, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered April 20, 2017 (Docket No. 335870).

2 Plaintiff Tama Ritari’s claim is derivative of her husband’s; therefore, “plaintiff” refers to Ronald Ritari, Jr.

I. PERTINENT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On the evening of January 29, 2015, plaintiff went to Marquette Mountain to ski. He was a season pass holder there and enjoyed NASTAR3 racing. According to plaintiff’s complaint and affidavit, at around 6:45 p.m. he and his son boarded [*2] a chair lift to reach the top of the hill for their first run of the evening. They planned to take a couple of pleasure runs down the hill before their Thursday night ski league began. When his chair was approximately 20 yards from the loading zone, a gust of wind pulled the chair down and the tips of plaintiff’s skis became entangled in a nylon rope attached to the ground by two poles directly below the chair lift. Plaintiff was able to free the tip of his left ski from the rope, but he was unable to free the tip of his right ski, and he felt his leg being pulled backward as his chair continued to move up the hill. Plaintiff grabbed the middle pole of the chair to keep from falling and screamed as loudly as he could for the chair lift operator to stop the lift. But the chair lift did not stop, and plaintiff was pulled out of his chair by the rope. He fell approximately 12 feet to the ground and sustained a fractured pelvis and fractured ribs.

3 According to its website, NASTAR is the “largest public grassroots ski racing program in the world” and “gives recreational racers an opportunity to compete and compare their scores to friends and family regardless of when and where they race using the NASTAR handicap system.” NASTAR competitions typically occur on grand slalom and slalom courses laid out by the host ski resorts in accordance with NASTAR’s instructions. http://www.nastar.com (accessed 9/15/17).

Plaintiff filed suit against defendant, alleging that the ski area was negligent by having ropes in the area of the chair lift, failing to post warnings of the danger, failing to take measures to prevent plaintiff from catching his skis on the [*3] rope, failing to employ the emergency stop when plaintiff yelled for help, and failing to adequately supervise and control the chair lift. Before any discovery began by way of interrogatories, depositions, or otherwise, defendant moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (C)(10), contending that plaintiff had signed releases broad enough to bar any claim for injuries arising out of the incident. Defendant relied on three forms signed by plaintiff.

Specifically, On December 13, 2014, in conjunction with purchasing an annual ski pass at Marquette Mountain for the 2014-2015 season, plaintiff signed a release wherein he agreed to assume “the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing/snowboarding . . . .” On December 16, 2014, he filled out a document in order to participate in NASTAR races. The document, a single sheet of paper, contains two forms, one on the front and one on the back. Hand-printed vertically in capital letters along the right side of both forms are the instructions, “FILL OUT BOTH SIDES.”

On the front side of the NASTAR document is a registration form. The form has headings entitled “Registration Form,” “Racer Information,” [*4] “Team Information,” and “Waiver and Release of Liability.” According to the release language on this form, plaintiff, “in exchange for being permitted to participate in NASTAR events (the “Event”),” assumes all risks associated with his involvement in the event and the “risk of injury caused by the condition of any property, facilities, or equipment used during the Event, whether foreseeable or unforeseeable.”

On the reverse side of the NASTAR document is a release entitled “Marquette Mountain Ski Area, and Competition Participant” (henceforth, the “Participant release”). According to the relevant terms of this release, “Participant, the undersigned, being at least 18 years old . . . agrees and understands that alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms (hereinafter the “Activity”) is HAZARDOUS4 and may involve the risk of physical injury or death.” The Participant also agrees that “training or racing competitively is more HAZARDOUS than recreational skiing,” that he or she is “a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition.” According to the release, the Participant assumes all risks associated with the Activity, including but not limited to [*5] the risk of all course conditions, course construction or layout and obstacles, risks associated with riding the lifts, and risks associated with ski lift operations and acts or omissions of employees. The Participant agrees to release defendant from “all liabilities” arising from engagement in “the Activity,” including any injuries caused by the actual negligence of defendant’s employees. In its motion for summary disposition, defendant contended that, by signing this release, plaintiff assumed “all” risks, argued that “all” left no room for exceptions, and stressed that the terms of this release barred plaintiff’s claim for negligence as a matter of law.

4 A fold or wrinkle in the copy of the release that is in the record obscures this word. However, defendant quotes the relevant section of the release in its motion for summary disposition as “I further agree and understand that training or racing competitively is more HAZARDOUS than recreational skiing.”

In support of its motion, defendant also argued that MCL 408.342(2), the assumption of risk provision in the Ski Area Safety Act of 1962 (SASA), MCL 408.321 et seq., operated to bar plaintiff’s claim because risks associated with fencing and falling from a chair lift inhere in the sport of skiing.

Plaintiff countered that neither the season-pass release nor the assumption of risk provision in SASA barred his claim because the inappropriate placement of a rope directly under the chair lift was not an inherent risk of skiing. Additionally, plaintiff argued that the [*6] rope was not necessary because its placement violated the standards governing minimum clearance between a chair lift and an obstacle below, and it was not obvious because he neither saw it nor expected it to be placed where it was. He further argued that neither side of the executed NASTAR document barred his claim because he was not engaged in a NASTAR event, nor was he training for such an event when he was injured. Finally, plaintiff contended that there remained genuine issues of material fact regarding whether defendant’s chair lift personnel were inattentive and failed to timely shut off the chair lift when the rope entangled him, and that this was not a risk assumed pursuant to the assumption of risk provision of SASA.

At the motion hearing, defendant argued that the Participant release on the back side of the NASTAR document applied not just to competitions and training for competitions, but to “skiing in all its forms.” Accordingly, the Participant release controlled resolution of the matter and insulated defendant from any alleged negligent placement of the nylon rope. At the same time, defendant insisted that it had not been negligent in placement of the rope at issue because [*7] the rope’s location complied with required clearance standards and was necessary to the safety of skiers.5 Plaintiff reiterated his argument that the forms on both sides of the NASTAR document pertained to participation in competition-related skiing, and that the rope at issue was neither necessary nor obvious with respect to any assumption of the risk plaintiff assumed when signing up for his season pass or through SASA.

5 Defendant acknowledged plaintiff’s argum
Accreditation is marketing. In fact, it may be why you are being sued.

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Accreditation is marketing. In fact, it may be why you are being sued.

Marketing is not a way to manage risks or stop lawsuits. Marketing Makes Promises that Risk Management Must Pay For.ent about the front side of the NASTAR document focusing on event racing and the fact that the release language there and in the season pass document coincides with the language of SASA, which is commonly referred to as the assumption of the risk clause. As such, while arguing that the rope at issue was a necessary and obvious danger, defendant focused on the back side of the NASTAR document and its “sweeping” release of defendant’s own negligence for the purpose of his motion for summary disposition at such an early stage in the litigation.

Ruling from the bench, the trial court noted that construing the viability of plaintiff’s claim under SASA turned on necessary factual findings yet to be made, rendering summary disposition inappropriate at that point in the proceedings. With regard to the releases, the trial court observed that the parties’ arguments were geared toward the form on the reverse side of the NASTAR document. The trial court easily dispensed with the front page as being race-related. As for the back side, the Participant release, the trial court concluded that there were questions about the extent to which the release might apply to relieve defendant of liability outside the context of racing or training.

In addition to its location on the back of the NASTAR form, the trial court pointed [*8] to three phrases in the Participant release that seem to limit the scope of that release to training for or participating in a competition. The first is the phrase in which the participant agrees with the premise “that Participant is a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition.” The second is the provision, “Participant is always provided an opportunity to and will conduct a reasonable visual inspection of the training or racecourse.” The third phrase is, “I further agree and understand that training or racing competitively is more [hazardous] . . . than recreational skiing.” The trial court described the language of the release as “a little ambiguous” and concluded that in light of the questions about the extent to which the release might apply to relieve defendant of all liability at any time, even when the person who signed it is simply recreationally skiing, summary disposition was premature.

II. ANALYSIS

Defendant contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary disposition because the unambiguous language of the December 16, 2014 Participant release releases it from all liability regardless of whether plaintiff was injured [*9] while practicing for a competition, in competition, or simply skiing recreationally. It also claims that it is entitled to summary disposition under the assumption of the risk statute in SASA, MCL 408.343(2). We conclude that defendant is racing too quickly to the finish line in this case, to which it may or may not be entitled a victory.

We review de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition, Casey v Auto Owners Ins Co, 273 Mich App 388, 393; 729 NW2d 277 (2006), as well as issues involving contractual and statutory interpretation, Rodgers v JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, 315 Mich App 301, 307; 890 NW2d 381 (2016).

A. RELEASE

Summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) is appropriate where the terms of a release bar a claim. As this Court has explained,

The scope of a release is governed by the intent of the parties as it is expressed in the release. If the text in the release is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions must be ascertained from the plain, ordinary meaning of the language of the release. A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. The fact that the parties dispute the meaning of a release does not, in itself, establish an ambiguity. [Cole v Ladbroke Racing Michigan, Inc, 241 Mich App 1, 13-14; 614 NW2d 169 (2000).]

In addition, a contract must be read as a whole, Dobbelaere v Auto-Owners Ins Co, 275 Mich App 527, 529; 740 NW2d 503 (2007), and “construed so as to give effect to every word or phrase as far as practicable,” Klapp v United Ins Group Agency, Inc, 468 Mich 459, 467; 663 NW2d 447 (2003). See [*10] also Restatement Contracts, 2d, § 202, p 86 (“a writing is interpreted as a whole, and all writings that are part of the same transaction are interpreted together.”).6 The interpretation of an unambiguous contract is a matter of law. Mich Nat’l Bank, 228 Mich App 710, 714; 580 NW2d 8 (1998).

6 See also Restatement Contracts, 1st, § 235 (“A writing is interpreted as a whole and all writings forming part of the same transaction are interpreted together.”).

After our review of the language of the Participant release, we disagree with the trial court’s conclusion that the language of the release is ambiguous, or in other words, “reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 272 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (“A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation.”). However, we agree with plaintiff, not defendant, as to its meaning and scope. Several factors indicate that the NASTAR registration and Participant release were part of the same transaction–which is in fact undisputed–and therefore, should be read and interpreted together: the “Participant” release is on the reverse side of the NASTAR registration form, both forms bear the handwritten instruction to “fill out both sides,” and plaintiff executed both releases on the same date specifically in order to participate in NASTAR races. We conclude that, when read as a whole and interpreted in conjunction with the NASTAR registration form on its reverse side, [*11] the language of the Participant release is unambiguous and intended to relieve defendant of “all liability” for injuries suffered during training for or participating in a racing competition.

As noted above, the trial court identified three examples where the language of the release focuses specifically on competitive skiing. After identifying the “Activity” in which the Participant is participating as “alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms” and noting that it may involve physical injury or death, the release requires the participant to “agree and understand that training and racing competitively is more [hazardous] than recreational skiing” (emphasis added). In addition, the release requires the participant to “agree with the Premise that Participant is a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition” (emphasis added). Note that it does not also say when simply pleasure skiing or taking the children out for lessons on the bunny hill. Further, the Participant is required to “agree that Participant is always provided an opportunity to and will conduct a reasonable visual inspection of the training or racecourse” (emphasis added). This focuses [*12] on race-related activities. Even without consideration of the NASTAR release, the fact that the Participant release requires the participant to agree expressly to statements emphasizing the dangers of training for and participating in competitive racing specifically renders the release susceptible to the interpretation that its focus is on insulating defendant from liability for injuries sustained by participants when training for or competing in races.

Defendant contends that the Participant release’s acknowledgement that competitive racing is more hazardous than recreational skiing does not restrict the release’s scope to competitive skiing. However, the release does more than merely acknowledge the dangers of competitive skiing; it requires the Participant to expressly agree that competitive skiing is more hazardous than recreational skiing. Moreover, under the defendant’s alleged interpretation, the Participant’s acknowledgement that he or she is a competitor at all times renders it impossible for the person who signs the release as a “Participant” to ever ski recreationally. According to the logic of defendant’s argument, once a person fills out the NASTAR registration form and [*13] accompanying Participant release, he or she is a “competitor” indefinitely, regardless of whether he or she is actually competing or training for a competition.7

7 Under defendant’s proposed at-all-times interpretation, there is no time frame for how long someone is considered to be a Participant if that word is not tied to actual racing or training. Are they deemed to be a Participant for the rest of the season? Indefinitely? What if they only participated in one race? In doing so, have they given up all rights they might otherwise have had as a recreational skier? And where does it say that in the release? Defendant’s proposed interpretation creates an ambiguity that it cannot resolve within the confines of the agreement.

Other portions of the Participant release also support the conclusion that the unambiguous language limits its scope to liability for injuries suffered during or while training for a ski or snowboard competition. The heading contains what one might reasonably construe as an identification of the parties to the release, “Marquette Mountain Ski Area, and Competition Participant.” The comma inserted between “Marquette Mountain Ski Area” and “Competition Participant” suggests that the release involves Marquette Mountain Ski Area on one side, and a “competition participant” on the other. Defendant urges this Court to ignore the “competition participant” designation, arguing that it is not part of the four corners of the agreement and is neither used nor defined in the release. However, interpreting the NASTAR release and the Participant release together makes clear that “competition participant” refers to the person participating in the NASTAR competition that defendant is hosting.8 Further, if “competition” refers only to the NASTAR [*14] event, but “participant” can have more than one referent,9 it seems reasonable that the release would focus on defining “participant” to ensure inclusion of all the word’s possible meanings. Additionally, that the participant is “a competitor at all times” harkens back to “competition participant” in the heading, again allowing one to reasonably interpret the release to pertain only to the release of liability arising from injuries associated with training for or racing in a competition.

8 The mere fact that the release uses the word “Participant” conjures up images of participation in something; it would not lead the reader to conclude that one is a Participant whenever they are on the slopes, even when they are not actually participating in anything or training for anything.

9 E.g., “participant” includes a person at least 18-years old, a participating minor, and the parents or legal guardian of as well as his or her parent or legal guardian.

Moreover, the Participant warrants in the Participant release that he or she is in good health and has left no special instructions “that have not been listed on the registration form.” Although the Participant release makes no further mention of a registration form, the NASTAR document on the reverse side is both a registration form and a release, and it contains a ‘Physically Challenged” heading where competitors may identify their physical or intellectual challenges.

Finally, defendant asserts that “alpine skiing and snowboarding” is not limited to competitive racing. This is true; “alpine skiing” may refer to downhill skiing for sport or recreation. However, interpreting the Participant release with [*15] the NASTAR release renders the phrase “alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms” susceptible to the interpretation that it refers specifically to the three downhill disciplines from which participants may choose to compete at a NASTAR event: alpine skiing, snowboarding, and telemarker (which combines elements of Alpine and Nordic skiing).

Given the foregoing analysis, we conclude that the trial court correctly denied defendant’s motion for summary disposition associated with the Participant release, but it erred to the extent it deemed the release language ambiguous. Assuming factual development establishes that plaintiff was not engaged in training for or competing in racing activities at the time of his injury, as plaintiff contends it will, the Participant release does not apply. Moreover, for the reasons set forth below, determination of whether the release language in plaintiff’s season pass bars his claim–which entails an assumption of the risks inherent in skiing analysis–will depend on further factual development gleaned from discovery, which has not yet begun.

B. MCL 408.342(2)

A motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10) tests the factual sufficiency of a claim. Smith v Globe Life Ins Co, 460 Mich 446, 454; 597 NW2d 28 (1999). Summary disposition [*16] under (C)(10) is proper if the documentary evidence filed by the parties and viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion fails to show a genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Quinto v Cross & Peters Co, 451 Mich 358, 362; 547 NW2d 314 (1996).

The Legislature enacted SASA in 1962, and amended it in 1981. Kent v Alpine Valley Ski Area, Inc, 240 Mich App 731, 737; 613 NW2d 383 (2000) (quotation marks and citation omitted). One of the purposes of the Legislature’s amendment was “to make the skier, rather than the ski area operator, bear the burden of damages from injuries.” Id. Thus, among the provisions in the 1981 amendment was one for the acceptance of risk by skiers, MCL 408.342(2), which provides as follows:

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snowmaking or snow-grooming equipment.

Where, as here, an injury results [*17] from a hazard not listed in the statute, Michigan’s Supreme Court has established a test to determine whether a defendant ski resort is nevertheless immune on grounds that the hazard is of the same type as those listed in the statute. Anderson v Pine Knob Ski Resort, 469 Mich 20, 24-25; 664 NW2d 756 (2003).

At issue in Anderson was whether the assumption of risk provision barred the plaintiff’s suit for injuries suffered when he collided with a timing shack during a skiing race. The Supreme Court determined that the different types of hazards listed in MCL 408.342(2) had in common “that they all inhere in the sport of skiing and, as long as they are obvious and necessary to the sport, there is immunity from suit.” Id. at 25. Thus, once a hazard is determined to be inherent to the sport of skiing, “only if [it is] unnecessary or not obvious is the ski operator liable.” Id. at 26. Applying the facts of Anderson to its legal conclusion, the Supreme Court reasoned:

There is no disputed issue of fact in this matter that in ski racing, timing, as it determines who is the winner, is necessary. Moreover, there is no dispute that for the timing equipment to function, it is necessary that it be protected from the elements. This protection was afforded by the shack that all also agree was obvious [*18] in its placement at the end of the run. We have then a hazard of the same sort as the ski towers and snow-making and grooming machines to which the statute refers us. As with the towers and equipment, this hazard inheres in the sport of skiing. The placement of the timing shack is thus a danger that skiers such as Anderson are held to have accepted as a matter of law. [Id. at 25-26.]

Accordingly, the Supreme Court concluded that the ski operator was immune from suit because the timing shack was a hazard inherent to skiing, and it was necessary and obvious.

We conclude that the trial court did not err in finding that, at this early stage of the proceedings, the record facts are simply insufficient to determine whether SASA applies to bar plaintiff’s claim. There is no dispute that the nylon rope that entangled plaintiff is a hazard not listed in MCL 408.342(2). Thus, the question is whether the placement of a nylon rope under a chair lift is inherent to skiing and, if so, whether placement of the rope in this case was obvious and necessary. For defendant to be entitled to summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), these material facts must be undisputed and defendant must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Quinto, 451 Mich at 362.

However, [*19] the parties dispute the material facts. And the record evidence–given that discovery has not yet begun–is not sufficient to resolve their disputes. For example, although both parties agree that the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard B77.1-2006 governs the construction, installation, and operation of a ski lift, they dispute whether defendant’s positioning of the rope violated the clearance requirements set forth in ANSI, and whether such violation renders defendant liable for injuries attributable to the violation. In fact, there is no record evidence as to what the rope was even for, making impossible at this point a determination of whether it was a necessary part of skiing. Plaintiff asserts that defendant’s placement of the rope “in an area directly below the chair lift” violated the ANSI standards, and that the rope was neither obvious nor necessary. Defendant contends that plaintiff’s allegation that his fall to the ground was approximately 12 feet demonstrates that defendant complied with the requirement to have a clearance of at least 8 feet between the lowest point of the carrier and the terrain. In addition, defendant characterizes the rope as a “fence,” [*20] and asserts, “fencing and its risks are intrinsic in the sport of skiing,” and further asserts that the rope/fence was absolutely needed to prevent skiers from traveling under the chair lift and being injured.” However, because there is nothing in the record evidence indicating the rope’s purpose or its location relative to the chair lift and the terrain, it is impossible to determine where the rope was placed and whether it was necessary. Defendant contends that plaintiff’s description of his fall in his affidavit demonstrates that there was at least an 8-foot clearance between the carrier, but defendant has not eliminated the possibility that the rope was too close to the carrier when it caught plaintiff’s skis, and it begs the question of why there was a rope if the minimum clearance did not require one. In short, defendant has not met its burden to submit affirmative evidence indicating that it was entitled to summary disposition on grounds that the dangers posed by the nylon rope at issue were inherent to skiing, and that they were necessary and obvious.10
Quinto, 451 Mich at 362.

10 Because we conclude that defendant’s motion for summary disposition was properly denied at this stage of the case, we need not address plaintiff’s additional argument that SASA does not bar his claim arising from the chair lift operator’s alleged failure to stop the chair lift after plaintiff became entangled in the rope.

Affirmed.

/s/ Kirsten Frank Kelly

/s/ Jane M. Beckering

/s/ Michael J. Riordan

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Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016-0818 (La. 10/19/16); 2016 La. LEXIS 2089

Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016-0818 (La. 10/19/16); 2016 La. LEXIS 2089

James Duhon versus Activelaf, LLC, D/B/A Skyzone Lafayette and Underwriters at Lloyds, London

No. 2016-CC-0818

SUPREME COURT OF LOUISIANA

2016-0818 (La. 10/19/16); 2016 La. LEXIS 2089

October 19, 2016, Decided

NOTICE:

THIS DECISION IS NOT FINAL UNTIL EXPIRATION OF THE FOURTEEN DAY REHEARING PERIOD.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Rehearing denied by Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016 La. LEXIS 2483 (La., Dec. 6, 2016)

US Supreme Court certiorari denied by ActiveLAF, LLC v. Duhon, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 4039 (U.S., June 19, 2017)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FIRST CIRCUIT, PARISH OF EAST BATON ROUGE.

Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016 La. App. LEXIS 629 (La.App. 1 Cir., Apr. 5, 2016)

DISPOSITION: REVERSED AND REMANDED TO THE DISTRICT COURT FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-Where plaintiff patron sued defendant trampoline park, alleging he was injured due to its negligence, the provision of an agreement he signed waiving his right to trial and compelling arbitration was adhesionary and thus unenforceable due to the lack of mutuality of obligations together with the obscure placement of the arbitration language in the agreement; [2]-As the high court applied Louisiana law applicable to contracts generally, not just to arbitration agreements, its ruling was consistent with the savings clauses in 9 U.S.C.S. § 2 of the FAA and La. Rev. Stat. § 9:4201.

OUTCOME: The judgment of the intermediate appellate court was reversed.

CORE TERMS: arbitration clause, arbitration, arbitration agreement, adhesionary, box, mutuality, patron’s, arbitration provision, contract of adhesion, unenforceable, auction, standard form, enforceable, bargaining positions, enforceability, weaker, ren, bargaining power, unequal, print, state law, physical characteristics, invalidate, arbitrate, consented, printed, real estate, distinguishing features, non-drafting, recreational

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

Civil Procedure > Appeals > Standards of Review > De Novo Review

Civil Procedure > Appeals > Standards of Review > Fact & Law Issues

[HN1] Where a case involves legal questions, the appellate court reviews the matter de novo.

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Validity of ADR Methods

Governments > Legislation > Interpretation

Constitutional Law > Supremacy Clause > Federal Preemption

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Arbitration Clauses

[HN2] Louisiana and federal law explicitly favor the enforcement of arbitration clauses in written contracts. Louisiana Binding Arbitration Law (LBAL) is set forth in La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 9:4201 et seq. and expresses a strong legislative policy favoring arbitration. § 9:4201. Such favorable treatment echoes the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C.S. § 1 et seq. The LBAL is virtually identical to the FAA, and determinations regarding the viability and scope of arbitration clauses are the same under either law; thus, federal jurisprudence interpreting the FAA may be considered in construing the LBAL. Further, to the extent that federal and state law differ, the FAA preempts state law as to any written arbitration agreement in a contract involving interstate commerce.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Arbitration Clauses

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Contracts Law > Formation

Civil Procedure > Federal & State Interrelationships > Choice of Law

[HN3] The Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C.S. § 1 et seq., makes arbitration agreements valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contact. 9 U.S.C.S. § 2. This provision reflects both a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration, and the fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract. In line with these principles, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts. Despite this policy favoring enforcement of arbitration agreements, the U.S. Supreme Court has also recognized that, under the savings clause in § 2, general state contract principles still apply to assess whether those agreements to arbitrate are valid and enforceable, just as they would to any other contract dispute arising under state law. Accordingly, ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts are applied when deciding whether the parties agreed to arbitration. Importantly, the savings clause in § 2 does not permit courts to invalidate an arbitration agreement under a state law applicable only to arbitration provisions.

Contracts Law > Formation > Execution

Computer & Internet Law > Internet Business > Contracts > Electronic Contracts

Computer & Internet Law > Internet Business > Contracts > Digital Signatures

[HN4] Louisiana law gives legal effect to both electronic contracts and signatures. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 9:2607. The court interprets and analyzes the terms of an electronic agreement using the same rules that it would apply to oral and written contracts.

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

Contracts Law > Formation > Meeting of Minds

[HN5] Broadly defined, a contract of adhesion is a standard contract, usually in printed form, prepared by a party of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party. Often in small print, these contracts sometimes raise a question as to whether or not the weaker party actually consented to the terms. Although a contract of adhesion is a contract executed in a standard form in the vast majority of instances, not every contract in standard form may be regarded as a contract of adhesion. Therefore, the Louisiana Supreme Court is not willing to declare all standard form contracts adhesionary; rather, it finds standard form serves merely as a possible indicator of adhesion. The real issue in a contract of adhesion analysis is not the standard form of the contract, but rather whether a party truly consented to all the printed terms. Thus, the issue is one of consent.

Contracts Law > Formation > Meeting of Minds

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

[HN6] In determining if a contract is adhesionary, consent is called into question by the standard form, small print, and most especially the disadvantageous position of the accepting party, which is further emphasized by the potentially unequal bargaining positions of the parties. An unequal bargaining position is evident when the contract unduly burdens one party in comparison to the burdens imposed upon the drafting party and the advantages allowed to that party. Once consent is called into question, the party seeking to invalidate the contract as adhesionary must then demonstrate the non-drafting party either did not consent to the terms in dispute or his consent was vitiated by error, which in turn, renders the contract or provision unenforceable. A contract is one of adhesion when either its form, print, or unequal terms call into question the consent of the non-drafting party and it is demonstrated that the contract is unenforceable, due to lack of consent or error, which vitiates consent. Accordingly, even if a contract is standard in form and printed in small font, if it does not call into question the non-drafting party’s consent and if it is not demonstrated that the non-drafting party did not consent or his consent is vitiated by error, the contract is not a contract of adhesion.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Arbitration Clauses

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Validity of ADR Methods

Evidence > Procedural Considerations > Burdens of Proof > Allocation

[HN7] The party seeking to enforce an arbitration provision has the burden of showing the existence of a valid contract to arbitrate.

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Constitutional Law > Supremacy Clause > Federal Preemption

Contracts Law > Defenses

[HN8] The U.S. Supreme Court has admonished that, under the doctrine of preemption, state courts cannot adopt defenses that apply only to arbitration or that derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue. Nor can courts apply state law rules that stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the objectives of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C.S. § 1 et seq. Setting forth a legal requirement relative to a particular form or method of distinguishing or highlighting arbitration clauses, or requiring term-for-term mutuality in an arbitration clause could risk running afoul of the FAA. However, the Supreme Court has made it clear that state courts may apply standard state law contract defenses to arbitration agreements.

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Arbitration Agreements

Contracts Law > Formation > Meeting of Minds

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Constitutional Law > Supremacy Clause > Federal Preemption

[HN9] Consideration of enforceability of contracts of adhesion is an issue of consent, and determining whether a party truly consented to the contract terms. Consideration of consent is not limited to arbitration clauses; courts consider the issue of consent in any contract. Lack of consent is a generally applicable contract defense. La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 1927. The factors discussed in Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp. simply provide a template for considering consent to an arbitration clause contained in a standard contract. Aguillard did not create a per se rule that any degree of non-mutuality in an arbitration agreement renders it unenforceable, nor did Aguillard prescribe a definitive rule that arbitration agreements must be delineated a particular way to be enforceable.

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Arbitration Agreements

[HN10] The determination of whether an arbitration clause in a standard form contract is adhesionary is necessarily made on a case by case basis.

COUNSEL: WILLIAMSON, FONTENOT, CAMPBELL & WHITTINGTON, LLC, Christopher Lee Whittington; For Applicant.

TAYLOR, PORTER, BROOKS & PHILLIPS, LLP, Tom Samuel Easterly; For Respondent.

JUDGES: JOHNSON CHIEF JUSTICE. WEIMER J. dissenting. GUIDRY J. dissents and assigns reasons. CRICHTON J. additionally concurs and assigns reasons. CLARK J. concurring. Hughes J. concurring.

OPINION BY: JOHNSON

OPINION

[Pg 1] JOHNSON, CHIEF JUSTICE

Patrons of Sky Zone Lafayette, an indoor trampoline park, are required to complete a “Participant Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” document (“Agreement”) prior to entering the facility. The Agreement contains a clause waiving the participant’s right to trial and compelling arbitration. Plaintiff, James Duhon, was a patron at Sky Zone and was injured in the course of participating in the park’s activities. After Mr. Duhon filed suit seeking damages, Sky Zone filed an exception of prematurity seeking to compel arbitration pursuant to the Agreement. The district court overruled Sky Zone’s exception, but the court of appeal reversed, finding the arbitration provision should be enforced.

For the following reasons, we reverse the ruling of the court of appeal, holding the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone agreement [*2] is adhesionary and therefore unenforceable.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On April 19, 2015, James Duhon, accompanied by three minors, went to Sky Zone in Lafayette. Upon entering the facility, Mr. Duhon was directed by Sky Zone staff to a computer screen to check himself and the minors into the facility. Check-in [Pg 2] required all participants to complete a Participation Agreement which requested names and dates of birth for all participants, required participants to check three boxes next to certain terms of the Agreement, and required participants to digitally sign the Agreement.

The Agreement provided that in consideration for gaining access to Sky Zone Lafayette and engaging in the services, patrons agreed:

[ ] I acknowledge that my participation in [Sky Zone] trampoline games or activities entails known and unanticipated risks that could result in physical or emotional injury including, but not limited to broken bones, sprained or torn ligaments, paralysis, death, or other bodily injury or property damage to myself my children, or to third parties. I understand that such risks simply cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential qualities of the activity. I expressly agree [*3] and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity. My and/or my children’s participation in this activity is purely voluntary and I elect to participate, or allow my children to participate in spite of the risks. If I and/or my children are injured, I acknowledge that I or my children may require medical assistance, which I acknowledge will be at my own expense or the expense of my personal insurers. I hereby represent and affirm that I have adequate and appropriate insurance to provide coverage for such medical expense.

[ ] In consideration for allowing me and the minor child(ren) identified herein to participate in the [Sky Zone] activities and use the [Sky Zone] facility, I expressly and voluntarily agree to forever release, acquit, indemnify and discharge [Sky Zone] and agree to hold [Sky Zone] harmless on behalf of myself, my spouse, my children, my parents, my guardians, and my heirs, assigns, personal representative and estate, and any and all other persons and entities who could in any way represent me, or the minor children identified herein or act on our respective halves, from any and all actions or omissions, cause and causes of action, suits, debts, [*4] damages, judgments, costs, including, but not limited to attorney’s fees, and claims and demands whatsoever, in law or in equity, for any personal injury, death, or property damages that I and/or the minor children’s use of [Sky Zone] activities, [Sky Zone] premises or at offsite and camp activities related to [Sky Zone]. This waiver is intended to be a complete release of any and all responsibility or duties owed by [Sky Zone] as indemnitees for personal injuries, death and/or property loss/damage sustained by myself or any minor children identified herein while on the [Sky Zone] premises, or with respect to [Sky Zone] activities, whether using [Sky Zone] equipment or not, even if such injury or damage results from [Sky Zone] negligence, [Sky Zone] employee [Pg 3] negligence, improper supervision, improper maintenance of [Sky Zone] equipment or premises or negligence by other [Sky Zone] guests.

[ ] I certify that I and/or my child(ren) are physically able to participate in all activities at the Location without aid or assistance. I further certify that I am willing to assume the risk of any medical or physical condition that I and/or my child(ren) may have. I acknowledge that I have [*5] read the rules, (the “Sky Zone Rules”) governing my and/or my child(ren)’s participation in any activities at the Location. I certify that I have explained the [Sky Zone] Rules to the child(ren) identified herein. I understand that the [Sky Zone] Rules have been implemented for the safety of all guests at the Location. I agree that if any portion of this Agreement is found to be void and unenforceable, the remaining portions shall remain in full force and effect. If there are any disputes regarding this agreement, I on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) hereby waive any right I and/or my child(ren) may have to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be brought within one year of the date of this Agreement and will be determined by binding arbitration before one arbitrator to be administered by JAMS pursuant to its Comprehensive Arbitration Rules and Procedures. I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of Louisiana and that the substantive law of Louisiana shall apply. If, despite the representations made in this agreement, I or anyone on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) file or otherwise initiate a lawsuit against [Sky Zone], in addition to [*6] my agreement to defend and indemnify [Sky Zone], I agree to pay within 60 days liquidated damages in the amount of $5,000 to [Sky Zone]. Should I fail to pay this liquidated damages amount within the 60 day time period provided by this Agreement, I further agree to pay interest on the $5,000 amount calculated at 12% per annum.

I further grant [Sky Zone] the right, without reservation or limitation, to videotape, and/or record me and/or my children on closed circuit television.

I further grant [Sky Zone] the right, without reservation or limitation, to photograph, videotape, and/or record me and/or my children and to use my or my children’s name, face, likeness, voice and appearance in connection with exhibitions, publicity, advertising and promotional materials.

I would like to receive free email promotions and discounts to the email address provided below. I may unsubscribe from emails from Sky Zone at any time.

By signing this document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or property is damaged during my participation in this activity, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit [Pg 4] against [Sky Zone] on the basis of any claim from which I have [*7] released them herein. I have had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document. I understand this Agreement and I voluntarily agree to be bound by its terms.

I further certify that I am the parent or legal guardian of the children listed above on this Agreement or that I have been granted power of attorney to sign this Agreement on behalf of the parent or legal guardian of the children listed above.

Mr. Duhon electronically completed the Agreement on behalf of himself and the minors by checking the three boxes provided in the agreement, furnishing the relevant personal identifying information, and clicking on an “accept” button. Mr. Duhon and the minors then entered the facility.

Mr. Duhon asserts he was injured at the facility due to Sky Zone’s negligence. On August 12, 2015, Mr. Duhon filed suit against Activelaf, L.L.C., d/b/a Sky Zone Lafayette and its insurer (“Sky Zone”). In response, Sky Zone filed several exceptions, including an exception of prematurity. Sky Zone alleged that the Agreement contained a mandatory arbitration clause, thereby rendering Mr. Duhon’s suit premature. Mr. Duhon asserted he did not knowingly consent to arbitration, and argued the Agreement was adhesionary [*8] and ambiguous.

Following a hearing, the district court determined there was a lack of mutuality in the Agreement relative to the arbitration clause because only Mr. Duhon was bound to arbitrate claims. Thus, relying on this court’s decision in Aguillard Auction Management Corp., 04-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So. 2d 1 and the Third Circuit’s opinion in Sutton Steel & Supply, Inc. v. Bellsouth Mobility, Inc., 07-146 (La. App. 3 Cir. 12/12/07), 971 So. 2d 1257, the district court refused to enforce the arbitration agreement and overruled Sky Zone’s exception of prematurity.

The court of appeal granted Sky Zone’s writ and reversed the district court’s ruling:

There is a strong presumption favoring the enforceability of arbitration [Pg 5] clauses. The weight of this presumption is heavy and arbitration should not be denied unless it can be said with positive assurance that an arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that could cover the dispute at issue. Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 2004-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So. 2d 1. We find that plaintiff failed to establish that this arbitration provision is adhesionary, and accordingly, the arbitration provision should be enforced.

Judge Theriot dissented without reasons, stating he would deny the writ application. Duhon v. ActiveLaf, LLC, 16-0167, 2016 La. App. LEXIS 629 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/5/16) (unpublished).

On Mr. Duhon’s application, we granted certiorari to review the correctness of the court of appeal’s ruling. Duhon v. ActiveLaf, LLC, 16-0818 (La. 6/17/16), 192 So. 3d 762.

DISCUSSION

This [HN1] case involves the legal [*9] questions of whether the court of appeal erred in its “contract of adhesion” analysis of the arbitration clause in the Agreement, and whether the arbitration clause is unenforceable on general contract principles of consent or adhesion. Thus, we review the matter de novo. See Aguillard, 908 So. 2d at 3; Prasad v. Bullard, 10-291 (La. App. 5 Cir. 10/12/10), 51 So. 3d 35, 39; Horseshoe Entertainment v. Lepinski, 40,753 (La. App. 2 Cir. 3/8/06), 923 So. 2d 929, 934, writ denied, 06-792 (La. 6/2/06), 929 So. 2d 1259.

[HN2] Louisiana and federal law explicitly favor the enforcement of arbitration clauses in written contracts. Aguillard, 908 So. 2d at 7. Louisiana Binding Arbitration Law (“LBAL”) is set forth in La. R.S. 9:4201 et seq. and expresses a strong legislative policy favoring arbitration. La. R.S. 9:4201 provides:

A provision in any written contract to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of the contract, or out of the refusal to perform the whole or any part thereof, or an agreement in writing between two or more persons to submit to arbitration any controversy existing between them at the time of the agreement to submit, shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.

As this court recognized in Aguillard, “[s]uch favorable treatment echos the Federal [Pg 6] Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq.” 908 So. 2d at 7. We noted the LBAL is virtually identical to the FAA, and determinations regarding [*10] the viability and scope of arbitration clauses are the same under either law, thus federal jurisprudence interpreting the FAA may be considered in construing the LBAL. Id. at 18. Further, to the extent that federal and state law differ, the FAA preempts state law as to any written arbitration agreement in a contract involving interstate commerce. Hodges v. Reasonover, 12-0043 (La. 7/2/12), 103 So. 3d 1069, 1072; FIA Card Services, N.A. v. Weaver, 10-1372 (La. 3/15/11), 62 So. 3d 709, 712; Collins v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America, 99-1423 (La. 1/19/00), 752 So. 2d 825, 827.

[HN3] The FAA makes arbitration agreements “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contact.” 9 U.S.C. §2 (emphasis added). The United States Supreme Court has explained that this provision reflects both a “liberal federal policy favoring arbitration,” and the “fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract.” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 339, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1745, 179 L.Ed. 2d 742 (2011) (citing Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24, 103 S.Ct. 927, 74 L.Ed. 2d 765 (1983) and Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U.S. 63, 67, 130 S.Ct. 2772, 2776, 177 L.Ed. 2d 403 (2010)). The Supreme Court has instructed that in line with these principles, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts. Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 339 (citing Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. 440, 443, 126 S.Ct. 1204, 163 L.Ed. 2d 1038 (2006)). Despite this policy favoring enforcement of arbitration agreements, the Supreme Court has also recognized that, under the savings clause in §2, general state contract principles still apply to assess whether those agreements to arbitrate are valid and enforceable, just as they would to any other [*11] contract dispute arising under state law.[Pg 7] Doctor’s Associates, Inc. v. Casarotto, 517 U.S. 681, 686-87, 116 S.Ct. 1652, 1656, 134 L. Ed. 2d 902 (1996). Accordingly, ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts are applied when deciding whether the parties agreed to arbitration. First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944, 115 S.Ct. 1920, 1924, 131 L.Ed. 2d 985 (1995). Importantly, the savings clause in § 2 does not permit courts to invalidate an arbitration agreement under a state law applicable only to arbitration provisions. Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 339; Aguillard, 908 So. 2d at 8.

With these principles in mind, we consider whether the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement should be invalided under Louisiana law. As an initial matter, we note the electronic nature of the Agreement in this case is of no legal consequence and does not fundamentally change the principles of contract. [HN4] Louisiana law gives legal effect to both electronic contracts and signatures. See La. R.S. 9:2607. We interpret and analyze the terms of the Agreement using the same rules that we would apply to oral and written contracts.

Aguillard is the seminal case from this court addressing the validity of an arbitration agreement in a standard form contract. In Aguillard, the winning bidder at a real estate auction brought suit to enforce the auction sales agreement. This court, pursuant to its authority under La. R.S. 9:4201 and 9 U.S.C. § 2, applied a “contract [*12] of adhesion” analysis to determine the enforceability and validity of an arbitration agreement in the auction contract. In discussing the “contract of adhesion” doctrine, we explained: [HN5] “Broadly defined, a contract of adhesion is a standard contract, usually in printed form, prepared by a party of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party. Often in small print, these contracts sometimes raise a question as to whether or not the weaker party actually consented to the terms.” 908 So. 2d at 10. This court further stated that “although a contract of adhesion is a contract executed in a standard form in the vast majority of instances, not every [Pg 8] contract in standard form may be regarded as a contract of adhesion. Therefore, we are not willing to declare all standard form contracts adhesionary; rather, we find standard form serves merely as a possible indicator of adhesion.” Id. (Internal citations removed). We made clear that the “real issue in a contract of adhesion analysis is not the standard form of the contract, but rather whether a party truly consented to all the printed terms. Thus, the issue is one of consent.” Id. (Internal citations removed). The court explained: [*13]

[HN6] Consent is called into question by the standard form, small print, and most especially the disadvantageous position of the accepting party, which is further emphasized by the potentially unequal bargaining positions of the parties. An unequal bargaining position is evident when the contract unduly burdens one party in comparison to the burdens imposed upon the drafting party and the advantages allowed to that party. Once consent is called into question, the party seeking to invalidate the contract as adhesionary must then demonstrate the non-drafting party either did not consent to the terms in dispute or his consent was vitiated by error, which in turn, renders the contract or provision unenforceable.

In summation, a contract is one of adhesion when either its form, print, or unequal terms call into question the consent of the non-drafting party and it is demonstrated that the contract is unenforceable, due to lack of consent or error, which vitiates consent. Accordingly, even if a contract is standard in form and printed in small font, if it does not call into question the non-drafting party’s consent and if it is not demonstrated that the non-drafting party did not consent or his [*14] consent is vitiated by error, the contract is not a contract of adhesion.

Id. at 10-11. Thus, the question we consider is whether Mr. Duhon truly consented to the arbitration provision in the Agreement.

In concluding the arbitration provision in Aguillard was not adhesionary, we noted (1) the arbitration provision was contained in a short, two-page document and was contained in a single sentence paragraph; (2) the arbitration provision was not concealed; (3) the contract did not lack mutuality because defendants did not reserve their right to litigate issues arising from the contract; and (4) the parties did not have a significant difference in bargaining power because a real estate auction is not a [Pg 9] necessary transaction that plaintiff was compelled to enter. Id. Thus, while not declaring a definitive test, this court effectively established a framework for examining the validity of an arbitration clause within a standard form contract by generally describing the characteristics of an unenforceable adhesionary agreement. Finding our analysis in Aguillard instructive, we consider the following factors to determine the enforceability of the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement: (1) [*15] the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause, (2) the distinguishing features of the arbitration clause, (3) the mutuality of the arbitration clause, and (4) the relative bargaining strength of the parties. After our review of the Agreement in light of the above factors, we hold the arbitration clause is adhesionary and not enforceable because of its placement in the Agreement and its lack of mutuality.

Examining the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause, we observe the arbitration language is consistent in size and font with the other provisions in the Agreement. However, the lack of distinguishing features and the specific placement of the arbitration clause serve to conceal the arbitration language from Sky Zone patrons. The Agreement is structured with check boxes next to the first three paragraphs, followed by five additional paragraphs without corresponding check boxes. The first check box is placed next to a single, six-sentence paragraph generally discussing participants’ risks of injuries and assumption of those risks. The second check box is placed next to a single paragraph containing two long sentences purporting to release Sky Zone from any liability. [*16] The third check box is placed next to one long paragraph discussing multiple topics. Specifically, the arbitration language is located starting in the eleventh line of this third paragraph, following provisions regarding patrons’ physical ability to participate in the activities, assumption of the risks, certification that Sky Zone’s rules have been explained to any children, and expressing agreement to follow those rules.

[Pg 10] In Aguillard, we noted “the arbitration provision, although not distinguished, was not concealed in any way, but rather was contained in a single sentence paragraph separated from the preceding and following paragraphs by double spacing.” 908 So. 2d at 16. Sky Zone argues the paragraph containing the arbitration clause was sufficiently distinguished and brought to patrons’ attention through the use of the check box feature. We disagree. Although patrons are required to check a box adjacent to the top of the third paragraph, significantly no check box was placed next to the arbitration language. In contrast, the other two check boxes in the Agreement were placed next to paragraphs limited to one subject matter. The Agreement also contains five additional paragraphs following [*17] the third paragraph that do not include corresponding check boxes. Each of these are short one-topic paragraphs addressing such items as Sky Zone’s right to videotape and record patrons and to use recordings for promotional materials. Thus, looking at the Agreement as a whole, the arbitration language appears to be the only specific provision not relegated to a separate paragraph or set apart in some explicit way. Here, the two-sentence provision mandating arbitration is camouflaged within the confines of an eleven sentence paragraph, nine of which do not discuss arbitration. The effect of the placement of the arbitration language is to cloak it within a blanket of boilerplate language regarding rules and risks of participating in the Sky Zone activities. Thus, although it is undisputed that Mr. Duhon electronically signed the Agreement, purportedly demonstrating an acceptance of its terms, under Louisiana contract law, we find Mr. Duhon did not truly consent to the arbitration provision.

Additionally, the lack of mutuality in the arbitration clause fortifies our finding that it is adhesionary. The arbitration provision requires only Sky Zone patrons to submit their claims to arbitration. [*18] The entire contract, including the arbitration clause, repeatedly includes “I acknowledge” and “I agree” language, with the “I” referencing [Pg 11] the “applicant” – here, Mr. Duhon. Specifically, the Agreement provides if there are any disputes regarding this agreement “I … hereby waive any right … to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be … determined by binding arbitration …” Although Sky Zone does not expressly reserve itself the right to pursue litigation, nowhere in the Agreement are “the parties” or Sky Zone particularly bound to arbitration. This is in stark contrast to the arbitration clause in Aguillard which clearly applied to both parties by providing: “Any controversy or claim arising from or relating to this agreement or any breach of such agreement shall be settled by arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association under is [sic] rules, and judgment on the award rendered by the arbitrator may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof.” 908 So. 2d at 4. Thus, in Aguillard, we found the arbitration clause did not lack sufficient mutuality to invalidate the clause as adhesionary because the arbitration clause severely limited both the defendants’ [*19] and the plaintiff’s right to litigate, and the defendants did not reserve their right to litigate in the document. Id. at 16. Even more troublesome in this case is the punitive provision compelling patrons to pay Sky Zone liquidated damages of $5,000 within sixty days should the patron file suit, with legal interest added at 12% per year. Sky Zone has no mutual obligation in the Agreement.

[HN7] The party seeking to enforce an arbitration provision has the burden of showing the existence of a valid contract to arbitrate. FIA Card Services, 62 So. 3d at 719. Sky Zone has failed to meet this burden. Considering the lack of mutuality together with the obscure placement of the arbitration language in the Agreement, and in comparison to the contract in Aguillard, we are compelled to find the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement is adhesionary and unenforceable.

In finding this arbitration clause invalid, we have carefully considered [HN8] the Supreme Court’s admonition that, under the doctrine of preemption, state courts [Pg 12] cannot adopt defenses that apply only to arbitration or that derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue. See, e.g., Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 339; Casarotto, 517 U.S. at 687. Nor can we apply state law rules that stand as an obstacle [*20] to the accomplishment of the FAA’s objectives. Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 343. We are mindful that setting forth a legal requirement relative to a particular form or method of distinguishing or highlighting arbitration clauses, or requiring term-for-term mutuality in an arbitration clause could risk running afoul of the FAA. However, the Supreme Court has made it clear that state courts may apply standard state law contract defenses to arbitration agreements. Id. at 339. Our application of Louisiana contract law to invalidate the arbitration provision in the instant case is consistent with § 2 of the FAA, and we find no conflict between our holding today and Supreme Court decisions discussing preemption.

As explained earlier, [HN9] consideration of enforceability of contracts of adhesion is an issue of consent, and determining whether a party truly consented to the contract terms. Consideration of consent is not limited to arbitration clauses; we consider the issue of consent in any contract. Lack of consent is a generally applicable contract defense. See La. C.C. art. 1927. The factors discussed in Aguillard simply provided a template for considering consent to an arbitration clause contained in a standard contract. Aguillard did not create a per se rule that any [*21] degree of non-mutuality in an arbitration agreement renders it unenforceable, nor did Aguillard prescribe a definitive rule that arbitration agreements must be delineated a particular way to be enforceable. Considering the Aguillard analysis in its entirety, it is clear we viewed the arbitration provision in the context of the overall contract and the surrounding circumstances, and our determination was based on weighing several factors. Were we not to consider factors relative to consent when examining the validity of an arbitration agreement, we would be operating in contravention to the mandate of the Supreme Court by [Pg 13] treating arbitration agreements differently from other contracts. Thus, we find our application of Louisiana contract law to invalidate the arbitration provision in this case is consistent with the savings clauses in § 2 of the FAA and La. R.S. 9:4201.

CONCLUSION

[HN10] The determination of whether an arbitration clause in a standard form contract is adhesionary is necessarily made on a case by case basis. Based on the facts of this case, the concealment of the arbitration clause and the lack of mutuality compels us to find the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement is adhesionary and unenforceable. [*22] Accordingly, we find the court of appeal erred in reversing the district court’s ruling on Sky Zone’s exception of prematurity.1 Therefore, the ruling of the court of appeal is reversed, and the ruling of the district court is reinstated.

1 Because we hold the arbitration clause is adhesionary and unenforceable based on consideration of the factors set forth in Aguillard, we pretermit discussion of Mr. Duhon’s additional arguments relative to ambiguity of the Agreement or whether the scope of the arbitration clause covers personal injury.

DECREE

REVERSED AND REMANDED TO THE DISTRICT COURT FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.

CONCUR BY: CRICHTON; CLARK

CONCUR

[Pg 1] CRICHTON, J., additionally concurs and assigns reasons.

I agree with the majority decision, and write separately to emphasize that I do not view this decision as a rejection of arbitration agreements. To the contrary, Louisiana law favors the enforcement of arbitration agreements. See La. R.S. 9:4201 (Validity of arbitration agreements). Consistent with the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), arbitration agreements must be placed “upon the same footing” as other types of contracts.” Scherk v. Alberto-Culver Co., 417 U.S. 506, 511, 94 S. Ct. 2449, 41 L. Ed. 2d 270 (1974); see also 9 U.S.C. § 2. But just as Louisiana law should not create obstacles to the enforceability of arbitration [*23] agreements, see AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 179 L. Ed. 2d 742 (2011) (applying the FAA to preempt a state law condition to the enforceability of an arbitration agreement), neither should Louisiana law create exceptions for arbitration agreements that do not exist for other types of contracts.

Without question, arbitration can be a waiver of the traditional access to our judicial system. And so, applying Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 04-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So. 2d 1, this waiver must be in accord with Louisiana contract law, otherwise a party’s consent may be called into question. Thus, a [Pg 2] business entity or individual seeking to draft a contract that includes an arbitration agreement must meet all of the elements of an enforceable contract.

By concealing the existence of the arbitration agreement, this agreement deprives a party of redress in the justice system. To make a bad situation worse, this agreement does not bind Sky Zone to arbitration, yet it penalizes a Sky Zone patron–but not Sky Zone–for seeking to initiate a lawsuit. These blatant asymmetries exhibit a stunning lack of draftsmanship and fail to adhere to the principles set forth in Aguillard. Accordingly, in my view, this Court is bound to deem this agreement unenforceable.

CLARK, J., concurring.

I find that the contract at issue [*24] lacks mutuality to such an extent that the contract is adhesionary. Not only does the contract bind only patrons to arbitration, the contract stipulates that if a patron files a lawsuit against Sky Zone, the patron is liable for $5,000 in liquidated damages. At the same time, Sky Zone is free to file a lawsuit against the patron without any penalty.

[Pg 1] Hughes, J., concurring.

Although I do not agree that the arbitration language was hidden, I concur that it lacked mutuality, and thus with the result.

DISSENT BY: WEIMER; GUIDRY

DISSENT

[Pg 1] WEIMER, J., dissenting.

I agree with the majority’s assessment that the factors outlined in Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 04-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So.2d 1, are an appropriate starting point for analyzing the issue presented in this matter.1 See Duhon v. ActiveLaf, LLC, 16-0818, slip op. at 7 (La. 10/ /16). However, I respectfully disagree with the majority’s conclusion that analysis of the Sky Zone Agreement using Aguillard’s four-factor “framework” supports a finding that the arbitration clause is adhesionary and not enforceable. To the contrary, I find the arbitration clause to be valid and enforceable. I also find that analysis of the clause using Aguillard’s factors, viewed in light of the strong and, as Aguillard describes it, “heavy” [*25] presumption in favor of arbitration, dictates that finding of enforceability. Aguillard, 04-2804 at 25, 908 So.2d at 18.

1 While I dissented in Aguillard, I did so solely on grounds that there was a threshold legal question that I believed needed to be resolved before reaching the issue of the enforceability of the arbitration clause: whether the arbitration clause at issue even applied in light of the fact that the Auction Agreement for the Purchase and Sale of Real Estate had been completed. Aguillard, 04-2804 at 1, 980 So.2d at 20-21 (Weimer, J., dissenting.).

As the majority recognizes, a contract of adhesion is broadly defined as “a standard contract, usually in printed form, [often in small print,] prepared by a party [Pg 2] of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party.” Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 7-8 (quoting Aguillard, 04-2804 at 9, 908 So.2d at 8-9.) (Emphasis added.) Pursuant to this definition, a predicate factor to consider in determining whether a contract is adhesionary is the existence of unequal bargaining power. Indeed, this is one of the four factors delineated in the Aguillard analysis. Yet, the majority opinion does not mention, much less weigh, this factor in conducting its analysis-this, despite [*26] the fact that there must be unequal bargaining power for the contract to meet the definitional hurdle of a contract of adhesion in the first instance.

In this case, it is clear that, as in Aguillard, there was not “such a difference in bargaining positions between the parties so as to justify the application of the principle of contract of adhesion to the arbitration clause.” Aguillard, 04-2804 at 22, 908 So.2d at 16-17. As Aguillard explained in defining a contract of adhesion, “[o]wing to the necessities of modern life a particular kind of contract has been developed where one of the parties is not free to bargain.” Id., 04-2804 at 10, 908 So.2d at 9 (quoting Saul Litvinoff, Consent Revisited: Offer, Acceptance, Option, Right of First Refusal, and Contracts of Adhesion in the Revision of the Louisiana Law of Obligations, 47 La.L.Rev. 699, 757-59 (1986-1987)). Such a lack of bargaining power exists where “[t]he party in the weaker position is left with no other choice than to adhere to the terms proposed by the other.” Id. (Emphasis added.) Typical examples of such contracts include those entered into with “airlines, public utilities, railroad or insurance companies.” Id.

In Aguillard, this court recognized that the relative bargaining positions of the real estate auctioneer and the [*27] individual auction participant involved in that case were not so unequal as to justify invalidating the arbitration clause on grounds of adhesion, [Pg 3] reasoning that, although the participant was required to sign the agreement containing the arbitration clause in order to participate in the auction, “the underlying transaction, the real estate auction, [was] not … such a necessary transaction” that the participant “was compelled to enter it.” Id., 04-2804 at 22-23, 908 So.2d at 16-17. Indeed, the participant could have avoided arbitration by not signing the agreement, not participating in the auction, and simply walking away. See Id. 04-2804 at 22, 908 So.2d at 17. Under such circumstances, the court found “nothing sufficient to establish the [auctioneers] were in such a superior bargaining position as to render the [auction participant] a far weaker party or the contract adhesionary.” Id. 04-2804 at 23, 908 So.2d at 17.

The rationale of the court in Aguillard applies with equal force to the Sky Zone Agreement at issue in this case. Here, the Agreement concerns not a “necessity of modern life,” but a purely voluntary recreational activity. The plaintiff was not compelled-physically, economically or otherwise-to visit the trampoline park, jump on its trampolines, or sign the Agreement [*28] containing the arbitration clause. Jumping on a trampoline is simply not a practical necessity of modern living like water, electricity, or even airline flight. Like the auction participant in Aguillard, the plaintiff, here, retained the ultimate bargaining chip in this situation: he could have refused to sign Sky Zone’s Agreement, walked away, and pursued an alternative form of recreational activity. Given these circumstances, there is simply no evidence to establish that Sky Zone was in such a superior bargaining position as to render the plaintiff a far weaker party or the contract adhesionary.

Further, and also contrary to the majority, I find nothing in the Sky Zone Agreement, itself, that would call into question the validity of the plaintiff’s consent to the terms of the Agreement. This determination is based on my analysis of the [Pg 4] three factors that are addressed in the majority’s Aguillard analysis-(1) the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause; (2) the distinguishing features of that clause; and (3) the mutuality of the clause-and my differing conclusions as to each.

In addressing the first Aguillard factor-the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause-the [*29] majority acknowledges that “the arbitration language is consistent in size and font with the other provisions in Agreement.” Duhon, slip op. at 9. In fact, the clause is not in small print or otherwise unreadable, but is just as legible as every other word in the Agreement. The majority apparently concedes, therefore, and I agree, that the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause weigh in favor of finding the clause enforceable.

In addressing the second of the Aguillard factors-the distinguishing features of the clause-the majority, in my view, falls into error. It downplays the very feature that distinguishes the arbitration clause and calls its attention to the participant: the box located next to the paragraph in which the clause appears, a box which must be affirmatively checked before the Agreement can be completed. The majority chooses, instead, to focus solely on the fact that the arbitration language is not set out in a stand-alone paragraph to reach the conclusion that it is “camouflaged” and “cloak[ed] … within a blanket of boilerplate language” to such an extent that plaintiff could not have not consented to its terms, despite affirmatively indicating by checking the electronic box that he [*30] did just that. See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 10. While it is true that the arbitration clause appears in a paragraph not limited to the single topic of arbitration, more than one-half of that paragraph concerns the agreed-upon arbitration, its procedure, its locale, governing law, and the consequences for refusing or otherwise breaching the agreement to arbitrate.2 The arbitration language is hardly [Pg 5] camouflaged. Further, the majority’s suggestion, that failure to set the arbitration language out in a stand-alone paragraph fails to sufficiently distinguish the arbitration clause, ignores the check box. See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 10. The presence of that box is akin to, and has the same legal force and effect as, requiring the plaintiff to initial next to the paragraph, a requirement that affirmatively alerts the participant to the contents and significance of the paragraph.3 Like the arbitration provision in Aguillard, and contrary to the majority, I find the arbitration language in the Sky Zone Agreement was not concealed in any way and that the use of the electronic check boxes reasonably distinguished the clause.

2 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op’n at 3.

3 Modern technology has introduced what is referred [*31] to as a “clickwrap” agreement as a mechanism for having a “user manifest his or her assent to the terms of the … agreement by clicking on an icon.” See Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 429 (2nd Cir. 2004).

Finally, as to the third Aguillard factor, the mutuality of the obligation to arbitrate, the majority acknowledges that “Aguillard did not create a per se rule that any degree of non-mutuality in an arbitration agreement renders it unenforceable,”4 and that “requiring term-for-term mutuality in an arbitration clause could risk running afoul of the [Federal Arbitration Act],”5 but then inexplicably invalidates the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement precisely because it lacks the term-for-term mutuality that it acknowledges the law does not require, and may even prohibit.6 In truth, the only difference between the arbitration clause in Aguillard and the one in the Sky Zone Agreement is the use of the “I” in the Sky Zone Agreement. However, the mere use of the word “I” does not render the clause non-mutual, [Pg 6] particularly in light of the fact, acknowledged by the majority, that the Agreement does not reserve to Sky Zone the right to pursue litigation.7

4 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 13.

5 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 12.

6 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 11-13.

7 See [*32] Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 11.

Consequently, unlike the majority, I find an analysis of all four of the factors outlined in Aguillard leads to the conclusion that the Sky Zone Agreement is not adhesionary and is valid and enforceable. This conclusion is strengthened, not only by the strong legislative policy that favors arbitration,8 but also by the long-standing principle that signatures to documents are not mere ornaments.9 As Aguillard notes: “It is well[-]settled that a party who signs a written instrument is presumed to know its contents and cannot avoid its obligations by contending that he did not read it, that he did not understand it, or that the other party failed to explain it to him.” Id., 04-2804 at 22, 908 So.2d at 17. In this case, as in Aguillard, the plaintiff signed the Agreement acknowledging that he “had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document … understand this Agreement and … voluntarily agree to be bound by its terms.”10 As in Aguillard, there was no evidence that the plaintiff was not in an equal bargaining position with Sky Zone because the plaintiff could have avoided arbitration and the contractual provisions as a whole by simply not signing the Sky Zone Agreement and pursuing an alternative recreational [*33] activity. Also as in Aguillard, there is nothing in the Sky Zone Agreement itself-its physical or distinguishing characteristics-that would call into question the validity of the plaintiff’s consent to the terms of the Sky Zone Agreement as indicated by his signature. I would affirm the decision of the court of appeal.

8 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 5 (citing La. R.S. 9:4201, et seq.).

9 See Tweedel v. Brasseaux, 433 So. 2d 133, 137 (La. 1983) (quoting Boullt v. Sarpy, 30 La.Ann. 494, 495 (La. 1878)).

10 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 4.

[Pg 1] GUIDRY, J., dissents and assigns reasons.

I respectfully dissent from the majority’s reversal of the ruling of the court of appeal. In my view, the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement is not part of a contract of adhesion which would render it unenforceable.

As the majority correctly states, a contract of adhesion is a “standard contract, usually in printed form, prepared by a party of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party.” Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 2004-2804, 2004-2857, p.9 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So.2d 1, 8-9. It is undisputed that the real issue in a contract of adhesion analysis is consent, whether the non-drafting party, considered to be the weaker party, truly consented to all the printed terms. Id. In addressing the issue of consent, a court must look to the form, print, or unequal terms [*34] of the contract by considering the factors set forth in Aguillard, namely, the physical characteristics and distinguishing features of the arbitration clause, the relative bargaining position of the parties, and the mutuality or lack thereof in the arbitration clause. Id., 2004-2804, 2004-2857, p. 9, 908 So.2d at 17.

As an initial matter, I disagree with the majority’s finding that the arbitration clause was hidden and camouflaged within the Sky Zone Agreement in such a way that would indicate the plaintiff’s consent to the agreement could be called into [Pg 2] question. Neither the print nor the font size of the arbitration clause differed from that of the remainder of the contract executed by the plaintiff. The standard form agreement was relatively short and straightforward, consisting of a total of nine paragraphs, three of which were set off with boxes to be checked to signify the patron’s consent. The arbitration clause, while not set off alone, consisted of one-half of a paragraph that was required to be checked off. The clause commenced midway through the paragraph and ran until the end of the paragraph. The plaintiff does not dispute that he checked off the box reflecting his consent to the terms of the arbitration [*35] clause.

Furthermore, the record is absent any evidence that the plaintiff was not in an equal bargaining position with the defendants. At the heart of the transaction, the plaintiff was seeking admittance to a recreational facility. Indisputably, this was not a contract to which the plaintiff was compelled to enter into the terms. He could have simply elected to not sign the agreement and bypass the recreational activity. Instead, the plaintiff signed the arbitration agreement acknowledging that he had sufficient opportunity to read the entire document and understood its terms. Having signed the agreement, the plaintiff cannot seek to avoid his obligations by contending that he did not read or understand it. Basic contract law dictates that a party who signs a written instrument is presumed to know its contents and cannot avoid its obligations by contending that he did not read it, that he did not understand it, or that the other party failed to explain it to him. Coleman v. Jim Walter Homes, Inc., 2008-1221, p. 7 (La. 3/17/09), 6 So.3d 179, 183 (citing Tweedel v. Brasseaux, 433 So.2d 133, 137 (La.1983)). To overcome the presumption, the party has the burden of proving with reasonable certainty that he was deceived. Id. The plaintiff is unable to satisfy this burden, because there is no evidence in the record that [*36] the plaintiff made any effort to contact the defendant for an explanation or to discuss the terms of the contract in [Pg 3] any respect.

Next, the arbitration clause at issue substantially mirrors the Aguillard arbitration clause, which this court found to be mutual. The plaintiff has not shown anything in the clause that reserves Sky Zone’s right to litigate disputes related to the agreement that is not equally afforded to the plaintiff. As such, the majority errs in finding the lack of mutuality as to the parties.

Finally, in Aguillard, this court addressed the presumption of arbitrability:

[E]ven when the scope of an arbitration clause is fairly debatable or reasonably in doubt, the court should decide the question of construction in favor of arbitration. The weight of this presumption is heavy and arbitration should not be denied unless it can be said with positive assurance that an arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that could cover the dispute at issue. Therefore, even if some legitimate doubt could be hypothesized, this Court, in conjunction with the Supreme Court, requires resolution of the doubt in favor of arbitration.

Id., 04-2804 at 18, 908 So.2d at 18.

Id., 04-2804 at 18, 908 So.2d at 25. In light of the controlling law indicating [*37] the favorable consideration afforded arbitration agreements, coupled with the plaintiff’s failure to satisfy his burden of proving the contract was adhesionary, the majority erred in invalidating the contract. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent and would affirm the ruling of the court of appeal.


Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

Ronald D. Corwin, et al., Plaintiffs, -against- NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., Defendants.

14-CV-1285 (SN)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

March 1, 2017, Decided

March 1, 2017, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Reconsideration denied by Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53812 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 7, 2017)

Summary judgment granted by Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57254 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 13, 2017)

CORE TERMS: bike, station, wheel, helmet, bicycle, summary judgment, street, cyclist’s, parking, user, roadway, lane, public policy, matter of law, traffic, wear, installation, riding, notice, negligence claims, qualified immunity, affirmative defenses, municipality, contractor, installed, recreational, planning, genuine, rider, safe

COUNSEL: [**1] For Ronald D. Corwin, Beth Blumenthal, Plaintiffs: Martin William Edelman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Edelman & Edelman, P.C., New York, NY; Michael K. O’Donnell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Michael K. O’donnell, Greenwich, CT; Neil R. Finkston, Law Office of Neil R. Finkston, Great Neck, NY.

For NYC Bike Share LLC, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., Defendants, Cross Claimants, Cross Defendants: Peter W. Beadle, Law Offce of Vaccaro & White, LLP, New York, NY; Steve Vaccaro, Law Offices of Vaccaro and White, New York, NY.

For City of New York, Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY; Howard Martin Wagner, Trief and Olk, New York, NY; Judith Feinberg Goodman, Goodman & Jacobs LLP, New York, NY.

For Alta Planning + Design, Inc., Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC, Defendants, Cross Defendants: Kevin Jude O’Neill, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gogick, Byrne & O’Neil, LLP, New York, NY; Katherine Buchanan, The Law Firm of Hall & Hall, LLP, Staten Island, NY.

For MetroExpress Services, Inc., Defendant: Kevin F. Pinter, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nicoletti, Gonson, Spinner & Owen, LLP, New York, NY; Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.

For Sealcoat USA, [**2] Inc., Defendant, Cross Defendant: John P. Cookson, LEAD ATTORNEY, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP (NY), New York, NY; Brian L. Battisti, Morrison Mahoney, LLP(NYC), New York, NY.

For Sealcoat USA Inc., ADR Provider: Mitchell John Baker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Baker, Leshko, Saline & Blosser, LLP, White Plains, NY.

For Metro Express, Inc., Interested Party: Kevin F. Pinter, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nicoletti, Gonson, Spinner & Owen, LLP, New York, NY; Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.

For New York City Department of Transportation, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Kimberly Kristen Brown, Hoey, King,Epstein, Prezioso & Marquez, New York, NY.

For NYC Bike Share LLC, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Steve Vaccaro, Law Offices of Vaccaro and White, New York, NY.

For City of New York, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY.

For Alta Planning Design, Inc., Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC, Cross Claimants, Cross Defendants: Kevin Jude O’Neill, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gogick, Byrne & O’Neil, LLP, New York, NY.

For Beth Blumenthal, Cross Defendant: Martin William Edelman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Edelman & [**3] Edelman, P.C., New York, NY; Michael K. O’Donnell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Michael K. O’donnell, Greenwich, CT.

For City of New York, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY; Judith Feinberg Goodman, Goodman & Jacobs LLP, New York, NY.

For MetroExpress Services, Inc., MetroExpress Services, Inc., Cross Defendant, Cross Claimants: Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.

For Sealcoat USA, Inc., Cross Claimant: John P. Cookson, LEAD ATTORNEY, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP (NY), New York, NY.

JUDGES: SARAH NETBURN, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: SARAH NETBURN

OPINION

[*480] OPINION & ORDER

SARAH NETBURN, United States Magistrate Judge:

On October 25, 2013, Ronald D. Corwin, an annual member of the Citi Bike bicycle sharing program, was riding a Citi Bike in Midtown Manhattan. Upon passing through a Citi Bike station located on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, he collided with a concrete wheel stop and violently hit his head against the cement. Alleging [*481] that the Citi Bike station in question was improperly designed, installed, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and [**4] professional negligence and malpractice, and Beth Blumenthal, Corwin’s wife, brought derivative claims for loss of her husband’s services, society, companionship, and consortium.1

1 As Blumenthal’s claims depend entirely on the viability of Corwin’s causes of actions, the two claims are referred to in shorthand as “Corwin’s” throughout the text of the opinion. Where the Court grants summary judgment or partial summary judgment to defendants on certain of Corwin’s claims, Blumenthal’s claims are dismissed as well. Vega-Santana v. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., 956 F. Supp. 2d 556, 562 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (“Where the primary cause of action is dismissed on summary judgment, the loss of consortium claim must be dismissed as well.”).

On February 27, 2014, Corwin brought claims against three defendants: the City of New York (“City”), who planned, oversaw, and collaborated with the other defendants in implementing the Citi Bike program; NYC Bike Share, LLC (“NYCBS”), the company operating the Citi Bike system, and the New York City Department of Transportation (“DOT”). ECF No. 1, Compl. On December 31, 2014, Corwin amended his complaint to remove the DOT and add three additional defendants: Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. (now named “Motivate, Inc.”), which is NYCBS’s parent company; and Alta Planning + Design (“APD”) and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York (“APDNY”), a design company and its wholly-owned subsidiary who drafted site plans for the Citi Bike system. ECF No. 27, First Am. Compl. After conducting significant discovery, Corwin moved for and was granted leave to amend his complaint to join two additional defendants, Metro Express Services, Inc. (“Metro Express”) and Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Sealcoat”), both contractors who are [**5] alleged to have participated, in violation of the station’s design plan, in the installation of the wheel stop struck by Corwin. ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl.

All of the defendants move separately for summary judgment on a variety of grounds.2 All defendants argue that the condition was open and obvious and that Corwin’s negligence claims generally fail as a matter of law. The City, NYCBS, and APD argue that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims were released by the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”) that he had to sign as a condition of Citi Bike membership, and that they are barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. APD, Metro Express and Sealcoat argue that, as third-party entities in a contractual relationship with Corwin, they owed him no duty of care. APD additionally argues that the Citi Bike station’s deviation from the design is an absolute bar to liability, and that there was no causation between its design and Corwin’s injury. The City also contends that Corwin’s claims are barred due to the doctrine of qualified immunity and its lack of written notice of the condition pursuant to a municipal notice statute.

2 As their liability is exclusively a product of being a parent company of a wholly owned subsidiary, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc./Motivate, Inc. moves for summary judgment together with NYCBS, and APD moves together with APDNY. For the sake of brevity, these motions are referred to as the “NYCBS” and “APD” motions, respectively.

For his [**6] part, Corwin moves for partial summary judgment on two issues. First, he argues that the Release Agreement is unenforceable on numerous statutory, public policy, and contract formation grounds, and that defendants’ affirmative defenses [*482] relying on the Agreement should be dismissed as a matter of law. Second, he contends that the fact that he was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident is irrelevant as a matter of law to issues of assumption of the risk, comparative fault, or failure to mitigate damages, and therefore defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on this argument should be dismissed.

For the following reasons, the cross-motions for summary judgment are GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Corwin’s motion to dismiss defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on the Release Agreement is DENIED as to NYCBS; the Agreement is enforceable as a matter of law as to NYCBS. Corwin’s motion to dismiss the affirmative defenses relating to the Release Agreement is GRANTED as to the City because a contractual waiver of the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain public thoroughfares would be contrary to public policy. Corwin’s motion to dismiss defendants’ affirmative defenses relating [**7] to his non-use of a helmet is GRANTED in part; defendants may not argue that this is relevant to questions of liability to establish comparative negligence or assumption of the risk, but if liability is found, may argue that Corwin failed to mitigate damages. The City’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED; as stated above, the Release Agreement is ineffective to waive Corwin’s claims at to the City, and the City has not demonstrated its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on qualified immunity, notice, or other grounds. NYCBS’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part; because the Court finds that the Release Agreement is enforceable as to NYCBS, Corwin’s common-law negligence claims are barred, but he may still maintain gross negligence claims. APD’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED because APD and APDNY did not owe any duty to Corwin. Accordingly, APD and APDNY are dismissed from this case. Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED because a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to whether they owed Corwin a duty of care under applicable New York law.

BACKGROUND

I. History of the Citi Bike Program

Beginning in 2009, the City of New [**8] York began to study the feasibility of installing a bike share system in and around City streets, located in curbside parking lanes, on sidewalks, and near public spaces and parks. ECF No. 293, City’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“City St.”) ¶ 2. On April 10, 2012, the City and NYCBS entered into an agreement for the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and publicizing of “Citi Bike,” a network of self-service bike share stations with publicly available bicycles. ECF No. 310, Corwin’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“Corwin St.”) ¶ 2. The system became operational in May 2013. City St. ¶ 5; ECF No. 317, NYCBS’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“NYCBS St.”) ¶ 1.

The City-NYCBS contract required NYCBS to design and install on-street bike parking stations “with appropriate protections and markings from adjacent parking and moving traffic. . . . [including] non-permanent bollards and paint markings.” City St. ¶ 31. The contract also noted that all protections and markings were to be preapproved by the DOT’s Division of Traffic. Id.

The design for the Citi Bike stations was modeled in part on the City’s previous experience with “bike corrals,” which were also placed in parking lanes and were designed by the DOT’s Highway Design Unit and [**9] Pedestrian and Bicycle Group. City St. ¶¶ 41-42. These corrals had many elements that would ultimately be integrated [*483] into the Citi Bike stations, such as wheel stops, paint marking and bollards. Id. ¶ 42.

At the time that the NYCBS contract was signed with the City, APD and APDNY were subsidiaries of Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., NYCBS’s parent company. Id. ¶ 48. APD assembled a team of architects, engineers, and designers to collaborate with the City on station design. Id. ¶¶ 49-50. Using a bike corral on Smith and Sackett Street as an exemplar, the APD and the City developed “Station Siting Guidelines” that included the use of unpainted, concrete wheel stops. Id. ¶¶ 51-57. Though the City originally approved the use of rubber wheel stops, it instructed NYCBS to replace them with concrete wheel stops because the rubber stops were not sufficiently durable. Id. ¶ 96. The wheel stops were considered by APD to be necessary to prevent damage to the station equipment by encroaching vehicles. Id. ¶ 58.

The final design for Citi Bike stations situated in parking lanes included white thermoplastic markings and three-foot tall, reflective, flexible delineators on or near the markings. Wheel stops [**10] were to be used in the stations to protect the station equipment. Id. ¶¶ 64-66. These elements were collectively referred to as “street treatment.” Id. ¶ 81. While NYCBS installed the station equipment directly, it contracted the installation of street treatment to Metro Express, allegedly without the City’s awareness. Id. ¶ 83. MetroExpress, in turn, subcontracted this work to another entity, Sealcoat, allegedly without the awareness of either the City or NYCBS. Id. ¶¶ 85-86.

The City considered, but chose not to mandate that Citi Bike riders wear helmets. It also did not provide helmets for Citi Bike riders on demand. Id. ¶ 8. The City came to this conclusion because (a) New York law did not mandate that adult cyclists wear helmets and it did not want to promote different standards for Citi Bike riders and other cyclists as a matter of public policy; (b) it believed, based on studies conducted in other cities, that mandatory helmet laws decreased bicycle ridership in general and bike share system use in particular; (c) certain statistics indicated that mandatory helmet laws actually decreased cyclist safety by reducing the number of cyclists on the road; and (d) research suggested [**11] that helmeted cyclists tended to ride more recklessly than those without helmets. Id. ¶¶ 9-16; Corwin St. ¶ 10. The City also specifically evaluated the feasibility and wisdom of instituting a public helmet distribution system, but ultimately concluded that there were numerous logistical barriers to such a system, such as hygiene, the fact that the structural integrity of helmets would be compromised if they were involved in an accident, and lack of proper fitting and sizing capabilities. City St. ¶¶ 18-22. The City further considered what it viewed as unfavorable experiences with such systems in Seattle, Boston, and Melbourne, Australia. Id. ¶ 25. The City did, however, provide annual Citi Bike members with discounted vouchers for helmets and expanded its helmet giveaway and fitting programs. Id. ¶¶ 27-28.

II. Design and Installation of Citi Bike Station on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue

The station where Ronald Corwin’s accident occurred was located at the intersection of East 56th Street and Madison Avenue. Id. ¶ 98. The City issued a permit to NYCBS for the installation of the station on July 22, 2013, and the station equipment was installed on July 30, 2013. Id. ¶¶ 103-04. [**12] The City approved APD’s design drawing of the station on August 6, 2013, including all street treatment. Id. ¶ 100. The approved design had only one wheel stop at the west end of the station, [*484] no thermoplastic striping within the boxes at the ends of the station, a station width of eight feet, and a total of six delineators. ECF No. 301, Alta Planning and Design Rule 56.1 Statement (“APD St.”) ¶ 30. None of the site plan drawings, including the approved drawing, contained a wheel stop at the east end of the station closest to Madison Avenue.

The street treatment at the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue station was installed on or about October 22, 2013. APD St. ¶ 31. Notwithstanding its absence on the approved plan, a wheel stop was installed at the east end of the station as well, and the station did not conform to the approved plan in several other respects: the station footprint was made wider by the installation of thermoplastic striping more than eight feet in width, additional delineators were added, and cross-hatched striping was installed on either end of the station underneath the wheel stops. Id. ¶ 34. Though this is disputed by the defendants, Corwin argues that the wider footprint [**13] is relevant because, as it provided less clearance between the edge of the station and moving traffic, it would have encouraged a cyclist to use the station itself as a temporary riding lane. ECF No. 335, Decl. of Pl.’s Exp. James E. Green, ¶¶ 56-58. The City denies approving the installation of a second wheel stop at this site, and claims that its records do not show that it had written notice regarding the additional wheel stop. City St. ¶¶ 102, 106, 108.

The entity responsible for installing the wheel stop is contested; Metro Express and Sealcoat contend that an October 18, 2013 email from NYCBS informed them only of the need for repairs to the station, and that after Sealcoat representative Ryan Landeck visited the station on October 22, 2013, he reported that there was nothing to be done at the station in a October 24, 2013 email to Metro Express. ECF No. 368-3, Landeck Depo. at 41, 51; ECF No. 368-4, Landeck Oct. 24, 2013 E-mail. Metro Express further contends that the City had often instructed NYCBS, who in turn had instructed Metro Express to install “Supplemental Street Treatments” not depicted on station plans, and that such supplemental installations included second wheel [**14] stops. ECF No. 368-8, May 17, 2013 Email; ECF No. 335-20, Strasser 06/28/16 Depo. at 48-51. Metro Express alleges that on July 17, 2013, and October 9, 2013, it was specifically ordered by NYCBS to install a second wheel stop not depicted on station plans at three stations around the network. ECF 368-10; 368-11; 368-12; 368-13; 368-14. There is no direct evidence in the record, however, that such a request was ever issued for the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue station.

III. Ronald Corwin’s Citi Bike Membership and Release Agreement

Ronald Corwin signed up online for an annual Citi Bike membership on June 25, 2013. Corwin St. ¶ 15. Corwin does not remember the details of the process, and did not recall clicking on or reading the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement as a condition of membership. Id. ¶ 18. Nevertheless, he did admit in deposition testimony that “I don’t deny that I signed whatever it is I had to sign in order to get my Citi Bike Pass.” NYCBS St. ¶ 21. NYCBS has not, however, produced a version of the Agreement dated contemporaneously to Corwin’s registration, or Corwin’s actual electronic signature. Corwin St. ¶ 22.

While the applicability and enforceability [**15] of the Release Agreement is disputed by the parties, there is no serious dispute as to its content. NYCBS has produced an agreement dated July 25, 2014, and Justin Ginsburgh, former General Manager of [*485] NYCBS and current Vice President of Business Development of its parent company Motivate Inc./Alta Bicycle Share, testified that this agreement was active on the date that Corwin became a member. ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl. ¶¶ 10; ECF No. 371-3, Ginsburgh Supp. Decl. ¶¶ 2-3; ECF 316-1, Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”). Ginsburgh attested that it would be impossible to become a Citi Bike member without first being shown the Release Agreement in a scrollable text box and then clicking a box stating “I certify that I am the Member, I am 18 years old or over, and I have read and agree to the conditions set forth in (sic) User Agreement.” NYCBS St. ¶¶ 17-18; City St. ¶¶ 118-20.

The Release Agreement contains several provisions, which are reproduced below in relevant part:

Section 6. Releases:

In exchange for You being allowed to use any of the Services, Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information, You . . . do hereby fully and forever release [**16] and discharge all Released Persons for all Claims that You have or may have against any Released Person, except for Claims caused by the Released Person’s gross negligence or willful misconduct. Such releases are intended to be general and complete releases of all Claims. The Released Persons may plead such releases as a complete and sufficient defense to any Claim, as intended 3rd beneficiaries of such releases.

“Claims” is defined in the Release Agreement as “any and all claims, injuries, demands, liabilities, disputes, causes of action (including statutory, contract, negligence, or other tort theories), proceedings [or] damages that arise from or relate to (a) any of the Services, including any of the Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information . . . .” “Released Persons” is defined in the Agreement, as relevant, as including: “(i) NYCBS and all of its owners, managers, affiliates, employees, agents, representatives, successors, and assigns [and] (ii) the City of New York.”

Section 7. Disclaimers:

You do hereby acknowledge and agree that your use of any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated [sic] information, is at your sole risk. . . . [**17] All of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or related information are provided “as is” and “as available” (and you rely on them solely at your own risk). . . . You assume full responsibility and risk of loss for using any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated [sic] information, and NYCBS and all other released persons are not liable for any claim attributable to any of the foregoing.

Section 8. Limited Liability:

You do hereby acknowledge and agree that, except as may otherwise be limited by New York General Obligation Law Section 5-326, NYCBS and all other released persons are not responsible or liable for any claim, including those that arise out of or relate to (A) any risk, danger or hazard described in the Agreement, (B) Your use of or inability to use, any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated (sic) information, (C) your breach of this agreement or your violation of any law, (D) any negligence, misconduct, or other action or inaction by you, (E) your failure to wear a bicycles helmet while using Citi Bike bicycle, or (F) any negligence, misconduct, or other action or inaction of any third party. You do hereby waive all claims with respect to any [**18] [*486] of the foregoing, including those based in contract, tort (including negligence), statutory, or other grounds, even if NYCBS or any of the other released persons has been advised of the possibility of such claims. The total liability of NYCBS and all other released persons for all claims, including those based in contract, tort (including negligence), statutory, or other grounds, is limited to the sum of $100.

Section 9. Assumption of Risk by Member:

Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death to Member or others, as well as damage to property, and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.

IV. Ronald Corwin’s Ride and Accident

At 10:57 a.m. on October 25, 2013, Ronald Corwin picked up a Citi Bike at a station located on the southeastern corner of 6th Avenue and East 56th Street. From there, he travelled in the direction of Grand Central Station. Corwin St. ¶ 25; NYCBS St. ¶ 32. He was not wearing a helmet. Corwin St. ¶ 26; City St. ¶ 137. Corwin proceeded eastbound in the [**19] traffic lane on East 56th Street, with vehicular traffic proceeding to his left. NYCBS St. ¶ 34. Because Corwin claimed to have been “under pressure” from the vehicular traffic, he turned into the Citi Bike station on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue. Id. ¶ 35. The station area was indicated by a perimeter of 4 inch white thermoplastic stripes on the asphalt roadway, and three foot tall white flexible delineators with gray reflective tape spaced approximately every 10 feet along the thermoplastic striping. Id. ¶ 36. At either end of the station, unpainted concrete wheel stops measuring 5 feet, 10.5 inches long by five inches high, were installed on the roadway. Id. ¶ 40. These wheel stops were framed by a box of white thermoplastic striping with diagonal cross-hatching, staked out by three-foot tall flexible delineators. Id. ¶ 41. While he was travelling within the station “envelope,” the front wheel of Corwin’s Citi Bike hit the concrete wheel stop installed near the crosswalk at the Madison Avenue end of the station, causing him to crash onto the pavement and sustain serious injury. Corwin St. ¶ 26.

ANALYSIS

I. Standard of Review

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the court “shall grant summary judgment if [**20] the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” See also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The moving party must show that “under the governing law, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of establishing that there are no material facts in dispute and must provide “affirmative evidence” from which a factfinder could return a verdict in its favor. Id. at 257. Then “the burden shifts to the nonmovant to point to record evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact.” Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 273 (2d Cir. 2006). “[T]he trial court’s task at the summary judgment motion stage of the litigation is carefully limited to discerning whether there are any genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to [*487] deciding them. Its duty, in short, is confined at this point to issue-finding; it does not extend to issue-resolution.” Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., LP, 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994).

In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). Summary judgment is improper if “there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference [**21] could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. . . .” Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 37 (2d Cir. 1994). To create a disputed fact sufficient to deny summary judgment, the non-moving party must produce evidence in the record and “may not rely simply on conclusory statements or on contentions that the affidavits supporting the motion are not credible. . . .” Ying Jing Gan v. City of New York, 996 F.2d 522, 532 (2d Cir. 1993). Instead, the response “must set forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

II. Waiver and Release

It is undisputed that in order to become a member of Citi Bike, Corwin would have been required to assent to a release of claims as set forth in the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”). This Agreement covered “any and all claims, injuries, demands, liabilities, causes of action (including statutory, contract, negligence, or other tort theories) . . . that arise from or relate to (a) any of the Services, including any of the Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information or (b) Your use of any of the foregoing.” It required Corwin to “discharge all Released Persons for all Claims that You have or may have against any Released Person, except [**22] for Claims caused by the Released Person’s gross negligence or willful misconduct.” ECF 316-1, Release Agreement. As relevant here, the Agreement expressly included NYCBS and the City of New York, as well as all of NYCBS’s “owners, managers, affiliates, employees, agents, representatives, successors, and assigns” within the definition of “Released Persons.” Id.

Corwin moves for partial summary judgment to strike the City and NYCBS’s affirmative defenses based on the Release Agreement, arguing that the Agreement is ambiguous, contrary to law, and/or void as a matter of public policy. For their part, the City and NYCBS move for summary judgment arguing that Corwin’s negligence claims against them are waived by the release, with the exception of those sounding in gross negligence. Though it is not expressly named in the release, APD also argues that the claims against it are released because of its relationship to NYCBS.

As a threshold issue, the Court considers if there is a genuine dispute as to whether Corwin signed a release and, if so, its scope. Corwin argues that because defendants have failed to produce an actual copy of the Release Agreement with his electronic signature, or a [**23] copy of the Agreement as it existed when he became an annual member, defendants cannot demonstrate that he signed the waiver at all. Defendants have produced a declaration from Justin Ginsburgh, former General Manager of NYCBS and current Vice President of Business Development of its parent company Motivate Inc./Alta Bicycle Share, that describes the membership process and states that Corwin would have [*488] had to agree to the terms of the Agreement in order to become a member. ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl., ¶¶ 7-9. Ginsburgh also declares that the Release Agreement appended to his declaration, dated July 15, 2014, was a “true and complete copy of the User Agreement that was in effect in May 2013 when Mr. Corwin became a Citi Bike member.”3 Id. at ¶ 10; ECF No. 371-3, Ginsburgh Supp. Decl., ¶¶ 2-3 (“The User Agreement . . . was fully in effect when plaintiff Ronald Corwin obtained his Citi Bike membership on June 25, 2013.”). Ginsburgh had previously noted in deposition testimony, however, that he was no longer in his General Manager position as of April 1, 2014, and therefore “[didn’t] know if any changes occurred [to the membership signup] after that.” ECF No. 360-6, Justin Ginsburgh Depo. [**24] at 463. Corwin stated in deposition testimony that he completed the membership application and “signed whatever it is [he] had to sign in order to get [his] Citi Bike pass,” but did not remember the contents of the Agreement or whether he had read it. ECF No. 315-4, Ronald Corwin 9/9/2015 Depo. at 195.

3 The first Ginsburgh Declaration inaccurately references Corwin becoming a Citi Bike member in May 2013; in fact, Corwin became a Citi Bike member on June 25, 2013.

Corwin has failed to “set forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial,” Wright, 554 F.3d at 266, as to the existence and scope of the Agreement. Defendants have produced declaration testimony from Justin Ginsburgh, and Corwin has challenged the credibility of those statements. He has not, however, despite extensive discovery, introduced any evidence that there was an agreement with different terms in effect when Corwin became a Citi Bike member, or even any evidence that raises doubt as to whether the Agreement provided by defendants was in effect. Nor has Corwin provided any evidence that he was somehow able to sign up for his Citi Bike membership without following the process described by Ginsburgh, which required him to manifest assent to the Release Agreement. Therefore, Corwin has failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact regarding the existence of a contract between [**25] the parties. Accordingly, whether or not Corwin’s claims are barred by the Release Agreement shall depend solely on the effectiveness of Corwin’s assent under the circumstances, and the enforceability of the waiver provisions as to the various defendants.

A. Unconscionability Analysis in Online “Clickwrap” Contracts

The first question for the Court’s consideration is whether, absent any overarching questions of statutory or common law public policy, the contract is enforceable on its own terms or whether, as Corwin argues, it is an “unconscionable and unenforceable contract of adhesion.” A contract or clause is unconscionable when it was “both procedurally and substantively unconscionable when made–i.e., some showing of an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party.” Gillman v. Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A., 73 N.Y.2d 1, 10, 534 N.E.2d 824, 537 N.Y.S.2d 787 (1988) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Desiderio v. Nat’l Ass’n of Sec. Dealers, Inc., 191 F.3d 198, 207 (2d Cir. 1999).

The parties agree that the contract in question is a “clickwrap” agreement. Such an agreement requires the user to take an affirmative action, usually, the clicking of a box that states that he or she has read and agrees to the terms of [*489] service. “[U]nder a clickwrap arrangement, [**26] potential licensees are presented with the proposed license terms and forced to expressly and unambiguously manifest either assent or rejection prior to being given access to the product.” Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 429 (2d Cir. 2004). Clickwrap agreements are “more readily enforceable [than online contracts that do not require the user to take an affirmative action], since they ‘permit courts to infer that the user was at least on inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement, and has outwardly manifested consent by clicking a box.'” Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15-CV-9796 (JSR), 199 F. Supp. 3d 752, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 29, 2016) (citing Cullinane v. Uber Techs., Inc., No. 14-CV-14750 (DPW), 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89540, 2016 WL 3751652, at *6 (D. Mass. July 11, 2016)). While the Court of Appeals has not categorically ruled on the issue, it has strongly implied that such contracts are presumptively enforceable. See, e.g., Starkey v. G Adventures, Inc., 796 F.3d 193, 197 (2d Cir. 2015) (noting that case would have been “simpler to resolve had [defendant] used a ‘clickwrap’ mechanism to provide reasonable notice and to obtain [plaintiff’s] assent”). Accordingly, most lower courts have enforced such contracts, absent extraordinary circumstances. See Berkson v. Gogo LLC, 97 F. Supp. 3d 359, 397 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (collecting cases); Centrifugal Force, Inc. v. Softnet Commc’n, Inc., No. 08-CV-5463 (CM), 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20536, 2011 WL 744732, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2011) (“In New York, clickwrap agreements are valid and enforceable contracts.”).

Nevertheless, a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability [**27] of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided “reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms.” Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 32 (2d Cir. 2002) (Sotomayor, J.). In many cases, this becomes a fact-intensive inquiry because “electronic agreements fall along a spectrum in the degree to which they provide notice, and it is difficult to draw bright-line rules because each user interface differs from others in distinctive ways.” Meyer, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *8.

In Berkson, Judge Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, surveying cases from federal courts nationwide, provided a useful set of parameters to guide this inquiry. First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement. Berkson, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 401 (citing Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1177 (9th Cir. 2014)). Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through hyperlink. Id. (citing Ticketmaster Corp. v. Tickets.Com, Inc., No. 99-CV-7654 (HLH), 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6483, 2003 WL 21406289, at *2 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 7, 2003)). Conversely, terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage” or “tucked away in obscure corners.” Id. at 401-02 (collecting cases refusing to enforce such agreements). Special attention [**28] should be paid to whether the site design brought the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable. Id. at 402; see also Meyer, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *10 (“When contractual terms as significant as . . . the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink . . . with text [*490] about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Broad exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence would certainly qualify as material terms that alter a contracting party’s commonly-understood default rights.

In this case, NYCBS represents that “before the prospective member can proceed to pay for the membership, each person is shown the . . . ‘User Agreement.’ The User Agreement is displayed on the page in its own scrollable text box, which may also be opened in a new window for ease [**29] of viewing and printing.” ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl., at ¶ 7. The “continue” button allowing Corwin to provide his payment information would not activate until Corwin clicked on a statement reading “I certify that I am the Member, I am 18 years old or over, and I have read and agree to the conditions set forth in [sic] User Agreement.” Id. at ¶¶ 8-9; Release Agreement, ECF No. 316-1 at 56. The Release Agreement itself, roughly 10 pages in length, contained a bold-faced and underlined section in larger font titled “Releases; Disclaimers; Limited Liability; Assumption of the Risk.” The text of the sections in question are in normal-sized font. Though Corwin stated that he had no specific recollection of reading and signing the Release Agreement, he did admit “I don’t deny that I signed whatever it is I had to sign in order to get my Citi Bike pass.” ECF No. 315-4, Ronald Corwin 9/9/2015 Depo. at 195.

Applying the considerations in Berkson, the Release Agreement is enforceable. The full scrollable text of the agreement was available on the same page a user must utilize to register, requiring no clicking of hyperlinks, and the user cannot continue to input his payment information until [**30] he signals assent to the agreement by taking the affirmative step of clicking a box. While it is possible to imagine clearer signaling of the importance of the waiver provisions to an unwary or unsophisticated consumer, the terms are not hidden or buried in an obscure part of the website, but rather are in plain view. Accordingly, the Release Agreement is not unconscionable, and Corwin is not entitled to strike the City and NYCBS’s affirmative defenses on this basis.

B. Ambiguity

To be enforceable, an exculpatory agreement must be stated in clear, coherent, unambiguous language and expressly release a defendant from ordinary claims. See, e.g., Spancake v. Aggressor Fleet Ltd., No. 91-CV-5628 (DLC), 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7319, 1995 WL 322148, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. May 26, 1995). Corwin argues that the waiver is unenforceable due to ambiguity, finding a conflict between Section 8 (“Limited Liability”), which purports to release defendants from claims arising from riders’ “failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using a Citi Bike bicycle,” and Section 5, which does not list failing to wear a helmet as one of 11 “Prohibited Acts.” ECF 316-1, Release Agreement.

There is plainly no contradiction between Section 5 and Section 8. Section 5 lists actions, such as defacing a Citi Bike bicycle, transferring a bicycle to a non-member, or using a cellphone while riding that [**31] could presumably lead to contractual consequences for the member. Not wearing a helmet is not prohibited, which is also consistent with New York law allowing adult cyclists to ride without a helmet. See infra Part III.

Section 8 instead provides a non-exhaustive list of circumstances for which the [*491] contract seeks to limit liability. On its face, the fact that this list is not identical to that in Section 5 presents no contradiction, as they are presented for entirely different purposes.4 Moreover, the examples in Section 8 are meant only to illustrate some of the circumstances under which liability is to be limited; the section refers to limited liability for “any claim, including those that arise out of or relate to . . . your failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using Citi Bike bicycle.” Id. (emphasis added).

4 On wholly separate grounds, in Part III of its opinion, the Court grants Corwin summary judgment on Defendants’ affirmative defenses that Corwin’s failure to wear a bicycle helmet relieves them of liability because as a matter of New York law, the failure to wear a helmet goes only to the question of mitigation of damages. This does not, however, affect the clear and unambiguous nature of the waiver provisions.

As such, the Release Agreement is not void due to ambiguity.

C. Unenforceability on Public Policy Grounds

New York law “frowns upon contracts intended to exculpate a party from the consequences of his own negligence and though, with certain exceptions, they are enforceable, such agreements are subject to close judicial scrutiny.” Gross v. Sweet, 49 N.Y.2d 102, 106, 400 N.E.2d 306, 424 N.Y.S.2d 365 (1979). Therefore, an exculpatory contract must express “in unequivocal terms the [**32] intention of the parties to relieve a defendant of liability for the defendant’s negligence.” Lago v. Krollage, 78 N.Y.2d 95, 100, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 N.Y.S.2d 689 (1991); Roane v. Greenwich Swim Comm., 330 F. Supp. 2d 306, 321 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (finding that appearance of the actual word “negligence” was significant in determining whether exculpatory contract was to be enforced). But “even an agreement that clearly and unambiguously attempts to exempt a party only from liability for ordinary negligence will not be enforced . . . if it is found to violate public policy . . . .” Ash v. New York Univ. Dental Ctr., 164 A.D.2d 366, 369, 564 N.Y.S.2d 308 (1st Dep’t 1990).

Public policy “is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interests.” Lubov v. Horing & Welikson, P.C., 72 A.D.3d 752, 753, 898 N.Y.S.2d 244 (2d Dep’t 2010) (citation omitted); see also Lewis v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Civil Serv., 60 A.D.3d 216, 222, 872 N.Y.S.2d 578 (3d Dep’t 2009) (defining New York public policy as “the law of the [s]tate, whether found in the Constitution, the statutes or judicial records”) (citation omitted). Parties may, however, “agree to give up statutory or constitutional rights in a contract, as long as public policy is not violated.” J. D’Addario & Co., Inc. v. Embassy Indus., Inc., 20 N.Y.3d 113, 119, 980 N.E.2d 940, 957 N.Y.S.2d 275 (2012).

Corwin argues that the Release Agreement violates three sources of public policy–New York City Administrative Code § 19-110, which provides that municipal permit holders may be held liable for their own negligence, New York General Obligations Law § 5-326, which invalidates exculpatory clauses in agreements with operators of recreational facilities, and [**33] the City’s non-delegable common-law duty to maintain the public streets.

i. New York City Administrative Code § 19-110

New York City Administrative Code (“NYCAC”) § 19-110 reads:

Liability for damage. In all cases where any person shall engage in any activity for which a permit is required pursuant to [the subchapter concerning streets [*492] and sidewalks], such person shall be liable for any damage which may be occasioned to persons, animals, or property by reason of negligence in any manner connected with the work.

Corwin argues that this statute represents a “public policy” intended to provide a “statutory remedy” against all persons who negligently perform work subject to the issuance of a permit. He notes that there was no explicit reference to waiving any rights or remedies under NYCAC § 19-110 in the Release Agreement, but even if there were, such a waiver would be unenforceable because of an alleged public policy to protect the public and ensure a remedy against any person acting under a permit to individuals injured by their negligence.

Case law regarding § 19-110 (and its predecessor provision, § 19-107) is sparse, and no court has held that § 19-110 provides a statutory right at all–much less a non-waivable statutory right elevated to [**34] the status of public policy. Instead, the available case law deals exclusively with whether the statute can be invoked as a basis for the City to seek indemnification, as opposed to contribution, from a negligent municipal contractor. See City of New York v. Consol. Edison Co., 198 A.D.2d 31, 31-32, 603 N.Y.S.2d 47 (1st Dep’t 1993) (finding that statute did not provide a basis for indemnification, but rather only that a contractor was responsible for its own negligence); Petrucci v. City of New York, 167 A.D.2d 29, 34, 569 N.Y.S.2d 624 (1st Dep’t 1991) (concluding that statute did not provide a basis for indemnification of the City, but only an “intent to render the contractor responsible for those damages actually caused to injured third parties or property by its own negligence or carelessness”); Libardi v. City of New York, 201 A.D.2d 539, 540-41, 607 N.Y.S.2d 717 (2d Dep’t 1994) (same).

This limited case law appears to do no more than clarify, in line with common-law negligence principles, that the City may seek contribution for damages to third parties occasioned by a negligent contractor or property owner conducting work pursuant to a municipal permit. It is plainly insufficient to constitute an overarching public policy guaranteeing Corwin the right to sue any contractor notwithstanding a contractual waiver. Indeed, Corwin has cited no case in which the statute was interpreted to provide a plaintiff a private right of action or a “statutory [**35] remedy” differing in any way from a common-law negligence claim. Accordingly, NYCAC § 19-110 cannot serve as a basis for invalidating the Release Agreement.

ii. New York General Obligations Law § 5-326

New York has a statutory restriction that invalidates exculpatory clauses or agreements between users and owners and operators of recreational facilities. N.Y. General Obligations Law (“GOL”) § 5-326 provides:

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be [*493] deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

The Release Agreement explicitly refers to this statute, noting that Released Persons are not “responsible or liable . . . except as may [**36] otherwise be limited by New York General Obligations Law 5-326.” ECF No. 316-1.

In order for GOL § 5-326 to apply, the plain text of the statute indicates that the agreement in question must (1) be made between a user and an owner or operator of a “place of amusement or recreation” or “similar establishment,” and (2) a fee or other compensation must be paid for “use” of a “facility” covered by the statute. Courts that have considered situations where equipment was rented and taken out of the control of the facility owner or operator have additionally considered whether the owner or operator exercised a substantial level of control over the environment in which the recreational activity takes place. See, e.g., Dumez v. Harbor Jet Ski, Inc., 117 Misc. 2d 249, 250, 458 N.Y.S.2d 119 (Sup. Ct. Niagara Cty. 1981).

Corwin argues that the Citi Bike program was primarily, or at the very least, substantially, a “recreational” program, and that the defendants’ business plan presupposed a significant number of daily and recreational users. He cites to a state court proceeding in which a neighborhood association challenged the installation of a Citi Bike station in a public park on the grounds that it was purely a commuter program. There, the City argued and the court held that the program fulfilled a valid recreational purpose. Friends of Petrosino Square v. Sadik-Khan, 42 Misc. 3d 226, 977 N.Y.S.2d 580 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 2013), aff’d, 126 A.D.3d 470, 5 N.Y.S.3d 397 (1st Dep’t 2015). Therefore, [**37] according to Corwin, because the Citi Bike rental station where the accident occurred was a “place of recreation,” and he paid a fee to access the facility in the form of his annual membership, GOL § 5-326 operates to invalidate the exculpatory clause in the contract.5

5 Corwin also argues that the express language in the Release Agreement referencing GOL § 5-326 operates as an admission that negligence claims stemming from Citi Bike are not waivable and “is compelling proof of defendants’ recognition that [the] waiver is void.” ECF No. 361, Pl.’s Reply Mem. at 8. This is incorrect. Rather, the reference to GOL § 5-326 is plainly to ensure that the waiver provisions are not overbroad, putting users on notice that any such claims, were they to exist, would not be waived. It is not an admission that such claims actually could exist, or that in this case they do exist.

While the parties may dispute whether Corwin’s fateful Citi Bike ride was “recreational” in character, it is clear that the applicability of GOL § 5-326 cannot possibly turn on whether the given individual was using the bicycle recreationally or for commuting purposes. Defendants, moreover, argue that the statute does not apply because the membership fee does not entitle the user access or use of any physical facility; the fee is solely for the rental of a bike, while any individual is free to traverse the Citi Bike stations or New York City streets.

Several New York courts have held that GOL § 5-326 does not apply to accidents occurring on publicly accessible roadways, trails, or fields. See Deutsch v. Woodridge Segway, LLC, 117 A.D.3d 776, 777, 985 N.Y.S.2d 716 (2d Dep’t 2014) (statute not applied to plaintiff who rented a Segway vehicle and was taken on defendant-guided tour of muddy public trail “because the fee she paid to the defendant was for the rental of the Segway vehicle, and was not an admission [**38] fee for the use of the public trail over which the tour was conducted”); [*494] Brookner v. N.Y. Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 A.D.3d 841, 842, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348 (2d Dep’t 2008) (statute not applied to marathon runner because entry fee “was for his participation in the marathon, and was not an admission fee allowing him to use the City-owned public roadway over which the marathon was run” and “public roadway in Brooklyn where the plaintiff alleges he was injured is not a ‘place of amusement or recreation'”); Tedesco v. Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Auth., 250 A.D.2d 758, 758, 673 N.Y.S.2d 181 (2d Dep’t 1998) (statute not applied to cyclist on paid bike tour “since the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, where the plaintiff . . . was injured, is not a ‘place of amusement or recreation'”); Stuhlweissenburg v. Town of Orangetown, 223 A.D.2d 633, 634, 636 N.Y.S.2d 853 (2d Dep’t 1996) (statute not applied to accident occurring in softball game where no fee was paid to access field).

On the other hand, other courts have applied GOL § 5-326 to certain accidents on publicly accessible roadways, trails, or fields. See Williams v. City of Albany, 271 A.D.2d 855, 856-57, 706 N.Y.S.2d 240 (3d Dep’t 2000) (declining to follow Stuhlweissenburg and invalidating waiver for accident occurring in publicly accessible field for plaintiff playing in privately-operated flag football league); Filson v. Cold River Trail Rides, Inc., 242 A.D.2d 775, 777, 661 N.Y.S.2d 841 (3d Dep’t 1997) (invalidating waiver in horseback-riding accident guided by defendant but occurring on publicly accessible parkland); Wright v. Freeport Hudson Anglers, Inc., 2009 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4712 (Sup Ct. Nassau Cnty. Apr. 8, 2009) (invalidating waiver for sea accident occurring in fishing tournament).

In seeking to reconcile [**39] the case law, Defendants point out that every court to consider the applicability of GOL § 5-326 to an accident occurring on a public, paved, urban street has found the statute to be inapplicable. Corwin, for his part, argues that these cases are inapposite because the bike station was not part of a public road at all, but rather a separate “recreational facility” that happened to be located on a public road.6

6 If true, this, of course, would contradict Corwin’s argument that the Release Agreement is unenforceable as to the City because it purports to waive the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain its roads.

Considering the case law and the legislative intent animating the statute, the Court finds as a matter of law that a Citi Bike station is not a “facility” for the purposes of § 5-326. The stations are plainly more properly characterized as storage facilities for bicycles rather than facilities for recreation in and of themselves. Even if riders incidentally enter or pass through the stations on their bicycles, or if the design of the particular bike station that was the site of the accident encouraged riders to pass through it, this does not turn them into “places of amusement or recreation.” Assuming without deciding that Citi Bike is properly characterized as a primarily recreational program, the intended sites for that recreational use are the City’s roadways and bike lanes–the very types of [**40] paved public thoroughfares that courts have held are not “places of amusement or recreation.” See, e.g., Brookner, 51 A.D.3d at 842. Therefore, the station can only be defined in two ways: either it is part of the public road on which riders are meant to engage in recreational activity, or it is a storage facility that is not part of the roadway. Either way, it is not a “place of amusement or recreation” or “similar establishment,” as required to trigger the statute. Accordingly, GOL § 5-326 cannot serve as a basis for invalidating the Release Agreement.

iii. City’s Common Law Duty to Maintain the Roads

New York courts have long held “that a municipality owe[s] to the public the absolute [*495] duty of keeping its streets in a reasonably safe condition.” Friedman v. State, 67 N.Y.2d 271, 283, 493 N.E.2d 893, 502 N.Y.S.2d 669 (1986) (quotations omitted); see also Wittorf v. City of New York., 23 N.Y.3d 473, 480, 991 N.Y.S.2d 578, 15 N.E.3d 333 (2014) (“[A] municipality has a duty to maintain its roads and highways in a reasonably safe condition and liability will flow for injuries resulting from a breach of that duty.”). As this duty has been characterized as “absolute” and “non-delegable” (though subject to the doctrine of qualified immunity, see infra Part IV), Corwin argues that the City’s duty applies to the bike station and wheel stop at issue and cannot be released by means of a private contract. The City [**41] contends that while it does indeed have a duty to maintain public roadways, a contractual waiver of this duty is permissible and would not offend any overarching public policy.

Before considering whether the City’s duty to maintain public roadways may be released by contract to a voluntary participant in a public transportation program such as Citi Bike, the Court must first determine whether the Citi Bike station where Corwin’s accident occurred properly falls within the scope of that duty. Indeed, defendants argue repeatedly that cyclists are not intended to use bike station areas as a travel lane, and that those facilities are intended only for the storage, retrieval, and return of bicycles. They contend that the presence of the concrete wheel stops and surrounding cross-hatching, white thermoplastic striping, and flexible delineators plainly distinguished the bike station from the adjoining roadway, and should have indicated to a cyclist that it was an area in which cycling was not permitted.

In determining the scope of a municipality’s duty, New York courts have generally considered whether the municipality affirmatively undertook to provide an improved area adjacent to the road, [**42] such as a shoulder. If so, it has generally been held to be responsible for its maintenance. See Bottalico v. State, 59 N.Y.2d 302, 305, 451 N.E.2d 454, 464 N.Y.S.2d 707 (1983) (finding highway shoulder to be within scope of duty because it was “both foreseeable and contemplated that, once provided, an improved shoulder at times will be driven upon”). The touchstone of this analysis is foreseeability. It does not necessarily depend on the reasonableness of a plaintiff’s conduct. A municipality is required to “maintain the shoulder in a reasonably safe condition for foreseeable uses, including its use resulting from a driver’s negligence.” Id. at 304; see also Stiuso v. City of New York, 87 N.Y.2d 889, 891, 663 N.E.2d 321, 639 N.Y.S.2d 1009 (1995) (same); Saulpaugh v. State, 132 A.D.2d 781, 781-82, 517 N.Y.S.2d 328 (4th Dep’t 1987) (same).

On the other hand, no duty exists where a paved roadway “is more than adequate for safe public passage and travel beyond those limits is neither contemplated nor foreseeable.” Tomassi v. Town of Union, 46 N.Y.2d 91, 97, 385 N.E.2d 581, 412 N.Y.S.2d 842 (1978) (noting that “utility poles, drainage ditches, culverts, trees and shrubbery are often in close proximity to the traveled right of way . . . [b]ut for the careful driver, the placement of these items near the pavement creates no unreasonable danger”). The courts have repeatedly denied recovery for roadway users whose injury stemmed from the lack of maintenance of areas near the roadway whose use was unforeseeable even in emergencies. [**43] See, e.g., Preston v. State, 6 A.D.3d 835, 836, 775 N.Y.S.2d 115 (3d Dep’t 2004) (no recovery for driver hitting tree seven feet from the edge of the travel line, where “nothing in the record indicat[ed] [*496] that defendant affirmatively took any action to create or maintain the area”); Green v. Cty. of Allegany, 300 A.D.2d 1077, 1077, 752 N.Y.S.2d 487 (4th Dep’t 2002) (no recovery for failure to maintain drainage ditch and culvert headwall); Muller v. State, 240 A.D.2d 881, 882, 658 N.Y.S.2d 727 (3d Dep’t 1997) (no recovery for failure to maintain drainage ditch headwall beyond the traversable shoulder where the “emergency use of such additional area was neither contemplated nor foreseeable”).

The record does not demonstrate that the City actively contemplated that cyclists would be passing through Citi Bike stations; indeed, precisely the alleged failure to contemplate this possibility forms the basis for Corwin’s argument that the City is not entitled to qualified immunity on this issue. The Court does find, however, that the possibility of cyclists passing through Citi Bike stations located in on-street parking lanes was foreseeable. At times, defendants’ representatives have seemed to admit that riding in the parking lane was, if not expressly permitted, at least a common practice of cyclists. ECF No. 335-24, Jon Orcutt 09/03/15 Depo. at 396-97. (“There are plenty of places with a wide parking lane . . . where [**44] a wide parking lane is kind of implemented as a stealth bike lane.”) This conclusion is buttressed by a brief traffic study conducted by Corwin’s expert, James M. Green. ECF No. 335, Green Decl. ¶¶ 35, 57 (finding that cyclists regularly circulated through the station at issue and arguing that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design,” which was wider and jutted further out into the traffic lane). But even absent the expert’s study, logic dictates that, just as an automobile is not generally permitted to drive on an improved shoulder but may swerve into it (negligently or not) in a situation where the circumstances so require, it is foreseeable that a cyclist such as Corwin may (negligently or not) enter into the Citi Bike station seeking safety when feeling pressured by tight traffic.

This is, perhaps, an imperfect analogy: whereas the express and primary purpose of an improved highway shoulder is to provide a safe outlet for motorists in emergency situations, this is not so for Citi Bike stations, whose primary purpose is the storage, retrieval, and return of bicycles. Nevertheless, the applicable case law does not require that the primary purpose of the improved [**45] space abutting the road be for such emergency uses; as stated above, foreseeability is sufficient to trigger the municipality’s duty. Nor have courts drawn distinctions between motorists and other roadway users; instead, they have found that cyclists may bring claims predicated on state or municipal government’s failure to maintain roadways. See, e.g., Cotty v. Town of Southampton, 64 A.D.3d 251, 255, 880 N.Y.S.2d 656 (2d Dep’t 2009) (primary assumption of risk doctrine “not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition . . . and such a result does not become justifiable merely because the roadway happens to be in use by a person operating a bicycle”); Caraballo v. City of Yonkers, 54 A.D.3d 796, 796-97, 865 N.Y.S.2d 229 (2d Dep’t 2008) (“[T[he infant plaintiff cannot be said, as a matter of law, to have assumed the risk of being injured by a defective condition of a pothole on a public street, merely because he was participating in the activity of recreational noncompetitive bicycling, and using the bicycle as a means of transportation.” (citations omitted)).

Finally, there can be no question that the duty to maintain the roads applies not only to the physical condition of the road itself, but also to the placement of [*497] obstacles or hazards that make use of the road unsafe. Annino v. City of Utica, 276 N.Y. 192, 196-97, 11 N.E.2d 726 (1937) (municipality found liable [**46] for a tripod dangerously placed over a manhole cover so as to constitute a dangerous obstruction); Whitney v. Town of Ticonderoga, 127 N.Y. 40, 44, 27 N.E. 403 (1891) (“[T]he impairment of a highway for public use may be no less such by an obstruction placed in it than by a physical disturbance or injury to the bed of the roadway.”).

Accordingly, the Court finds that the Citi Bike station, including all of its on-street equipment located in the parking lane, falls within the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain the public roads. Therefore, the Court must now decide whether the City can waive this duty by contract as a condition of participating in the Citi Bike public transportation program.

“[E]ven an agreement that clearly and unambiguously attempts to exempt a party only from liability for ordinary negligence will not be enforced by the courts . . . if it is found to violate public policy either by way of conflicting with an overriding public interest or because it constitutes an abuse of a special relationship between the parties, or both.” Ash, 164 A.D.2d at 369. Indeed, when choosing to invalidate such clauses, courts have often analyzed the “public interest” and “special relationship” prongs together. See id. at 369-71 (invalidating exculpatory clause between dental clinic and patient both [**47] because of the public interest in protecting the welfare of its citizens and ensuring medical quality and the uniqueness of the physician-patient relationship); Conklin v. Canadian-Colonial Airways, Inc., 266 N.Y. 244, 247-48, 194 N.E. 692 (1935) (invalidating clause between common carrier and passenger because allowing public service corporations to disclaim all liability for negligence by contract is contrary to public interest, and passengers are not typically given a choice in contracting); Johnston v. Fargo, 184 N.Y. 379, 384-85, 77 N.E. 388 (1906) (invalidating exculpatory clause between employer and employees both because of the state interest in the “maintenance of proper and reasonable safeguards to human life and limb” and the unequal bargaining power between the parties). On the other hand, courts have readily enforced exculpatory clauses in arm’s length commercial transactions between two private parties, see, e.g., Florence v. Merchants Cent. Alarm Co., Inc., 51 N.Y.2d 793, 412 N.E.2d 1317, 433 N.Y.S.2d 91 (1980), when not expressly prohibited by statute.

No case has considered the specific question of whether a municipality’s duty to keep its streets in a reasonably safe condition for travel can be waived by contract. For almost two centuries, however, New York state courts have spoken of an “absolute” duty that could not be delegated to third parties. See Annino, 276 N.Y. at 196 (1937) (“The city owed to the public the absolute duty of [**48] keeping its streets in a reasonably safe condition for travel and was bound to exercise reasonable care to accomplish that end.”) (emphasis added) (citations omitted); Storrs v. City of Utica, 17 N.Y. 104, 108-09 (1858) (finding that municipal corporations “owe[] to the public the duty of keeping its streets in a safe condition for travel” and “although the work may be let out by contract, the corporation still remains charged with the care and control of the street in which the improvement is carried on . . . [and cannot] either avoid indictment in behalf of the public or its liability to individuals who are injured.”). The only significant exception to this nondelegable duty is that “it is intended to protect the traveling public”–therefore, [*498] the duty has been held not to extend to injured employees of independent contractors working on road construction projects. Lopes v. Rostad, 45 N.Y.2d 617, 624-25, 384 N.E.2d 673, 412 N.Y.S.2d 127 (1978). In reaching this conclusion, the Lopes court stated that, because the government is responsible for providing the public with roads and highways for travel:

[w]ith this responsibility comes the further obligation to assure, insofar as is reasonably possible, that the thoroughfares of travel will be constructed and maintained in a safe condition. A governmental body would hardly [**49] have fulfilled its responsibility if the roadways it provided for public use were a source of public danger. It is for this reason that “[g]overnments have ever been most zealous to afford special protection to the users of streets, highways and other means of transportation” (1936 Report of NY, Law Rev Comm, p 955).

Id. at 625.

Corwin, a cyclist passing through a bike station located in a parking lane on a public street, falls within the category of those deemed protected by a municipality’s duty to maintain its roadways. While it is certainly understandable that the City would seek to limit its exposure to liability stemming from those using the Citi Bike program, its desire to see this salutary transportation initiative succeed is not sufficiently related to the key, centuries-old public policy of guaranteeing the safety of the users of City streets. It is this public policy that underlies its non-delegable duty to keep streets and roadways safe. The City has designed a public transportation system that involves physical installations in parking lanes on heavily transited streets, and permitted a contractor, NYCBS, to implement and manage that program. Even though the purported liability waiver is confined [**50] to road conditions in the circumscribed area of the bike stations, the Court finds that the enforcement of such a waiver against over a million Citi Bike users is contrary to the public policy that dictates that the City has the duty to guarantee road safety.7

7 The waiver would certainly be effective as to claims unrelated to road conditions, such as, for example, the quality of the bicycles or the malfunctioning of the rental kiosks.

After all, the fact that Corwin was riding a Citi Bike, as opposed to his own bicycle, at the time of his accident was purely coincidental. The City does not articulate any public policy in barring Corwin’s claim but permitting a claim brought by a non-member of Citi Bike who strikes the same wheel stop while riding his own bicycle. There is no basis for immunizing the City from suit by one class of cyclists–who participate in a highly publicized transportation program such as Citi Bike–while allowing non-Citi Bike users to bring suit for the same accident occurring in the same area of the street. Simply put, the law clearly imposes upon the City a duty to ensure road safety for all pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and road users on all sections of the road that are foreseeably transitable.

At oral argument, counsel for the City indicated that the execution of transportation programs such as Citi Bike would not be feasible without [**51] such waivers of liability. But the City is not left wholly unprotected. As discussed in Parts IV and V of this opinion, the finder of fact may determine that the City is entitled to qualified immunity in regards to the station design, or that the City was not “affirmatively negligent” and is thus protected by the notice provisions of New York Administrative Code § 7-201. Therefore, the Court does not believe that its invalidation of the [*499] waiver as to road conditions and hazards within the bike stations threatens the viability of the Citi Bike program.

D. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, the Release Agreement effectively releases Corwin’s common-law negligence claims against NYCBS, allowing only claims of gross negligence to proceed against it. The waiver does not apply to the City, however, because such a release of the City’s duty would be contrary to public policy; accordingly, Corwin may proceed with his common-law negligence claims against the City. The Court need not decide if the APD is a “Released Person” under the Agreement, as it grants summary judgment to APD on all claims in Part VIII of this opinion on other grounds.

III. Affirmative Defenses Based on Corwin’s Failure to Wear [**52] a Helmet

Defendants have set out various affirmative defenses–including comparative negligence, primary assumption of the risk, and failure to mitigate damages–premised on the uncontested fact that Corwin was not wearing a bicycle helmet at the time of the crash. Corwin moves for partial summary judgment on all of these defenses, arguing that there was no statutory obligation that he do so, that the City and NYCBS themselves represented that wearing a helmet was unnecessary, and that New York Vehicle and Traffic Law (“VTL”) § 1238(7) and case law in New York and other jurisdictions expressly prohibits such conduct from being considered for the purposes of liability or damages.

As a preliminary matter, Corwin argues that defendants have failed to produce sufficient evidence to raise a factual question as to whether there was an unreasonable risk of a head injury while riding a Citi Bike without a helmet. Summary judgment is improper if “there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party . . . .” Chambers, 43 F.3d at 37. There are disputed questions of material fact in this case as to both (a) whether a reasonably prudent person in Corwin’s [**53] circumstances would have worn a helmet and (b) whether wearing such a helmet would have mitigated the damages Corwin suffered. See, e.g., ECF No. 344, Decl. of Elizabeth McCalley (arguing that Corwin would not have sustained many of his severe injuries had he worn a helmet).

There is no dispute that Corwin was not obligated to wear a helmet while riding a Citi Bike or any other bicycle; unlike the seatbelt requirements of N.Y. VTL § 1229-c, there is no statutory obligation for an adult bicyclist to wear a helmet while riding a bike on a public road. N.Y. VTL § 1238(5) does require children under the age of fourteen to do so, but imposes no affirmative obligations on individuals over that age. A subsection of the same statute also indicates that “the failure of any person to comply with the provisions of this section shall not constitute contributory negligence or assumption of risk, and shall not in any way bar, preclude or foreclose an action for personal injury or wrongful death by or on behalf of such person, nor in any way diminish or reduce the damages recoverable in any such action.” VTL § 1238(7); see also Lamica v. Precore, 273 A.D.2d 647, 647-48, 709 N.Y.S.2d 694 (3d Dep’t 2000) (in accident involving helmetless child on bicycle, dismissing defendants’ counterclaim that parents were negligent [**54] for failing to ensure child wore helmet). Therefore, Corwin argues, if New York has seen fit to preclude expressly the consideration of helmet evidence for either liability or damages purposes even when wearing a helmet is mandated [*500] by law, surely the failure to wear a helmet by someone not obligated to do so by law should be similarly inadmissible.

The fact that New York has categorically barred the consideration of such evidence in a statute aimed at the protection of children does not, however, imply that the state has a general public policy against the admission of such evidence for all bicycle riders. Indeed, though Corwin argues that it would be “anomalous and irrational” to admit helmet evidence for an older rider under no legal obligation to wear a helmet, there is a clear and obvious rationale for the limited reach of the statute: a desire to prevent families from being burdened with costs stemming from accidents occurring on account of their young children’s inability to perceive risks, and a determination that parents should not be found negligent for failing to ensure that their children wear helmets. No court has interpreted VTL § 1238(7) to stand for a general public policy that the [**55] failure to wear a helmet is inadmissible for purposes of measuring comparative negligence or mitigation of damages, and the Court declines to do so today.

While the New York Court of Appeals has not spoken authoritatively on the specific question of whether the non-use of a bicycle helmet is admissible under such circumstances, the framework that it adopted regarding the non-use of seat belts in automobiles is instructive. At a time when no law mandated that occupants of a passenger car wore seat belts, the court explicitly rejected the failure to wear a seat belt as a basis for contributory negligence8 or primary assumption of the risk, but concluded that:

nonuse of an available seat belt . . . is a factor which the jury may consider, in light of all the other facts received in evidence, in arriving at its determination as to whether the plaintiff has exercised due care, not only to avoid injury to himself, but to mitigate any injury he would likely sustain. However . . . the plaintiff’s nonuse of an available seat belt should be strictly limited to the jury’s determination of the plaintiff’s damages and should not be considered by the triers of fact in resolving the issue of liability. [**56]

Spier v. Barker, 35 N.Y.2d 444, 449-50, 323 N.E.2d 164, 363 N.Y.S.2d 916 (1974).

8 Though the Spier decision was rendered before New York’s adoption of the comparative fault system and therefore discussed only if a plaintiff would be wholly barred from recovery under the then-existing doctrine of contributory negligence, New York courts have consistently considered seat belt evidence exclusively for purposes of mitigation of damages, and not for the apportionment of comparative fault. See, e.g., Stein v. Penatello, 185 A.D.2d 976, 976-77, 587 N.Y.S.2d 37 (2d Dep’t 1992).

Therefore, in cases involving the failure to wear a seat belt, New York law imposes a pre-accident obligation to mitigate damages, and the burden of proving that the injured party failed to do so rests upon the defendant. Davis v. Davis, 49 A.D.2d 1024, 1024, 374 N.Y.S.2d 482 (4th Dep’t 1975). Lower New York courts have applied the same principles to other types of protective gear as well. See, e.g., Penzell v. State, 120 Misc. 2d 600, 466 N.Y.S.2d 562, 567 (Ct. Cl. 1983) (motorcycle helmets); Giannetti v. Darling Del. Carting Co., 175 Misc. 2d 1, 666 N.Y.S.2d 372, 374-76 (Sup. Ct. Suffolk Cnty. 1997) (safety gloves in fast food restaurant). And, indeed, in the state court proceedings parallel to this case, the Appellate Division explicitly applied this reasoning to bicycle helmets, noting that “[Corwin’s] failure to use a helmet is akin to a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt in a motor vehicle case. It is well settled that any such failure does not go to comparative liability, but rather to how [*501] damages, if any, should be assessed.” Corwin v. City of New York, 141 A.D.3d 484, 490, 36 N.Y.S.3d 118 (1st Dep’t 2016) (citation omitted).9

9 State courts in other jurisdictions have also drawn analogies between seat belt and helmet use. See, e.g., Stehlik v. Rhoads, 2002 WI 73, 253 Wis. 2d 477, 645 N.W.2d 889 (Wis. 2002) (same principles govern seat belt and helmet defenses for ATV rider); Meyer v. City of Des Moines, 475 N.W.2d 181, 186 (Iowa 1991) (same for moped rider); Warfel v. Cheney, 157 Ariz. 424, 758 P.2d 1326 (Ariz. App. 1988) (same for motorcyclist).

To be sure, some courts across the country have reached contrary conclusions.10 See, e.g., Cordy v. Sherwin Williams Co., 975 F. Supp. 639, 647-48 (D.N.J. 1997) (noting that nothing in federal or state law alerts adult cyclists that their rights may be prejudiced by failure to wear a helmet, finding fewer safety concerns with helmetless biking and rejecting analogy to seat belt laws); Walden v. State, 250 Mont. 132, 818 P.2d 1190, 1196-97 (Mont. 1991) (holding same in state where evidence [**57] of seat belt use is inadmissible for mitigation of damages purposes). The decision in Corwin, however, and the logic of Spier and the New York cases extending it beyond the seat belt domain, compel denial of Corwin’s motion for summary judgment as it pertains to the affirmative defenses relating to mitigation of damages.

10 Corwin relies on Phelan v. State of New York, 11 Misc. 3d 151, 804 N.Y.S.2d 886 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. 2005), where the New York Court of Claims declined to consider a bicyclist’s non-use of a helmet in mitigation of damages. The case, however, is distinguishable as “no persuasive testimony, medical or otherwise, was proffered to establish that [plaintiff’s] injuries would have been either avoided or reduced had she worn a helmet.” Id. at 167. Therefore, the defendant failed to make even a prima facie case that damages should be mitigated by the decedent’s failure to wear a helmet. To the extent that Phelan also based the decision on the fact the “[d]ecedent was not required to wear a helmet [by law],” this is inconsistent with the Appellate Division’s decision in Corwin, 141 A.D.3d 484, 36 N.Y.S.3d 118, and the logic of Spier v. Barker, 35 N.Y.2d 444, 323 N.E.2d 164, 363 N.Y.S.2d 916.

Nevertheless, even as Spier and its progeny indicate that Corwin’s non-use of a helmet will be admissible for the purposes of calculating damages, the cases also hold that such evidence is inadmissible on questions of liability. Therefore, defendants shall not be permitted to argue that Corwin was comparatively negligent for failing to wear a helmet.11 For the same reason and for the reasons expressed in Part VI of this Opinion, defendants will also not be permitted to argue that Corwin’s claims are barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. See also Cotty, 64 A.D.3d at 256 (2d Dep’t 2009) (“[R]iding a bicycle on a paved public roadway normally does not constitute a sporting activity for purposes of applying the primary assumption of risk doctrine.”).

11 Of course, defendants may still argue at trial that Corwin was comparatively negligent for other reasons, including, inter alia, the speed, manner, and location of where he was riding his bicycle.

Accordingly, Corwin’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED as to the City’s Seventh and Ninth affirmative defenses (ECF. No. 200), NYCBS’s Sixth affirmative [**58] defense (ECF No. 199), and Metro Express’s Sixth affirmative defense (ECF No. 213) concerning the relevance of his non-use of a helmet to mitigation of damages, and GRANTED as the City’s Second and Eighth affirmative defenses, NYCBS’s First and Seventh affirmative defenses and Metro Express’s Second and Seventh affirmative defenses, inasmuch as those defenses assert the relevance of his non-use of a helmet to comparative negligence and assumption of the risk. Sealcoat [*502] did not explicitly reference Corwin’s failure to use a helmet as an affirmative defense, (ECF No. 211) and in Part VIII, the Court grants summary judgment to APD and APDNY, thus rendering the question of summary judgment on their First affirmative defense moot.

IV. Qualified Immunity

A. City’s Qualified Immunity for Bike Station Design and Wheel Stop Placement

The City of New York moves for summary judgment on the grounds that its involvement in the design and planning of the Citi Bike program is a uniquely governmental function for which it is entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. See Valdez v. City of New York, 18 N.Y.3d 69, 76, 960 N.E.2d 356, 936 N.Y.S.2d 587 (2011) (“Even if a plaintiff establishes all elements of a negligence claim, a state or municipal defendant engaging in a governmental [**59] function can avoid liability if it . . . proves that the alleged negligent act or omission involved the exercise of discretionary authority.”).

“When a negligence claim is asserted against a municipality, the first issue for a court to decide is whether the municipal entity was engaged in a proprietary function or acted in a governmental capacity at the time the claim arose.” Applewhite v. Accuhealth, Inc., 21 N.Y.3d 420, 425, 995 N.E.2d 131, 972 N.Y.S.2d 169 (2013). A municipality engages in governmental functions when its acts are “undertaken for the protection and safety of the public pursuant to the general police powers,” and in proprietary functions when “its activities essentially substitute for or supplement traditionally private enterprises.” Id. (citations omitted). If a municipality acts in a governmental capacity, the plaintiff must prove that he was owed a special duty, and that the exercise of governmental authority was not discretionary. Turturro v. City of New York, 28 N.Y.3d 469, 478-79, 45 N.Y.S.3d 874, 68 N.E.3d 693 (2016).

Traffic planning decisions, including decisions about the design of roads and other facilities, are proprietary functions, arising from a municipality’s “proprietary duty to keep its roads and highways in a reasonably safe condition.” Wittorf, 23 N.Y.3d at 480. This duty, while “nondelegable . . . is measured by the courts with consideration given [**60] to the proper limits on intrusion into the municipality’s planning and decision-making functions.” Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 283 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). As such, “in the specific proprietary field of roadway safety, a municipality is afforded ‘a qualified immunity from liability arising out of a highway planning decision'” under certain circumstances. Turturro, 28 N.Y.3d at 479-80 (quoting Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 283)).

Such immunity arises only when the defendant can “demonstrate that a public planning body considered and passed upon the same question of risk as would go to a jury in the case at issue.” Jackson v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 30 A.D.3d 289, 290-91, 818 N.Y.S.2d 32 (1st Dep’t 2006) (finding general evaluation of buses referencing passengers’ ability to grab onto overhead racks insufficient to grant qualified immunity on claim that transit authority should have installed grab bars and handholds); Leon v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 96 A.D.3d 554, 554-55, 947 N.Y.S.2d 33 (1st Dep’t 2012) (denying qualified immunity for passenger injured by falling in gap between train car and platform when City had only studied the risk that train would scrape platform); see [*503] also Turturro, 28 N.Y.3d at 483 (no qualified immunity for City’s failure to study speeding traffic on avenue); Poveromo v. Town of Cortlandt, 127 A.D.3d 835, 837, 6 N.Y.S.3d 617 (2d Dep’t 2015) (no qualified immunity for municipality’s failure to install certain traffic devices at an intersection absent a study); Kuhland v. City of New York, 81 A.D.3d 786, 787, 916 N.Y.S.2d 637 (2d Dep’t 2011) (no qualified immunity for design of traffic [**61] intersection in absence of any pedestrian traffic studies); cf. Levi v. Kratovac, 35 A.D.3d 548, 549, 827 N.Y.S.2d 196 (2d Dep’t 2006) (qualified immunity granted for design of traffic intersection pursuant to a pedestrian safety study and reasonable traffic plan).

In light of these principles, the key question is whether the City’s planning of the Citi Bike program “passed upon the same question of risk” that this case presents–namely, that the placement of unpainted concrete wheel stops within Citi Bike stations could pose a tripping danger to cyclists. The City describes a collaborative process between it and APD based on its experiences with “bike corrals” that employed similar features, including wheel stops. ECF No. 293, City St. ¶¶ 40-42, 50. The City indicates that it viewed wheel stops as “the most important safety feature that was also installed in 2011.” Id. ¶ 46. Accordingly, the result of its collaboration with APD was a set of guidelines including the use of “non-permanent bollards, wheel stops, and paint markings.” Id. ¶ 55; ECF No. 289-19, 04/23/12 Station Siting Guidelines at 11. The City notes that APD and APDNY considered a wheel stop to be a necessary feature to protect the bike station from vehicles encroaching on the station and [**62] damaging the equipment or injuring individuals who may be within the station. City St. ¶ 58; ECF No. 289-3, Adrian Witte 08/14/15 Depo. at 20-21; ECF No. 289-5, Jeff Olson 09/29/15 Depo. at 410-11. The City did not, however, approve of the use of wheel stops that extend outside of the parking lane and into the travel lane. City St. ¶ 66; ECF No. 291, Sameer Barkho Decl. ¶ 10. The City determined that a yellow and black object marker, which had been included in the original design of some bike corrals, was “optional” because the on-street bike parking station sat in a parking lane and not a travel lane, and “pavement markings were more than sufficient to signal to an approaching motorist or bicyclist the presence of the on-street bike parking station and the presence of the wheel stop in the parking lane.” Id. ¶ 11. On the contrary, wheel stops would be situated within a white painted rectangular box with “white paint markings forming diagonal lines within the rectangular box.” Id. at ¶ 12.

The record plainly indicates that the decision to install concrete wheel stops in Citi Bike stations was the product of careful consideration and deliberation between the City and APD’s design and [**63] engineering experts. This mere fact, however, does not suffice for the City to be entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. Corwin does not merely seek to have the fact finder “examine the criteria that were considered by the State’s professional staff, emphasize factors allegedly overlooked, and, with the benefit of hindsight, rule that the studies were inadequate as a matter of law.” Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 285-86. Rather, he argues that though the City considered the need and efficacy of wheel stop placement to prevent cars from encroaching into the stations and harming individuals or property, it conducted no studies whatsoever as to whether such wheel stops could constitute tripping hazards for cyclists passing through such stations.

[*504] Though it is a close question, because the City has obviously given the coloring, placement, and demarcation of wheel stops some thought, the Court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City studied or “passed upon the same question of risk” presented in this case. While there is extensive testimony in the record that the City believed that wheel stops were of great importance in protecting stations from automobiles, the City has presented [**64] no specific study that suggests that it considered the effect of wheel stop placement or design on the safety of pedestrians or cyclists passing through the station, or whether the City considered that the wheel stops might be in the foreseeable paths of cyclists who, by custom or necessity, pass through the Citi Bike station footprints. In particular, it is not clear on what basis the City decided that object markers were to be made “optional,” or if the City considered the adequacy of shorter wheel stops that would extend no further into the parking lane than the bikes themselves. Therefore, as a reasonable fact-finder could find that the City did not study or pass on the “same question of risk,” the City is not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law on the specific question of wheel stop placement. At trial, the jury will be asked special interrogatories to resolve these disputed facts.

B. City’s Qualified Immunity for Failure to Provide Bicycle Helmets to Citi Bike Users

The City also moves for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity on Corwin’s claims that “the intentional failure and refusal of the Defendants to design Citi Bike to include a convenient system [**65] of helmet rentals–as in place in Melbourne, Vancouver and Seattle–or otherwise provide helmets at all Citi Bike sites, was negligent . . . .” ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl. ¶ 352.

The record plainly demonstrates that the City’s decision not to mandate or provide helmets to Citi Bike users was the fruit of a well-reasoned policy based on extensive study of the “same question of risk as would go to a jury in the case at issue.” Jackson, 30 A.D.3d at 290. As early as 2009, the City’s Feasibility Study noted that “increasing the number of bicyclists is one of the most reliable ways to increase bicyclist safety,” and cast doubt on the feasibility of helmet distribution. City St. ¶ 4; ECF No. 290-1, Bike Share Feasibility Study. The director of the City’s Bike Share Unit stated that the City found that “mandatory helmet laws decreased bicycle ridership in general and decreased participation in bike share programs in particular. [The City] considered statistics showing that mandatory helmets laws actually decreased the safety of bicycling . . . [and] bicycle riders wearing helmets tend to ride more recklessly than riders who do not.” ECF No. 290, John Frost Decl. ¶ 5. The City specifically noted that in Melbourne, [**66] Australia, mandatory helmet laws resulted in a lowered rate of bicycle usage. City St. ¶ 13; ECF No. 289-2, Kate Fillin-Yeh 08/20/15 Depo. at 46-48. The City also specifically considered installing automatic helmet rental machines and rejected the proposal on hygiene and structural integrity grounds in public comments justifying the policy choice. ECF No. 290, John Frost Decl. ¶ 6; ECF No. 289-1, Stephanie Levinsky-Shaw 08/12/15 Depo. at 222. Nevertheless, the City encouraged bicycle helmet use by distributing discount voucher coupons for the purchase of helmets to annual members and expanding helmet fitting and giveaway programs. ECF No. 290, Frost Decl. ¶ 7; ECF No. 289-2, Fillin-Yeh Depo. at 56, 60.

[*505] Contrary to Corwin’s contentions, the fact that Defendants may raise the issue of his non-use of a helmet to prove a failure to mitigate damages does not affect the City’s qualified immunity on this issue. Corwin will, of course, be free to demonstrate that his “conduct was not unreasonable under the circumstances and that he did not breach a duty of care because adults are not required to wear helmets while riding bicycles in New York City and the Citi Bike program does not provide helmets.” [**67] Corwin, 141 A.D.3d at 495 (Andrias, J., dissenting). He may not, however, seek to hold the City liable for what was a well-reasoned and studied determination made in the public interest. See Weiss v. Fote, 7 N.Y.2d 579, 588, 167 N.E.2d 63, 200 N.Y.S.2d 409 (1960) (“[C]ourts should not be permitted to review determinations of governmental planning bodies under the guise of allowing them to be challenged in negligence suits.”). Accordingly, the City is granted summary judgment on Corwin’s negligence claim regarding its failure to provide helmets because it has qualified immunity on this issue.

V. New York City Administrative Code § 7-201

New York City Administrative Code § 7-201(c)(2) provides that:

No civil action shall be maintained against the city for damage to property or injury to person or death sustained in consequence of any street . . . being out of repair, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed, unless it appears that written notice of the defective, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed condition, was actually given to the commissioner of transportation . . . or where there was previous injury to person or property as a result of the . . . condition, and written notice thereof was given to a city agency, or there was written acknowledgement from the city of the . . . condition, and there was a failure or neglect [**68] within fifteen days after the receipt of such notice to repair or remove the defect, danger or obstruction complained of, or the place otherwise made reasonably safe.

Popularly known as the “Pothole Law,” the purpose of § 7-201(c)(2) is to prevent municipal liability for “nonfeasance” and to limit it to cases where the municipality had actual notice and opportunity to correct the hazardous condition. Katz v. City of New York, 87 N.Y.2d 241, 243, 661 N.E.2d 1374, 638 N.Y.S.2d 593 (1995). It is uncontested that the City did not have written notice of the installation of the specific wheel stop at the Madison Avenue end of the Citi Bike station where the crash occurred until after the accident, and that the drawing accompanying the permit does not show a wheel stop at that location. City St. ¶¶ 107-12. City records do not demonstrate any written complaints or claims of injury regarding a wheel stop at that location. Id. at ¶¶ 111-13.

There are, however, two exceptions to § 7-201(c)(2)–“that the municipality affirmatively created the defect through an act of negligence or that a special use resulted in a special benefit to the locality.” Yarborough v. City of New York, 10 N.Y.3d 726, 728, 882 N.E.2d 873, 853 N.Y.S.2d 261 (2008) (citation omitted).

Corwin does not merely allege that the City failed to remediate a dangerous condition created by a third party; indeed, his entire theory of liability [**69] is predicated on the premise that the City was affirmatively negligent in the design and placement of Citi Bike stations and wheel stops in the system as a whole. Additionally, he argues that the City was on notice of contractors’ failures to install stations as per plan specifications and yet failed to monitor them effectively, and ultimately approved an [*506] identical policy of putting wheel stops on both ends of Citi Bike stations. ECF No. 335-33, NYC Comptroller Audit; ECF No. 336-25, Station Plan w/ 2 Wheel Stops. The City, for its part, notes that neither it nor NYCBS, with whom it had a contractual relationship, actually installed the wheel stop at issue; rather, it alleges that it was installed by Sealcoat, a contractor of MetroExpress, who itself was NYCBS’s contractor. City St. ¶¶ 83-84.

The Court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City was affirmatively negligent so as to lose the written notice protections of § 7-201(c)(2). While Corwin cannot produce “smoking gun” evidence that the City affirmatively directed NYCBS or its agents to install the specific wheel stop in question, Corwin does provide evidence indicating that similar wheel stops were installed [**70] elsewhere in the City and that modifications to station plan installations were often done informally. See ECF No. 368-6 (10/30/2013 email from Dani Simons, NYCBS, to Stephanie Levitsky, DOT, stating “I do not know why [the wheel stop is] not in the drawings. I do know that [NYCBS directors] Hasib [Ikramullah] and Michael [Pellegrino] have both told me that we’ve started putting them on the cross-walk side of stations in high traffic areas . . . .”); ECF No. 336-19 (07/01/2013 email from Stephanie Levinsky to Jon Orcutt referencing “numerous on the fly modification[s]”); ECF No. 368-8 (May 15, 2013 email from DOT to NYCBS referencing “supplemental street treatments” not on the initial plan diagrams).

This evidence could lead a reasonable finder of fact to conclude that either the specific wheel stop in question, or all wheel stops that enter into the foreseeable pathway of a cyclist, were installed pursuant to affirmative acts of negligence by the City. The fact that the City had no direct contractual relationship or knowledge of the involvement of Metro Express or Sealcoat is not dispositive. Just as the City cannot delegate its duty to maintain the roads to a contractor, it cannot do so to a subcontractor [**71] of that contractor.

Accordingly, the question of whether the affirmative negligence exception to the written notice protections of § 7-201(c)(2) applies is a disputed question of fact to be resolved at trial, and the City is not entitled to summary judgment because it was not provided notice of the allegedly defective condition.12

12 Because the Court finds that the “affirmative negligence” exception may apply and because neither party has adequately briefed the “special use resulting in a special benefit” exception to § 7-201(c)(2), the Court declines to address the “special use” exception in this opinion.

VI. Primary Assumption of the Risk

The City, NYCBS, and APD also move for summary judgment on the grounds that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk bars Corwin’s negligence claims. In voluntarily undertaken recreational activities, the duty of a defendant is “to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.” Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). In this case, the Release Agreement signed by Corwin contained explicit provisions on assumption of the risk, which state, inter alia, that “Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death . . . and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or [*507] avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, [**72] and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.” ECF No. 316-1, Release Agreement. Whether or not the broad assumption of the risk language is applicable depends on what courts consider to be the risks inherent in bicycling, recreational or otherwise, on a paved road in an urban environment.

The New York Court of Appeals has cautioned that the doctrine of assumption of risk is justifiable exclusively for its utility in “‘facilitat[ing] free and vigorous participation in athletic activities'” and warned that the doctrine must be “closely circumscribed” and not “applied outside this limited context” lest it unduly displace the state’s comparative negligence regime. Trupia v. Lake George Cent. Sch. Dist., 14 N.Y.3d 392, 395, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127 (2010) (citing Benitez v. New York City Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 657, 541 N.E.2d 29, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989)).13 Accordingly, the assumption of the risk doctrine is not applicable to this case. “In determining whether a bicycle rider has subjected himself or herself to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, we must consider whether the rider is engaged in a sporting activity, such that his or her consent to the dangers inherent in the activity may reasonably be inferred.” Cotty, 64 A.D.3d at 255. Courts have consistently held that riding a bicycle on a paved road is not such a “sporting activity.” The fact that an individual may be engaging in a recreational [**73] or leisure activity is not enough because the doctrine “is not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition.” Id.; see also Moore v. City of New York, 29 A.D.3d 751, 752, 816 N.Y.S.2d 131 (2d Dep’t 2006) (plaintiff did not assume risk of recreational cycling on paved park road); Vestal v. Cty. of Suffolk, 7 A.D.3d 613, 614-15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 491 (2d Dep’t 2004) (“[T]he injured plaintiff cannot be said as a matter of law to have assumed the risk of being injured as a result of a defective condition on a paved pathway merely because she participated in the activity of bicycling,” even where County argued that the pathway was “abandoned”).

13 In its reply memorandum of law, NYCBS appears to characterize Trupia as permitting an open-ended “social benefit” analysis to determine whether the assumption of risk doctrine applies and discusses the numerous beneficial aspects of the Citi Bike program as a public transit system. Trupia, however, was limited to discussing the social benefit to certain risky athletic activities and explicitly warns against applying the doctrine in any other context. 14 N.Y.3d 392, 395, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127.

To be sure, courts have held that the doctrine of assumption of the risk applied in other contexts involving recreational cyclists. See, e.g., DeJesus v. City of New York, 29 A.D.3d 401, 402, 815 N.Y.S.2d 502 (1st Dep’t 2006) (plaintiff assumed risk for riding on pedestrian-only pathway in housing development); Chrem v. City of New York, 293 A.D.2d 301, 302, 741 N.Y.S.2d 201 (1st Dep’t 2002) (plaintiff assumed risk of steep drop-off in the back of a dirt mound not designated for cycling); Furgang v. Club Med, Inc., 299 A.D.2d 162, 162, 753 N.Y.S.2d 359 (1st Dep’t 2002) (“[T]he risk of encountering ruts and bumps while riding a bike over a rough roadway without a helmet is so obvious [that] as a matter of law, plaintiff assumed any risk inherent in the activity . . . .”); Goldberg v. Town of Hempstead, 289 A.D.2d 198, 198, 733 N.Y.S.2d 691 (2d Dep’t 2001) (“Since the risk of striking a hole and falling is an inherent risk in riding a bicycle on most outdoor surfaces, [**74] and the defective condition in this case was open and obvious, the infant plaintiff assumed [*508] the risk associated with riding her bicycle on the ballfield.”) (citations omitted); Calise v. City of New York, 239 A.D.2d 378, 379, 657 N.Y.S.2d 430 (2d Dep’t 1997) (plaintiff assumed the risk of hitting an exposed tree root on unpaved path in public park). These cases, however, are readily distinguishable because they all involved individuals riding a bicycle on an unpaved path or other area plainly not designated for cycling. While defendants contend that the Citi Bike station was such an “undesignated” area, the station was obviously integrated into the public roadway, and Corwin has at the very least raised a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the design of this station compelled or encouraged him to ride through it to avoid riding dangerously close to traffic. Therefore, his brief passage through the parking lane and bike station cannot be analogized to a considered decision to engage in recreational mountain biking or to ride down an undesignated pedestrian walkway.

Accordingly, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk is unavailable, and defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on this theory.

VII. “Open and Obvious”

A defendant has “no duty [**75] to protect or warn against an open and obvious condition which is not inherently dangerous.” Stern v. River Manor Care Ctr., Inc., 106 A.D.3d 990, 990, 965 N.Y.S.2d 377 (2d Dep’t 2013). Whether a condition was open and obvious is generally a question of fact inappropriate for summary judgment and “depends on the totality of the specific facts of each case.” Russo v. Home Goods, Inc., 119 A.D.3d 924, 925-26, 990 N.Y.S.2d 95 (2d Dep’t 2014). Nevertheless, “a court may determine that a risk was open and obvious as a matter of law when the established facts compel that conclusion . . . .” Tagle v. Jakob, 97 N.Y.2d 165, 169, 763 N.E.2d 107, 737 N.Y.S.2d 331 (2001). Defendants contend that Corwin’s claims fail as a matter of law because the concrete wheel stop, located in a striped white box with “zebra” cross-hatching underneath and surrounded by four three-foot-tall flexible delineators, was “open and obvious.”

Defendants’ claims are buttressed by cases holding that wheel stops located in parking lots or similar environments were sufficiently “open and obvious” so as to bar claims by injured pedestrians. See, e.g., May v. Ruby Tuesday, Inc., No. 13-CV-170 (FJS)(ATB), 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140090, 2014 WL 4966544, at *5-6 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 2, 2014) (parking lot wheel stop open and obvious especially given plaintiff’s admission that she had previously seen it); Abraido v. 2001 Marcus Ave, LLC, 126 A.D.3d 571, 571-72, 4 N.Y.S.3d 43 (1st Dep’t 2015) (wheel stop in well-lit parking lot open and obvious); Bellini v. Gypsy Magic Enters., Inc., 112 A.D.3d 867, 868, 978 N.Y.S.2d 73 (2d Dep’t 2013) (parking lot wheel stop open and obvious when plaintiff admitted she was attempting to step over it); Wachspress v. Cent. Parking Sys. of New York, Inc., 111 A.D.3d 499, 499-500, 974 N.Y.S.2d 439 (1st Dep’t 2013) (parking [**76] lot wheel stop open and obvious); Zimkind v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 12 A.D.3d 593, 593-94, 785 N.Y.S.2d 108 (2d Dep’t 2004) (same).

Whether or not a potential hazard is readily visible to the naked eye is evidently an important consideration in determining whether it is open and obvious, but it does not definitively resolve the question because “[t]he nature or location of some hazards, while they are technically visible, make them likely to be overlooked.” Westbrook v. WR Activities-Cabrera Mkts., 5 A.D.3d 69, 72, 773 N.Y.S.2d 38 (1st Dep’t 2004). On at least two occasions, New York courts, considering the broader context of plaintiffs’ encounter with wheel stops, declined [*509] to find that they were “open and obvious.” In Rivera v. Queens Ballpark Co., LLC, 134 A.D.3d 796, 797-98, 22 N.Y.S.3d 106 (2d Dep’t 2015), the court found that a concrete wheel stop that began in a designated parking space but partially extended into and obstructed a pedestrian walkway was not “open and obvious” as a matter of law. Similarly, in O’Leary v. Saugerties Cent. Sch. Dist., 277 A.D.2d 662, 662, 716 N.Y.S.2d 424 (3d Dep’t 2000), a plaintiff who tripped over a concrete parking lot wheel stop raised a triable issue of fact by arguing that it was undetectable and camouflaged by cars parked bumper-to-bumper.

Were the Court to view the wheel stop, cross-hatching, and delineators in isolation, it would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the conspicuous parking lot wheel stops that New York courts have found to be “open and obvious” as a matter of law. Notwithstanding [**77] Corwin’s argument that the wheel stop was “camouflaged” because it was not painted in a bright color that would contrast it with its surroundings, photographic evidence submitted by both Corwin and defendants suggests to the Court that it would have been readily visible to an observant pedestrian. Nevertheless, the types of obstacles that a pedestrian might expect to encounter in a parking lot are substantially different from those that a cyclist would expect in an on-street bike station. Therefore, the Court finds that Corwin has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the wheel stop was open and obvious to an attentive person in his position–that is, a cyclist traveling within a station that arguably invited use as a bike lane.

The declaration of James M. Green, Corwin’s engineering expert, brings forth various issues relevant in this analysis. First, Green alleges that the Citi Bike station in question was wider than the specifications required, presenting Corwin with the “choice of continuing through the bike parking facility, or turning out into traffic, with only approximately 0.75 feet between [him] and moving vehicular traffic.” ECF No. 335, Green Decl. ¶ 56. An [**78] hour-long traffic study conducted by Green found that “cyclists circulate through the [Citi Bike] station with regularity” and that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design.” Id. ¶¶ 35, 57. Green therefore argues that the wheel stop, though in a parking lane, was placed within the foreseeable path of a cyclist. Id. ¶ 46. He further concluded that various factors, including the wheel stop’s partial obscuring by parked bicycles, its lack of contrast against the grey asphalt, and a cyclist’s need simultaneously to pay attention to dynamic vehicular and pedestrian traffic, would have made the wheel stop inconspicuous, not “open and obvious.” Id. ¶¶ 48-49.

In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the Court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Scott, 550 U.S. at 378. Drawing all inferences in his favor, Corwin has distinguished the cases that feature garden-variety wheel stops in parking lots. Similar to the scenario in Rivera, 134 A.D.3d at 797, where the court did not find that a wheel stop was open and obvious as a matter of law when it partially obstructed a pedestrian walkway, there is a genuine dispute of material [**79] fact as to whether the wheel stop hazardously obstructed a path that was foreseeably and actually utilized by cyclists.

Accordingly, defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that the wheel stop that caused Corwin’s accident was “open and obvious.”

[*510] VIII. Claims against Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York, PLLC

Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York, PLLC (collectively, “APD”), the architects and designers for the Citi Bike project who collaborated with the City to generate site plans for stations, move for summary judgment on Corwin’s claims of common law, gross, and professional negligence. APD notes that the key elements of the station that Corwin alleges caused his crash–primarily, the installation of the additional wheel stop at the east end of the station and the increased width of the station footprint–were installed in violation of its approved design. Corwin alleges that, even if APD did not recommend the installation of the specific wheel stop, their recommendation of unpainted concrete wheel stops throughout the Citi Bike system, and wheel stops’ placement within the [**80] foreseeable path of cyclists passing through stations were substantial factors in his accident. The Court need not resolve this dispute, however, because it finds that, regardless of the propriety of its recommendations to the City, APD did not owe a duty of care to Corwin under Espinal v. Melville Snow Contractors, Inc., 98 N.Y.2d 136, 773 N.E.2d 485, 746 N.Y.S.2d 120 (2002).

It is uncontested that, as an architecture firm, APD did not have any contractual obligations to install, inspect, or maintain Citi Bike stations and, therefore, could not be liable to Corwin under any theory dependent on its control of Citi Bike stations or wheel stops. See Gibbs v. Port Auth. of New York, 17 A.D.3d 252, 254, 794 N.Y.S.2d 320 (1st Dep’t 2005) (“Liability for a dangerous condition on property may only be predicated upon occupancy, ownership, control or special use of such premises . . . .”). It is similarly clear that APD had no direct contractual obligation to Corwin. Therefore, any duty to Corwin would necessarily flow out of APD’s contractual obligation to Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS. “In the ordinary case, a contractual obligation, standing alone, will impose a duty only in favor of the promisee and intended third-party beneficiaries.” Eaves Brooks Costume Co. v. Y.B.H. Realty Corp., 76 N.Y.2d 220, 226, 556 N.E.2d 1093, 557 N.Y.S.2d 286 (1990); see also H.R. Moch Co. v. Rensselaer Water Co., 247 N.Y. 160, 168, 159 N.E. 896 (1928) (Cardozo, J.) (noting that a contrary holding would imply that a contracting party would be forced into “the involuntary assumption [**81] of a series of new relations, inescapably hooked together”).

In Espinal, the New York Court of Appeals, synthesizing decades of case law, announced three exceptions to the general principle that contracting parties do not owe a duty of care to third persons. These exceptions are:

(1) where the contracting party, in failing to exercise reasonable care in the performance of his duties, ‘launche[s] a force or instrument of harm’ (Moch, 247 N.Y. at 168); (2) where the plaintiff detrimentally relies on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties (see Eaves Brooks, 76 N.Y.2d at 226) and (3) where the contracting party has entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely (see Palka v. Servicemaster Mgmt. Servs. Corp., 83 N.Y.2d 579, 589, 634 N.E.2d 189, 611 N.Y.S.2d 817 (1994)).

Espinal, 98 N.Y.2d at 140.

Corwin could not have relied on APD’s continuing performance under its contract with Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS because [*511] APD had no such obligations except submitting site plans, and it had no effect on the duty of the other defendants to maintain the bike stations safely. Therefore, the only Espinal exception that arguably applies is that APD “launched a force or instrument of harm” with its allegedly negligent site plans and recommendations for wheel stop placements. This standard is met where “the promisor, while engaged affirmatively in [**82] discharging a contractual obligation, creates an unreasonable risk of harm to others, or increases that risk.” Church v. Callanan Indus., Inc., 99 N.Y.2d 104, 111, 782 N.E.2d 50, 752 N.Y.S.2d 254 (2002); see also Guzman v. Wackenhut Corp., 394 F. App’x 801, 803 (2d Cir. 2010) (summary order).

On these facts, accepting the argument that providing allegedly negligent design advice and site plans is sufficient to “launch a force or instrument of harm” would lead to the very limitless expansion of tort liability that New York law seeks to prevent. Moch Co., 247 N.Y. at 165 (Cardozo, J.) (“An intention to assume an obligation of indefinite extension to every member of the public is seen to be the more improbable when we recall the crushing burden that the obligation would impose.”). Indeed, Corwin’s argument is that APD’s negligence consists not of specific malfeasance relating to the design of the Citi Bike station where his accident occurred,14 but its general negligence in approving the type, appearance, and placement of wheel stops throughout the Citi Bike system. The logical conclusion of this argument is that by providing services to Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS, APD would be subjecting itself to potential tort liability to literally millions of potential plaintiffs who could be involved in an accident involving wheel stops in any one of hundreds of Citi Bike stations–even as [**83] it had no responsibility for the maintenance or installation of the allegedly hazardous obstructions.15 This is not the law as summarized in Espinal.

14 Indeed, as APD argues, the Citi Bike station at issue in this case did not conform to its plan at all. See ECF No. 321-30, APD Expert Report. Corwin’s own expert would seem to agree. In a rebuttal report, James M. Green contended that “the original Engineering design [presented by APD] was proper in minimizing the clearance behind the parked bicycles and leaving out a wheel stop at the [relevant] intersection and was not followed during the construction of the bike station.” ECF No. 321-24, Green 01/06/16 Rebuttal Report at 9.

15 Corwin’s evidence that APD actually had some responsibility for the installation of Citi Bike stations, which appears to consist of a single May 22, 2013 email from APD engineer Adrian Witte referring the installation of station “bridging” (ECF No. 336-28), and deposition testimony references to the “collaborative” process between APD, NYCBS, and the City (ECF No. 335-6. Jeff Olson 08/26/15 Depo. at ¶¶ 401-02, 484, 530), is insufficient to raise a genuine dispute of material fact about APD’s lack of responsibility over Citi Bike stations.

Finally, Corwin argues that APD was an alter ego of Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS because APD served as the parent company over Alta Bicycle Share before its sale in 2014. ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl. ¶ 16. “It is well-settled that the party seeking to pierce the corporate veil has the burden of establishing that there is a basis to do so.” Maggio v. Becca Constr. Co., 229 A.D.2d 426, 427, 644 N.Y.S.2d 802 (2d Dep’t 1996) (citations omitted). Notwithstanding the close relationship between APD and Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS, and their former association, Corwin has failed to establish that APD is anything but a legitimate and separate business entity engaging in planning and design. “Those seeking to pierce a corporate veil of course bear a heavy burden of showing that the corporation was dominated as to the transaction [*512] attacked and that such domination was the instrument of fraud or otherwise resulted in wrongful or inequitable consequences. . . . An inference of abuse does not arise . . . where a corporation was formed for legal purposes or is engaged in legitimate business.” TNS Holdings, Inc. v. MKI Sec. Corp., 92 N.Y.2d 335, 339-40, 703 N.E.2d 749, 680 N.Y.S.2d 891 (1998); see also Joseph Kali Corp. v. A. Goldner, Inc., 49 A.D.3d 397, 398-99, 859 N.Y.S.2d 1 (1st Dep’t 2008) (refusing to pierce corporate veil [**84] between two entities operated by same principal). On the record before it, the Court sees no conceivable equitable reason to disregard the corporate form in this case.

As the Court concludes that APD did not owe any duty to Corwin under Espinal, it need not consider APD’s alternate arguments regarding proximate causation and its defense that Corwin’s claim arose out of a deviation from its design. The Court GRANTS APD’s motion for summary judgment in its entirety.

IX. Claims against Metro Express Services, Inc. and Sealcoat USA, Inc.

Defendants Metro Express Services, Inc. and Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Metro Express” and “Sealcoat,” respectively), third-party contractors who are alleged to have installed or sub-contracted the installation of the specific wheel stop that caused Corwin’s injuries, move for summary judgment, arguing that they did not owe Corwin a duty of care under Espinal, 98 N.Y.2d 136, 773 N.E.2d 485, 746 N.Y.S.2d 120 (2002), and that the wheel stop is an open and obvious condition as a matter of law. Having already rejected the “open and obvious” argument in Part VII of this opinion, the Court considers whether Metro Express and Sealcoat had a duty to Corwin under one of the three Espinal exceptions discussed in Part VIII.

As was true [**85] for APD, there is no argument that Corwin “detrimentally relie[d] on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties” or that Metro Express or Sealcoat “entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely.” Id. at 140. Detrimental reliance becomes a consideration only when there is some form of continued contractual performance by the third-party contractor and is not relevant when the alleged negligent conduct concerns a one-time installation of station equipment (even if the contractor may have installed said equipment in many stations). And there is no evidence in the record that Metro Express or Sealcoat assumed any responsibilities, much less exclusive responsibilities, for the maintenance and safety of Citi Bike facilities.

Therefore, the only issue is whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact that Metro Express or Sealcoat “launch[ed] a force or instrument of harm.” Corwin contends that the wheel stop on the east side of the Citi Bike station was an “instrument of harm,” and a contractor negligently responsible for its installation could be found liable under Espinal. To be sure, “[a] builder or contractor is justified in relying upon the plans and specifications [**86] which he has contracted to follow unless they are so apparently defective that an ordinary builder of ordinary prudence would be put upon notice that the work was dangerous and likely to cause injury.” Ryan v. Feeney & Sheehan Bldg. Co., 239 N.Y. 43, 46, 145 N.E. 321 (1924). There are, however, genuine disputes of material fact as to whether the contractors installed the wheel stop in question and whether they did so pursuant to a plan provided them by NYCBS.

Citing ambiguities in emails received from NYCBS, Metro Express contends that a full installation of street treatments [*513] was never ordered for the Citi Bike station at issue, and in fact NYCBS only ordered Metro Express and Sealcoat to carry out repairs. ECF No. 366, Metro Express Reply Mem. at 3-4. Metro Express further notes that Sealcoat reported that there was nothing wrong with the station and never invoiced or received payment for any work. Id. at 5. Finally, it contends that Metro Express was never provided with a plan for the Station, and that NYCBS had been instructing Metro Express to install “supplemental street treatments” not depicted on the station plans, noting two specific instances in which they were ordered to do so in stations at Jay Street and Tech Place, and Charles Street and Greenwich [**87] Ave. Id. at 7-9.

While Metro Express and Sealcoat certainly raise issues of fact about their liability, there is sufficient information in the record to preclude a finding that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. For example, in addition to NYCBS’s allegations that Metro Express and Sealcoat were responsible for the installation, Ryan Landeck, Sealcoat Vice President, admitted in non-party deposition testimony in 2015 that Sealcoat had installed the wheel stop in question under Metro Express’s direction. ECF No. 289-10, Landeck 11/19/15 Depo. at 34, 45.16

16 Mr. Landeck later testified at a deposition that took place after Sealcoat was joined in the case that Sealcoat found that there was nothing to do be done at that location and Sealcoat did not invoice or receive payment for its alleged work at the station. ECF No. 368-3, Landeck 05/25/2016 Depo. at 51, 55. An October 23, 2013 email from Landeck to Michael Strasser, General Manager at Metro Express, further stated that “nothing was wrong at this station.” ECF No. 368-4.

Accordingly, the Court concludes that, unlike APD, there is a material dispute whether Metro Express and/or Sealcoat “launched a force or instrument of harm” if plaintiffs prove at trial that they negligently installed the wheel stop at the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue Citi Bike station in contravention of the site plan and the directions received from NYCBS. Unlike the case for APD, who provided general designs for hundreds of Citi Bike stations, there is no danger of an undue ballooning of tort liability because the contractors would be liable only for their own negligence and have an absolute defense if they can demonstrate [**88] that they were carrying out a pre-existing plan. Cf. In re World Trade Ctr. Lower Manhattan Disaster Site Litig., 44 F. Supp. 3d 409, 430 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (finding that Espinal and Moch stood for “the general public policy that courts will not impose a tort duty on a contracting party where doing so would expose the party to potentially unlimited and undefined liability” and finding a duty where there was “no risk of . . . boundless tort liability”).

Therefore, because the Court finds that a question of fact exists regarding whether Metro Express and/or Sealcoat “launched a force or instrument of harm,” Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED.

X. Gross Negligence Claims

Given that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims against NYCBS are barred by the enforceability of the Release Agreement as discussed in Part II of the opinion, NYCBS moves for summary judgment on the grounds that Corwin’s gross negligence claims fail as a matter of law.17

17 The City has also moved for summary judgment on this point; however, the Court has found that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims may proceed as to the City.

Under New York law, gross negligence is “conduct that evinces a reckless [*514] disregard for the rights of others or ‘smacks’ of intentional wrongdoing.” Am. Tel. & Tel. Co. v. City of New York, 83 F.3d 549, 556 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Colnaghi, U.S.A., Ltd. v. Jewelers Prot. Servs., Ltd., 81 N.Y.2d 821, 823-24, 611 N.E.2d 282, 595 N.Y.S.2d 381 (1993)). “[T]he act or omission must be of an aggravated character, as distinguished from the failure to exercise ordinary care.” Curley v. AMR Corp., 153 F.3d 5, 13 (2d Cir. 1998). “In order to establish a prima facie case in gross [**89] negligence, a plaintiff ‘must prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence’ that the defendant ‘not only acted carelessly in making a mistake, but that it was so extremely careless that it was equivalent to recklessness.'” Travelers Indem. Co. of Connecticut v. Losco Grp., Inc., 204 F. Supp. 2d 639, 644 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (quoting Hong Kong Exp. Credit Ins. Corp. v. Dun & Bradstreet, 414 F. Supp. 153, 160 (S.D.N.Y. 1975)).

Drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Corwin, the nonmoving party, summary judgment is not appropriate on Corwin’s gross negligence claims. If, as argued by Corwin’s expert James M. Green, NYCBS is proven at trial to have unjustifiably ignored sound engineering practices and placed camouflaged wheel stops in the direct and foreseeable paths of cyclists, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that their conduct was sufficiently reckless and/or aggravated to meet the gross negligence standard. The defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Corwin’s gross negligence claims is therefore denied.

CONCLUSION

Corwin’s motion for summary judgment on defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on the Release Agreement is GRANTED as to the City and DENIED as to NYCBS. Corwin’s motion for summary judgment on defendants’ affirmative defenses relating to his non-use of a helmet is GRANTED in part; defendants may not argue that this is relevant to questions [**90] of liability to establish comparative negligence or assumption of the risk, but if liability is found, may argue that Corwin failed to mitigate damages. The City’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED. NYCBS’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part; because the Court finds that the Release Agreement is enforceable, Corwin’s common-law negligence and professional negligence and malpractice claims are dismissed, but he may still maintain gross negligence claims. APD’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED. Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED.

The Clerk of Court is respectfully directed to terminate Dkt. Nos. 288, 295, 303, 304, 309, and 314 and terminate defendants Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC from the case.

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Sarah Netburn

SARAH NETBURN

United States Magistrate Judge

DATED: New York, New York

March 1, 2017


Moore v. North America Sports, Inc., et al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557

Moore v. North America Sports, Inc., et al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557

Brian Moore, as Personal Representative on behalf of the Estate of Bernard P. Rice, deceased, Plaintiff, vs. North America Sports, Inc., et al., Defendants.

CASE NO. 5:08cv343/RS/MD

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA, PANAMA CITY DIVISION

2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557

June 26, 2009, Decided

June 26, 2009, Filed

CORE TERMS: summary judgment, decedent, affirmative defenses, online, registration, fault, box, tortfeasor, choice of law, necessary to complete, sanctioning, registered, printout, Black’s Law Dictionary, last act, material fact, nonmoving party, sole cause, concurrent tortfeasors, health care providers, undisputed, off-campus, designated, causation, lawsuit, movant’s, waived, willful, usage, medical attention

COUNSEL: [*1] For BRIAN MOORE, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF BERNARD P. RICE, DECEASED, Plaintiff: DIANA SANTA MARIA, LEAD ATTORNEY, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF BERNARD P. RICE, DECEASE, FORT LAUDERDALE, FL; DOROTHY CLAY SIMS, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICE OF DOROTHY CLAY SIMS ESQ, OCALA, FL; JOEL S PERWIN, LEAD ATTORNEY, JOEL S PERWIN PA – MIAMI FL, MIAMI, FL; JOHN N BOGGS, BOGGS & FISHEL – PANAMA CITY FL, PANAMA CITY, FL.

For NORTH AMERICA SPORTS INC, doing business as WORLD TRIATHLON CORPORATION, doing business as IRONMAN TRIATHLON, doing business as FORD IRONMAN FLORIDA, formerly known as IRONMAN NORTH AMERICA, USA TRIATHLON, A FOREIGN COMPANY, Defendants: JASON BERNARD ONACKI, LEAD ATTORNEY, COLE SCOTT & KISSANE PA – PENSACOLA FL, PENSACOLA, FL; LARRY ARTHUR MATTHEWS, LEAD ATTORNEY, MATTHEWS & HIGGINS LLC, PENSACOLA, FL; SHANE MICHAEL DEAN, DEAN & CAMPER PA – PENSACOLA FL, PENSACOLA, FL.

JUDGES: RICHARD SMOAK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: RICHARD SMOAK

OPINION

Order

Before me are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the Affirmative Defenses of Release (Doc. 46); Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 79); Plaintiff’s Motion for [*2] Partial Dismissal or for Partial Summary Judgment on the Defendants’ Sixth Affirmative Defense, Alleging Comparative Fault of Bay County Emergency Medical Services (Doc. 86); Plaintiff’s Motion in Limine to Exclude Reference of any Fault on the part of Bay County EMS or any other Non Party (Doc. 125); and Plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to File Reply (Doc. 144).

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The basic issue before the court on a motion for summary judgment is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-252, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2512, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). The moving party has the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact, and in deciding whether the movant has met this burden, the court must view the movant’s evidence and all factual inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970); Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). Thus, if reasonable minds could differ on the inferences arising from undisputed facts, then a court should deny summary judgment. Miranda v. B & B Cash Grocery Store, Inc., 975 F.2d 1518, 1534 (11th Cir. 1992) (citing Mercantile Bank & Trust v. Fidelity & Deposit Co., 750 F.2d 838, 841 (11th Cir. 1985)). However, a mere ‘scintilla’ of evidence supporting the nonmoving party’s position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the [*3] jury could reasonably find for that party. Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251, 106 S. Ct. at 2512).

II. FACTS

Decedent, Bernard Rice, registered online in Montana, and participated in the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon held in Panama City Beach, Florida on November 4, 2006. Defendant contends that Rice signed numerous waivers to participate in the race; Plaintiff denies that Rice signed any waivers. Decedent experienced distress in the swim course approximately half-way into the second 1.2 mile lap of the 2.4 mile swim course. He received medical attention, but the timing and nature of medical attention are in dispute. Rice died on November 7, 2006.

III. DUTY OWED TO PLAINTIFF

a. Assumption of Risk

Defendants contend that Rice voluntarily assumed the risk of participating in the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon. “When a participant volunteers to take certain chances he waives his right to be free from those bodily contacts inherent in the chances taken.Kuehner v. Green, 436 So. 2d 78, 80 (Fla. 1983). However, it is the jury’s function to determine whether a participant should have anticipated the particular risk, and whether the defendant made the activity as safe as possible. Id; O’Connell v. Walt Disney World Co., 413 So. 2d 444, 447 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1982). Therefore, summary judgment is not appropriate on this issue.

b. Sanctioning Body

Defendant [*4] USA Triathlon argues that it had no duty as the sanctioning organization of the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon. Defendants cite authority from Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York. In order for a sanctioning organization, or sponsoring organization, to be liable, it must have some control over the event. See Nova Southeastern University, Inc. v. Gross, 758 So. 2d 86 (Fla. 200) (university had duty to graduate student placed in specific off-campus internship which it knew to be unreasonably dangerous); D’Attilio v. Fifth Avenue Business Ass’n, Inc., 710 So.2d 117 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1998) (the party with control over land owes a duty, jury question whether defendant that coordinated and sponsored a fair on city streets, where city controlled amount of law enforcement, had a duty); Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So.2d 658 (Fla. 1982) (Principal and teacher had a duty to injured student because had the authority to control activities of school club even at a meeting held off-campus); Ass’n for Retarded Citizens-Volusia, Inc. v. Fletcher, 741 So.2d 520, 526 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1999) (camp sponsor could be found negligent for falling to tell lifeguard camper suffered from seizures). It is a question of fact for the jury whether Defendant USA Triathlon had sufficient control over the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon because of its sanction of the event to have a duty to the participants. Summary judgment is not appropriate.

IV. WAIVERS

Defendant moves for summary judgment based on [*5] the waivers decedent allegedly executed. Plaintiff moves for summary judgment on Defendants’ third and fourth affirmative defenses which read as follows.

THIRD AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

53. On November 6, 2005, and prior to Plaintiff’s claim in this action accruing, Decedent waived any and all claims against USAT and NA Sports. A copy of the waiver is attached as Exhibit “A.” Decedent also entered two additional waivers during race registration. Unsigned copies of the waivers entered by Decedent are attached as Exhibits “B” (although designated as a 2007 waiver, it is otherwise the same as the 2006 waiver executed by Decedent) and “C.” By entering these waivers, Decedent waived the Plaintiff’s ability to bring the claims in the instant lawsuit. Fla.R.Civ.P. § 1.110(d).

FOURTH AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

54. On November 6, 2005, and prior to accrual of Plaintiff’s claims in this action, Decedent entered a release of any and all claims against USAT and NA Sports relating to the 2006 Ford Ironman Triathlon. A copy of the release is attached as Exhibit “A.” Decedent also entered two additional releases during race registration. Unsigned copies of the releases entered by Decedent are attached as Exhibits “B” (although [*6] designated as a 2007 release, it is otherwise the same as the 2006 release executed by Decedent) and “C.” By entering these releases, Decedent has precluded Plaintiff’s claims in the instant lawsuit. Fla.R.Civ.P. § 1.110(d).

a. Choice of Law

First, the choice of law governing the waiver must be determined, because the applicable law might not support enforcement of the waiver, which would make the waivers irrelevant. As for the appropriate contract law to apply, the parties agree that Florida choice of law analysis is applicable.
See Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496, 61 S. Ct. 1020, 1021, 85 L. Ed. 1477 (1941).
Both parties also agree that under Florida law, “lex loci contractus” provides that the laws of the jurisdiction where the contract was executed govern interpretation of the substantive issues regarding the contract. Prime Ins. Syndicate, Inc. v. B.J. Handley Trucking, Inc., 363 F.3d 1089, 1091 (11th Cir. 2004). The determination of where a contract was executed is fact-intensive and requires a determination of “where the last act necessary to complete the contract [was] done.Id. at 1092-93 (quoting Pastor v. Union Cent. Life Ins. Co., 184 F.Supp.2d 1301, 1305 (S.D. Fla. 2002)). The last act necessary to complete a contract is the offeree’s communication of acceptance to the offeror. Id. (citing Buell v. State, 704 So.2d 552, 555 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997)). Here, it is undisputed that the last act necessary to complete the contract occurred in Montana.

Plaintiff points to Montana law, which states, “All contracts [*7] which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, for willful injury to the person or property of another, or for violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.” Mont. Code Ann. § 28-2-702 (2007). However, Plaintiff fails to take into account that first the applicable choice-of-law must be determined, and then the contract is interpreted according to that state’s substantive law. See Charles L. Bowman & Co. v. Erwin, 468 F.2d 1293, 1295 (5th Cir. 1972); See Shapiro v. Associated Intern. Ins. Co., 899 F.2d 1116, 1118 (11th Cir. 1990).

Defendants point to Montana law, which states, “A contract is to be interpreted according to the law and usage of the place where it is to be performed or, if it does not indicate a place of performance, according to the law and usage of the place where it is made.” Mont. Code Ann. § 28-3-102 (2007). The race occurred in Florida; therefore, Florida law applies. In Florida, waivers or exculpatory clauses, although not looked upon with favor, are valid and enforceable if the intent to relieve a party of its own negligence is clear and unequivocal. Banfield v. Louis, 589 So.2d 441, 444-45 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1991) (citing L. Luria & Son, Inc. v. Alarmtec Int’l Corp., 384 So.2d 947 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1980); O’Connell v. Walt Disney World Co., 413 So.2d 444 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1982); Middleton v. Lomaskin, 266 So.2d 678 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1972)).

b. Online Waivers

On November 6, 2005, Rice registered online for the 2006 Ford Ironman Florida Triathlon, which includes two waivers. In order to properly execute both waivers, the participant had [*8] to check two separate boxes. While both sides agree that Rice registered himself online, it is in dispute whether the boxes were checked. The first waiver only applies to the active.com website, which advertises various races and allows participants to fill out online registrations. However, the website has nothing to do with the actual race and is not a party to this suit. The second online waiver applies to Defendants. Defendants contend that the online registration could not be completed unless the boxes were checked, but Plaintiff contends that the printout from the online registration provided by Defendants does not contain any checked boxes (or any boxes). Whether the online wavier was properly executed is clearly in dispute.

Defendants provide a printout showing an electronic signature. However, in order to properly execute the waiver, the waivers state that the participant must check the box. Defendants fail to provide any evidence to show a connection between checking the box and an electronic signature appearing in the printout. This lack of evidence leaves us just short of the finish line. Had a proper showing been made, summary judgment for the Defendants might have been [*9] warranted. Whether the online wavier was properly executed is a material fact for the jury to decide.

c. Onsite Registration

Defendants claim that Rice would have been required to sign two additional waivers in order to complete the onsite registration and be allowed to participate. Defendants do not provide signed copies of these waivers, only blank copies. Plaintiff denies that Rice signed any waiver on the day of the race. The fact that Defendants cannot provide a signed waiver does not exclude testimony on this matter; it merely goes to the weight of the evidence for the jury to consider.

V. BAY MEDICAL

Plaintiff moves for dismissal, or summary judgment, on Defendants’ sixth affirmative defense, which alleges that Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services was “the sole cause or contributing cause of the injuries and harm alleged by Plaintiff.” Plaintiff repeats the exact same argument in its Motion in Limine to Exclude Reference of any Fault on the part of Bay County EMS or any other Non Party (Doc. 125). Plaintiff argues that this is not an affirmative defense, but rather is a traditional basis for denying causation, on the ground that another entity was solely at fault. An affirmative [*10] defense is a defendant’s assertion of facts and arguments that, if true, will defeat the plaintiff’s claim, even if all the allegations in the complaint are true. Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004). Defendants contend that Florida Statute § 768.81(3) permits a defendant to apportion fault to a non-party whose negligence contributed to the plaintiff’s injury or death.

The Florida Supreme Court held that “apportion[ing] the loss between initial and subsequent rather than joint or concurrent tortfeasors…cannot be done.” Stuart v. Hertz Corp., 351 So.2d 703, 706 (Fla. 1977). Concurrent tortfeasors are two or more tortfeasors whose simultaneous actions cause injury to a third party. Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004). Here, Defendants and Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services are not concurrent tortfeasors, because their actions could not have occurred simultaneously. Florida law clearly states:

“[O]riginal tortfeasor is liable to victim not only for original injuries received as result of initial tort, but also for additional or aggravated injuries resulting from subsequent negligence of health care providers, even though original tortfeasor and subsequently negligent health care providers are independent tortfeasors. Ass’n for Retarded Citizens-Volusia, Inc. v. Fletcher, 741 So.2d 520, 526 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1999).

Therefore, Defendants’ sixth affirmative defense is dismissed. [*11] Defendants are not entitled to include Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services on the verdict form for the jury’s consideration, but Defendants are permitted to argue that Bay Medical Emergency Medical Services were the sole cause of the injuries and harm alleged by Plaintiff as it relates to causation.

VI. CONCLUSION

IT IS ORDERED:

1. Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the Affirmative Defenses of Release (Doc. 46) is denied.

2. Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 79) is denied.

3. Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Dismissal or for Partial Summary Judgment on the Defendants’ Sixth Affirmative Defense, Alleging Comparative Fault of Bay County Emergency Medical Services (Doc. 86) is granted.

4. Plaintiff’s Motion in Limine to Exclude Reference of any Fault on the part of Bay County EMS or any other Non Party (Doc. 125) is denied as moot.

5. Plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to File Reply (Doc. 144) is denied as moot.

ORDERED on June 26, 2009.

/s/ Richard Smoak

RICHARD SMOAK

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, individually, and as next best friend of Ashley Silva, a minor, Plaintiffs, vs. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Defendant. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Third-Party Plaintiff, vs. Jeffrey Wilkerson, Third-Party Defendant.

Case No. 06-10116-CIV-MOORE/GARBER

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA

2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

June 27, 2007, Decided

June 27, 2007, Entered

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Judgment entered by, Motion denied by Tassinari v. Key W. Water Tours, L.C., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80872 (S.D. Fla., Oct. 31, 2007)

PRIOR HISTORY: Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43858 (S.D. Fla., June 18, 2007)

CORE TERMS: watercraft, maritime law’s, collision, boater, fault, summary judgment, boating, unseaworthiness, admiralty, maritime, handling, genuine, rental, vessel, safe, statutory rule, tour guide, public policy, per se, exoneration, privity, renters, ship, panicked, State Boating Law Administrators Betz Depo, liability arising, negligence per se, negligence cases, statutes enacted, standard of care

COUNSEL: [*1] For Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, an individual and next best friend of Ashley Silva, Ashley Silva, a minor, Plaintiffs: Domingo Carlos Rodriguez, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rodriguez Aronson & Essington, Miami, FL; Patricia Leigh McMillan Minoux, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rodriguez, Aronson & Essington, P.A., Coral Gables, FL.

For Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida Corporation, Defendant: Bruce Michael Trybus, Joshua William Brankamp, Cooney Mattson Lance Blackburn Richards & O’Connor, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

For Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida Corporation, ThirdParty Plaintiff: Joshua William Brankamp, Cooney Mattson Lance Blackburn Richards & O’Connor, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

JUDGES: K. MICHAEL MOORE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: K. MICHAEL MOORE

OPINION

ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT AS TO DEFENDANT’S LIABILITY

THIS CAUSE came before the Court upon Defendant Key West Water Tours, L.C.’s Motion for Summary Judgment (DE # 44) and Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment as to Defendant’s Liability (DE # 46).

UPON CONSIDERATION of the Motions, the pertinent portions of the record, and being otherwise fully advised in the premises, the Court enters the following Order.

I. Background

Plaintiffs are residents [*2] of Massachusetts. Defendant Key West Water Tours, L.C. (“Defendant” or “Water Tours”) is a Florida corporation doing business in Monroe County, Florida, as a personal watercraft (jet skis and/or waverunners) rental agency and provider of guided personal watercraft tours to the public. On or about July 9, 2004, Defendant rented personal watercraft to Plaintiffs at or near Key West, Monroe County, Florida. Defendant then took a group of personal watercraft renters, including Plaintiffs and Third-Party Defendant Jeffrey Wilkerson, on a guided tour from its marina out to the area’s surrounding waters.

During the tour, the watercraft operated by Third-Party Defendant Jeffrey Wilkerson collided with the watercraft operated by Plaintiffs Ronald Tassinari and Ashley Silva, injuring Plaintiffs Ronald Tassinari and Ashley Silva.

Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on the following issues: (1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness; (2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence [*3] or unseaworthiness; (3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and (4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement. Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Defendant violated certain Florida State statutes making Defendant negligent per se. Plaintiffs further argue that if Defendant is negligent per se, then Defendant is not entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft.

II. Standard of Review

The applicable standard for reviewing a summary judgment motion is unambiguously stated in Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure:

The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith 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 judgment as a matter of law.

Summary judgment may be entered only where there is no genuine issue of material fact. Twiss v. Kury, 25 F.3d 1551, 1554 (11th Cir. 1994). The moving party has the burden of meeting this exacting standard. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970). [*4] An issue of fact is “material” if it is a legal element of the claim under the applicable substantive law which might affect the outcome of the case. Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997). It is “genuine” if the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. Id.

In applying this standard, the district court must view the evidence and all factual inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Id. However, the nonmoving party:

may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party’s pleading, but the adverse party’s response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmovant’s] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [nonmovant].” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

III. Discussion

A. The Pennsylvania Rule and Florida Statutory Law

Plaintiffs argue that Defendant is negligent per se because Defendant violated [*5] Florida State statutes enacted to protect the safety of personal watercraft renters. Pl. Mot. at 9-14. Federal maritime law’s unique version of negligence per se is embodied in what is called the “Pennsylvania Rule.” In re Superior Constr. Co., 445 F.3d 1334, 1340 (11th Cir. 2006). “Under the Pennsylvania Rule, when a ship at the time of an allision is in actual violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent allisions, it is no more than a reasonable presumption that the fault, if not the sole cause, was at least a contributory cause of the disaster and in such a case the burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been.” Id. (citing The Pennsylvania, 86 U.S. 125, 136, 22 L. Ed. 148 (1873)).

Defendant argues that State law does not apply in a case brought under federal maritime law; therefore, the Pennsylvania rule does not apply to violations of Florida statutes. Def. Resp. at 6-8. However, the Seventh Circuit recognized that “[s]everal courts have applied the Pennsylvania rule to the violation of state statutes or local ordinances.” Complaint of Wasson, 495 F.2d 571, 583 (7th Cir. 1974) [*6] (citations omitted); see also Protectus Alpha Nav. Co., Ltd. v. North Pacific Grain Growers, Inc., 767 F.2d 1379, 1382-83 (9th Cir. 1985) (violation of Washington State statute would support negligence per se).

Further, State law has been applied in admiralty cases where there is no direct conflict with established federal maritime law. Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Insur. Co., 348 U.S. 310, 75 S. Ct. 368, 99 L. Ed. 337 (1955); 1 T. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law § 4-2 (4th ed.); see also Smith v. Haggerty, 169 F. Supp. 2d 376 (E.D. Pa. 2001) (applying State law regulations to negligence claims arising from a boating accident) (vacated on other grounds). The Supreme Court has recognized that “[i]n the field of maritime contracts, as in that of maritime torts, the National Government has left much regulatory power in the States.” Wilburn Boat, 348 U.S. at 313 (the Supreme Court ultimately declined to adopt a federal admiralty rule governing insurance policy provisions and decided to leave that area up to State regulation).

In the present case, Plaintiffs cite to several Florida statutes that were enacted, in part, in response to an act of Congress intended to “encourage greater State participation and [*7] uniformity in boating safety efforts, and particularly to permit the States to assume the greater share of boating safety education, assistance, and enforcement activities.” 46 U.S.C. § 13102 (2007). The Court is not persuaded that statutes enacted in response to Congress’s stated purpose of permitting the states to assume more responsibility in regulation of recreational boat safety are inapplicable merely because they were enacted by a state government.

Further, Defendant has not pointed to any established federal maritime law directly conflicting with and preempting these State statutes. In cases where a State statute conflicts with established federal maritime law or would materially frustrate a tenant of admiralty law, the State statutes should generally not be applied. Steelmet, Inc. v. Caribe Towing Corp., 779 F.2d 1485, 1488 (11th Cir. 1986); Branch v. Schumann, 445 F.2d 175 (5th Cir. 1971); Miami Valley Broadcasting Corp. v. Lang, 429 So. 2d 1333 (Fla. 4th DCA 1983). Defendant overstates the holdings in Branch and Lang, arguing that State law can never be used in maritime negligence cases. Branch and Lang merely stand for the principle that State law cannot change established [*8] substantive maritime law. In Branch and Lang, the State law would have imposed a stricter burden than that established by federal maritime law; because it conflicted with federal maritime law and would have effectively changed the accepted maritime standard of care, the State law could not be applied. The Florida statutes at issue were not designed to circumvent federal maritime law or substitute a stricter standard of care in negligence cases; rather, they were designed to help regulate recreational boating safety. The Pennsylvania rule is an established principle of federal maritime law, which may be applied to violations of Florida State statutes; this application does not, in and of itself, conflict with federal maritime law.

Florida Statute § 327.39 makes it unlawful for the owner of a personal watercraft to “authorize or knowingly permit the [watercraft] to be operated by any person who has not received instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft, in compliance with rules established by the commission.” Florida Statute § 327.54 requires that the instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater be delivered by a person [*9] who has “successfully completed a boater safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and this state.” These statutes, under Chapter 327 Vessel Safety, were enacted to protect boater safety, including the prevention of collisions. Further, these statutes were enacted, in part, to protect the safety of renters of watercraft (see e.g. § 327.54), so Plaintiffs are among the class of persons intended to be protected by the statutes.

In this case, Defendant owned or had control over the personal watercraft involved in the collision. At the time of the collision, Defendant employed Chris Betz (“Betz”) as a personal watercraft tour guide and allowed Betz to provide the safety instruction to persons operating the personal watercraft on the tour, including Jeffrey Wilkerson. Def. Mot. at 4-6. Betz admitted in his deposition that he had never completed a boater’s safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. Betz Depo. at 12. Co-owner Gerald Grogan admitted that Key West Water Tours does not require its tour guides to have passed a safe boating course. Grogan Depo. at 19. Therefore, Defendant violated Florida [*10] statutes designed to protect boater safety and prevent collisions, by entrusting personal watercraft to persons who were not instructed in the safe handling of the personal watercraft as the law requires. Co-owner Jeremy Ray indicated that he was not very familiar with the Florida statutes at issue. Ray Depo. at 9, 20-21. However, ignorance of the law is not a defense.

Applying the Pennsylvania rule, because Defendant violated statutory rules intended to prevent boat collisions, the Court presumes that Defendant’s fault caused the collision and the burden shifts to Defendant to show this violation could not have caused the accident. Defendant argues that “[t]he sole cause of the subject accident was the negligent operation of a personal watercraft by Third-Party Defendant Jeffrey Wilkerson.” Def. Mot. at 11. Defendant asserts that “[t]here is not a single additional instruction that would have prevented the subject accident.” Id. Betz gave safety instructions. Betz Depo. at 32-33. According to Betz, Jeffrey Wilkerson “was coming in way too fast . . . just like an old lady in a car, panicked, eyes wide open, completely wide open, staring straight at the group and a panic in his face [*11] because he’s going too fast, and never let off the throttle until he hit.” Def. Mot. at 7. Defendant further asserts that Defendant had never had an accident previously and that Jeffrey Wilkerson had operated the watercraft without problem for about two hours before the accident. It is undisputed that Jeffrey Wilkerson panicked and that the watercraft was at full throttle until impact. However, greater knowledge often gives a greater sense of control. Therefore, it is possible that if Jeffrey Wilkerson had received proper instruction in handling the watercraft, he might not have panicked. Defendant has not shown that its violation of statutory rules “could not” have contributed to the accident. Therefore, Defendant’s fault is presumed.

C. Exoneration From Liability

“An owner will be exonerated from liability when he, his vessel, and crew are found to be completely free of fault.” In re Complaint of Caribbean Sea Transport, 748 F.2d 622, 626 (11th Cir. 1984) (citing Tittle v. Aldacosta, 544 F.2d 752, 755 (5th Cir. 1977)). As discussed above, Defendant cannot be said to be completely free of fault; therefore, Defendant is not entitled to exoneration.

D. Limitation of Liability Under Limitation [*12] Act

The Eleventh Circuit has held that the determination of whether the owner of a vessel is entitled to limitation of liability requires a two-step analysis: (1) “the court must determine what acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident;” and (2) “the court must determine whether the ship owner had knowledge or privity of those same acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness.” Keys Jet Ski, Inc. v. Kays, 893 F.2d 1225, 1230 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Farrell Lines, Inc. v. Jones, 530 F.2d 7, 10 (5th Cir. 1976)). “Privity and knowledge are deemed to exist where the owner had the means of knowledge or, as otherwise stated, where knowledge would have been obtained from reasonable inspection.” China Union Lines, Ltd. v. A.O. Andersen & Co., 364 F.2d 769, 792-93 (5th Cir. 1966). Under the Pennsylvania rule, as discussed above, Defendant’s violation of Florida statutes regarding proper instruction in safely operating the personal watercraft is presumed to have caused the collision. The owners of Key West Water Tours, L.C. knew, should have known, and could have discovered upon minimal investigation whether its tour guides, who they hired, had completed [*13] approved boater safety courses and whether the requirements of Florida law regarding proper safety and instruction were being met. Therefore, Defendant is not entitled to limitation of liability to the value of the watercraft.

E. Waiver and Hold Harmless Provisions of the Rental Agreement

“[A] clause in an agreement exempting a party from tort liability is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if the agreement would exempt a party from liability arising from that party’s failure to comply with a safety statute, as the safety obligation created by the statute for such purpose is an obligation owed to the public at large and is not within the power of any private individual to waive.” Johnson v. New River Scenic Whitewater Tours, Inc., 313 F. Supp. 2d 621, 631 (S.D.W. Va 2004) (citations omitted); Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 comment a (1981) (“If, for example, a statute imposes a standard of conduct, a court may decide on the basis of an analysis of the statute, that a term exempting a party from liability for failure to conform to that standard is unenforceable.”). In this case, the Florida statutes violated are boater safety statutes imposing a standard of conduct on [*14] owners and liveries of vessels. It would be against public policy to enforce contract clauses purporting to exempt liveries from liability for violating these statutes. While the release and waiver provisions in the rental contracts are sufficient to release Defendant from liability for ordinary negligence, the provisions are invalid as against public policy when applied to liability arising from violation of these statutes.

IV. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, it is

ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Defendant Key West Water Tours, L.C.’s Motion for Summary Judgment (DE # 44) is DENIED. It is further

ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment as to Defendant’s Liability (DE # 46) is GRANTED. The pretrial conference to discuss remaining issues will be held as scheduled, on June 28, 2007.

DONE AND ORDERED in Chambers at Miami, Florida, this 27th day of June, 2007.

K. MICHAEL MOORE

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


Kendall v. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. d/b/a White Mountain Attractions Association, 2017 DNH 126; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95362

Kendall v. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. d/b/a White Mountain Attractions Association, 2017 DNH 126; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95362

Misha Kendall v. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. d/b/a White Mountain Attractions Association

Civil No. 16-cv-428-LM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

2017 DNH 126; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95362

June 21, 2017, Decided

June 21, 2017, Filed

CORE TERMS: gross negligence, boardwalk, negligent misrepresentation, immunity, river, boulder, leave to amend, futile, willful, citation omitted, immunity statutes, misrepresentation, nonprofit, website, bridge, repeal, trails, safe, common law right, misrepresentation claim, misconduct, construe, forest, entity, wanton, amend, path, internal quotation marks, formations, futility

COUNSEL: [*1] For Misha Kendall, Plaintiff: Benjamin T. King, LEAD ATTORNEY, Megan E. Douglass, Douglas Leonard & Garvey PC, Concord, NH.

For The Society for the Protection of NH Forests, White Mountains Attractions Association, Defendants: Robert E. Murphy, Jr., Wadleigh Starr & Peters PLLC, Manchester, NH.

JUDGES: Landya McCafferty, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Landya McCafferty

OPINION

ORDER

Misha Kendall brings suit against The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountain Recreation Association, Inc. alleging claims for negligence and gross negligence arising from her injuries and property damage sustained when she fell on a boardwalk at Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves in Woodstock, New Hampshire. Defendants move to dismiss the complaint (doc. no. 13).

In response, Kendall objects and moves for leave to amend her complaint (doc. no. 20) to add factual allegations, remove her claim for negligence, and add a claim for negligent misrepresentation based on defendants’ statement on their website. Defendants object to the motion to amend.

The court first addresses Kendall’s motion for leave to amend her complaint, and then turns to defendants’ motion to dismiss.

I. Motion to Amend

In her proposed [*2] amended complaint, Kendall alleges claims for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation. Defendants argue that the proposed amendment would be futile because they are immune from liability for both claims under 1917 New Hampshire Laws Chapter 19, § 1 (“1917 Law”) and because the proposed amended complaint fails to state a plausible claim for relief. Defendants also argue that the motion to amend is untimely.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2), the court will grant leave to amend a complaint “when justice so requires.” Despite the broad standard, a “court may deny leave to amend for a variety of reasons, including futility, bad faith, undue delay, or a dilatory motive on the movant’s part.” In re Curran, 855 F.3d 19, 27-28 (1st Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

A. Timeliness

Defendants argue that Kendall’s motion should be denied because of undue delay, based on the time between when Kendall filed the original complaint and when she filed the motion for leave to amend.

Kendall brought suit as a pro se party, filing her complaint in state court on August 8, 2016. After defendants removed the case to this court, counsel entered an appearance on Kendall’s behalf on November 4, 2016. On December 7, 2016, defendant filed a motion to dismiss. [*3] Counsel responded to defendants’ motion to dismiss and then moved to amend on January 19, 2017. As such, the timing does not show undue delay, and defendants have not shown unfair prejudice that would result from allowing the amended complaint.

B. Futility

In the proposed amended complaint, Kendall alleges claims for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation.1 Defendants contend that the proposed claims are futile.

1 Kendall also substitutes White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. as the correct legal name for White Mountains Attraction Association.

1. Standard of Review

In assessing, before discovery, whether the claims in a proposed amended complaint are futile, the court uses the same standard that applies to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Curran, 855 F.3d at 28; Adorno v. Crowley Towing & Transp. Co., 443 F.3d 122, 126 (1st Cir. 2006). The court takes the factual allegations in the proposed amended complaint as true and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Morgan v. Town of Lexington, 823 F.3d 737, 742 (1st Cir. 2016). Then, based on that view of the proposed amended complaint, the court determines whether the plaintiff has stated a plausible claim for relief. Curran, 855 F.3d at 28.

2. Background

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (the “Society”) is a nonprofit corporation which owns the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves (“Lost River”). White Mountain Attractions Association (“White Mountain”) operates Lost River. White Mountain manages Lost River’s [*4] website, and the Society contributes to and approves the website’s content.

In her proposed amended complaint, Kendall alleges that she was looking for an outdoor activity that would be safe for her and her two six-year-old children. Kendall read about Lost River on its website and noted the descriptions and information provided. In particular, Kendall read that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided “a ‘safe way’ to view rock formations.” Doc. no. 20-1 at ¶ 9.

On August 8, 2013, Kendall decided to go to Lost River with her children. She was an experienced hiker and dressed accordingly. When she and her children arrived, she paid the entrance fee, and they entered Lost River.

After walking down a sandy path through the forest, Kendall and the children came to a boardwalk and a bridge over a river. The boardwalk was crowded and no more than four feet wide. The boardwalk turned sharply after the bridge on the way to the “Sun Altar” cave. Because of the turn, the crowd, a sign giving information about the cave, and a large tree, Kendall could not see ahead on the boardwalk after the bridge.

Just after the turn, a large boulder extended through the middle of the boardwalk to a height [*5] of about a foot. The boardwalk was constructed around this boulder. There were no signs to warn of the boulder in the boardwalk. Kendall did not see the boulder in her path, tripped over it, and fell, shattering her elbow. Her digital camera was destroyed, and her clothing had to be cut off of her at the hospital. She has permanent damage to her elbow that has resulted in disability.

3. Discussion

Defendants contend that Kendall’s claims for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation are futile for the following reasons: (a) defendants are immune from liability for both claims under the 1917 Law; (b) no claim for gross negligence exists under New Hampshire law; (c) the statement about the boardwalks being safe is not a misrepresentation of fact but merely an opinion; and (d) Kendall does not allege damages that can be recovered for negligent misrepresentation. Kendall responded to the futility arguments in her reply.

a. Immunity

There are two immunity statutes at issue in this case, and the parties dispute which one applies to the claims in Kendall’s proposed amended complaint.

In 1917, the New Hampshire legislature provided the Society with immunity from liability for any negligence [*6] in constructing or maintaining paths, trails, and bridges. The 1917 Law states:

Section 1. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, being a corporation organized under the laws of this state for the purpose of encouraging the protection and preservation of forests and other natural resources of this state for the public benefit, and having in pursuance of its corporate purposes acquired several properties, including those known as Sunapee, Monadnock and Lost River reservations, which it has made accessible for use by the public by the building of paths, trails, bridges, and other structures, is hereby exempted from all civil liability in any suit or action by or on behalf of any person injured or claiming to have been injured through the negligent act or omission of said society or of any officer, agent, or employee thereof in constructing or maintaining such paths, trails, bridges, or other structures upon any property now held or hereafter acquired by it for such purposes.

(emphasis added).

A more recent statute, RSA 508:14, II, provides immunity to any nonprofit entity, such as the Society, “that constructs, maintains, or improves trails for public recreational use,” from liability “for [*7] personal injury or property damage.” This more recent immunity statute, however, provides an exception for “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.” RSA 508:14, II states:

Any individual, corporation, or other nonprofit legal entity, or any individual who performs services for a nonprofit entity, that constructs, maintains, or improves trails for public recreational use shall not be liable for personal injury or property damage in the absence of gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.

(emphasis added).

Defendants contend that Kendall’s claims are futile because the 1917 Law gives them immunity from any claim involving negligence, which they contend includes claims for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation. Defendants argue that because the 1917 Law is more specific, as it applies directly to the Society rather than to all nonprofit entities, it controls over the more general immunity provision in RSA 508:14, II. Not surprisingly, Kendall argues that RSA 508:14, II, and not the 1917 Law, applies to the claims in her proposed amended complaint. Because RSA 508:14, II provides an exception for claims based on allegations of gross negligence, such as the claims she alleges in her proposed amended [*8] complaint, Kendall asserts that defendants are not entitled to immunity.

At first glance, one might conclude that in enacting RSA 508:14, II, the New Hampshire legislature repealed the 1917 Law by implication. That is, the more recent immunity statute applies to a far broader spectrum of landowners, which would include the Society. The doctrine of “repeal by implication” is generally disfavored, however, especially where, as here, the more recent statute contains no expression of a legislative intent to repeal the 1917 Law. See generally Branch v. Smith, 538 U.S. 254, 273, 123 S. Ct. 1429, 155 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2003) (holding that “repeals by implication are not favored” unless there is “a clearly expressed congressional intention” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)); Diaz-Ramos v. Hyundai Motor Co., 501 F.3d 12, 16-17 (1st Cir. 2007) (“A general law does not repeal a special law unless such repeal is expressly stated or clearly arises from the legislative intent.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Moreover, a court should avoid applying the disfavored “repeal by implication” doctrine where it is possible to read two laws as consistent with one another. Indeed, the New Hampshire Supreme Court directs that where “reasonably possible, statutes should be construed as consistent with each other.” EnergyNorth Nat. Gas, Inc. v. City of Concord, 164 N.H. 14, 16, 48 A.3d 960 (2012) (quoting In re Union Tel. Co., 160 N.H. 309, 319, 999 A.2d 336 (2010)) (internal [*9] quotation marks omitted). Therefore, if possible, the court should construe the 1917 Law and RSA 508:14, II “so that they do not contradict each other, and so that they will lead to reasonable results and effectuate the legislative purpose of the statutes.” Soraghan v. Mt. Cranmore Ski Resort, Inc., 152 N.H. 399, 405, 881 A.2d 693 (2005) (internal citation omitted).

Another rule of statutory construction at play here calls for the court to narrowly construe immunity statutes. See, e.g., Estate of Gordon-Couture v. Brown, 152 N.H. 265, 267, 876 A.2d 196 (2005). Specifically, the rule requires the court to give a narrow construction to the term “negligent” in the 1917 Law because the Law restricts the common law right to recover for injuries caused by another’s negligence. Id. As the New Hampshire Supreme Court explained, a court must:

strictly interpret statutes that are in derogation of the common law. While a statute may abolish a common law right, there is a presumption that the legislature has no such purpose. If such a right is to be taken away, it must be expressed clearly by the legislature. Accordingly, immunity provisions barring the common law right to recover are strictly construed.

Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 291, 923 A.2d 198 (2007) (internal citations omitted); see also Dolbeare v. City of Laconia, 168 N.H. 52, 54, 120 A.3d 146 (2015) (immunity statutes “in derogation of the common law right to recover, are strictly construed”).

In short, there are [*10] two rules of statutory construction that govern this dispute: courts should strictly construe immunity statutes and, where reasonably possible, courts should construe statutes as consistent with one another. Applying these principles, the court narrowly interprets the 1917 Law’s use of the term “negligent” to exclude gross negligence and wanton or willful conduct. Such a construction renders the scope of the immunity provided in 1917 Law consistent with the scope of immunity provided in RSA 508:14, II.

Defendants contend that New Hampshire law does not recognize a cause of action for gross negligence and, therefore, the term “negligent” in the 1917 Law necessarily includes gross negligence. In support of that assertion, they rely on Barnes v. N.H. Karting Ass’n, Inc., 128 N.H. 102, 509 A.2d 151 (1986), and the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s statement that “New Hampshire law does not distinguish causes of action based on ordinary and gross negligence.” Id. at 108.

By way of RSA 508:14, II, however, the New Hampshire legislature has included just such a distinction. In the context of nonprofit entities that maintain public trails for recreational use, the legislature has defined the scope of immunity by distinguishing between derivative degrees of negligence. Although the 1917 Law predates [*11] RSA 508:14, II, the court is not inclined to ignore the legislature’s unmistakably clear language exempting gross negligence from the scope of immunity in its more recent statute. Cf. Lee v. Chamberlain, 84 N.H. 182, 188, 148 A. 466 (1929) (“[W]here such doctrine is made the basis of a legislative rule, enforceable here, it cannot be treated as meaningless.”). Thus, the court finds that in the specific context at issue here, New Hampshire law does distinguish between ordinary and gross negligence.

For the reasons explained above, the court can–and therefore must–reasonably construe the 1917 Law and RSA 508:14, II as consistent with one another. As a practical matter, such a construction means that while both statutes provide immunity to defendants for claims based on allegations of negligence, neither provides immunity for claims based on allegations of gross negligence. The court therefore concludes that defendants are not entitled to immunity from Kendall’s claims to the extent they are based on allegations of gross negligence.

b. Merits of the Claims

Defendants contend that even if they are not immune from claims based on allegations of gross negligence or wanton or willful misconduct, the proposed amended complaint does not contain allegations that rise to that [*12] level. They also assert that the proposed amended complaint does not adequately allege a claim for negligent misrepresentation.

i. Gross Negligence

Gross negligence has been interpreted to mean “very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care” and willful misconduct has been interpreted as intentional conduct or recklessness that “carries a great chance of causing harm to another.” Beane v. Beane, 856 F. Supp. 2d 280, 307 (D.N.H. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Colston v. Boston & Me. R.R., 78 N.H. 284, 99 A. 649, 649 (1916) (noting “gross” in gross negligence means great and “willful” means with conscious knowledge).

In the proposed amended complaint, Kendall alleges that defendants built the boardwalk around an obstruction, a boulder that protrudes into the boardwalk approximately one foot higher than the boardwalk. She also alleges that the boulder is in a dangerous location, just around a turn, and is obscured by a sign, a tree, and crowds of people using the boardwalk. She alleges that defendants placed no warnings about the boulder for the tourists to see before walking on the boardwalk. The proposed amended complaint alleges that the obstructed boardwalk constitutes an obvious danger, and that defendants acted with gross [*13] negligence in failing to remove or warn of the boulder.

Drawing all reasonable inferences in Kendall’s favor, the proposed amended complaint sufficiently alleges gross negligence. Accordingly, the doctrine of futility does not bar Kendall’s request for leave to amend her complaint to allege a claim based on gross negligence.

ii. Negligent Misrepresentation

Defendants also contend that the proposed amended complaint does not adequately allege a claim for negligent misrepresentation. Kendall’s negligent misrepresentation claim is based on defendants’ statement on their website that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided a “safe way” to view rock formations.

To state a claim for negligent misrepresentation, a plaintiff must allege facts that show “a negligent misrepresentation of a material fact by the defendant and justifiable reliance by the plaintiff.” Wyle v. Lees, 162 N.H. 406, 413, 33 A.3d 1187 (2011). Defendants contend that the alleged misrepresentation identified in the proposed amended complaint is merely an opinion, not a statement of fact, and, therefore, cannot be the basis of a negligent misrepresentation claim.

Although statements of opinion do not generally provide a proper basis for a claim for misrepresentation, [*14] under “certain circumstances, an opinion may constitute the basis of fraud or misrepresentation.” DePalantino v. DePalantino, 139 N.H. 522, 524, 658 A.2d 1207 (1995) (citing cases); see also Isaacs v. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Med. Ctr., No. 12-cv-040-LM, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54183, 2014 WL 1572559, at *16 (D.N.H. Apr. 18, 2014). At this early stage, the court cannot determine whether defendants’ alleged statement that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided a “safe way” to view rock formations is an actionable misrepresentation. See, e.g., Morris v. Princess Cruises, Inc., 236 F.3d 1061, 1067 (9th Cir. 2001) (“Whether a statement is an actionable statement of ‘fact’ or mere ‘puffing’ depends upon a number of factors, including the statement’s specificity, the speaker’s knowledge, the comparative levels of the speaker’s and the hearer’s knowledge, and whether the statement relates to the present or the future.”).2

2 Defendants also assert that the negligent misrepresentation claim is not based on allegations of gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct and, therefore, they are immune from liability under both the 1917 Law and RSA 508:14, II. Viewed generously, however, the proposed amended complaint alleges that on their website, defendants represented that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided a “safe way” to view rock formations despite obvious dangers. Whether defendants made the alleged misrepresentation with gross negligence requires factual development and cannot be determined at this stage of the litigation.

Defendants also contend that Kendall has not alleged damages that may be recovered for negligent misrepresentation. A plaintiff is entitled to her economic losses caused by a defendant’s negligent misrepresentation but is not entitled to damages for emotional distress. Crowley v. Global Realty, Inc., 124 N.H. 814, 817-18, 474 A.2d 1056 (1984).

Kendall makes no demand for damages in her proposed amended complaint that is specific to her negligent misrepresentation claim. Instead, at the conclusion of the proposed amended complaint, Kendall requests damages [*15] for medical expenses, lost wages and employment benefits, destroyed property, emotional distress and inconvenience, and loss of the enjoyment of life. Although she cannot recover for emotional distress and loss of the enjoyment of life under her claim for negligent misrepresentation, Kendall alleges other damages that are recoverable. Therefore, Kendall’s proposed negligent misrepresentation claim is not futile.

C. Result

The circumstances support allowing Kendall to amend her complaint. Defendants have not shown, at this stage of the case, that Kendall’s claims would be futile. Therefore, Kendall is granted leave to file her amended complaint.

II. Motion to Dismiss

Defendants moved to dismiss Kendall’s original complaint. When the amended complaint is filed, it will supersede the original complaint, making the motion to dismiss moot. Brait Builders Corp. v. Mass. Div. of Capital Asset Mgmt., 644 F.3d 5, 9 (1st Cir. 2011). For that reason, the motion to dismiss is denied as moot.

CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff’s motion for leave to amend (doc. no. 20) is granted. Plaintiff shall file the proposed amended complaint attached to document no. 20 as the amended complaint on or before June 23, 2017. Defendants’ motion to dismiss (doc. no. 13) is denied as moot.

[*16] SO ORDERED.

/s/ Landya McCafferty

Landya McCafferty

United States District Judge

June 21, 2017


Ho v Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

Ho v Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

[**1] Min-Sun Ho, Plaintiff, – v – Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, Defendant. INDEX NO. 150074/2016

150074/2016

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY

2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

January 2, 2018, Decided

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: climbing, bouldering, rock, gym’s, rope, harness, spotter, opined, climb, climber, falling, affirmation, feet, mat, climbed, sport, orientation, roommate, height, summary judgment, top, spotting, assumption of risk, instructor, padding, false sense of security, indoor, reply, quotation, skill

JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: Hon. Robert D. KALISH, Justice.

OPINION BY: Robert D. KALISH

OPINION

Motion by Defendant Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC pursuant to CPLR 3212 for an order granting summary judgment against Plaintiff Min-Sun Ho is granted.

BACKGROUND

I. Overview

Plaintiff brought this action seeking damages for injuries she sustained on October 12, 2015, while at Defendant’s bouldering gym, Steep Rock Bouldering. Plaintiff alleges, in sum and substance, that, due to the negligence of Defendant, she fell from Defendant’s gym’s indoor climbing wall and landed on her right arm, tearing ligaments and breaking a bone in the arm and elbow area, which required surgery. Defendant argues, in sum and substance, that Plaintiff assumed the risk of injury from a fall at its gym and that its gym provided an appropriate level of safety and protection for boulderers through warnings, notices, an orientation, equipment, and the nature of the climbing wall itself. As such, Defendant argues it had no further duty to Plaintiff. Plaintiff argues, in sum and substance, that she did not assume the risk of an injury from falling off of the climbing wall.

[**2] II. Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced the instant action against Defendant on January 5, 2016, [*2] by e-filing a summons and a complaint alleging a negligence cause of action. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit A.) Defendant answered on March 28, 2016, denying all the allegations in the complaint and asserting 21 affirmative defenses, including Plaintiff’s assumption of the risk. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit B.)

The examination before trial (“EBT”) of Plaintiff was held on February 14, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit E [Ho EBT].) The EBT of Defendant, taken of witness Vivian Kalea (“Kalea”), was held on February 23, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit F [Kalea EBT].) Plaintiff provided Defendant with her liability expert’s disclosure pursuant to CPLR 3101 (d) on or about March 27, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit G.) Plaintiff filed the note of issue in this action on May 4, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit J.)

On or about May 25, 2017, Defendant moved to strike Plaintiff’s note of issue. On or about May 30, 2017, Plaintiff cross-moved to preclude certain expert and medical testimony from Defendant at trial due to Defendant’s alleged failure to provide timely disclosures. Defendant provided Plaintiff with its liability expert’s disclosure pursuant to CPLR 3101 (d) on or about June 16, 2017. [*3] (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit H.) On June 29, 2017, Defendant noticed the instant motion On July 14, 2017, this Court ordered Defendant’s motion to strike and Plaintiff’s cross motion to preclude withdrawn per the parties’ stipulation, dated July 6, 2017.

Defendant now moves for an order pursuant to CPLR 3212 granting it summary judgment and dismissing this action with prejudice.

III. Plaintiff’s EBT

Plaintiff Min-Sun Ho stated that she and her roommate intended to climb the indoor wall at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015. (Ho EBT at 12, lines 17-23.) Plaintiff further stated that her roommate had joined Defendant’s gym several weeks prior to October 12, 2015. (Id. at 13, lines 12-13; at 14, lines 2-3, 13-25.) Plaintiff further stated that, prior to October 12, 2015, in high school, she took a rock climbing class once a week for a semester. (Id. at 15, lines 16-25.) Now in her thirties, Plaintiff stated that she was able to recall the class, the basic commands for climbing, and the techniques for climbing. (Id. at 20, lines 5-2.1; at 22, lines 17-21.)

[**3] Plaintiff stated that, on October 12, 2015, she looked up Defendant’s gym’s Facebook page and observed people climbing at Steep Rock Bouldering without ropes or harnesses. [*4] (Id. at 27, lines 7-11; at 29, lines 15-20.) Plaintiff further stated that she then signed up online for a one-month membership at Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 28, lines 15-20.) Plaintiff further stated that she had also heard from her roommate, before October 12, 2015, that there were no harnesses or ropes at Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 30, lines 6-13.) Plaintiff further stated that, on October 12, 2015, Plaintiff’s roommate again explained that Defendant’s gym does not have harnesses or ropes. (Id. at 29, line 25; at 30, lines 2-5.) Plaintiff stated she was not aware, prior to October 12, 2015, that the term “bouldering” refers to a form of rock climbing without harnesses or ropes. (Id. at 85, lines 2-7.)

Plaintiff stated that, upon arriving at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015, she observed a reception desk and a climbing wall to her left where she saw more than three people climbing. (Id. at 31, lines 17-23; at 32, line 25; at 33, lines 2-3.) Plaintiff further stated that she believed the climbing wall was about 15 feet tall. (Id. at 32, lines 4-20.) Plaintiff further stated that the receptionist asked if Plaintiff had rock climbed before and that she answered that she had, a long time ago. (Id. at 47, lines 2-8.) Plaintiff stated she signed [*5] an electronic waiver form at the reception desk. Plaintiff, at the time of the EBT, stated she did not recall having read any of the waiver except for the signature line. (Id. at 43, lines 11-19.)

Plaintiff stated that, after signing the waiver, she waited while the receptionist called a man over to Plaintiff and her roommate. Plaintiff stated she herself believed the man who came over was another Steep Rock Bouldering employee. (Id. at 45, lines 10-25; at 46, lines 2-4.) Plaintiff stated’ that the man told Plaintiff “something along the lines of that’s the wall as you can see, it’s self-explanatory.'” (Id. at 46, lines 11-12.) Plaintiff further stated that the man also told her “[t]hose are the bathrooms.” (Id. at 49, lines 2-3.) Plaintiff further stated that the man asked her if she had rock climbed before and that she answered “yeah, a while ago.” (Id. at 49, lines 7-10.) Plaintiff stated that the man did not say he was an instructor or take Plaintiff anywhere and that neither the man nor the receptionist said anything about an instructor. Plaintiff further stated that she did not have an orientation or an instructor at Defendant’s gym. (Id. at 47, lines 15-23; at 48, lines 21-25.) Plaintiff further stated she that did not see any instructional [*6] videos. (Id. at 80, lines 19-22.) Plaintiff further stated that she had felt comfortable not having an instructor and climbing the walls without any harnesses or ropes. (Id. at 81, lines 17-22.)

[**4] Plaintiff stated that, after speaking with the man, she changed into climbing shoes which she stated she recalled borrowing from Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 48, lines 5-20.) Plaintiff further stated that she then put her and her roommate’s belongings away in a cubby and started getting ready to climb. (Id. at 49, lines 13-18.) Plaintiff stated that she had observed mats in front of the climbing wall on the floor. (Id. at 49, lines 19-24.) Plaintiff stated that she had further observed “quite a few” people who she thought were other climbers and their friends climbing the wall or watching and giving tips on holds. (Id. at 50, lines 5-21; at 55, lines 6-10.)

Plaintiff stated she was told before she started climbing that the holds on the climbing wall are tagged according to their difficulty and that the levels of difficulty marked “V0 or V1” are the “easiest.” (Id. at 54, lines 2-20.) Plaintiff further stated that, after waiting a few minutes, she herself climbed to the top of the climbing wall on level V1 on her first attempt. (Id. at 55, lines 16-19, 24-25; at [*7] 56, lines 2-9.) Plaintiff further stated that she did not think it took very long to make the climb. (Id. at 56, lines 10-11.) Plaintiff stated she and her roommate took turns climbing the wall. (Id. at 63, lines 12-16.) Plaintiff further stated that, while she herself was climbing, her roommate was on the mat watching her climb. (Id. at 63, lines 17- 22.) Plaintiff stated that she herself climbed again once or twice without incident. (Id. at 56, lines 16-19; at 57, lines 18-21.) Plaintiff stated that, on her third or fourth climb, she herself had made it about a couple of feet from the top of the wall before she fell. (Id. at 57, lines 3-10, 15-25; at 58, lines 2-9.) Plaintiff stated that her roommate was watching her when she fell. (Id. at 63, line 22.)

Plaintiff stated that she had not fallen from a climbing wall prior to October 12, 2015. (Id. at 59, lines 2-7.) Plaintiff further stated she did not think she could fall, nor did she think about falling, when she bought her membership, when she first saw the wall when she entered the building, or when she first started climbing. (Id. at 59, lines 13-25; at 60, lines 2-8, 17-19.) Plaintiff further stated that did not see anyone else fall at Steep Rock Bouldering prior to her own fall, but did see people [*8] jumping down from “[s]omewhere above the middle” and “closer to the top” of the climbing wall instead of climbing down. (Id. at 60, lines 9-16.)

Plaintiff stated she herself climbed down the wall after her first climb, but then became more “confident” and climbed down halfway and then jumped in subsequent successful climbs. (Id. at 60, lines 22-25; at 61, lines 2-6.) Plaintiff further stated that, immediately before she fell, she was climbing up the wall and reaching to the side. (Id. at 61, lines 7-13.) Plaintiff further stated that she then grabbed onto a knob, looked down, and saw a man looking up at her. (Id. at 62, [**5] lines 2-7.) Plaintiff was asked at the EBT “[w]hen you looked down, did you think about falling or if you could fall?” In reply, Plaintiff stated “I was a little scared. When I looked down, I was a lot higher than I thought I was.” (Id. at 62, lines 12-15.) Plaintiff stated that she had wanted to come back down at this time. (Id. at 62, lines 24-25; at 63, lines 2-4.) Plaintiff further stated that she fell after she saw the man looking up at her. (Id. at 62, line 8.) Plaintiff was asked at the EBT “[d]o you know why you fell?” and answered, “I don’t know exactly.” (Id. at 62, lines 5-6.)

IV. Defendant’s EBT

Vivian Kalea stated that, at the [*9] time of her EBT, she was the general manager of Steep Rock Bouldering. (Kalea EBT at 6, lines 4-7.) Kalea further stated that, on October 12, 2015, she was a closing manager and youth team coach at Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 6, lines 8-12.)

Kalea stated that she was at Steep Rock Bouldering when Plaintiff was injured and filled out the related injury report form. (Id. at 13, lines 19-21.) Kalea stated that the injury report indicated that Plaintiff was a member of Steep Rock Bouldering and had paid a fee to use the gym prior to her injury. (Id. at 16, lines 12-13.) Kalea stated that the injury report further indicated that Plaintiff fell from a yellow V1 level of difficulty, about three moves from the top, and landed on her right side. (Id. at 19, lines 6-9; at 31, lines 15-21; at 34, line 25.)

Kalea stated that V1 is a beginner’s level of difficulty. (Id. at 34, lines 13-15.) Kalea further stated that, the higher the number is after the “V,” the greater the level of difficulty. Kalea stated that the “V” designation is not a description of a specific height or location. (Id. at 33, lines 9-14.) Kalea further stated that V2 is also a beginner’s level. (Id. at 33, lines 23-25, at 34, lines 2-4.) Kalea further stated that the wall Plaintiff was on had a “slight incline” but was “mostly [*10] vertical” and “[c]lose to 90 degrees. (Id. at 41, lines 11-25; at 42, lines 2-4.)

Kalea stated that Steep Rock Bouldering offered climbing shoe rentals and chalk for climbers on October 12, 2015. (Id. at 9, lines 20-21; at 10, line 14.) Kalea further stated that the climbing shoes provide support for climbing activities by improving friction and power to the big toe and that the chalk gives the climbers a better grip on whatever it is they are holding onto. (Id. at 21, lines 18-25; at 22, lines 2-25; at 23, lines 2-A.) Kalea further stated that the padded area in front of the climbing wall was over a foot thick on October 12, 2015, and was there to help absorb the shock from a fall. (Id. at 23, lines 5-18.) Kalea further stated that a [**6] spotter, “somebody who guides a climber to fall down,” was not required at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015. (Id. at 49, lines 19-25.)

Kalea stated that the climbing walls at Steep Rock Bouldering are 14 feet high and that the holds do not all go to the top. (Id. at 24, lines 17-19.) Kalea further stated that the holds are of different textures, sizes, and appearances and that their locations can be changed to create varying paths up the wall and establish the difficulty of a given level. (Id. at 24, lines [*11] 16-25; at 25, lines 2-17; at 29, lines 2-5.) Kalea further stated that climbers at Steep Rock Bouldering do not climb with ropes or harnesses. (Id. at 40, line 25; at 41, line 2.)

Kalea stated that Steep Rock Bouldering employees ask whether it is a new member’s first time bouldering “to clarify that they understand the risk of bouldering.” (Id. at 21, lines 13-17.) Kalea further stated that every climber is supposed to receive an oral safety orientation from Steep Rock Bouldering staff prior to climbing that consists of the following:

“It consists of understanding the person’s climbing experience, their experience bouldering. That they understand that bouldering is a dangerous sport. How every fall in a bouldering environment is a ground fall. It goes over how the climbs are kind of situated, so everything is by color and numbers. It goes over that we do encourage down climbing in the facility. So that means when you reach the top of the problem, which is not necessarily the top of the wall, but the finishing hold, you climb down about halfway before you jump, if you do want to jump. It goes over how to best fall.”

(Id. at 46, lines 2-24; at 47, lines 3-16.) Kalea stated that the giving such an orientation is [*12] standard in the climbing industry and was required at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015. (Id. at 48, lines 3-10.) Kalea further stated that “[i]t is made clear to everyone who walks in the door that they are going to receive a safety orientation” and that staffs failure to do so would be breaking Steep Rock Bouldering’s rules. (Id. at 48, lines 17-21.) Kalea was asked at the EBT to assume that Plaintiff was told “essentially . . . there is the wall, it’s self explanatory [sic] and that’s all the person did” and was then asked “[i]f that is all that was said, is that a proper safety instruction orientation?” (Id. at 49, lines 3-17.) Kalea replied, “[i]t is not.”

[**7] V. Plaintiff’s Liability Expert

Plaintiff retained Dr. Gary G. Nussbaum as its liability expert. Dr. Nussbaum has a Masters of Education and an Education Doctorate in Recreation and Leisure Studies from Temple University. Dr. Nussbaum has 45 years of experience in the adventure education, recreation, and climbing field with a variety of teaching credentials related specifically to climbing. In forming his opinion, Dr. Nussbaum reviewed photographs of the climbing wall used by Plaintiff on the date of her injury, the injury report, the waiver form, [*13] and the EBT transcripts.

After his review, Dr. Nussbaum opined that Plaintiff should have been provided with the following: a harness, a rope, or some similar safety device; a spotter; an orientation; and an introductory lesson. Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the only time a harness or similar device is not required is “when the wall is low, less than 8 feet[,] and where it is angled so that a [climber] cannot fall directly down[,] but simply slides down the angled wall. Here, the wall was high and not angled, and therefore the safety devices including the harness and rope are required.” (Broome affirmation, exhibit 1 [aff of Nussbaum], at 3.)

Dr. Nussbaum opined that a person of Plaintiff’s skill level was a novice and needed to be taught “how to climb, how to come down, and even how to fall safely. None of this was done or provided.” (Id. at 4.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that “[a]s a new climber, [Plaintiff] did not appreciate the risk” involved with bouldering. (Id.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the reading Steep Rock Bouldering waiver form, which Plaintiff did not, would not mean that the reader understands or assumes the risk. (Id.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the padding “likely” [*14] gave Plaintiff a “false sense of security” and “no appreciation of the risk here.” (Id.)

Dr. Nussbaum opined that, because Steep Rock Bouldering does not offer rope climbing, its climbing wall requires that the climber “climb down, climb partway down and jump the remainder, fall down in a controlled manner, or simply fall down if he or she loses control.” (Id. at 5.) Dr. Nussbaum cited to the Climbing Wall Association’s (“CWA”) Industry Practices § 4.06 and opined further that Defendant’s gym should have provided “a thorough orientation to bouldering and how to mitigate the risk of predictable falls” per the CWA guidelines. (Id.)

[**8] Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.01, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:

“[Plaintiff’s] ‘level of qualification or access to the climbing should [have been] checked upon entering and prior to climbing in the facility.’ In the absence of demonstrated proficiency in climbing, [Plaintiff] should have been ‘supervised by staff or a qualified climbing partner, or her access to the facility must [have] be[en] limited accordingly.’ In the case at hand, there was a cursory transition from the street into the gym and the commencement of climbing. [Plaintiff] was simply asked if she had previous [*15] climbing-experience and essentially told ‘here’s the wall, have at it.'”

(Id. at 6.)

Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.02, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:

“[T]he climbing gym staff should [have] utilize[d] a screening process before allowing potential clients to access the climbing wall/facility. The purpose of the screening is to determine the ‘new client’s ability to climb in the facility’ and ‘to assess the client’s prior climbing experience, knowledge and skills (if any).’ [Plaintiff] was not asked about how long she had been climbing, whether or not she had experience at a climbing gym or facility, how often or how recently she had climbed, and/or the type of climbing she had done. She was not asked if she had knowledge of or experience bouldering. Again, she was simply asked if she had prior climbing experience, reflecting a wholly inadequate screening process.”

(Id.)

Dr. Nussbaum opined that spotting is an advanced skill requiring training for the spotter to spot effectively and safely. As such, Dr. Nussbaum stated, Plaintiff’s roommate “was not a spotter and had no skill and no training to be one.” (Id. at 3.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that Steep Rock Bouldering was required to enforce its spotter [*16] requirement by providing an adequately skilled spotter or ensuring that an intended spotter has the requisite skill set. (Id. at 5.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that, if Steep Rock Bouldering chooses not to require spotting, it is then required to “emphasize, encourage and instruct in the safest ways to descend, including falling [**9] techniques. . . . [It] did not enforce its spotting requirement nor [sic] provide proper instruction in falling techniques.” (Id. at 7.)

VI. Defendant’s Liability Expert

Defendant retained Dr. Robert W. Richards as its liability expert. Dr. Richards is a founding member of the CWA and is currently affiliated with CWA as an expert in risk management. Dr. Richards has been involved in the climbing wall industry since 1992. Dr. Richards stated that, as there are no set regulations for climbing facilities, the CWA intends to assist the industry in defining, understanding, and implementing a set of responsible management, operational, training, and climbing practices. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit I [aff of Richards], ¶ 2.) Dr. Richards further stated that the CWA’s Industry Practices is a sourcebook for the operation of manufactured climbing walls. (Id. ¶ 3.)

In forming his opinion, [*17] Dr. Richards performed a site inspection of Steep Rock Bouldering’s climbing wall on June 22, 2017. (Id. ¶ 20.) Dr. Richards observed at the site inspection that Defendant’s gym had “Climb Smart” posters, indicating the risks of bouldering, displayed in multiple locations. Dr. Richards stated that these signs were also present on October 12, 2015. (Id.) Dr. Richards observed further that the climbing wall is approximately thirteen feet, six inches tall when measured from the top of the padded area around the wall. (Id. ¶ 30:) Dr. Richards stated that this was also the height of the wall on October 12, 2015. (Id.)

Dr. Richards describes the sport of bouldering as follows:

“Bouldering is the form of climbing that is performed without the use of safety ropes and typically on a climbing surface that is low enough in height that a fall from the wall will not be fatal. Bouldering walls in climbing gyms may range from ten to twenty feet in height. The [CWA] states that average bouldering wall heights in the climbing wall industry are between twelve and fifteen feet. Climbers who boulder are referred to as boulderers . . . .”

(Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) Dr. Richards stated “[a] specific climb is referred [*18] to as a . . . ‘problem’ and is usually marked with colored tape or colored holds which are attached to the artificial climbing wall.” (Id. ¶ 7 [punctuation omitted].)

[**10] Dr. Richards opined that bouldering entails an inherent risk of injury from falls. (Id. ¶ 4.) Dr. Richards opined further that it is not possible to eliminate this risk “without altering the very essence of the sport.” (Id.) Dr. Richards opined further that the most common injuries in climbing gyms are to the extremities which can result from falls of any height. (Id. ¶ 15.)

Dr. Richards opined further that the risk inherent to bouldering was communicated to Plaintiff by means of a written liability release and an orientation. (Id. ¶ 17.) Dr. Richards stated that Plaintiff signed a liability release form and completed an orientation. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 31.) Dr. Richards stated further that the liability release form included the following language: “I have examined the climbing wall and have full knowledge of the nature and extent of the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the climbing wall, including but not limited to: [injuries] resulting from falling off or coming down from the climbing wall . . . .” (Id. ¶ [*19] 17.)

Dr. Richards opined further that, having visited approximately “200 gyms” since 1992, he has never been to a gym that requires climbers to have spotters and strictly enforces that requirement. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 22-23.) Dr. Richards stated that spotting was developed for outdoor bouldering to guide the fall of boulderers in an environment where there are typically little or no padded surfaces to protect the head. (Id. ¶ 24.) Dr. Richards stated that the CWA does not require spotters when bouldering on artificial climbing walls and that it is not a common practice in the industry to require such spotters. (Id. ¶ 25.) Dr. Richards further stated that the padded landing surfaces in gyms reduce many of those dangers that a spotter would help to mitigate outdoors. (Id.) Dr. Richards opined that, as such, use of a spotter in an indoor climbing gym is of “limited benefit” and “may cause injury to the boulderer and spotter if the climber were to fall directly on the spotter.” (Id.)

Dr. Richards opined further that the purpose of Defendant gym’s padded landing surface around its climbing wall is “to mitigate potential injuries to the head and neck.” (Id. ¶ 26.) Dr. Richards opined further that, [*20] while the padding may “provide some cushioning for falls,” per Annex E to the CWA’s Industry Practices, “[p]ads are not designed to mitigate or limit extremity injuries, although they may do so.” (Id.) Dr. Richards stated that, while there was no industry standard regarding the type, amount, or use of such padding in October 2015, a typical surface in October 2015 would have “consisted of four to six inches of foam padding or other impact attenuation [**11] material with a top layer of gymnastic carpet or vinyl that covers the underlying padding.” (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) Dr. Richards further stated that Defendant’s gym used foam pads of a twelve-inch depth that ran continuously along the climbing wall and extended twelve feet out from the wall on October 12, 2015. (Id. ¶ 29.)

ARGUMENT

I. Defendant’s Affirmation in Support

Defendant alleges in its papers that it has a place of business that includes a bouldering climbing gym in New York City on Lexington Avenue. (Affirmation of Goldstein ¶ 14.) Defendant further alleges that its gym has a continuous climbing wall that is approximately 30 to 40 feet wide and 14 feet tall and has climbing holds which are textured objects bolted into the wall which climbers [*21] can grab onto with their hands and stand upon with their feet. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 16.)

Defendant argues, in the main, that Plaintiff assumed the inherent risk associated with climbing an indoor wall and with bouldering when she chose to climb Defendant’s gym’s bouldering wall. (Memorandum of law of Goldstein, at 1.) Defendant argues Plaintiff was able to make an informed estimate of the risks involved in bouldering and that she willingly undertook them. (Id. at 3-4.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff was aware of the potential for injury from a fall because she is an intelligent adult familiar with the laws of gravity and had prior wall climbing experience in an indoor setting (albeit with ropes). (Id. at 4.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff was aware of the risks associated with climbing because, before she was injured, Plaintiff watched other climbers ascend and descend its climbing wall and climbed up and down the wall herself without incident several times, even feeling comfortable enough to jump from halfway down the wall as opposed to climbing all the way down. (Id. at 8-9.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly engaged in the bouldering activity and that her fall was a common, albeit [*22] unfortunate, occurrence. (Id. at 10.)

Defendant argues that falling is inherent to the sport of climbing, that falling cannot be eliminated without destroying the sport, and that injuries resulting from falling from a climbing wall are foreseeable consequences inherent to bouldering. (Id.) Defendant further argues that the risk of falling from Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall was open and obvious to Plaintiff. (Id. at 5.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff did not request further instruction beyond what Steep Rock [**12] Bouldering provided on October 12, 2015, and that Plaintiff was comfortable climbing without ropes or a harness. (Id. at 5-6.) Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s allegation that she did not receive proper instruction is pure conjecture and will only invite the jury to speculate about what further instruction Plaintiff would have received had she sought it out. (Id. at 6.)

Defendant argues that there was no unique risk or dangerous condition in Defendant’s gym on October 12, 2015, over and above the usual dangers inherent to bouldering. Defendant further argues that Defendant has the right to own and operate a gym that offers bouldering, only, and not rope climbing. (Id. at 7.) Defendant further argues that the height [*23] of its gym’s climbing wall and the depth of its surrounding padding were well within what was typical of other climbing facilities in October 2015. (Id.) Defendant further argues that it had no duty to provide a spotter or supervise Plaintiff’s climbing. (Id. at 7-8.)

Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s expert has not cited to any standards or rules that would have required that Defendant provide Plaintiff with a spotter or supervise Plaintiff’s climbing or that would justify an opinion that negligence on the part of Defendant proximately caused Plaintiff’s accident. (Id. at 8, 10.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff’s expert fails to acknowledge that Plaintiff engaged in a rope climbing class every week for a semester. (Id. at 10.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff’s expert has never visited Steep Rock Bouldering and that therefore any assertions that Plaintiff’s expert will make are conclusory and insufficient to demonstrate Defendant’s negligence.

II. Plaintiff’s Affirmation in Opposition

Plaintiff argues in her papers that the affidavit of her liability expert, Dr. Gary G. Nussbaum, establishes Defendant’s negligence and Plaintiff’s lack of appreciation and understanding of the risk. (Affirmation of Broome, at 1.) Plaintiff further [*24] argues that she had a false sense of security because of the thick mats around the climbing wall and that she therefore did not appreciate the risk. (Id. at 1-2.) Plaintiff further argues that her climbing experience at Steep Rock Bouldering was very different from her prior experience with climbing, which was limited to one semester of indoor climbing class 12-13 years prior to the incident, in high school, involving a rope, harness, spotter, and instructor. (Id. at 2; aff of Ho, at 2.) At the time of the incident, Plaintiff was age 30 and had never done any rock climbing again after the high school class. (Aff of Ho, at 2.)

[**13] Plaintiff argues that she believed the padding beneath the climbing wall would prevent “any injury whatsoever.” (Id. at 4.) Plaintiff further argues that this was her belief even though she signed a release of liability because she did not read it. (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff further argues that she was given no orientation or instructor on October 12, 2015, but was only told where the wall was and that it was “self-explanatory.” (Id.) Plaintiff further argues that the release she signed is void and unenforceable because she paid a fee to use Defendant’s gym. (Affirmation of Broome, at 2.)

Plaintiff argues that Defendant was negligent in failing to [*25] provide Plaintiff with a rope, a harness, instruction, an orientation, and a spotter. (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff further argues that the assertions of Defendant’s liability expert, Dr. Robert W. Richards, regarding posters on the wall at Steep Rock Bouldering are irrelevant and erroneous because he visited the facility 1.75 years after Plaintiff’s accident and claims the posters were in place on the date of the accident. (Id.)

III. Defendant’s Reply Affirmation in Support

Defendant argues in its reply papers that Plaintiff did not have a false sense of security because Plaintiff: (1) was aware that Defendant’s gym only supplied climbing shoes and climbing chalk; (2) observed that none of the other climbers were asking for a rope or a harness; (3) testified that she felt comfortable climbing without harness, a rope, or an instructor; (4) knew prior to her injury that the climbing paths have different difficulty levels and that she was at a beginner level; and (5) had already, prior to her injury, climbed the wall two to three times without incident, reached the top of the wall, and jumped from the wall to the floor from halfway up the wall. (Reply affirmation of Goldstein, at 1-2; reply memorandum of law of Goldstein [*26] ¶ 3.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff’s claim of having a false sense of security is disingenuous because she plainly observed the conditions of the climbing wall and the padded mats, was able to approximate the height of the wall, and, at age 30, was fully aware of, paid to engage in, and voluntarily undertook a form of climbing that involves neither ropes nor harnesses. (Reply memorandum of law of Goldstein ¶ 4.)

Defendant argues that Plaintiff has overlooked Dr. Richards’ explanation that a spotter has limited benefit and may cause injury to the climber and spotter if the climber were to fall directly onto the spotter. (Id. ¶ 5.) Defendant further argues that climbers utilizing a rope and harness may also sustain injury from falls when climbing. (Id. ¶ 6.)

[**14] Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant proximately caused Plaintiff’s injury because Plaintiff herself testified that she does not know why she fell, and mere speculation regarding causation is inadequate to sustain a cause of action. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Defendant further argues that Plaintiff was aware of and assumed the risk that, in climbing a wall without ropes and harnesses–or [*27] a spotter–she could sustain an immediate physical injury from a fall. (Id. ¶¶ 4-5, 9.)

IV. Oral Argument

On November 13, 2017, counsel for the parties in the instant action appeared before this Court for oral argument on Defendant’s instant motion for summary judgment. Stephanie L. Goldstein, Esq. argued on behalf of Defendant and Alvin H. Broome, Esq. argued on behalf of Plaintiff.

Defendant argued that this is an assumption of the risk case in which Plaintiff fell during participation in a sport–bouldering–which, by definition, is rock climbing without ropes or harnesses. (Tr at 2, lines 23-25; at 3, lines 8-18.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff had no reasonable expectation there would be ropes or harnesses at Steep Rock bouldering. Plaintiff stated that her roommate told her that climbing at Steep Rock Bouldering would involve no ropes or harnesses. (Id. at 4, lines 5-13.) Plaintiff further stated that she observed photographs of people using the gym on Facebook at parties–prior to going to Defendant’s gym–without ropes or harnesses. (Id. at 4, lines 15-19.) Plaintiff further stated that she saw people climbing at the gym in person before she climbed and that none of them were using ropes [*28] or harnesses. (Id. at 4, lines 20-24.)

Defendant argued that Plaintiff was additionally noticed as to the dangers inherent to bouldering by the electronic waiver, which she signed. (Id. at 5, lines 3-18.) Defendant clarified that it is not moving to dismiss the instant action on waiver grounds and acknowledged that Plaintiff’s signing the waiver did not absolve Defendant of liability. (Id. at 5, lines 13-14.) Defendant argued that Plaintiff was further noticed by an individual, an employee of Defendant, who explained to Plaintiff prior to her climbing about the wall and the climbing paths. (Id. at 5, lines 19-23.) Defendant argued that Plaintiff was further noticed by her own experience of climbing up and down the wall two to three times without any [**15] incident and with jumping off of the wall prior to her fall. (Id. at 5, line 26; at 6, line 2; at 7, lines 11-16.) Defendant was comfortable climbing without equipment or an instructor. (Id. at 7, lines 6-10.)

Defendant argued that it cannot enforce a statement on its waiver that a climber is not to climb without a spotter. Defendant argued that this is for four reasons: because spotting does not prevent injury, because spotting was developed when bouldering was outside, because spotting [*29] can only act to attempt to protect the head and neck outdoors–and indoors the padding provides this function–and because spotting may endanger the spotter. Defendant stated that spotting is not enforced at its gym. Defendant further stated that its liability expert has not seen this requirement enforced at any of the 200 gyms he has traveled to which do have this requirement on paper. (Id. at 6, lines 7-26; at 7, lines 2-5.)

Defendant argued that falling when climbing a wall is a common, foreseeable occurrence at a climbing facility. (Id. at 8, lines 3-5.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff is an intelligent woman, 30 years old at the time of her injury, with a degree in biology. As such, Defendant argued that Plaintiff knew the laws of gravity: what goes up, must come down. (Id. at 8, lines 6-9.) Defendant further argued that a person is said to have assumed the risk if he or she participates in an activity such as climbing where falling is an anticipated and known possibility. (Id. at 9, lines 9-13.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff testified that she does not know what caused her to fall. (Id. at 7, lines 21-23.)

Plaintiff argued in opposition that Defendant’s own rules required a spotter for climbers and that [*30] Defendant broke its rule and therefore proximately caused Plaintiff’s injury. (Id. at 9, lines 24-26; at 10, lines 2-6; at 11, lines 11-16, 24-25; at 12, lines 15-21.) Plaintiff further argued that “in every kind of climbing you are required to have a rope, a harness, something to prevent an injury and a fall.” (Id. at 12, lines 11-13.) Plaintiff further argued that a spotter “will say lift your arms, turn to the side” as a person begins to fall. (Id. at 11, lines 24-25.)

Plaintiff further argued that proximate cause has been established and the real question for the Court is whether Plaintiff assumed the risk. (Id. at 12, lines 22-25.) Plaintiff argued that “unusually thick” mats around the climbing wall gave Plaintiff a false sense of security. (Id. at 13, line 8.) Plaintiff further argued that Plaintiff saw people fall onto the soft matted floor without getting hurt, and therefore assumes this is a safe sport, but it is not. Plaintiff argued that assumption of risk is a subjective standard and that Plaintiff was a novice who had only [**16] climbed with ropes and harnesses prior to the day of her injury and thus did not assume the risk of “falling on a soft mat and breaking an elbow.” (Id. at 10, lines 7-10; at 14, lines 13-16.)

Plaintiff [*31] argued that there is a distinction between assuming the risk that one could fall from a climbing wall and assuming the risk that one could be injured from the fall. Plaintiff further argued that Plaintiff assumed the former, not the latter, in part because of a false sense of security due to the mats and not having a spotter. (Id. at 14, lines 23-26; at 15, lines 2-23; at 16, lines 2-9.) Plaintiff further argued that the mats that are placed by the climbing wall are “extremely substantial,” “for the sole purpose of preventing injury,” and “designed supposedly to prevent injury from a fall, and . . . didn’t.” (Id. at 16, lines 16-20.)

Plaintiff argued that, as a matter of law, because the mats were there, Plaintiff cannot be held to the belief that she was going to get hurt when she went up the climbing wall. (Id. at 16, lines 22-24.) Plaintiff clarified that she is not claiming the mat was inadequate. (Id. at 16, line 21.) Plaintiff argued that there was no assumption of injury from climbing or falling normally from the Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall. (Id. at 17, lines 13-14.) Plaintiff argued further that Plaintiff “did not assume the risk of being injured by a fall, period.” (Id. at 18, line 20.)

Defendant argued in reply that Plaintiff [*32] was bouldering, which by definition involves no ropes or harnesses, and did so voluntarily. (Id. at 23, lines 11-12.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff’s liability expert cites to no regulations, standards, or rules that would quantify his reasoning why there should have been ropes, harnesses, or a spotter, or why the mat gave Plaintiff a false sense of security. (Id. at 23, lines 17-22.) Defendant further argued that the law says that when someone assumes the risk, they are assuming the risk inherent to the activity, and that assumption of injury specifically is not required. (Id. at 23, line 26; at 24, lines 2-5.) Defendant further argued that, in the instant case, the risk inherent to bouldering is falling, and that falling from a height may result in injury. As such, Defendant argued, Plaintiff assumed the risk. (Id. at 24, lines 4-18.)

Defendant further argued that there was no negligent hidden condition and nothing wrong with the wall or the mats. (Id. at 24, lines 20-21, 24-25.) Defendant argued that a climbing wall of 13 to 14 feet and mats of 12-inch thickness, as here, are typical. (Id. at 24, lines 25-26; at 25, lines 2-3.) Defendant further argued that stating that Plaintiff fell because she did not have a rope or harness [*33] is speculation insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. (Id. at 25, lines 4-6.)

[**17] DISCUSSION

I. The Summary Judgment Standard

“To obtain summary judgment it is necessary that the movant establish his cause of action or defense sufficiently to warrant the court as a matter of law in directing judgment in his favor, and he must do so by tender of evidentiary proof in admissible form.” (Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 N.Y.2d 557, 562, 404 N.E.2d 718, 427 N.Y.S.2d 595 [1980] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted].) “Once this showing has been made, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to produce evidentiary proof in admissible form sufficient to establish the existence of material issues of fact that require a trial for resolution.” (Giuffrida v Citibank Corp., 100 N.Y.2d 72, 81, 790 N.E.2d 772, 760 N.Y.S.2d 397 [2003].) “On a motion for summary judgment, facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” (Vega v Restani Constr. Corp., 18 N.Y.3d 499, 503, 965 N.E.2d 240, 942 N.Y.S.2d 13 [2012] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted].) In the presence of a genuine issue of material fact, a motion for summary judgment must be denied. (See Rotuba Extruders v Ceppos, 46 N.Y.2d 223, 231, 385 N.E.2d 1068, 413 N.Y.S.2d 141 [1978]; Grossman v Amalgamated Hous. Corp., 298 A.D.2d 224, 226, 750 N.Y.S.2d 1 [1st Dept 2002].)

II. The Assumption of Risk Doctrine

“Under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, a person who voluntarily participates in a sporting activity generally consents, by his or her participation, to those injury-causing events, conditions, and risks which are inherent [*34] in the activity.” (Cruz v Longwood Cent. School Dist., 110 AD3d 757, 758, 973 N.Y.S.2d 260 [2d Dept 2013].) “Risks inherent in a sporting activity are those which are known, apparent, natural, or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation.” (Id.) However, “[s]ome of the restraints of civilization must accompany every athlete onto the playing field. Thus, the rule is qualified to the extent that participants do not consent to acts which are reckless or intentional.” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986].) “[I]n assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport.” (Morgan v State, 90 NY2d 471, 485, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 [1997] [internal quotation marks omitted].) In assessing whether a plaintiff had the appropriate awareness to assume the subject risk, such “awareness of risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff.” (Id. at 485-486.)

[**18] In 1975, the state legislature codified New York’s comparative fault law when it passed what is now CPLR 1411, “Damages recoverable when contributory negligence [*35] or assumption of risk is established.” CPLR 1411 provides:

“In any action to recover damages for personal injury, injury to property, or wrongful death, the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or to the decedent, including contributory negligence or assumption of risk, shall not bar recovery, but the amount of damages otherwise recoverable shall be diminished in the proportion which the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or decedent bears to the culpable conduct which caused the damages.”

Notwithstanding the text of CPLR 1411, the Court of Appeals has held that, in certain circumstances, a plaintiff’s assumption of a known risk can operate as a complete bar to recovery. The Court of Appeals refers to this affirmative defense as “primary assumption of risk” and states that “[u]nder this theory, a plaintiff who freely accepts a known risk commensurately negates any duty on the part of the defendant to safeguard him or her from the risk.” (Custodi v Town of Amherst, 20 NY3d 83, 87, 980 N.E.2d 933, 957 N.Y.S.2d 268 [2012] [internal quotation marks omitted].) In assuming a risk, Plaintiff has “given his consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do [*36] or leave undone.” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 438, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986], quoting Prosser and Keeton, Torts § 68, at 480-481 [5th ed].)

Nonetheless, the doctrine of primary assumption of risk has often been at odds with this state’s legislative adoption of comparative fault, and as such has largely been limited in application to “cases involving certain types of athletic or recreational activities.” (Custodi, 20 NY3d at 87.) In Trupia ex rel. Trupia v Lake George Cent. School Dist., Chief Judge Lippman discussed the uneasy coexistence of the two doctrines:

“The doctrine of assumption of risk does not, and cannot, sit comfortably with comparative causation. In the end, its retention is most persuasively justified not on the ground of doctrinal or practical compatibility, but simply for its utility in facilitating free and vigorous participation in athletic activities. We have recognized that athletic and recreative activities possess enormous social value, even while they involve significantly heightened risks, and have employed the notion that these risks may be voluntarily assumed to preserve these [**19] beneficial pursuits as against the prohibitive liability to which they would otherwise give rise. We have not applied the doctrine outside of this limited context [*37] and it is clear that its application must be closely circumscribed if it is not seriously to undermine and displace the principles of comparative causation that the Legislature has deemed applicable to any action to recover damages for personal injury, injury to property, or wrongful death.”

(14 NY3d 392, 395-96, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127 [2010] [internal quotation marks and emendation omitted].) Writing two years later, Chief Judge Lippman further explained the scope of primary assumption of risk in Bukowski v Clarkson University:

“The assumption of risk doctrine applies where a consenting participant in sporting and amusement activities s aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks. An educational institution organizing a team sporting activity must exercise ordinary reasonable care to protect student athletes voluntarily participating in organized athletics from unassumed, concealed, or enhanced risks. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty. Relatedly, risks which are commonly encountered or ‘inherent’ in a sport, such as being struck by a ball or bat in baseball, are risks [*38] for which various participants are legally deemed to have accepted personal responsibility. The primary assumption of risk doctrine also encompasses risks involving less than optimal conditions.”

(19 NY3d 353, 356, 971 N.E.2d 849, 948 N.Y.S.2d 568 [2012] [internal quotation marks and emendation omitted].)

III. Defendant Has Shown Prima Facie that Plaintiff Assumed the Risk of Injury from Falling from Defendant’s Gym’s Climbing Wall, and Plaintiff Has Failed to Raise a Genuine Issue of Material Fact in Response

Based upon the Court’s reading of the submitted papers and the parties’ oral argument before it, the Court finds that Defendant has shown prima facie that Plaintiff assumed the risks associated with falling from Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall, including injury. Defendant has shown prima facie that Plaintiff voluntarily participated in the sporting activity of bouldering at Steep Rock Bouldering and assumed the risks inherent therein. Specifically, Defendant has [**20] referred to Plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which was sufficient to establish that Plaintiff: (1) had experience with rock climbing; (2) was aware of the conditions of the climbing wall from observations both at a distance–from looking online at Facebook and watching others–and [*39] up close on her two or three successful climbs prior to her injury; and (3) was aware that a person could drop down from the wall, as Plaintiff had herself already jumped down from the wall of her own accord.

In response, Plaintiff fails to raise a genuine issue of material fact. Steep Rock Bouldering’s climbing wall is of an average height for bouldering walls according to Dr. Richards. Dr. Nussbaum’s assertion that climbing on any wall of a height of eight feet or more requires a harness or similar device is conclusory, unsupported by citation, and, ultimately, unavailing.

To require harnesses and ropes at Steep Rock Bouldering would fundamentally change the nature of the sport. Bouldering is a type of climbing that does not require ropes or harnesses. The Court finds that injury from falling is a commonly appreciable risk of climbing–with or without harnesses, ropes, or other safety gear–and that Plaintiff assumed this risk when she knowingly and voluntarily climbed Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall for the third or fourth time when she fell. To hold that Defendant could be liable for Plaintiff’s injuries because it allowed her to climb its wall without a rope and harness would effectively [*40] make the sport of bouldering illegal in this state. To do so would fly in the face of the reasoning in Trupia that such “athletic and recreative activities possess enormous social value, even while they involve significantly heightened risks, and . . . that these risks may be voluntarily assumed to preserve these beneficial pursuits as against the prohibitive liability to which they would otherwise give rise.” (14 NY3d at 395-96.)

In dismissing the instant case, the Court notes that the facts here are distinguishable from those in Lee v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC ( NYS3d , 2017 NY Slip Op 08660, 2017 WL 6347269, *1 [2d Dept, Dec. 13, 2017, index No. 503080/2013]) and McDonald v. Brooklyn Boulders, LLC (2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211, 2016 WL 1597764, at *6 [Sup Ct, Kings County Apr. 12, 2016]). Both cases involved plaintiffs who were injured when they jumped down from the climbing wall–at the same defendant’s bouldering facility–and each plaintiff’s foot landed in a gap between the matting. In both cases, summary judgment was denied because there was a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether the gap in the matting presented a concealed risk. Here, Plaintiff does not contend that she was injured by such a concealed risk, but essentially argues she should not have been allowed to [**21] voluntarily engage in the sport of bouldering. For the reasons previously stated, this Court finds such an argument to be [*41] unavailing.

CONCLUSION

Accordingly, it is

ORDERED that Defendant Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC’s motion pursuant to CPLR 3212 for an order granting Defendant summary judgment against Plaintiff Min-Sun Ho is granted; and it is further

ORDERED that the action is dismissed; and it is further

ORDERED that the Clerk is directed to enter judgment in favor of Defendant; and it is further

ORDERED that counsel for movant shall serve a copy of this order with notice of entry upon Plaintiff and upon the County Clerk (Room 141B) and the Clerk of the Trial Support Office (Room 158M), who are directed to mark the court’s records to reflect the dismissal of this action.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the Court.

Dated: January 2, 2018

New York, New York

/s/ Robert D. Kalish, J.S.C.

HON. ROBERT D. KALISH