Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds use of an express assumption of the risk agreement to bar a claim for wrongful death during a triathlon

The court defined the written agreement, signed electronically, as an assumption of the risk agreement, even though a lower court had called it a liability waiver.

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

State: Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in Her Own Right

Defendant: Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Statute

Defendant Defenses: Express Assumption of the Risk Agreement

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds release to stop claims under PA’s wrongful-death statute. Since the deceased assumed the inherent risks of the sport, that removed the duty of the defendant triathlon therefore, the triathlon could not be negligent. No negligence, no violation of the wrongful-death statute.

Facts

In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.

The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon.

The trial court and the appellate court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the express assumption of the risk agreement signed by the deceased. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted the plaintiff’s appeal which resulted in this decision.

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

The release or wavier used in this agreement is not included in the decision. One small section is quoted, which speaks to the risks the participants in the triathlon must assume. Which makes sense since the court refers to the agreement as an express assumption of the risk agreement rather than a release or waiver.

Pennsylvania follows the Restatement Second of Torts in defining assumption of the risk.

The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.”

Under Pennsylvania law, “when a plaintiff assumes the risk of an activity it elminates the defendants duty of care”. When the deceased signed the valid agreement and expressly assumed the risks inherent in the triathlon, the decedent extinguished the defendant triathlon’s duty of care.

If there is no duty to the deceased there cannot be any negligence. Existence of a duty and a breach of that duty is the first of four steps to prove negligence.

A negligent act is required to be successful under Pennsylvania’s wrongful-death statute.

Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive.

There were three dissents in the decision. The dissents argued the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute voided the waiver. Since the right of the plaintiff under the wrongful-death statute was a right of a survivor, and the decedent could not sign away a survivor’s rights, the release, waiver or assumption of the risk agreement was void.

So Now What?

You can breathe a little easier in Pennsylvania when using releases signed electronically. It is important to make sure you include assumption of the risk language in your release to make sure the possible plaintiff assumes those risks if the court throws out the release or finds another way to sue the document to defend you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in Her Own Right, Appellant

v.

Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, Appellee

No. 17 EAP 2017

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

June 18, 2019

Argued: May 15, 2018

Appeal from the Judgment of Superior Court entered on November 15, 2016 at No. 3049 EDA 2013 affirming the Order entered on September 30, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Civil Division at No. 1417 April Term, 2012. Jacqueline F. Allen, Judge

Craig A. Falcone, Esq., Sacchetta & Falcone, for Appellant Michele Valentino, as Admin. of the Estate of Derek Valentino, etc.

Barbara Axelrod, Esq., The Beasley Firm, L.L.C., for Appellant Amicus Curiae Pennsylvania Association for Justice.

Heather M. Eichenbaum, Esq., Spector Gadon & Rosen, P.C., for Appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC.

SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

ORDER

PER CURIAM

AND NOW, this 18th day of June, 2019, the Court being evenly divided, the Order of the Superior Court is AFFIRMED.

Justice Wecht did not participate in the consideration or decision of this matter.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF AFFIRMANCE

BAER, JUSTICE.

This Court granted allocatur to determine whether an express assumption of the risk agreement executed by triathlon participant Derek Valentino (“Decedent”) serves as a defense to a wrongful death claim commenced against the Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC (“Triathlon”) by Decedent’s heir (“Appellant”), who was not a signatory to the agreement.[1] The Superior Court held that Decedent’s express assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the sporting event eliminated Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious. Absent tortious activity, the Superior Court concluded that the wrongful death claim brought by Decedent’s heir could not succeed as a matter of law because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Accordingly, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. For the reasons set forth herein, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court and adopt its astute legal analysis.

Preliminarily and as explained in more detail infra, we respectfully note that the Opinions in Support of Reversal (both hereinafter collectively referred to as “OISR”) ignore the issue for which we granted allocatur and, instead, attempt to reverse the judgment of the Superior Court on grounds not encompassed by this appeal. Specifically, the OISR would sua sponte hold that express assumption of the risk agreements are void and unenforceable in violation of public policy in cases involving claims brought pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. The OISR reaches this conclusion notwithstanding that no party to this appeal challenges the validity of the agreement on public policy grounds or otherwise. We decline to engage in this judicial overreaching and proceed to address the merits of the issue before us.

We begin with a brief recitation of the facts. In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.

The executed Agreement stated that Decedent understood “the physical and mental rigors associated with triathlon,” and “that running, bicycling, [and] swimming

… are inherently dangerous and represent an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits.” Appellee’s Motion for Summary Judgment Ex. G, dated Aug. 5, 2013. The Agreement further acknowledged Decedent’s understanding that “participation involves risks and dangers which include, without limitation, the potential for serious bodily injury, permanent disability, paralysis and death … and other undefined harm or damage which may not be readily foreseeable[.]” Id. The Agreement provided that Decedent was aware “that these Risks may be caused in whole or in part by [his] own actions or inactions, the actions or inactions of others participating in the Event, or the acts, inaction or negligence of [the Triathlon].” Id.

Germane to this appeal, the Agreement stated that Decedent “expressly assume[d] all such Risks and responsibility for any damages, liabilities, losses or expenses” resulting from his participation in the event. Id. (emphasis added). The Agreement also included a provision stating that Decedent further agreed that if he or anyone on his behalf “makes a claim of Liability against any of the Released Parties, [Decedent] will indemnify, defend and hold harmless each of the Released Parties from any such Liability which any [sic] may be incurred as the result of such claim.” Id. [2]

The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon. On April 12, 2012, Decedent’s widow, Michele Valentino, both in her own right and as administratrix of her husband’s estate (referred to as “Appellant” herein), asserted wrongful death and survival claims against various defendants, including Triathlon. Only the wrongful death claim is at issue in this appeal. Appellant subsequently amended her complaint and the defendants filed preliminary objections. On July 27, 2012, the trial court sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections and struck all references in the complaint that referred to outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages, holding that these averments were legally insufficient as the facts alleged demonstrated only ordinary negligence. The trial court further struck particular paragraphs of the amended complaint on grounds that they lacked specificity.

In December of 2012, following the various defendants’ filing of an answer and new matter, the defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting the Agreement as an affirmative defense. The trial court denied summary judgment, finding that questions of material fact remained regarding the existence of the Agreement. Appellant thereafter stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants except Triathlon. Once discovery was completed, Triathlon again moved for summary judgment. Concluding that the evidence at that point in the proceedings demonstrated that the Agreement was among Decedent’s possessions and was valid and enforceable, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Triathlon.

Prior to the trial court issuing its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion explaining its rationale for granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon, the Superior Court, in an unrelated matter, decided the case of Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2013), which held that a non-signatory wrongful death claimant was not bound by an arbitration agreement signed by a decedent.[3] Id. at 663. On April 14, 2012, shortly after Pisano was decided, the trial court issued its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion in this matter and urged the Superior Court to vacate its order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon based on that decision.

Relying upon Pisano, Appellant argued to the Superior Court that Decedent’s Agreement with Triathlon does not apply to her as a non-signatory and, thus, has no preclusive effect upon her wrongful death claims asserted against Triathlon. In response, Triathlon contended that Decedent’s assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the event relieved its duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious as a matter of law. The Triathlon maintained that, absent tortious activity, a wrongful death claim could not succeed because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301.

Initially, on December 30, 2015, a divided panel of the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order in part, holding that under Pisano, Decedent’s Agreement was not applicable to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the contract. The Superior Court thereafter granted en banc argument and withdrew its panel decision.

On November 15, 2016, an en banc Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting Triathlon summary judgment in a published decision. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016). Preliminarily, the Superior Court acknowledged that because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of a decedent’s cause of action, “a decedent may not compromise or diminish a wrongful death claimant’s right of action without consent.” Id. at 493. Nevertheless, the Superior Court went on to hold that “a third-party wrongful death claimant is subject to substantive defenses supported by the decedent’s actions or agreements where offered to relieve the defendant, either wholly or partially, from liability by showing that the defendant’s actions were not tortious.” Id.

The Superior Court found that the available substantive defense here was Decedent’s contractual assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the triathlon.

The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.” Id.

Pennsylvania case law illustrates that one’s assumption of the risks inherent in a particular activity eliminates the defendant’s duty of care. SeeHughes v. Seven Springs Farm Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000) (explaining that under Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, where the plaintiff assumes the risk of harm, the defendant is under no duty to protect the plaintiff from such risks); Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 469 A.2d 120, 125 (1983) (explaining that one’s assumption of the risk of injury is simply another way of expressing the lack of duty on the part of the defendant to protect against such risks); Thompson v. Ginkel, 95 A.3d 900, 906 (Pa. Super. 2014) (citation omitted) (acknowledging that the assumption of the risk doctrine is a function of the duty analysis required in all negligence actions).

Relying on this substantive tort law, the Superior Court in the instant case held that by knowingly and voluntarily executing a valid agreement expressly assuming the risks inherent in participating in the sporting event, Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering its conduct not tortious. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493.[4] As noted, the intermediate appellate court concluded that absent tortious conduct, Appellant’s wrongful death claim could not survive as a matter of law; thus, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. Id.

The Superior Court in the instant case readily distinguished Pisano on the ground that it did not involve an agreement to assume all risks inherent in a particular activity, which would serve to eliminate the duty element of the wrongful death action against the alleged tortfeasor. Acknowledging Pisano’s principle that a third party’s right of action in a wrongful death claim is an independent statutory claim of a decedent’s heirs and is not derivative of a decedent’s right of action, the Superior Court emphasized that “a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493. The Superior Court cogently explained that Pisano does not undermine the fundamental principle that a statutory claimant in a wrongful death action has the burden of proving that the defendant’s tortious conduct caused the decedent’s death. It opined that this cannot occur where the

decedent assumed all risks inherent in participating in the activity and thereby abrogated any duty the putative tortfeasor may have had. Id.

Similarly, the Superior Court distinguished this Court’s decision in Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), upon which Appellant had relied. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 495. In that case, James Buttermore was injured in an automobile accident and signed a release in settlement of his claim against the tortfeasors for the sum of $25,000, agreeing to release all persons from liability. Buttermore, 561 A.2d at 734. The issue on appeal to this Court was whether Buttermore’s wife, who was not a signatory to the settlement agreement, had an independent right to sue the tortfeasors for loss of consortium. Id. at 735. Acknowledging that the release applied to all tortfeasors, including the defendants, this Court held that one could not bargain away the rights of others who were not a party to the contract. Id. Because Buttermore’s wife was not a party to her husband’s settlement agreement and because she sought to sue in her own right for loss of consortium, we held that she had an independent cause of action, unaffected by her husband’s settlement agreement. Id. at 736.

The Superior Court below distinguished Buttermore, finding that unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement here, the settlement agreement in Buttermore did not extinguish a requisite element of the wife’s loss of consortium claim. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 496. Stated differently, unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement in the instant case, nothing in the settlement agreement in Buttermore precluded the finding that the defendants acted tortiously.

We agree with the Superior Court’s application of well-settled tort law and its conclusion that the assumption of the risk agreement entered into between Decedent and the Triathlon operates much differently than the settlement agreement in Buttermore and the arbitration agreement in Pisano, as the latter agreements do not preclude a finding that the defendant acted tortiously. We further agree with the intermediate appellate court that a decedent’s valid assumption of the risk agreement does not negate his heir’s right to commence a wrongful death lawsuit, but it “can support a defense asserting that the alleged tortfeasor owed no duty to the decedent.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 494.

Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive. Such a result not only defies logic, but also the statutory requisites for a wrongful death claim. As there is no genuine issue of material fact and it is clear that Triathlon is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the trial court order granting summary judgment in Triathlon’s favor. See Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2 (providing that summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact or when a party which will bear the burden of proof has failed to present evidence sufficient to present the issue to the jury).

As noted, regarding the OISR’s sua sponte public policy declaration, our primary objection is that the issue of whether the express assumption of the risk agreement violates public policy is not properly before the Court; thus, the grant of relief on this claim cannot serve as a means to disturb the judgment of the Superior Court.

SeeSteiner v. Markel, 600 Pa. 515, 968 A.2d 1253, 1256 (2009) (holding that an appellate court may not reverse a judgment on a basis that was not properly raised and preserved by the parties).

Additionally, we observe that the OISR declares the express assumption of the risk agreement violative of the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act, i.e., to compensate family members of victims of tortious conduct, without any explanation as to how tortious conduct can exist in the absence of a duty of care. Further, the OISR seeks to invalidate not all express assumption of the risk contracts, but only those relating to wrongful death claims, based upon the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act. Accordingly, under the OISR’s reasoning, express assumption of the risk agreements would generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity, but would be invalid where a participant’s injuries were fatal and his heirs sought recovery for wrongful death. Thus, a participant who suffered grievous non-fatal injury would have no redress, but his family would have redress if the participant succumbed to his injuries.

This result is untenable as there is no evidence to suggest that it is the public policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to elevate the rights of victims’ heirs over those of the victims themselves or to immunize wrongful death claims from ordinary and readily available defenses. In fact, not only did the General Assembly premise recovery in wrongful death on the precise tortious conduct that caused the decedent’s fatal injuries, but directed expressly that a wrongful death action “may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). There is simply no provision in the Wrongful Death Act that renders an heir’s entitlement to relief absolute. Had the Legislature intended that mandate, it would have so directed.

Moreover, it is not the role of this Court to create the public policy of this Commonwealth. Instead, “public policy is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interest.” Burstein v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 570 Pa. 177, 809 A.2d 204, 207 (2002) (quoting Eichelman v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 551 Pa. 558, 711 A.2d 1006, 1008 (1998)). We have held that “only dominant public policy” justifies the invalidation of a contract and in the “absence of a plain indication of that policy through long governmental practice or statutory enactments, or violations of obvious ethical or moral standards, the Court should not assume to declare contracts contrary to public policy.” Burstein, 809 A.2d at 207. Significantly, we have acknowledged that in such circumstances, “courts must be content to await legislative action.” Id.

The OISR fails to heed this warning. By declaring the public policy of this Commonwealth, untethered to legislative fiat and in a case where the issue is not before us, the OISR comes dangerously close to displacing the legislative process with judicial will. Accordingly, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the order granting summary judgment in favor of the Triathlon. While the facts of this case are most tragic, this Court may not afford relief where the law does not so provide.

Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Todd join this opinion in support of affirmance.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL

DOUGHERTY, JUSTICE.

The question before the Court is whether the Superior Court erred when it determined

a pre-injury exculpatory waiver signed by a triathlon participant provides a complete defense to claims brought by the participant’s non-signatory heirs pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. We would find the waiver is unenforceable against the heirs and does not preclude their wrongful death action. We would therefore reverse the Superior Court’s decision and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

In 2010, appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, organized the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon Sprint (the Triathlon). The Triathlon consisted of three events: (1) a 0.5 mile swim; (2) a 15.7 mile bicycle race; and (3) a 3.1 mile run. The swim portion of the Triathlon took place in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a participant in the Triathlon, Decedent, Derek Valentino, registered as a participant for the Triathlon and executed a Waiver and Release of Liability (the Waiver) by affixing his electronic signature to an online registration form.

On race day, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River for the swim portion of the Triathlon, but he did not complete the swim and, on the following day, his body was recovered from the Schuylkill River. There is no dispute Decedent drowned in the river while participating in the Triathlon. SeeValentino v. Phila. Ins. Co., No. 120401417, 2014 WL 4796614, at *1 (Pa. Com. Pl. Aug. 26, 2014).

Appellant Michele Valentino filed a lawsuit in her individual capacity and as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, against several defendants, including appellee, asserting survival claims on Decedent’s behalf and wrongful death claims on her own behalf and that of her children.[1] See Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 26-28, 34-36, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (Survival Act provides “[a]ll causes of action or proceedings, real or personal, shall survive the death of the plaintiff or of the defendant …”); Amended Complaint at ¶¶29-33, 37-41, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a), (b) (Wrongful Death Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”).[2] In response to preliminary objections, the trial court entered orders striking from the complaint all references to outrageous acts, gross negligence and recklessness. The trial court also struck appellant’s claim for punitive damages. Remaining in the case were several allegations of ordinary negligence, specifically, that appellee failed to: make a

reasonable inspection of the premises and event course; remove or take measures to prevent dangerous conditions; follow rules, regulations, policies and procedures governing safety standards; properly train the Triathlon’s agents, servants and employees with respect to safety rules, regulations, policies and procedures; properly supervise the Triathlon’s employees to ensure the Triathlon was conducted in a reasonable and safe manner; properly construct or design a safe event route to avoid dangerous conditions; regulate or control the number of individuals participating in each phase of the race simultaneously; have proper rules, regulations, policies and procedures for the timely recognition and response of event participants in distress and need of rescue; and have adequate safety personnel on hand for each aspect of the event. Seeid. at ¶ 22(b), (d) & (f) – (l).

Thereafter, appellee filed an answer with new matter, claiming Decedent was sufficiently negligent himself to completely bar appellant’s recovery, or alternatively, to reduce appellant’s recovery in accordance with the amount of comparative negligence attributed to Decedent. See Answer with New Matter at ¶43, citing Comparative Negligence Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102. In addition, appellee asserted the complete defense of assumption of risk, claiming it owed no duty to Decedent or his survivors based on Decedent’s execution of the Waiver. Id. at ¶¶44, 46.

a. Summary Judgment

On September 30, 2013, the trial court granted appellee’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of appellant’s remaining claims with prejudice. On appellant’s motion for reconsideration, the court opined summary judgment on the survival action was proper based on the Waiver. Valentino, 2014 WL 4796614, at *2. The court reversed itself regarding appellant’s wrongful death action, and opined that claim should be remanded for further proceedings based on the Superior Court’s decision in Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 663 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014) (resident-decedent’s contractual agreement with nursing home to arbitrate all claims was not binding on non-signatory wrongful death claimants). Id. at *3. In recommending the wrongful death action be remanded, the trial court observed “a decedent can contract away his own right to recover in court under a survival action, [but] he cannot similarly alienate the rights of third parties to recover in their own wrongful death actions.” Id.

b. Superior Court

A divided en banc panel of the Superior Court subsequently affirmed summary judgment on all claims. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016).[3] The majority reasoned that, for a decedent’s heirs to recover damages in a wrongful death action, there must be an underlying tortious act by the defendant. See id. at 492-93, quotingKaczorowski v. Kalkosinski, 321 Pa. 438, 184 A. 663, 664 (1936) (“… a right to recover must exist in the party injured when he died in order to entitle[ ] those named in the act to sue…. [W]here the deceased would have been barred by contributory negligence, or by the statute of limitations, the parties suing for his death are likewise barred.”) (internal citations omitted). The majority further held its own decision in Pisano, which allowed non-signatory wrongful death claimants to file a court action despite their decedent’s execution of an arbitration

agreement, is limited to the facts of that case. Id. at 493. The majority opined an heir’s right to recover for her decedent’s wrongful death is dependent upon the existence of a tortious act that caused the death, stating “while a third party’s wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s right of action, a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Id. Underpinning the en banc majority’s analysis was its position that arbitration and settlement agreements “bind[ ] only the parties to the agreement while the [liability waiver] extends to non-signatory third-parties.” Id. at 497 n.9. The en banc majority considered the Waiver to be an express assumption of all risks which eliminated any legal duty otherwise owed to anyone by appellee, creating a complete bar to tort liability.[4] Id.

Appellant filed a petition for allowance of appeal and this Court granted review of two questions:

Whether the Superior Court erred when it determined that a waiver of liability form, executed solely by the decedent, and stating the signer assumes all risks of participation in a triathlon, also binds his heirs, thereby precluding them from bringing a wrongful death action?

Whether the defense of assumption of risk should be abolished except in those situations where it is specifically permitted by the Comparative Negligence Act?[5]

Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 641 Pa. 515, 168 A.3d 1283 (2017) (per curiam ).

Our standard and scope of review on appeal from summary judgment are well-established. “[A]n appellate court may reverse the entry of summary judgment only where it finds that the trial court erred in concluding that the matter presented no genuine issue as to any material fact and that it is clear that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1004 (2003), citingPappas v. Asbel, 564 Pa. 407, 768 A.2d 1089 (2001). In determining whether the lower court erred in granting summary judgment, the standard of review is de novo and the scope of review is plenary. Liss & Marion, P.C. v. Recordex Acquisition Corp., 603 Pa. 198, 983 A.2d 652, 657 (2009), citingLJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 647 (2009). We consider the parties’ arguments with these standards in mind.

II.

Appellant argues the Superior Court erred in determining the Waiver, which

was executed solely by Decedent, barred his heirs’ wrongful death action. Appellant first notes wrongful death actions are statutorily authorized in Pennsylvania:

(a) General rule.–An action may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules, to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another if no recovery for the same damages claimed in the wrongful death action was obtained by the injured individual during his lifetime and any prior actions for the same injuries are consolidated with the wrongful death claim so as to avoid a duplicate recovery.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). Relying on Pennsylvania jurisprudence, appellant argues a wrongful death action is derivative of the victim’s fatal injuries, but is nevertheless meant to compensate a decedent’s survivors “for the pecuniary loss they have sustained by the denial of future contributions decedent would have made in his or her lifetime.” Appellant’s Brief at 13-15, quotingFrey v. Pa. Elec. Comp., 414 Pa.Super. 535, 607 A.2d 796, 798 (1992), and citingTulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992), Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is “derivative” because “it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action”).

Appellant relies on Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), where the tort-victim husband executed a general release and settlement agreement after a car accident which purported to waive recovery by “any and all other persons associations and/or corporations[.]” Appellant’s Brief at 15-16, quotingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 734. Plaintiff’s wife did not sign the release agreement. The Buttermores filed a suit against medical professionals who treated him after the accident, including a claim brought by wife for loss of consortium. Seeid. at 16. On appeal from summary judgment, this Court ruled husband’s claim was barred by the release he executed, but wife’s claim was not because she herself had not signed it. Id., citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736. Appellant argues the lower courts’ ruling the Waiver in this case, which only Decedent signed, bars his heirs’ wrongful death claims is in direct contravention of Buttermore . Id. at 17-18, citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 735.

In response, appellee contends summary judgment was properly entered and dismissal of appellant’s wrongful death claims should be affirmed. Appellee argues a wrongful death action is derivative of, and dependent upon, a tortious act that results in decedent’s death. Appellee’s Brief at 13, citingCentofanti v. Pa. R. Co., 244 Pa. 255, 90 A. 558, 561 (1914) (additional citations omitted). Appellee insists the Superior Court correctly determined Decedent’s execution of the Waiver meant appellee’s conduct was rendered non-tortious in all respects because appellee no longer owed Decedent any duty of care. Id. at 16-17, citingMontagazzi v. Crisci, 994 A.2d 626, 635 (Pa. Super. 2010) (plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily encountering an obvious and dangerous risk relieves those “who may have otherwise had a duty”); Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc., 749 A.2d 522, 526 (Pa. Super. 2000) (en banc ) (“Our [S]upreme [C]ourt appears to have concluded that in a negligence action, the question whether a litigant has assumed the risk is a question of law as part of the court’s duty analysis ….”) (additional citations omitted). Appellee also argues Pisano is not applicable here. Appellee contends Pisano determined only the narrow issue of whether a wrongful death plaintiff is bound by an arbitration agreement which she did not sign, and is not relevant to questions regarding

the exculpatory Waiver signed by Decedent. Seeid. at 24.

III.

The Wrongful Death Act (the Act), provides an independent statutory cause of action that belongs to specific claimants, i.e. the surviving spouse, children or parents of the deceased. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301 (Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”). SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665 (“By the statute there is given an explicit and independent right of action to recover the damages peculiarly suffered by the parties named therein.”). This statutory claim for wrongful death “is derivative because it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action. Its derivation, however, is from the tortious act and not from the person of the deceased, so that it comes to the parties named in the statute free from personal disabilities arising from the relationship of the injured party and tort-feasor.” Id. at 664 (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, Pennsylvania courts recognize that while wrongful death actions seek damages for losses to heirs arising from their relative’s wrongful death, the claims are not derivative of — or limited by — the decedent’s own rights. SeePisano, 77 A.3d at 660.

It is clear the General Assembly intended the Act to compensate the decedent’s surviving heirs, not the decedent himself, whose own losses are encompassed in a survival action. Compare 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(wrongful death) with 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (survival); see alsoAmato v. Bell & Gossett, 116 A.3d 607, 625 (Pa. Super. 2015), quotingHatwood v. Hosp. of the Univ. of Pa., 55 A.3d 1229, 1235 (Pa. Super. 2012) (“The purpose of the Wrongful Death Statute … is to compensate the decedent’s survivors for the pecuniary losses they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death…. A wrongful death action does not compensate the decedent; it compensates the survivors for damages which they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death.”) (additional citations omitted). The Act is thus designed to assure a decedent’s heirs may seek compensation “for the loss of pecuniary benefits which [they] would have received from the deceased had death not intervened.” Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 665. Also, the Act is a remedial statute, and as such it must be liberally interpreted to effect its purpose and promote justice. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1928(c); Amadio v. Levin, 509 Pa. 199, 501 A.2d 1085, 1087 (1985) (wrongful death statute is “remedial in nature and purpose, and as such should be liberally construed to accomplish the objective of the act”); see alsoO’Rourke v. Commonwealth, 566 Pa. 161, 778 A.2d 1194, 1203 (2001) (noting remedial statutes are to be liberally construed to effect objectives).

With these principles and the legislative purpose of the Act in mind, we must determine whether the Waiver provides a complete defense to a wrongful death claim brought by non-signatory heirs. A liability waiver is, at its core, a contract, and must be construed and interpreted in the same manner as other contracts — such as arbitration clauses or settlement agreements and releases — when determining whether it is effective against a non-signatory third party. The Waiver purports to be an exculpatory contract, and such contracts are generally disfavored by the law. SeeEmployers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966) (“contracts providing for immunity from liability for negligence must be construed strictly since

they are not favorites of the law”); see alsoSoxman v. Goodge, 372 Pa.Super. 343, 539 A.2d 826, 828 (1988) (“the law … recognized that lying behind [exculpatory] contracts is a residuum of public policy which is antagonistic to carte blanche exculpation from liability and thus developed the rule that these provisions would be strictly construed with every intendment against the party seeking their protection”), quotingPhillips Home Furnishings Inc. v. Continental Bank, 231 Pa.Super. 174, 331 A.2d 840, 843 (1974). Accordingly, a pre-injury exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy, is between parties relating entirely to their private affairs, and where each party is a free bargaining agent so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1177 (2010), citingTopp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (1993). This Court has consistently recognized the exculpatory contract is an agreement that is “intended to diminish legal rights which normally accrue as a result of a given legal relationship or transaction … [which must be] construed strictly against the party seeking [its] protection.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963), quotingMorton v. Ambridge Borough, 375 Pa. 630, 101 A.2d 661, 663 (1954).

Thus, in determining whether the Waiver provides a defense to appellant’s wrongful death action, we must liberally apply the remedial Act while we simultaneously construe the Waiver strictly against appellee as the party seeking protection from the contract. We would hold the Superior Court did the opposite in its decision below: the court erroneously gave the Waiver the broadest application possible while disregarding the remedial nature of the Act and the public policy considerations underpinning it.[6]

First, we note the Waiver is a contract between Decedent and appellee involving their own private affairs. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. The Waiver includes broad language barring Triathlon participants from filing suit to recover damages for injuries or death “which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the [Triathlon], including claims for Liability caused in whole or in part by the negligence of” appellees. See Waiver attached as Exhibit A to appellee’s Answer and New Matter. However, the Waiver is plainly not an agreement between Triathlon participants’ wrongful death heirs and appellee. We emphasize a wrongful death action belongs solely to a decedent’s heirs, is intended to compensate them, and does not accrue to the decedent. SeeHatwood, 55 A.3d at 1235, quotingMachado v. Kunkel, 804 A.2d 1238, 1246 (Pa. Super. 2002) (“Under the wrongful death act the widow or family is entitled, in addition to costs, to compensation for the loss of the contributions decedent would have made …”). Thus, while a pre-injury exculpatory

waiver might indeed be effective to bar a survival claim by a decedent’s estate, it is quite another thing to conclude the decedent’s agreement acts as a complete defense to statutory claims that are specifically available to his non-signatory heirs. Appellee argues the Waiver provides a complete defense to appellant’s wrongful death claim, but in our considered view, allowing the Waiver to have this effect would require us to ignore the purpose of the Act and the public policy concerns it was specifically enacted to protect.[7]

Our conclusion is consistent with prior Pennsylvania case law arising from wrongful death actions. As this Court has stated, such lawsuits are meant to compensate the statutory beneficiaries, i.e. the spouse, children or parents of the decedent for the pecuniary losses they sustained as a result of their relative’s death. SeeTulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431. Accordingly, our courts have recognized the distinct nature of these claims and have declined to enforce a decedent’s own agreements and obligations against his heirs. SeeButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736 (release signed by husband barred his own action against hospital but not the independent action of wife, who did not sign release); Pisano, 77 A.3d at 660, citingKaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is derived from injury to decedent but it is independent and distinct cause of action; decedent’s agreement to arbitrate not binding on non-signatory heirs); see alsoRickard v. Am. Nat’l Prop. & Cas. Co., 173 A.3d 299 (Pa. Super. 2017) (decedent’s agreement to accept insurance benefits in exchange for allowing subrogation by insurer not binding on non-signatory heirs who recovered damages in subsequent wrongful death action against tortfeasor). The Waiver in this regard is analogous to the settlement and release agreement at issue in Buttermore, or the arbitration agreement in Pisano .

We observe that the undisputed purpose of the Act is “to provide a cause of action against one whose tortious conduct caused the death of another.” Amadio, 501 A.2d at 1087. And, as we have stated, exculpatory contracts must be read narrowly. SeeDilks, 192 A.2d at 687; see alsoTayar v. Camelback Ski Corp. Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (2012) (for exculpatory clause to be enforceable “contract language must be construed strictly”), quotingTopp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99. Allowing the Waiver to have a broad exculpatory effect with respect to non-signatory wrongful death claimants would essentially make the right the General Assembly created for certain heirs through the Act an illusory one. Abrogation of an express statutory right to recovery in this way violates public policy, and a pre-injury exculpatory waiver that contravenes public policy is invalid and unenforceable. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). Moreover, our recognition of relevant public policy concerns in this regard does not constitute “creation” of public policy. See OISA at 947. Our law is clear that determination of whether contract terms may be avoided on public policy grounds “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents [or] governmental practice ….” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199. The public policy

we recognize here is well-established in both judicial precedents and statutory enactment. This Court has declined to enforce exculpatory contracts “[w]here the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, [because] that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44, 46 (1953) (exculpatory waiver of liability unenforceable on public policy grounds due to conflict with statute). Precluding the use of the Waiver as a carte blanche automatic defense to wrongful death actions comports with the remedial purpose and protection expressed in the Act. A contrary holding elevates a private contract above public policy embodied in a statutory enactment, and overrides our jurisprudence directing a narrow and strict construction of exculpatory waivers.

Accordingly, we would hold the Waiver is void and unenforceable with respect to appellant’s wrongful death claims and, as such, the Waiver should not be available to appellee as a defense in the underlying wrongful death litigation.[8] We would hold the Superior Court erred in affirming summary judgment in favor of appellee on that basis, and reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings on appellant’s wrongful death claim.

Justice Donohue and Justice Mundy join this opinion in support of reversal.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL

DONOHUE, JUSTICE.

I join Justice Dougherty’s Opinion in Support of Reversal (“OISR”) in full. I too disagree with the Superior Court’s conclusion that the Decedent’s exculpatory agreement may serve as a complete defense to the wrongful death heir’s claim against the Triathlon. I write separately to express my view that, in light of the derivative nature of wrongful death actions, the Superior Court was technically correct in its analysis of the mechanical operation of the liability waiver in reaching its conclusion. However, when the mechanical operation of the law works to defeat the purpose of a remedial statute like the Wrongful Death Act, by way of the broad enforcement of a legally disfavored exculpatory agreement, the mechanical operation must yield.

As Justice Dougherty explains, this Court has repeatedly affirmed a requirement that exculpatory agreements must be narrowly and strictly construed because exculpatory language, which purports to relieve a person of liability even when he has negligently caused injury to another, is not favored in the law. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954-55 (citing Employers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966); Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (2010); Topp Copy Prods. Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98 (1993);

Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963)). Here, Appellant does not challenge the validity or the enforceability of the contractual assumption of risk in the survival action she brought (as administratrix) on behalf of Decedent’s estate. Therefore, for purposes of this appeal, the liability waiver is valid and enforceable as a complete defense to the survival action. As between the Triathlon and Decedent, there is a knowing and voluntary agreement to extinguish Decedent’s ability to recover for claims of ordinary negligence.

I believe that we must, however, decline to allow the liability waiver to defeat a wrongful death action brought by heirs who never agreed, expressly or otherwise, to eliminate their statutory right to recover for their pecuniary loss resulting from the death of their loved one that, as alleged, was tortious but for the liability waiver. Allowing the liability waiver to defeat the wrongful death action, as the Superior Court did, gives the waiver the broadest possible reading, contrary to our mandate to narrowly construe such provisions. The tenet of strict construction requires that we limit this liability waiver to its narrowest effect: a bar to recovery under the survival action.

Moreover, as noted by Justice Dougherty, for an exculpatory waiver to be valid, it must meet three conditions: it must not contravene public policy, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs, and each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53 (citing Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177). As to these first two prongs, this Court’s decision in Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44 (1953), is instructive. In Boyd, an agreement between a property owner and a tenant relieved the property owner from liability for any injury occasioned by the property owner’s negligence in the maintenance of the leased building. Boyd, 94 A.2d at 45. However, pursuant to statute, “no building … shall be used for human habitation unless it is equipped with a fire escape or fire escapes as required by law.” Id. (quoting 53 P.S. § 3962). The property in question was not equipped with fire escapes. The building caught fire and, unable to escape the building by fire escape, the tenant sustained serious injuries and sued. The property owner attempted to rely on the exculpatory agreement in the lease to avoid liability.

We declined to find the waiver enforceable, explaining:

Such a protective clause is undoubtedly valid and enforceable if it does not contravene any policy of the law, that is, if it is not a matter of interest to the public or the state but merely an agreement between persons relating entirely to their private affairs. The situation becomes an entirely different one in the eye of the law when the legislation in question is, as here, a police measure obviously intended for the protection of human life; in such event public policy does not permit an individual to waive the protection which the statute is designed to afford him.

Id. at 46. We further held, “where the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Id.

We are tasked here with determining the legal effect of a liability waiver upon a third party, not the signatory – a far more extreme reach of the waiver of liability than in Boyd . However, as in Boyd, the fullest enforcement of the liability waiver would contravene an unequivocal policy determination by the General Assembly,

namely that wrongful death heirs are entitled to recover pecuniary losses from the party responsible for their provider’s death. See OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954.

The Wrongful Death Act, which is remedial in nature and must be construed liberally, assures that surviving heirs do not need to go without financial support nor look to public welfare agencies to shoulder the economic burden of the loss of a provider. SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665; see alsoGershon v. Regency Diving Center, 368 N.J.Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720, 728 (2004) (observing that, “in many wrongful death cases the decedent was the ‘breadwinner’ and the heirs are children, incompetents or those otherwise economically dependent on the decedent”). Notably, in the case at bar, Decedent was a forty-year-old husband and father of two who worked full-time for United Parcel Service and part-time as a licensed realtor. See Appellant’s Response to Triathlon’s Motion for Summary Judgment at 2.

Allowing the Triathlon to use Decedent’s waiver of liability to defeat a wrongful death claim would require us to ignore clear public policy embedded in the wrongful death statute and our laws governing decedents more generally. Analogously, the General Assembly has for centuries prohibited spousal disinheritance by will in order to ensure the surviving spouse’s financial security after the decedent’s death. SeeIn re Houston’s Estate, 371 Pa. 396, 89 A.2d 525, 526 (1952); see also 20 Pa.C.S. § 2203 (authorizing a surviving spouse to take against the will an elective share of one-third of the deceased’s property, subject to certain exceptions, thereby ensuring the surviving spouse’s right to some inheritance). Thus, a married individual cannot eliminate his spouse’s statutory entitlement, even through an attempted disinheritance in a last will and testament. In my view, it is impossible to reconcile allowing a sporting event participant to eradicate a statutory claim for wrongful death damages when he could not accomplish a disinheritance by virtue of a will. For this reason, and because liability waivers are disfavored, I join Justice Dougherty in narrowly construing the liability waiver so that it is enforceable only in the survival action brought on behalf of Decedent’s estate, where it was not challenged. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). So construed, it has no effect on the wrongful death action. Like Justice Dougherty, I would decline to give any effect to the Decedent’s contractual waiver of the Triathlon’s duty of care in the wrongful death action because doing so would implicate public, not merely private, affairs and would contravene the policy set forth by our legislature in the Wrongful Death Act which we must liberally construe. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 954-55; see alsoChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189; Boyd, 94 A.2d at 46.

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Notes:

[1] We also granted allowance of appeal to determine whether to abolish the assumption of the risk doctrine under circumstances where the Comparative Negligence Act does not expressly permit its application. Appellant, however, waived this issue by not challenging the overall viability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in the lower tribunals. See Pa.R.A.P. 302(a) (providing that “[i]ssues not raised in the lower court are waived and cannot be raised for the first time on appeal”).

[2] In block capital lettering above the signature line, the Agreement stated that Decedent’s acceptance of the Agreement confirmed that he read and understood its terms, that he understood that he would surrender substantial rights, including the right to sue, and that Decedent signed the agreement freely and voluntarily. Id. This final paragraph went on to state that acceptance of the Agreement constituted “a complete and unconditional release of all liability to the greatest extent allowed by law.” Id.

[3] In Pisano, the decedent had executed an agreement at the time of his admission to a long-term care nursing facility (“Extendicare”), providing that any dispute arising from the agreement would be resolved by binding arbitration. Id. at 653. The decedent’s son subsequently commenced a wrongful death action against Extendicare in the trial court. Extendicare filed preliminary objections, seeking to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court overruled Extendicare’s preliminary objections, holding that a wrongful death action is a creature of statute and is independent of the right of action of the decedent’s estate. Id. at 654. Thus, the trial court concluded, the decedent’s agreement to arbitrate disputes did not preclude the wrongful death claim brought by the decedent’s son. Id.

The Superior Court affirmed. The court reasoned that pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301, a wrongful death action is not derivative of the decedent’s claim, but is a separate and distinct right of action belonging to statutory claimants to compensate them for damages they sustained as a result of the decedent’s death. Id. at 656-8. The Pisano court concluded that the arbitration agreement was not binding on the decedent’s son because he was not a party to that agreement; thus, the trial court was correct in refusing to compel arbitration.

[4] Notably, the Superior Court presumed the validity of the Agreement as Appellant presented no claim to the contrary. See id. at 492 n.6 (explaining that Appellant “does not challenge the substantive validity of the liability waiver as a bar to her claims of ordinary negligence. Consequently, we need not address the validity of the exculpatory provisions in the context of this case.”). By declaring the Agreement void as against public policy, the OISR ignores this clear waiver of any challenge to the Agreement on those grounds.

[1] Appellant stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants other than appellee on January 29, 2013, and they are not involved in this appeal. See Stipulation of Dismissal Without Prejudice.

[2] In Pennsylvania, wrongful death claims are separate and distinct from survival claims, although both involve allegations of negligence against the defendant. SeeDubose v. Quinlan, 643 Pa. 244, 173 A.3d 634, 637 (2017); Kiser v. Schulte, 538 Pa. 219, 648 A.2d 1, 4 (1994) (discussing differences between survival and wrongful death claims); Tulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992); (“the two actions are designed to compensate two different categories of claimants”); Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 654 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa . 2014) (“Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly distinguished wrongful death claims from survival claims”). The survival claim is the “continuation of a cause of action that accrued to the plaintiff’s decedent while the decedent was alive …. On the other hand, a wrongful death action accrues to the decedent’s heirs when the decedent dies of such an injury ….” Dubose, 173 A.3d at 637. As explained more fully infra, a wrongful death claim is an independent action which belongs to the decedent’s heirs for damages aimed to compensate members of a decedent’s family for their loss. Tulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431.

[3] Judge Olson authored the majority opinion joined by P.J. Gantman, P.J.E. Bender, and Judges Bowes, Shogun and Ott.

[4] In a concurring and dissenting opinion joined by Judges Panella and Lazarus, P.J.E. Ford Elliott determined Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989) was instructive on the analysis of the Waiver, despite the majority’s effort to distinguish it. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 501-02 (Ford Elliott, P.J.E., concurring and dissenting). Judge Ford Elliott noted the Waiver is similar to the release in Buttermore, and the non-signatory heir in that case had an independent right to sue for the injury she suffered as a result of her decedent’s death. Id. Judge Ford Elliott stated the majority’s holding the Decedent’s own assumption of risk created a complete defense to his heirs’ wrongful death action would “eviscerate the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute which creates an independent and distinct cause of action, not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death.” Id. at 502. Judge Ford Elliott would also have relied on Pisano to reverse summary judgment. Id. at 504.

[5] This Court granted review of this second issue and ordered supplemental briefing via a per curiam order dated January 26, 2018. As acknowledged by the Opinion in Support of Affirmance (OISA), although appellant challenged the effectiveness of the Waiver as it applied to Decedent, she never questioned the overall viability of the doctrine of assumption of the risk below, and the issue is therefore waived. See OISA at 942, n.1.

[6] The OISA suggests our view of the case ignores the question before the Court. See OISA at 942-43. Respectfully, the OISA’s position reveals an overly narrow reading of the issue on appeal, i.e., whether an exculpatory contract can be enforced against non-signatory heirs in a claim made pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act. Seesupra at 950-51. In answering that question, we examine the terms of the Waiver within the context in which it is to be enforced. We cannot disregard the nature of the underlying suit and our jurisprudence guiding our interpretation of exculpatory contracts, which specifically includes a consideration of public policy. SeeChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177 (exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy …”). Although the question granted on appeal did not include the term “public policy,” we must surely consider public policy when determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid and enforceable under the given circumstances.

[7] The OISA accurately observes an exculpatory agreement would “generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity,” but nevertheless rejects our view that the same waiver could be ineffective as a defense in a wrongful death claim while providing a viable defense in a survival action. See OISA at 947. We consider the disparate treatment of the Waiver in the two causes of action to be the direct result of the different goals and purposes served by the relevant statutes. Seesupra at 942, n.2.

[8] Importantly, our holding would not render appellee defenseless in that litigation, despite the OISA statement our reading means appellant’s right to relief is “absolute”. See OISA at 947. We recognize a wrongful death action is a tort claim arising from the alleged “wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Appellant must still prove the elements of her case, including causation, before any recovery would be assured. See, e.g.,Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1008 (2003) (to maintain negligence action, plaintiff must show defendant had duty to conform to standard of conduct, breach of duty, the breach caused the injury, and the injury resulted in damages).

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Tennessee still has not caught up, and assumption of the risk is not a defense to sport or recreational activities.

There is no assumption of the risk defense in Tennessee. Consequently, cyclists in a paceline who crash can be liable to each other for the crash.

Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. App. LEXIS 160; 2018 WL 1545852

State: Tennessee, Court of Appeals of Tennessee, At Knoxville

Plaintiff: Carolyn Crisp

Defendant: Michael Nelms, et Al.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: inherent risk

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2018

Summary

Cyclists in a paceline could be liable for a fatality of one of the riders because Tennessee has no assumption of the risk as a defense. Paceline riding is inherently dangerous; however, court chose to ignore that issue. Recreation in Tennessee is risky for sports & recreation participants.

Facts

A paceline is a group of riders cycling right behind the first ride, single file in a row. Cyclists do this because it increases the speed of the entire group and saves everyone’s energy. The rider in front is expanding 10% or more, less energy and the riders behind can expand up to 30% less energy. Pacelines are what you see in large cycling races like the Tour de France.

On February 25, 2014, five people embarked on a cycling expedition along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 321 near Townsend, Tennessee. The group was riding in a paceline, an activity wherein cyclists ride in a line one after the other in close quarters. This action serves to increase the efficiency of the ride as the riders draft off one another to counteract the wind resistance. At the front of the line was Long. Behind Long was Nelms. Richard Cox was third. Decedent was fourth, and Stacy Napier was at the back of the line. This was not a group of novices. Rather, these were seasoned cyclists riding expensive bicycles. Long and Decedent, friends since childhood [*3] and regular cycling companions, were in their 70s.

The cyclists left Cycology, a bicycle shop on U.S. highway 321 in Blount County, at 10:30 a.m. The riders were traveling at a speed of about 22 miles per hour. Around noon, the incident occurred. Nelms’ front tire struck Long’s back tire. Nelms wrecked and fell to the pavement. Cox, third in line, swerved and avoided Nelms. Decedent, fourth, steered right but wound up flying off his bicycle and landing on his head. Hospital records reflect that “another rider hit” Nelms. Nelms denies that Decedent hit him, asserting instead that Decedent sharply applied his breaks and thereby caused his own misfortune.

Decedent was rendered quadriplegic by the wreck. Decedent dictated a note to Nelms, stating in part: “I think it is important for you to know that I place no blame on you for the accident . . . it was just one of those things that you cannot understand.” On August 22, 2014, Decedent died.

In February 2015, Plaintiff, Decedent’s widow, sued Nelms in the Trial Court. In April 2015, Nelms filed an answer denying liability. Nelms raised the defense of comparative fault and stated that Long may have been negligent in causing the incident. In [*4] June 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, this time including Long as a defendant. In August 2015, Long filed an answer acknowledging that Nelms struck his bicycle but denying that he slowed down. Long raised the defense of comparative fault with respect to Nelms and Decedent. Discovery ensued.

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

What a crock.

I’ve written extensively about most states bringing back the assumption of the risk defense for sports and recreational activities. Without players being protected from the risks of the sport, the sport or activity will have no enthusiasm and very little value. Tennessee has not adopted that doctrine. Tennessee states that assumption of the risk is a factor used to help determine the damages. Meaning when the jury determines if there was any negligence and then determine damages, the damages can be reduced by how much of the risk the plaintiff assumed.

Assumption of the risk is a complete bar to litigation in the vast majority of states. Not in Tennessee.

Tennessee still prevents litigation over inherently risky activities. However, this court in its zeal to allow the plaintiff to win, totally ignore the fact that riding in a paceline is an inherently dangerous activity.

Defendants argue that paceline riding is an inherently risky activity as described by the experts and participants, especially for a rider of Decedent’s age. Nelms argues that Decedent had his own duty to adhere to, as well. Plaintiff argues in response that no rider in a paceline assumes that the person riding in front of him suddenly and inexplicably will slow down. Our initial inquiry is whether a duty of care exists in paceline riding and what the nature of that duty is.

By ignored, I mean the court bent over backwards to find a way to allow this case to proceed by simply ignoring the law concerning inherently dangerous activities. The court moved from inherently dangerous to finding a duty. No duty is owed in an inherently dangerous activity.

INHERENTLY DANGEROUS: An activity is inherently dangerous if there is (a) an existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person; (2)likelihood that any harm that results from it will be great; (c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care; (d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of commons usage; (e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and (f) extent to which value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes. (Restatement, Torts 2d § 519(1))

See Definitions.

If assumption of the risk is not a defense, and if you ignore the issue of whether the risk is inherently dangerous. Consequently, you are back to simple negligence and the duties that each person owes another.

Everyone has a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in light of the surrounding circumstances to refrain from conduct that could foreseeably injure others, and some locations and circumstances may require a higher degree of care than others.

The court even acknowledged why assumption of the risk is a doctrine that should be adopted in sporting and recreation situations.

The reason many courts have required a plaintiff to prove reckless or intentional conduct on the part of a defendant in order to recover for injuries sustained in an athletic competition, is that these courts have feared that an ordinary negligence standard will increase litigation of sports injuries and stifle athletic competition.

However, Tennessee does not believe it.

We do not share these court’s concerns with respect to the imposition of an ordinary negligence standard in cases of sports related injuries, because we think that the recognition that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently on the playing field than on a public street, will sufficiently prevent the stifling of athletic competition. We also note that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently depending upon the particular sport involved and the likelihood and foreseeability of injury presented by participation in the particular sport. What is reasonable, acceptable, and even encouraged in the boxing ring or ice hockey rink, would be negligent or even reckless or intentional tortious conduct in the context of a game of golf or tennis. We should not fashion a different standard of care for each and every sport. We simply recognize that the reasonable conduct standard of care should be given different meaning in the context of different sports and athletic competitions.

If there is a duty of reasonable care, you can then proceed to prove negligence. Negligence in Tennessee is defined as a five-step process.

To establish a claim for negligence a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct falling below the applicable standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; (5) and proximate causation.

From there it was easy to fabricate the idea that paceline riders owed each other a duty of reasonableness.

Inherently risky or not, a paceline rider still has a duty of care to her fellow riders. For instance, while wrecks can and do happen, a paceline rider has a duty to refrain from abruptly applying her brakes or from hitting the wheel of the rider of front of her without good reason. We conclude that each paceline rider in the instant case had a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.

Think about the absurdity of the above statement. A group of cyclists in a paceline has the right of way. A large truck pulls out in front of the first rider. Based on the analysis of the facts by the court, the first rider is now supposed to hit or get hit by the truck. He or she cannot apply their brakes.

The Tennessee Appellate court sent the case back for trial.

So Now What?

Honestly, this is a scary case. Because Tennessee’s law is antiquated, any participant in any outdoor recreation activity or sporting event could be sued for any injury they receive during the event. Insurance costs in Tennessee will continue to rise because it will be cheaper to settle these cases then to try to win at trial.

And the court’s refusal to look at the inherent risks of cycling in a paceline was a plaintiff’s dream. Even professional’s crash in pacelines. Amateurs are always going to be at risk and there is nothing you can do about the risks. Don’t ride in a paceline, and you don’t get the benefits that a paceline provides.

If you engage in any event in Tennessee, you can walk away a defendant. Stay away from Tennessee if you are recreating.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Backing of a lift ticket peeled off by Plaintiff to attach lift ticket to his jacket held by Federal District court to be a release and prevents plaintiffs’ claims for skiing into hidden snow making equipment.

Five Federal District Courts have ruled that the information on the back of a lift ticket is a release. No state Courts have ruled this way.

Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

State: New Hampshire, United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Thomas Jackson Miller

Defendant: The Sunapee Difference, LLC d/b/a Mount Sunapee Resort

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The plaintiff in this case, a skier at New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee resort, was injured when he struck a support post for snow making equipment. At issue in this case is whether a release attached to his lift ticket excuses the ski area for liability in connection with its alleged negligence in failing to mark the post, warn skiers about it, or otherwise make it visible.

Facts

Following a large 2015 snowfall, Miller visited Mount Sunapee with his brother and father for a day of skiing. Miller was skiing ahead of his companions through fresh powder on the left side of the Beck Brook trail4 when he struck an unmarked “snow gun holder” that was concealed by snow. The “holder” — essentially a steel pipe protruding from the ground — is a mounting post for snow-making guns. The post remains embedded in the ground after the guns are removed. There was no snow-making gun in the holder at the time of this accident. Miller suffered serious leg injuries in the collision.

The major difference in this case was the lift ticket identified itself as a release. The back of the lift ticket, on the part that peeled away to reveal the sticky section where the lift ticket attached to itself to create a two-sided lift ticket stated:

In order to ski at Mount Sunapee, Miller first purchased a lift ticket. The ticket has a self-adhesive backing, which the skier affixes to his zipper tab or similar visible location. In order to attach it, the skier must first remove it from a peel-off backing. Printed on the back of the peel-off backing of the Mount Sunapee lift ticket was the following:

STOP

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

By removing this peel-off backing and using this ticket, you agree to be legally bound by the LIABILITY RELEASE printed on the other side of this ticket. If you are not willing to be bound by this LIABILITY RELEASE, please return this ticket with the peel-off backing intact to the ticket counter for a full refund.

The Lift Ticket itself stated:

LIABILITY RELEASE

Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous and risky with many hazards that can cause injury or death. As purchaser or user of this ticket, I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the facilities of the Mount Sunapee resort, to freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of property damage, personal injury, or death resulting from their inherent or any other risks or dangers. I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE which may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause. Further I agree that any claim which I bring against Mount Sunapee Resort, its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be brought only in Federal or State courts in the State of New Hampshire. I agree my likeness may be used for promotional purposes.

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

NON-TRANSFERABLE: Use by a non-purchaser constitutes theft of services.

NON-REFUNDABLE. LOST TICKETS WILL NOT BE REPLACED Mount Sunapee Resort, P.O. Box 2021, Newbury, NH 03255

The language on this lift ticket specifically stated that it was a release, not just a lift ticket and not just a warning.

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

The court first looked at New Hampshire law on releases.

Such an exculpatory contract is enforceable if: 1) it does not violate public policy; 2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and 3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.

The plaintiff argued that the release was void because it violated public policy, and a reasonable person would only understand that the release applied to the inherent risks of skiing.

New Hampshire public policy requires a showing that no special relationship exists between the parties to the agreement and there is no disparity in the bargaining power between the parties. The New Hampshire Supreme Court found that an agreement would violate public policy if “it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.”

The plaintiff admitted that there was no special relationship between the parties nor was there a disparity of bargaining power. He centered his public policy argument on the theory that the release violated New Hampshire statutory law and that the release was injurious so the public interest. The statutory law argument was based on the New Hampshire Ski Area Act. The Act requires ski area operators to mark visible man-made objects. This object was not visible so therefor the plaintiff argued it should be marked and therefore, was negligence not to pad or mark it. However, the court would not buy into adding language to the statute where none existed. On top of that another section of the statute specially stated a ski assumes the risks of hitting snow making equipment.

The next argument advanced to argue the release violated public policy was based on several prior court decisions that held there was a duty on the state to do things. However, here again, the court found the was no duty in the New Hampshire Ski Area Act other than found in the plain language of the act. The duty the plaintiff was attempting to create was based on tying different sections of the act together that were not related.

The final public policy argument was because the ski area, Mount Sunapee was located on state-owned land and developed with federal funding, that created a greater duty to the public. However, the plaintiff could not provide any support for this theory, other than arguing sections of the lease between the ski area, and the state required it. The court found there was no language in the lease that created supported a public policy argument.

In most states, to create a contract, there are several requirements. One of those is there must be a meeting of the minds. A meeting of the minds requires the parties to know they are entering into a contract and the general terms of the agreement. This was clearly not the case in this situation (and in most lift ticket cases); however, New Hampshire does not require a meeting of the minds to enforce a contract.

The plaintiff then argued that without a signature, there could be a release. However, New Hampshire had a lot of case law where unsigned contracts were enforced.

The plaintiff argued he did not have an opportunity to read the release. However, that does not matter in New Hampshire and in most states when you sign it. However, here there was no signature.

A plaintiff’s failure to read a release “does not preclude enforcement of the release.” As long as the plaintiff had an opportunity to read the release, even if he chooses not to take it, a release can be enforced.

Here the court sort of worked its way around that issue because it found the plaintiff was a personal injury attorney. The plaintiff had submitted affidavits on the issue, which the court found lacking in the information needed to support the plaintiff’s arguments. The court did hammer plaintiff’s counsel at oral argument until plaintiff’s counsel admitted he had the opportunity to read it if he wanted.

Another issue is what the parties were contemplating when they made the agreement. A requirement for a contract under New Hampshire law. The court found the language of the release, which it had earlier found valid, contained the necessary information to define what the intention of the release was.

If “the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. The court gives the language of the release “its common meaning and give[s] the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” Id. “All that is required” is for the language to “clearly and specifically indicate[] the intent to release the defendants from liability for personal injury caused by the defendants’ negligence . . . .”

The court then went into the Reckless, Wanton or positive misconduct claims of the plaintiff. New Hampshire has adopted the Restatement of Torts definition of Reckless.

Under the Restatement [(Second) of Torts], § 500, at 587 (1965), conduct is “reckless” if it “would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such a risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” Id. The conduct “must involve an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm, and the probability that it will so result must be substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence.”

The court further defined reckless under New Hampshire law as:

…at a minimum, is conduct “where the known danger ceases to be only a foreseeable risk which a reasonable person would avoid, and becomes in the mind of the actor a substantial certainty.

However, the court found that the pleadings of the plaintiff pled no more than simple negligence. Meaning the facts argued by the plaintiff did not rise to the level needed to create a recklessness claim.

The court summed up its analogy as:

The undisputed factual record shows that plaintiff purchased and affixed to his clothing a lift ticket at Mount Sunapee that unambiguously released the ski area from liability from its own negligence, that such a release does not violate public policy, and that plaintiff’s signature was not required to effectuate its terms. Furthermore, there is no material factual dispute that plaintiff had the opportunity to read both the cautionary language on the ticket’s peel-off backing and the release language itself, that he would have understood that language to constitute a release and that a reasonable person in his position would have understood that the release exculpated Mount Sunapee from its own negligence.

So Now What?

It seemed obvious that this court was going to hold for the ski area. The decision explored all the arguments and possible arguments the plaintiff’s made and then ruled for the defendants.

The back of the pass had more than normal warning language as required by most statutes. This peel away release stated it was a release. There is also an issue that the purchaser of the lift ticket had already paid for the ticket before they found out there was a release giving rise to misrepresentation and fraud claim may be.

What is interesting is the change in the past five year, only in Federal District Courts holding that a lift ticket is a valid release at least mentioning the lift ticket as more than a receipt or a pass to access the lifts.

For more articles about Lift Tickets being used to stop lawsuits at ski areas see:

Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states    http://rec-law.us/1bO85eU

Colorado Federal District Court judge references a ski area lift ticket in support of decision granting the ski area’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit.    http://rec-law.us/2vHUXf1

#BoycottNH New Hampshire charges for Search & Rescue. Do not recreate in New Hampshire

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

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

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

 

 


Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. App. LEXIS 160; 2018 WL 1545852

Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. App. LEXIS 160; 2018 WL 1545852

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, At Knoxville

January 16, 2018, Session; March 28, 2018, Filed

Reporter

CAROLYN CRISP v. MICHAEL NELMS, ET AL.

Subsequent History: Request granted Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 401 (Tenn., Aug. 8, 2018)

Later proceeding at Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 503 (Tenn., Aug. 9, 2018)

Prior History: Tenn. R. App. P. 3 [*1]
Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Case Remanded. Appeal from the Circuit Court for Blount County. No. L-18929. Rex H. Ogle, Judge.

Disposition: Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Case Remanded.

Counsel: David T. Black, Melanie E. Davis, and Carlos A. Yunsan, Maryville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Carolyn Crisp.

P. Alexander Vogel, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Michael Nelms. Rick L. Powers and William A. Ladnier, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, George Long.

Judges: D. MICHAEL SWINEY, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR. and THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JJ., joined.

Opinion by: D. MICHAEL SWINEY

Opinion

This appeal arises from a lawsuit over a fatal cycling accident. Carolyn Crisp (Plaintiff), surviving spouse of William Andrew Crisp (Decedent), sued Michael Nelms (Nelms) and George Long (Long) (Defendants, collectively) in the Circuit Court for Blount County (the Trial Court) for negligence. Decedent and four others, including Nelms and Long, were riding as part of a paceline group when a crash occurred. Nelms asserted comparative fault, stating that Long slowed down suddenly at the head of the line. Long denied he slowed down suddenly. Defendants [*2]
filed motions for summary judgment. The Trial Court held, among other things, that paceline cycling inherently is dangerous and that Decedent was at least 50% at fault for his accident. Plaintiff appealed to this Court. We hold, inter alia, that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Long slowed down suddenly at the head of the line and whether a reasonable jury could find Decedent less than 50% at fault in his accident. We reverse the judgment of the Trial Court and remand for the case to proceed.

OPINION

Background

On February 25, 2014, five people embarked on a cycling expedition along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 321 near Townsend, Tennessee. The group was riding in a paceline, an activity wherein cyclists ride in a line one after the other in close quarters. This action serves to increase the efficiency of the ride as the riders draft off one another to counteract the wind resistance. At the front of the line was Long. Behind Long was Nelms. Richard Cox was third. Decedent was fourth, and Stacy Napier was at the back of the line. This was not a group of novices. Rather, these were seasoned cyclists riding expensive bicycles. Long and Decedent, friends since childhood [*3]
and regular cycling companions, were in their 70s.

The cyclists left Cycology, a bicycle shop on U.S. highway 321 in Blount County, at 10:30 a.m. The riders were traveling at a speed of about 22 miles per hour. Around noon, the incident occurred. Nelms front tire struck Longs back tire. Nelms wrecked and fell to the pavement. Cox, third in line, swerved and avoided Nelms. Decedent, fourth, steered right but wound up flying off his bicycle and landing on his head. Hospital records reflect that another rider hit Nelms. Nelms denies that Decedent hit him, asserting instead that Decedent sharply applied his breaks and thereby caused his own misfortune.

Decedent was rendered quadriplegic by the wreck. Decedent dictated a note to Nelms, stating in part: I think it is important for you to know that I place no blame on you for the accident . . . it was just one of those things that you cannot understand. On August 22, 2014, Decedent died.

In February 2015, Plaintiff, Decedents widow, sued Nelms in the Trial Court. In April 2015, Nelms filed an answer denying liability. Nelms raised the defense of comparative fault and stated that Long may have been negligent in causing the incident. In [*4]
June 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, this time including Long as a defendant. In August 2015, Long filed an answer acknowledging that Nelms struck his bicycle but denying that he slowed down. Long raised the defense of comparative fault with respect to Nelms and Decedent. Discovery ensued.

Timothy Joganich, a bicycle safety expert testifying for Plaintiff, stated in his deposition:

Q. All right. The last sentence here, The collision with Mr. Nelms bike and the wheel of Mr. Longs
strike that. The collision with Mr. Nelms bike and with the wheel of Mr. Longs bike shows that these duties were breached by Mr. Nelms. That is an opinion you will be giving?

A. Yes.

Q. If Mr. Longs bike slowed suddenly, and Mr. Nelms front wheel contacted Mr. Longs back wheel, would that be a breach of a duty by Mr. Nelms?

A. You have to define suddenly because this is really a control systems problem. The reality is there is a variation in speed of all the cyclists out there, even the one in front. Now, it may be so subtle and so small that you may not perceive it. The fact is that the rider out in front has the duty to maintain a constant pace as possible, and then all the riders following [*5]
have to respond to any variation in input. Now, if for reason the rider out in front had an emergency braking where the following riders would not respond in time, then you are going to have a crash. In this case, I dont see anything in the evidence to support Mr. Long slowing down in a sudden manner to the point where Mr. Nelms could not respond.

Q. Okay. Well, you read Mr. Nelms deposition, did you not?

A. Correct. He said that he slowed down suddenly. But when you look at all the other evidence, even Mr. Nelms said that there was nothing in the roadway that he saw I should backup and say that the only reason why the rider is going to slow down is for some external factors such as something in the roadway Im talking about an emergency type of condition such as a deer runs out or a squirrel runs out, and that happens all the time. It happens to our group, but theres no evidence of anything like that happening. Mr. Long testified that he was going to go at a constant pace all the way to River Road, so theres no reason for him to slow down. The only other reason for him to slow down is he were going to pull off and switch positions, but theres no evidence of that.

Q. Well, [*6]
theres been testimony that there was a strong headwind that day. Are you going to give any opinion about the wind conditions on the day of the accident in question?

A. I will certainly refer to it because that is an issue in the case, and its been discussed in the depositions.

Q. Well, while we are on that topic, and I will cover it again, but I dont see that you give any opinion in your affidavit or in this letter where you discuss the wind conditions. Are you sticking to that?

A. Well, its not going to be a main point. It may be a sub opinion based on some of the main opinions Im talking about. If you asked me, was there a wind at the time, then Im going to talk to you about what the others said and what the climatology report says.

Q. Okay. When Mr. Long says that there was a strong headwind that day, do you have any reason to dispute that?

A. Well, I will say theres conflicting testimony in that regard because Ms. Napers doesnt remember any wind, and Mr. Nelms only suspects that there was a strong wind, so yes, Mr. Long did testify there was a wind. Now, when you look at the climatology records in that time frame, we are talking 8 to 10 miles an hour with the wind coming predominantly [*7]
out of the north, and it gives the wind direction, 330 degrees.

Q. Are you ruling out wind as any possible contribution to any of the accidents?

A. I dont see it playing a significant role.

***

Q. You state in paragraph 16 that the front wheel of Mr. Crisps bicycle subsequently ran into Mr. Nelms. Now, you understand that that statement, that fact, is disputed?

A. Its in the medical records.

Q. That was my next question.

A. Okay.

Q. What do you rely on to come to that conclusion?

A. A couple things. One is primarily the medical records. I will refer you

Q. The medical records of whom?

A. Mr. Nelms. I will refer you to the specific record. Im referring to the Care Today Clinic. Its for Michael Nelms. Lets see if theres a date on it. The date is 2/25/14. The time is 7:23. Under HPI, which is history of the patient, it says, Riding bicycle approximately 22 miles an hour, wrecked, and another rider hit him. When you look at that evidence in the context of all of the other testimony of the other riders that avoided the pileup, logically, you can only conclude it was Mr. Crisp hitting Mr. Nelms. Then Stacy testified that Mr. Crisp hit Mr. Nelms bike. Well, everything is happening so quick, [*8]
but both the bike and Nelms are on the ground, so bike versus Mr. Nelms, so I can see where there would be some confusion, and it may have been both.

James Green, a forensic engineer specializing in bicycle wreck reconstruction hired by Nelms, also was deposed. Green testified in part:

Q. You said you were employed to determine causation. Can you tell us whether or not this accident would have happened but for Mr. Nelms hitting the bicycle in front of him and losing control and wrecking?

A. Well, Im not sure I can answer it the way youve phrased it. If youre – – let me see if I understand your question and Ill try to answer it. Are you asking me if the accident to Mr. Crisp would have occurred if Mr. Nelms had not hit the bike ahead of him, or are you asking me what are you asking me causation, I guess is my question to you, to answer your question?

Q. No. Im asking you this question, and however you interpret it. But my question is, would this accident have happened not have happened but for the fact that Mr. Nelms hit the bicycle in front of him?

A. Im not Im not sure. If you isolate it just to the series of events, I would say it wouldnt. But if youre looking at causation [*9]
in terms of the whole scenario, Im going to say that you basically had four gentlemen in their 70s, and Im 71, riding riding bikes in a tight paceline on a very, very windy day where wind was coming from several different directions over time, and it really isnt an appropriate thing to do, in my opinion. I dont ride pacelines anymore, and I used to race as a pro. So and Im very familiar with riding in that area. I just dont see if youre going to ride in a paceline, even as a pro, in your 20s and 30s, eventually youre going to wreck riding in one. Its just a very dangerous activity. Its not a safe activity.

***

Q. Would you[r] opinion be different if you assume these facts. That Mr. Nelms says that he was struck by another bicyclist, that Mr. Crisp says that he struck Mr. Nelms and thats what caused him to hit and go over the handlebars, and that he had no time to apply his brakes. If those facts were true, would your opinion differ?

A. Well, those first of all, those arent facts. Those are fact statements. Witness statements. And no, it wouldnt change my opinion, because it does not line up with the engineering data that Ive already given you in the record. The [*10]
two of them for me to accept the fact witness statement its got to agree with the engineering, and the engineering is not supporting that statement. Its not supporting your hypothetical on Nelms or your hypothetical on Crisp.

Nelms and Long filed motions for summary judgment in April and May 2016, respectively. In September 2016 following a hearing, the Trial Court entered an order granting Defendants motions for summary judgment. In its oral ruling attached to its order, the Trial Court stated in part:

This is obviously a very tragic case, loss of life and just theres nothing that anybody can do to obviously change this. My first thought, as I have read through these things, is that there is no difference here in how this proceeded than a stock car race. Everybody bunched together.

You know, back in the old days, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., would run you off the road, and there you were off the track, and there you were in the wall. But by its very nature, NASCAR granted higher speeds is different, but theyve got steel and helmets and everything else. This type of activity, in a sense, is no different than that.

These gentlemen were riding together. It is very reasonable to [*11]
assume and well, its a fact that its not seriously disputed that an accident, when they are riding this closely together, is certainly foreseeable on everybodys part. And unfortunately, something happened up front that caused people to slow. But as it relates to Mr. Crisp, the Court would have to leap to assumptions in order to say what he did or what he didnt do, and he owed himself a duty of reasonable care to see what was in front of him and to understand his surroundings as well.

It would also as I have understood it and read it and counsel, this Court, as Ive said many times, I cannot guarantee you Im right, but I guarantee you I try to be right. From my reading of the record, from the affidavits, that there is no basis other than sheer speculation that would allow a jury to find for the plaintiff in this case.

In fact, speculation is pretty much all there is in this case. We could allow them to speculate about certain facts, but the ultimate conclusion is, is that these types of accidents are foreseeable in bicycle racing, especially this close type of racing. We see it all the time. We pass them on the highways. Im not taking well, I think I could take judicial [*12]
notice that cyclists in group activities wreck.

And so these parties chose to engage in this activity. They chose to ride together. Theres testimony throughout about what happens when these cyclists are riding together, about drafting, about various movements on the surface that they are cycling on.

And the Court hates to do it, but the Court does not see how any jury could reasonably find that either of these defendants were negligent in the cause the cause in fact or the proximate cause of the tragic accident and injury and ultimate death o[f] Mr. Crisp.

***

[T]he Court also holds that no jury that the actions of Mr. Crisp were at least his actions were at least fifty percent of the cause of his own accident.

In October 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion to alter or amend and a request for findings of fact and conclusions of law. In May 2017, the Trial Court entered an order denying Plaintiffs motion, stating:

After considering the plaintiffs motion and the responses thereto, the Court finds as follows:

1. That the Memorandum Opinion was issued by the Court and incorporated in the Order Granting the Motion for Summary Judgment on September 29, 2016.

2. That the plaintiff mistakenly [*13]
understood the Court to infer that the parties were racing. That was not the intention nor finding of this Court. The Court was merely referencing to the fact that bumper to bumper activities by automobiles or bicycles can lead to disastrous consequences.

3. That the plaintiffs basic position is that she does not know what happened, but that she wants a jury to try this matter.

4. That taken in a light most favorably to the plaintiff, there are no genuine issues of material fact upon which a claim of negligence against the defendants could be found.

5. That the unexplained cause or causes of the accident in question could not require a finding of negligence.

6. That because Mr. Crisp chose to ride in the activity of paceline riding where it is certainly foreseeable that an accident could occur, the Court finds that a reasonable jury would have to find that he was at least 50% liable for his own injuries.

From all of which it is hereby ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that the above, along with the Courts Memorandum Opinion, are the findings and fact and conclusions of law, and that no further hearing on this particular issue shall be considered by the Court, and that this order is hereby [*14]
deemed a final order in all respects. Any remaining court costs are hereby taxed to the plaintiff, for which execution shall issue if necessary.

Plaintiff timely appealed to this Court.

Discussion

We restate and consolidate the issues Plaintiff raises on appeal into the following dispositive issue: whether the Trial Court erred in granting summary judgment to Defendants.

As our Supreme Court has instructed regarding appellate review of a trial courts ruling on a motion for summary judgment:

HN1[] Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. HN2[] We review a trial court
s ruling on a motion for summary judgment de novo, without a presumption of correctness. Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997); see also Abshure v. Methodist Healthcare—Memphis Hosps., 325 S.W.3d 98, 103 (Tenn. 2010). In doing so, we make a fresh determination of whether the requirements of Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied. Estate of Brown, 402 S.W.3d 193, 198 (Tenn. 2013) (citing Hughes v. New Life Dev. Corp., 387 S.W.3d 453, 471 (Tenn. 2012)). . . .

* * *

HN3[] [I]n Tennessee, as in the federal system, when the moving party does not bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden [*15]
of production either (1) by affirmatively negating an essential element of the nonmoving partys claim or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving partys evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the nonmoving partys claim or defense. We reiterate that HN4[] a moving party seeking summary judgment by attacking the nonmoving partys evidence must do more than make a conclusory assertion that summary judgment is appropriate on this basis. Rather, Tennessee Rule 56.03 requires the moving party to support its motion with a separate concise statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue for trial.
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.03.
Each fact is to be set forth in a separate, numbered paragraph and supported by a specific citation to the record.
Id. When such a motion is made, any party opposing summary judgment must file a response to each fact set forth by the movant in the manner provided in Tennessee Rule 56.03. HN5[]
[W]hen a motion for summary judgment is made [and] . . . supported as provided in [Tennessee Rule 56], to survive summary judgment, the nonmoving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleading, but must respond, and by affidavits or one [*16]
of the other means provided in Tennessee Rule 56, set forth specific facts
at the summary judgment stage
showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06. The nonmoving party
must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. at 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348. The nonmoving party must demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record which could lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of the nonmoving party. HN6[] If a summary judgment motion is filed before adequate time for discovery has been provided, the nonmoving party may seek a continuance to engage in additional discovery as provided in Tennessee Rule 56.07. However, after adequate time for discovery has been provided, summary judgment should be granted if the nonmoving party
s evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04, 56.06. The focus is on the evidence the nonmoving party comes forward with at the summary judgment stage, not on hypothetical evidence that theoretically could be adduced, despite the passage of discovery deadlines, at a future trial. . . .

Rye v. Womens Care Cntr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250, 264-65 (Tenn. 2015).

Defendants argue that paceline riding is an inherently risky activity as described [*17]
by the experts and participants, especially for a rider of Decedents age. Nelms argues that Decedent had his own duty to adhere to, as well. Plaintiff argues in response that no rider in a paceline assumes that the person riding in front of him suddenly and inexplicably will slow down. Our initial inquiry is whether a duty of care exists in paceline riding and what the nature of that duty is.

The case of Becksfort v. Jackson is highly instructive. In Becksfort, a woman was injured while participating in a tennis drill at a club. We discussed as follows:

In Perez v. McConkey, 872 S.W.2d 897 (Tenn. 1994), our HN7[] Supreme Court abolished implied assumption of the risk as a complete bar to recovery in a negligence action and held that cases involving implied assumption of the risk issues should be analyzed under the principles of comparative fault and the common law concept of duty. The Court stated that the reasonableness of a partys conduct in confronting a risk should be determined under the principles of comparative fault. Attention should be focused on whether a reasonably prudent person in the exercise of due care knew of the risk, or should have known of it, and thereafter confronted the risk; and whether such a person would have [*18]
behaved in the manner in which the plaintiff acted in light of all the surrounding circumstances, including the confronted risk.
Id. at 905.

HN8[] Everyone has a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in light of the surrounding circumstances to refrain from conduct that could foreseeably injure others, and some locations and circumstances may require a higher degree of care than others. White v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, 860 S.W.2d 49, 51 (Tenn. App. 1993). The term reasonable care must be given meaning in relation to the circumstances. Doe v. Linder Constr. Co., Inc. 845 S.W.2d 173, 178 (Tenn. 1992). HN9[] To establish a claim for negligence a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct falling below the applicable standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; (5) and proximate causation. Haynes v. Hamilton County, 883 S.W.2d 606, 611 (Tenn. 1994).

***

[B]y participating in the drill, Ms. Becksfort did not confront or accept the risk that another player would act or play unreasonably. The plaintiff offered proof that Ms. Jackson knew or should have known that Ms. Becksfort was not watching Jacksons ball, and was rather watching only her (Becksforts) ball. The plaintiff also offered proof that Ms. Jackson knew or should have known that the ball was traveling in the direction of the plaintiff. [*19]
Kent Shultz stated in his deposition that during the two ball drill the respective sets of players focused on the ball in play on their half of the court. Mr. Shultz also testified that the shot which Ms. Jackson hit into the eye of the plaintiff was a forehand shot with some power behind it. Ms. Jackson contended in her deposition that (apparently due to the speed at which the ball was traveling) there simply was no time to issue a warning; however, that appears to be a question of fact upon considering all the circumstances involved.

We think there is sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Ms. Jackson acted unreasonably by failing to warn of the errant shot. Based upon this record, reasonable minds could differ as to whether Ms. Jackson acted reasonably under the circumstances. Therefore, this question should be resolved by the trier of fact.

Becksfort v. Jackson, No. 02A01-9502-CV-00027, 1996 Tenn. App. LEXIS 257, 1996 WL 208786, at *2-4 (Tenn. Ct. App. April 30, 1996), no appl. perm. appeal filed.

In Becksfort, we elaborated upon the duty of care in a sports context as follows:

The reason many courts have required a plaintiff to prove reckless or intentional conduct on the part of a defendant in order to recover for injuries sustained in an athletic competition, is that [*20]
these courts have feared that an ordinary negligence standard will increase litigation of sports injuries and stifle athletic competition. See, e.g., Hoke v. Cullinan, 914 S.W.2d 335, 337, 42 12 Ky. L. Summary 33 (Ky. 1995) (A view often expressed is that such a standard promotes sound public policy by allowing redress in extraordinary circumstances without permitting fear of litigation to alter the nature of the game.); Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696, 710 (Cal. 1992) (The courts have concluded that vigorous participation in sporting events likely would be chilled if legal liability were to be imposed on a participant on the basis of his or her ordinary careless conduct.). We do not share these courts concerns with respect to the imposition of an ordinary negligence standard in cases of sports related injuries, because we think that the recognition that the reasonableness of a persons conduct will be measured differently on the playing field than on a public street, will sufficiently prevent the stifling of athletic competition. We also note that the reasonableness of a persons conduct will be measured differently depending upon the particular sport involved and the likelihood and foreseeability of injury presented by participation in the particular sport. What is reasonable, acceptable, and [*21]
even encouraged in the boxing ring or ice hockey rink, would be negligent or even reckless or intentional tortious conduct in the context of a game of golf or tennis. We should not fashion a different standard of care for each and every sport. We simply recognize that the reasonable conduct standard of care should be given different meaning in the context of different sports and athletic competitions.

Becksfort, 1996 Tenn. App. LEXIS 257, 1996 WL 208786, at *3 n. 4.

In the present case, we respectfully disagree with the apparent position of the Trial Court and Defendants that to participate in paceline riding is to assume the risk of whatever dangerous conduct, however unreasonable, is engaged in by the participants. Many years ago, our Supreme Court abolished implied assumption of the risk as a complete bar to recovery. We decline Defendants invitation to essentially resurrect implied assumption of the risk through a special carve-out exception. Inherently risky or not, a paceline rider still has a duty of care to her fellow riders. For instance, while wrecks can and do happen, a paceline rider has a duty to refrain from abruptly applying her brakes or from hitting the wheel of the rider of front of her without good reason. We conclude that each [*22]
paceline rider in the instant case had a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.

Having concluded that the paceline riders owed a duty of care, it remains to be established in this case at the summary judgment stage whether that duty was breached and by whom. That is problematic because there are conflicting accounts as to what happened. Chiefly, it never has been established how Nelms came to collide with Longs bicycle. Nelms states that Long suddenly slowed down. Long disputes this. Nelms and Long are, therefore, at odds in their accounts. This is not a trivial dispute but rather goes to the heart of the case—whether a breach of duty occurred and, if so, by whom. This is what juries often are called on to decide in a negligence case where comparative fault is alleged. There are genuine issues of material fact as to whether Defendants acted reasonably under the circumstances, and the issue of fault allocation, if any, should be resolved by the trier of fact. We take no position on the merits of the question, only that it remains a question suitable for trial.

The Trial Court, in its order denying Plaintiffs motion to alter or amend, also stated: [B]ecause [Decedent] chose [*23]
to ride in the activity of paceline riding where it is certainly foreseeable that an accident could occur, the Court finds that a reasonable jury would have to find that he was at least 50% liable for his own injuries. This is a puzzling and unsupported finding. There were five participants in the paceline group at issue, and three of those were involved in the crash. If Decedent is presumed to be at least 50% responsible for his own accident simply for participating in paceline riding, then the other riders involved in the crash also must be at least 50% responsible simply by participating. The math does not add up as, naturally, one cannot exceed 100% in an allocation of fault. Finding or holding that someone who participates with others in an inherently dangerous activity must be at least 50% at fault if he is injured is, once again, an attempt to resurrect the defense of assumption of the risk. We decline to do so.

As genuine issues of material fact remain unresolved in this case, summary judgment is inappropriate. We reverse the judgment of the Trial Court and remand for further proceedings.

Conclusion

The judgment of the Trial Court is reversed, and this cause is remanded to the [*24]
Trial Court for collection of the costs below and for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion. The costs on appeal are assessed one-half equally against the Appellees, Michael Nelms and George Long.

D. MICHAEL SWINEY, CHIEF JUDGE


Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

March 31, 2018, Decided; March 31, 2018, Filed

Civil No. 16-cv-143-JL

Counsel:  [**1] For Thomas Jackson Miller, Plaintiff: Arend R. Tensen, Cullenberg & Tensen, Lebanon, NH.

For The Sunapee Difference, LLC, doing business as Mount Sunapee Resort, other Mount Sunapee Resort, Defendant: Thomas B.S. Quarles, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Brendan P Mitchell, Devine Millimet & Branch PA, Manchester, NH.

Judges: Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge.

Opinion by: Joseph N. Laplante

Opinion

[*584]  MEMORANDUM ORDER

The plaintiff in this case, a skier at New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee resort, was injured when he struck a support post for snow making equipment. At issue in this case is whether a release attached to his lift ticket excuses the ski area for liability in connection with its alleged negligence in failing to mark the post, warn skiers about it, or otherwise make it visible.

Invoking the court’s diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), plaintiff Thomas Jackson Miller, a New York resident, sued The Sunapee Difference, LLC, operator of the Mount Sunapee Resort (“Mount Sunapee”), a New Hampshire ski area, for injuries he sustained when he struck the unmarked and unpadded post that was concealed by fresh snow. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), Mount Sunapee moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the liability release printed on Miller’s [**2]  lift ticket bars his claim. Miller argues that the release is unenforceable under New Hampshire law and inapplicable on its face. As both sides submitted  [*585]  documents outside the pleadings in litigating this motion, the court has, with the parties’ consent,1 converted the motion into one for summary judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).2 Having considered the parties’ filings and hearing oral argument, the court finds that the release is both applicable and enforceable, and therefore grants summary judgment in favor of Mount Sunapee.3

I. Applicable legal standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court “constru[es] the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolv[es] all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Pierce v. Cotuit Fire Dist., 741 F.3d 295, 301 (1st Cir. 2014). In the summary judgment analysis, “a fact is ‘material’ if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation.” Maymi v. P.R. Ports. Auth., 515 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2008). A factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party.” Sanchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir.1996) (citation and [**3]  internal quotation marks omitted). Nevertheless, if the nonmoving party’s “evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,” no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and “summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted).

II. Background

Following a large 2015 snowfall, Miller visited Mount Sunapee with his brother and father for a day of skiing. Miller was skiing ahead of his companions through fresh powder on the left side of the Beck Brook trail4 when he struck an unmarked “snow gun holder” that was concealed by snow. The “holder” — essentially a steel pipe protruding from the ground — is a mounting post for snow-making guns. The post remains embedded in the ground after the guns are removed. There was no snow-making gun in the holder at the time of this accident. Miller suffered serious leg injuries in the collision.

In order to ski at Mount Sunapee, Miller first purchased a lift ticket. The ticket has a self-adhesive backing, which the skier affixes to his zipper tab or similar visible location. In order to attach it, the skier must first remove it from a peel-off backing. Printed on the back of the peel-off backing of the Mount Sunapee lift ticket [**4]  was the following:

 [*586]  STOP

[a red octagon image similar to a traffic-control “stop sign”]

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

By removing this peel-off backing and using this ticket, you agree to be legally bound by the LIABILITY RELEASE printed on the other side of this ticket. If you are not willing to be bound by this LIABILITY RELEASE, please return this ticket with the peel-off backing intact to the ticket counter for a full refund.

The lift ticket itself displayed the following language:

LIABILITY RELEASE

Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous and risky with many hazards that can cause injury or death. As purchaser or user of this ticket, I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the facilities of the Mount Sunapee resort, to freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of property damage, personal injury, or death resulting from their inherent or any other risks or dangers. I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE which may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area [**5]  or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause. Further I agree that any claim which I bring against Mount Sunapee Resort, its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be brought only in Federal or State courts in the State of New Hampshire. I agree my likeness may be used for promotional purposes.

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

NON-TRANSFERABLE: Use by a non-purchaser constitutes theft of services.

NON-REFUNDABLE. LOST TICKETS WILL NOT BE REPLACED Mount Sunapee Resort, P.O. Box 2021, Newbury, NH 03255

(Emphasis in original).

After timely filing this lawsuit,5 Miller filed an Amended Complaint6 asserting a single count of negligence. He alleges that Mount Sunapee failed to mark or warn skiers of the pipe, or otherwise mitigate its danger to skiers, by, for example, padding it or making it visible to skiers. In addition, Miller alleges that Mount Sunapee breached its duties to create a safe environment for guests, and to perform in-season trail maintenance [**6]  work. Finally, Miller claims that Mount Sunapee is liable because it failed to comply with N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:23 (II)(b), which provides, in relevant part, that “[t]he ski area operator shall warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.”7

 [*587]  III. Analysis

As noted at the outset, Sunapee argues that the release printed on Miller’s lift ticket — in combination with the acceptance of its terms on the backing sheet — bars his claim. “Although New Hampshire law generally prohibits a plaintiff from releasing a defendant from liability for negligent conduct, in limited circumstances a plaintiff can expressly consent by contract to assume the risk of injury caused by a defendant’s negligence.” Allen v. Dover Co-Recreational Softball League, 148 N.H. 407, 413, 807 A.2d 1274 (2002). Such an exculpatory contract is enforceable if: 1) it does not violate public policy; 2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and 3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract. McGrath v. SNH Dev., Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 542, 969 A.2d 392 (2009) (citing Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-67, 786 A.2d 834 (2008)); Lizzol v. Brothers Prop. Mgmt. Corp., 2016 DNH 199, *7.

Plaintiff argues that the [**7]  release satisfies none of these criteria, because: 1) it violates public policy; 2) a reasonable person would have understood the release to exclude only “inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in New Hampshire’s “ski statute,” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24; 3) the release does not encompass reckless, wanton, or willful conduct; and 4) the release is unsigned.

A. Public policy

“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that an exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 543 (quoting Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 106, 509 A.2d 151 (1986)). The New Hampshire Supreme Court has also found an agreement to be against public policy “if, among other things, it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.” Id. (citing Harper v. Healthsource New Hampshire, 140 N.H. 770, 775, 674 A.2d 962 (1996)). Miller does not argue that he had a special relationship with Mount Sunapee or that there was a disparity in bargaining power between the two.8 Instead, he confines his public policy argument to two points: 1) that the release violates New Hampshire statutory law; and 2) that it is injurious to the interest of the public. Neither argument [**8]  withstands scrutiny.

1. New Hampshire statutory law

Miller argues that the combination of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 225-A:23, II, and 225-A:24 requires ski area operators to plainly mark or make visible snow-making equipment. Therefore, he concludes, applying the release to the allegedly hidden snow gun holder would allow Mount Sunapee to impermissibly evade this statutory responsibility. As a general proposition, Miller is correct that a release can not excuse a ski area‘s statutory violation. Harper, 140 N.H. at 775; cf. Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, 140 N.H. 675, 683, 671 A.2d 548 (1996) (noting, in ski accident case, that ski areas’ immunity does not apply to claim based on statutory violation). However, Miller’s argument here is built on a faulty premise — that  [*588]  § 225-A:24, denoted “Responsibilities of Skiers and Passengers” — imposes an affirmative duty on ski areas to mark or make visible snow-making equipment. The court rejects this argument for several reasons.

First, Miller attempts, without legal support, to create an affirmative duty out of the text of § 225-A:24 where none exists. Section 225-A:24 “is an immunity provision for ski area operators.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 291, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). It has been “interpreted to mean that ski area operators owe no duty to skiers to protect them from the inherent risks of skiing.” Rayeski v. Gunstock Area/Gunstock Area Comm’n, 146 N.H. 495, 497, 776 A.2d 1265 (2001). One of the inherent “risks, hazards, or dangers which [**9]  the skier . . . assumes as a matter of law” is “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment.” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Miller argues that because unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment is not “an inherent risk” enumerated by the statute, ski areas therefore have a statutory duty to mark them or make them visible.

This argument is both contrary to the language of the statute and unsupported by any legal authority. While the language of the statutory immunity provision — enumerating a “Skier’s Responsibilities” — arguably does not bar Miller’s claim9 that he struck an unmarked and not visible piece of equipment, it likewise creates no affirmative duties for ski areas. Stated differently, while New Hampshire law may allow
ski area liability for injuries resulting from collisions with unmarked equipment, it does not logically follow that New Hampshire law requires the marking of such equipment. The statute sets forth no such obligation or legal duty.

To avoid the plain language of §225-A:24, Miller argues that Rayeski, supra, imposes an affirmative duty on Mount Sunapee when read in conjunction with § 225-A:23. In that case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court, invoking §225-A:24, upheld the dismissal of a skier’s claim for injuries sustained [**10]  in a collision with an unmarked light pole. 146 N.H. at 500. The plaintiff in Rayeski argued that the light pole collision was similar to a collision with unmarked snow-making equipment, which the statute “implies . . . is not an inherent risk of skiing” by not barring such a claim. Id. at 498. In the course of finding that the pole collision was an inherent risk of skiing (despite not being specifically enumerated as such in the statute), the Court distinguished between poles and snow making equipment:

We conclude that the legislature’s explicit reference to “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment” was intended to balance the immunity granted to ski area operators under RSA 225-A:24 with their duty under RSA 225-A:23, II(b) (2000) to warn skiers of snow making or grooming activities by denying immunity to ski area operators who breach a statutorily imposed safety responsibility.

Id. (emphasis added).

Based on the emphasized language, Miller argues that § 225-A:23 required Mount Sunapee to mark or make visible the snow gun holder he struck. This argument ignores the plain language both of Rayeski and the statute. The Rayeski
opinion referred only to “snow making or grooming activities,” and made no reference to marking equipment. And [**11]  the statute, captioned “Base Area; Information to Skiers and  [*589]  Passengers,” requires that a ski area operator “warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.” (Emphasis added). Thus, contrary to Miller’s argument, this section imposes no requirement to “mark or make visible” the snow gun holder at issue in this case. Instead, the statute requires the ski area to post “at the base area” a warning concerning grooming and snowmaking operations, if applicable.
10See Nardone v. Mt. Cranmore, Civ. No. 91-114-SD, slip op. at 6-7 (holding that § 225-A:23, II(b)‘s warning requirement does not apply where snowmaking was not in progress and where plaintiff collided with fixed, unmarked piece of snowmaking equipment) (emphasis added).11 Miller does not dispute Mount Sunapee’s contention that there was no grooming or snow making “in progress” at the time of or in the vicinity of Miller’s accident.12 An inoperative snow gun holder is neither an “activity” nor an “operation.”

Further undermining Miller’s argument that § 225-A:24 creates obligations for ski area
operators is the fact that [**12]  its five sub-sections are explicitly and unambiguously addressed to skiers and passengers (as opposed to ski area
operators), as follows: I) “Each person who participates in the sport of skiing . . . accepts . . . the dangers inherent in the sport . . . .”; II) “Each skier and passenger shall have the sole responsibility . . . “; III) “Each skier or passenger shall conduct himself or herself . . .”; IV) “Each passenger shall be the sole judge of his ability . . .”; V) “No skier or passenger or other person shall . . .” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I-V (emphasis added).

In addition, under New Hampshire statutory construction law, “[t]he title of a statute is ‘significant when considered in connection with . . . ambiguities inherent in its language.'” Appeal of Weaver, 150 N.H. 254, 256, 837 A.2d 294 (2003) (quoting State v. Rosario, 148 N.H. 488, 491, 809 A.2d 1283 (2002); see also, Berniger v. Meadow Green-Wildcat Corp., 945 F.2d 4, 9 (1st Cir. 1991) (interpreting N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24 and observing that “[i]t is well established that a statute’s title may aid in construing any ambiguities in a statute.”). As noted, the title of § 225-A:24 is explicitly directed at “skiers and passengers,” not ski area operators. While this court discerns no such ambiguity that would justify a foray into ascertaining “legislative intent,” our Court of Appeals has stated that “the title indicates the legislative intent to limit the application [**13]  of [§ 225-A:24] to skiers and passengers and similar classes of individuals, which does not include a ski operator or its employees.” Berniger, 945 F.2d at 9 (1st Cir. 1991). This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that the preceding provision, § 225-A:23, is captioned “Responsibilities of Ski Area Operators,” further  [*590]  suggesting § 225-A:24‘s inapplicability here. This statutory structure — clearly distinguishing ski area operator responsibilities from visitor responsibilities — is especially important in light of the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s requirement that statutes be construed “as a whole.” Petition of Carrier, 165 N.H. 719, 721, 82 A.3d 917 (2013); see also, Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338, 133 S. Ct. 2517, 2529, 186 L. Ed. 2d 503 (2013) (“Just as Congress’ choice of words is presumed to be deliberate, so too are its structural choices.”); DeVere v. Attorney General, 146 N.H. 762, 766, 781 A.2d 24 (2001) (noting that structure of a statute can be an interpretive tool). Accordingly, the court finds that the Mount Sunapee release does not impermissibly seek to avoid statutory liability.13

In addition to his misplaced reliance on Rayeski, Miller also argues that the McGrath Court’s allowance of liability releases is “limited to situations where the public statute at issue contains a statutorily imposed enforcement mechanism,” which allows state officials to protect the public interest by imposing [**14]  penalties on violators.14

The holding in McGrath, which involved a snowmobiling accident, is not as broad as plaintiff posits. It is true that the Court in McGrath, in rejecting a claim that a liability waiver violated public policy because it allowed defendants to avoid certain snowmobile safety statutes, noted that the waiver did not affect the State’s ability to enforce snowmobiling rules and penalize infractions, and thus did not entirely relieve the defendant property owners of any statutory responsibility. 158 N.H. at 543 (citing N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 215-C:32 and 34). But several factors undercut Miller’s reliance on McGrath. First, plaintiff’s argument is premised on his assertion that Mount Sunapee is trying to avoid liability for a statutory violation. The court has already rejected plaintiff’s premise as an untenable reading of §§ 225-A:23 and 24. Next, the State enforcement criterion was not dispositive in McGrath, as the Court found that the liability waiver did not contravene public policy because, “[i]rrespective of the statute, the plaintiff has voluntarily agreed not to hold the ski area, or its employees, liable for injuries resulting from negligence so that she may obtain a season ski pass.” Id. at 543 (emphasis added). In addition, even [**15]  if the court read McGrath to require a state law enforcement vehicle to protect the public interest, the New Hampshire ski statutes do in fact provide one. Under N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:26, “any person . . . violating this chapter . . . shall be guilty of a violation if a natural person, or guilty of a misdemeanor if any other person.”

Plaintiff argues that this statutory enforcement provision is limited to tramway operations, and thus does not satisfy McGrath. He supports this argument with a letter from a supervisor at the New Hampshire Division of Fire Safety,15 which  [*591]  correctly observes, pursuant to N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:3-a, that the authority of the Passenger Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”16 The letter also states that the penalty provision of § 225-A:26 “specifically relates to operating a tramway without it first being registered.”17 The letter also specifically mentions §§ 225-A:23 and 24, as being outside the tramway board’s authority.18

There are several reasons why the letter does not advance plaintiff’s statutory argument. First, the letter is not properly part of the summary judgment record. According to its terms, it was sent in response [**16]  to plaintiff’s counsel’s request for documents concerning the enforcement of § 225-A:26. However, “[i]n opposing a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff must proffer admissible evidence that could be accepted by a rational trier of fact as sufficient to establish the necessary proposition.” Gomez-Gonzalez v. Rural Opportunities, Inc., 626 F.3d 654, 662 n.3 (1st Cir. 2010) (emphasis added). The letter itself is inadmissible hearsay, as it is being offered to prove the truth of the matters asserted with respect to enforcement of § 225-A:23 and 24. See
Fed. R. Evid. 801(c)(2); see also Hannon v. Beard, 645 F.3d 45, 49 (1st Cir. 2011) (“It is black-letter law that hearsay evidence cannot be considered on summary judgment for the truth of the matter asserted.”). Moreover, although apparently issued by a government office (the plaintiff made no effort to lay such a foundation), the letter is not admissible under the Public Records hearsay exception. See
Fed. R. Evid. 803(8) (requiring, for admissibility, the evidence in question to, inter alia, set out the public office’s activities and involve a matter observed while under a legal duty to report). It is true that some forms of evidence, such as affidavits and declarations, may be considered on summary judgment, even if they would not be admissible at trial, so long as they “set out facts that would be admissible in evidence” [**17]  if the affiant or declarant testified to them at trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4). The letter in question, however, is neither an affidavit nor a declaration. In addition to being an unsworn letter, it fails to show how the letter writer is expressing “personal knowledge,” and fails to show that she is “competent to testify on the matters stated,” as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4); see also
Fed. R. Evid. 602 (personal knowledge requirement).

Next, even if the letter was properly before the court, it lacks any legal force, either as a pronouncement of New Hampshire law, or an interpretation thereof. N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:8 empowers the Tramway Safety Board to make rules regarding tramways. “Rules and Regulations promulgated by administrative agencies, pursuant to a valid delegation of authority, have the full force and effect of laws.” State v. Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. 794, 803, 887 A.2d 1133 (2005). Under New Hampshire administrative law, however, as set forth under its Administrative Procedure Act, the letter in question is not a rule, and thus lacks such force. It is simply a letter answering a question posed by the plaintiff’s lawyer. See
N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 541-A:1, XV (explicitly excluding, under definition of “Rule,” “informational pamphlets, letters or other explanatory materials which refer to a statute or rule without affecting its substance or [**18]  interpretation”). Notably, the plaintiff cites no provision of New Hampshire’s administrative  [*592]  law involving the Passenger Tramway Safety Board or Rules which support his theory. See N.H. Code. Admin. R. Ann. (PAS 301.01 et. seq. (2016)).

Finally, even if the letter was a properly admissible part of the summary judgment record in support of the proposition that the enforcement of § 225-A:26 is limited to tramway operations, and even if it were a duly-promulgated article of New Hampshire administrative law, it still fails to advance the plaintiff’s argument (to the extent it even addresses the issue before the court), because it incorrectly contradicts the governing statute, § 225-A:26.

As noted, the letter states that the authority of the Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”19 This is undoubtedly true as far as it goes, as it tracks the language of § 225-A:3-a. That observation misses the point, however, as § 225-A:26 does not limit enforcement of § 225-A to the Tramway Board. To the contrary, the statute holds “any person” “guilty” of a violation or misdemeanor for violations of “this chapter,” i.e., the entirety of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A, a chapter which [**19]  addresses a wider variety of ski-related activities than ski lifts and tramways. Thus, the letter contradicts the plain language of the statute by inaccurately portraying the applicability of § 225-A:26 as limited to “operating a tramway without it first being registered.”20 Under New Hampshire law, “[r]ules adopted by administrative agencies may not add to, detract from, or in any way modify statutory law,” Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. at 803, and the letter’s pronouncement, even it were a duly adopted Rule, would be invalid. See Appeal of Gallant, 125 N.H. 832, 834, 485 A.2d 1034 (1984) (noting that agency regulations that contradict the terms of a governing statute exceed the agency’s authority and are void). The statute penalizes not only failing to register, but also “violating this chapter or rules of the [Tramway Safety] board.” (emphasis added). In effect, the plaintiff is asking the court to ignore the plain language of the statute in favor of a letter which is neither properly before the court nor is a valid administrative rule and which fails to address the issue before the court — the scope of § 225-A:26. The court is not free to ignore the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, New Hampshire’s Administrative Procedure Act,21 or the plain language of New Hampshire’s ski-related statutes.

Accordingly, the court finds that New Hampshire statutory law provides no support to plaintiff’s public policy argument.

2. Injurious to the public interest

Plaintiff next argues that the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy as injurious to the public interest because Mount Sunapee is located on state-owned land that was, at least in part, developed with federal funding. Plaintiff cites no authority for this argument, but instead relies on various provisions in the lease between Mount Sunapee and the State of New Hampshire. None of these provisions establish or support the proposition that public policy prohibits the enforcement of the release.

For example, the lease requires the property to be used for “public outdoor recreational uses,” “for the mutual benefit of the public and the Operator,” and “as a public ski area . . . for the general public.”22 In addition, the ski area operator is  [*593]  required to “allow public access,” “maintain the Leased Premises in first class condition,” and “undertake trail maintenance.”23 Even assuming, arguendo, that the lease theoretically establishes public policy, the plaintiff makes no coherent argument how the release in question runs afoul of any [**21]  of its provisions. Instead, plaintiff argues, strenuously but without authority, that condoning Mount Sunapee’s requirement that a skier agree to the release as a condition of skiing there “effectively sanctions the conversion of public land by Mount Sunapee.”24 He also argues, again without authority, that:

“[p]rivate operators of public lands, to which the public must be allowed access, cannot be allowed to limit access to such lands to those individuals who are willing to forego their statutory rights by exculpating the private operators from the consequences of their own negligence. To hold otherwise, would mark the first step toward eliminating public access to public lands at the expense of the general public.”

(Emphasis added). Initially, the court reiterates its finding, supra, Part III.A.1, that the language at issue in this case does not implicate plaintiff’s statutory rights. Moreover, whatever persuasive force his policy-based arguments hold, plaintiff cites no authority — in the form of cases, statutes or regulations — upon which the court can rely to accept them.25

As a final public-interest related matter, the parties dispute the import of liability releases used at Cannon [**22]  Mountain, a state-owned and operated ski area. In its motion, Mount Sunapee cited those releases to demonstrate that New Hampshire’s public policy does not generally disfavor liability releases.26 Plaintiff, however, points out that because the Cannon release does not use the word “negligence,” it may, in fact, not release Cannon from its own negligence. See Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107 (noting that “the [exculpatory] contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.”). Therefore, plaintiff suggests, Sunapee’s release may have exceeded what public policy (as articulated in the Cannon release) permits. Regardless of the Cannon release’s enforceability — a matter on which the court offers no opinion — the court finds that Mount Sunapee has the better of this argument. New Hampshire’s public policy is likely best expressed by its legislative enactments, particularly N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I, under which “ski area operators owe no duty to protect patrons from the inherent risks of skiing and thus are immunized from liability for any negligence related to these risks.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 295, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). Such legislatively-enacted immunity from negligence undercuts Miller’s argument that the Cannon release demarcates [**23]  the outer boundary of New Hampshire public policy. Ultimately, the court is skeptical that, as both parties implicitly argue, the state’s risk management decisions and devices, as embodied in certain ski area releases, constitute articulations of public policy.

Having failed to demonstrate any statutory transgressions or injury to the public interest, plaintiff has failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy.

 [*594]  B. Import of the agreement

The next factor the court must consider in assessing the enforceability of the Mount Sunapee release is whether the plaintiff or a reasonable person in his position would have understood its import. Dean, 147 N.H. at 266-67. Miller argues that a factual dispute exists as to this criterion because there was no “meeting of the minds” sufficient to form an enforceable binding agreement.27 He bases this proposition, in turn, on two assertions: 1) that the release is unsigned; and 2) that he did not read it. The court finds that New Hampshire law does not require a signature to effectuate the terms of a release and that the plaintiff had — but chose not to take advantage of — an opportunity to read the release.

1. Signature

As an initial matter, the court notes that a “meeting of the minds” is not an explicit requirement of enforceability under New Hampshire law. The Court in Dean required only that “the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement.” 147 N.H. at 266-67. While a signature might be evidence of such understanding, it has never been held to be a prerequisite. Indeed, in Gannett v. Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 131 N.H. 266, 552 A.2d 99 (1988), the Court enforced an unsigned and unread release of an insurance claim.

Plaintiff asserts that the New Hampshire Supreme Court has never explicitly upheld the enforcement of an unsigned liability release. See, e.g., McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545 (“[t]he ski pass application signed by the plaintiff”); Dean, 147 N.H. at 266 (“Mr. Dean signed the Release before entering the infield pit area”); Audley, 138 N.H. at 417 (“two releases signed by the plaintiff”); Barnes, 128 N.H. at 106 (“release and waiver of liability and indemnity agreement he signed”). Even if one were to accept this proposition despite the holding in Gannett, which is arguably distinguishable from the line of New Hampshire cases just cited, it is not dispositive, because the Court has also never explicitly required a signature on a liability release as a condition [**25]  of enforceability.

In a diversity case such as this one, if the state’s highest court has not spoken directly on the question at issue, this court must try to predict “how that court likely would decide the issue,” looking to the relevant statutory language, analogous state Supreme Court and lower state court decisions, and other reliable sources of authority. Gonzalez Figueroa v. J.C. Penney P.R., Inc., 568 F.3d 313, 318-19 (1st Cir. 2009). A review of an analogous decision of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and several New Hampshire trial court decisions reviewing ski area liability releases leads the court to conclude that Miller’s unsigned release is enforceable.

The court finds some guidance in Gannett, supra, where the Court enforced a release of an insurance claim even though the releasing party neither read nor signed the release, but returned it before cashing the insurer’s check. 131 N.H. at 270. Especially salient here, the Court found it “irrelevant whether [plaintiff] actually read the release, when the release clearly and unambiguously stated the condition, and when she had the opportunity to read it.” Id. at 269-270 (emphasis added). The Gannett Court cited the passage in Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108, enforcing an un-read liability  [*595]  release where the defendant felt rushed through the admittance line. The Barnes court enforced [**26]  the release where “[t]here was no evidence . . . that [the plaintiff] was denied the opportunity to read the body of the release.” Id.

Two New Hampshire Superior Court cases involving ski lift ticket releases also inform this analysis. See Commissioner v. Estate of Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 465, 87 S. Ct. 1776, 18 L. Ed. 2d 886 (1967) (noting that decrees of lower state courts should be “attributed some weight”, but are not controlling, where the highest State court has not spoken on an issue). In Camire v. Gunstock Area Comm’n, No. 11-C-337, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 (N.H. Super. Ct., Mar. 22, 2013) (O’Neil, J.), the court granted the defendant ski area summary judgment based on an unsigned release. 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *8. (“[T]he fact that Ms. Camire did not sign the agreement does not render it unenforceable, as a participant’s signature is not required under the factors set forth in [Dean]“), aff’d on other grounds, 166 N.H. 374, 97 A.3d 250 (2014). While the trial judge also noted that the ski area had a large sign near the ticket kiosk calling attention to the existence of the lift ticket release, and that plaintiff testified in her deposition that she would have understood the ticket’s release language had she read it, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *5, the trial court’s observation that the lack of a signature was not dispositive is entitled, as the United States Supreme Court has [**27]  noted, to “some weight.” Bosch’s Estate, 387 U.S. at 465.

The court also draws some guidance from a New Hampshire trial court that denied a ski area operator’s motion for summary judgment in another case involving a lift ticket release. In Reynolds v. Cranmore Mountain Resort, No. 00-C-0035, (N.H. Super. Ct., March 20, 2001) (O’Neil, J.), the plaintiff’s lift ticket contained a peel off backing similar to the one at issue here, including the red “STOP” sign symbol. Id. at 2. The plaintiff claimed that she did not sign the release and that the release language was not conspicuous enough to give notice to a reasonable person. Id. at 5. While the court did not rule on the signature issue, it ruled that a jury issue remained as to whether the “STOP” sign on the ticket was sufficiently conspicuous, because the peel-off backing contained an advertisement for a free workout, also written in red, in a larger font than much of the warning on the backing. Id. at 1-2, 7. In so ruling, the court relied on Passero v. Killington, Ltd., 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, 1993 WL 406726 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 1993), a Pennsylvania case in which the lift ticket at issue contained an advertisement in a larger typeface than the release language. 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, [WL] at * 7 (“[Plaintiff] argues that the exculpatory clause’s minuscule size, its setting against a dark background, and the existence [**28]  of a much larger advertisement for a 15% discount on a “COMPLETE OVERNIGHT SKI TUNE-UP” on the lift ticket’s adhesive backing, all serve to distract the skier’s attention away from the substantive rights he or she is supposedly relinquishing by purchasing the lift ticket.”). The Superior Court found that it was “best left to the trier of fact to determine whether the language of the lift ticket reasonably communicated the existence of a contractual agreement to the purchaser . . . .” Id. Here, the Mount Sunapee lift ticket contains no such distracting advertisement or font sizes greater than that of the release language on the ticket. As the distracting features were the basis for the New Hampshire Superior Court’s denial of summary judgment in Reynolds, the lack of any such features here is significant. Accordingly, the court finds that the lack of a signature on the lift ticket release is not, under the circumstances of this case, a barrier to its enforceability where the plaintiff had an opportunity to read it and the terms were unambiguous and not contrary to public policy.

 [*596]  2. Opportunity to read the release

A plaintiff’s failure to read a release “does not preclude enforcement of [**29]  the release.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. As long as the plaintiff had an opportunity to read the release, even if he chooses not to take it, a release can be enforced. Dean, 147 N.H. at 270; cf. Jenks v. N.H. Motor Speedway, Inc., 2010 DNH 38 (material factual dispute existed as to whether plaintiff had opportunity to read release where plaintiff put his name on a sign-up sheet and release may have been obscured).

Plaintiff, a personal injury attorney, originally submitted two sparse affidavits in opposition to Mount Sunapee’s dispositive motion.28 The affidavits’ only reference to the release is that he did not read the language on the lift ticket or the peel off backing, nor was he instructed to. He did not claim that he lacked the time or opportunity to read it, or was discouraged from doing so. Nor do the affidavits state that he did not peel off the lift ticket from the backing paper.

To be sure, the plaintiff carries no burden of proof at summary judgment, but the sparse and somewhat cryptic nature of the plaintiff’s affidavits — one of which conspicuously tracked the facts emphasized in the Reynolds Superior Court decision, supra, but added nothing more — led this court to ask several pointed questions at oral argument. When pressed by the court regarding the omitted, but [**30]  critical, subject matter, plaintiff’s counsel conceded that Miller purchased the ticket, affixed it to his own jacket, had the opportunity to read the backing and the release, and would have recognized it as a release (although not as interpreted by Mount Sunapee).29

In an abundance of caution, and reluctant to grant summary judgment terminating plaintiff’s claims without a more fully developed record, the court sua sponte ordered supplemental discovery concerning, inter alia, the issue of plaintiff’s purchase and use of the lift ticket on the day of his injury.30 Although the plaintiff resisted defense counsel’s attempts to elicit direct answers to straightforward questions about his handling and viewing of the lift ticket, plaintiff’s deposition confirmed certain relevant facts that his counsel conceded at oral argument. First, plaintiff testified that he was handed the lift ticket with the release language facing up, and did not see the language on the peel-off backing.31 Nevertheless, plaintiff confirmed that he had the opportunity to read the release language on the lift ticket and the peel off backing before he removed the ticket from the backing and affixed it to his clothing.32 Even [**31]  though plaintiff testified  [*597]  that he attached the ticket to his pants immediately after receiving it, and thus did not read it, he agreed that he was not pressured to do so,33 and had the opportunity to read it if he so chose.34

Based on the summary judgment record, the plaintiff’s concessions at oral argument and his supplemental deposition testimony sua sponte ordered by the court in an abundance of caution, the court finds that the undisputed facts demonstrate that plaintiff purchased the lift ticket, peeled it from its backing before attaching it to his clothing, had the opportunity to read both sides of it,35 and that “a reasonable person in plaintiff’s position” would have “known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. The court therefore finds that plaintiff’s decision to not  [*598]  read the lift ticket release language does not render it unenforceable.36

C. Contemplation [**34]  of the parties

The final factor the court considers is whether the plaintiff’s claims “were within the contemplation of the parties.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. This factor concerns whether plaintiff’s claims were within the scope of the release. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. To determine the scope and application of a liability release agreement, the court must examine its language. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. If “the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. The court gives the language of the release “its common meaning and give[s] the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” Id. “All that is required” is for the language to “clearly and specifically indicate[] the intent to release the defendants from liability for personal injury caused by the defendants’ negligence . . . .” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545.

While plaintiff’s counsel conceded at oral argument that a reasonable person would have recognized the lift ticket language as a release, he argues that it would only be understood as applying to “the inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in § 225-A:24,37 and not to the circumstances of plaintiff’s accident.38 As [**35]  explained below, this argument is based on an incomplete reading of the release and a flawed reading of persuasive New Hampshire Supreme Court precedent. It is therefore rejected.

Plaintiff argues that the first words of the release — “Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous”39 — limit the scope [**36]  of the release to  [*599]  the inherent risks of skiing as set forth in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, which, he posits, do not include collisions with unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment. The remainder of the release, however, is far broader, explicitly encompassing “all risks . . . of personal injury . . . resulting from . . . inherent or any other risks or dangers.” (Emphasis added). Additional language in the release is similarly broad:

I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCEwhich may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause.40

(Bold emphasis in original; underlining added). While plaintiff acknowledges that his “participation in skiing” might trigger the release, he argues that the expansive “any and all” language is qualified by the first sentence’s reference to skiing as “inherently dangerous,” which, he asserts, warrants limiting [**37]  the release to the risks itemized in § 225-A:24.

In support of his “inherent risks” argument, plaintiff relies on Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340 (1995), a case in which a horseback rider was kicked by her guide’s horse, allegedly due to the guide’s negligence. Id. at 168. The Court in Wright held that a release which first noted the “inherent hazards” of horseback riding “obscured” the later following exculpatory clause, part of which resembled the one employed here by Mount Sunapee. Id. at 170. But there is a significant textual difference between the release in
Wright and the one at issue here, and that difference was the lynchpin of the Wright Court’s analysis: the operative language of the Wright release affirmatively referred back to the “inherent hazards” language. In Wright, the exculpatory clause purporting to release the defendant from “any and all” liability began with the phrase “I therefore release . . .” Id. (emphasis added). The Court found the word “therefore” not only significant but dispositive, noting that it means, inter alia, “for that reason” and thus “cannot be understood without reading the antecedent [inherent hazards] language.” Id. Accordingly, the Court concluded, “[b]ecause the exculpatory [**38]  clause is prefaced by the term ‘therefore,’ a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that reason.”
41Id. The Court ultimately held that the negligence of a guide is not such an “inherent risk.” Id.

Unlike the release in Wright, however, the Mount Sunapee release contains no such “therefore” or other referential language which might call into question the breadth of the language that follows. As such, the court finds that the release  [*600]  “clearly state[s] that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence,” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, and explicitly called particular attention “to the notion of releasing the defendant for liability for its own negligence.” Cf. Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 419, 640 A.2d 777 (1994) (rejecting exculpatory clause because it failed to call particular attention to releasing defendant from liability). The court therefore finds that the Mount Sunapee release is not limited to the “inherent risks” of skiing enumerated in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Accordingly, even assuming that Miller’s accident did not result from an “inherent risk” of skiing, his claim is nevertheless encompassed by the terms of the release and within the contemplation [**39]  of the parties.

D. Reckless, wanton or positive misconduct

After Mount Sunapee’s initial motion for judgment on the pleadings raised the lift ticket release as a defense, Plaintiff added four paragraphs to his suit in an Amended Complaint, all in support of his one negligence count. The new additions quote from a handwritten note on a “grooming report” prepared by Mount Sunapee Mountain Operations Manager Alan Ritchie two weeks prior to plaintiff’s accident. Ritchie’s note states the following: “keep the skier’s left guardrail 3′ from the tower guns at BTM (Hidden Hydrants below the snow[)]. Remove 2′ of snow from just above the Blue Shield around the Teckno fan gun.”42 Based solely upon this entry, Miller asserts that Mount Sunapee knew of buried snowmaking equipment and that failing to mark it or otherwise make it visible both violated its statutory duty and constituted “reckless, wanton, and positive acts of misconduct” from which it can not legally be released.43

In response, Mount Sunapee argues: 1) that the allegations do not support a claim for a statutory violation; 2) that New Hampshire law does not recognize extra-culpable, non-releasable categories of negligence; and 3) that [**40]  the Amended Complaint and attached documents fail, in any event, to set forth facts amounting to anything other than ordinary negligence. The court has already found no statutory violation44 and further finds that the complaint, even as amended, alleges nothing more than ordinary negligence.

1. Recklessness

Plaintiff argues that the additional allegations in the Amended Complaint state a claim for reckless behavior, which, he argues, is not within the purview of the release. The court finds that the new amendments do not allege conduct that is more culpable than negligence, which is subject to the terms of the Mount Sunapee release.45

The New Hampshire Supreme Court generally refers favorably to the Restatement of Torts and has done so with respect to its description of “reckless” conduct:

 [*601]  Under the Restatement [(Second) of Torts], § 500, at 587 (1965), conduct is “reckless” if it “would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such a risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” Id. The conduct “must involve an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial [**41]  physical harm, and the probability that it will so result must be substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence.” Id.
comment a at 588.

Boulter v. Eli & Bessie Cohen Found., 166 N.H. 414, 421, 97 A.3d 1127 (2014).

As the Court noted in Thompson v. Forest, 136 N.H. 215, 220, 614 A.2d 1064 (1992), a litigant’s characterization of conduct as evincing a particular culpable mental state is not particularly useful. “Recklessness,” at a minimum, is conduct “where the known danger ceases to be only a foreseeable risk which a reasonable person would avoid, and becomes in the mind of the actor a substantial certainty.” Id. (quoting WP Keaton, et al., Prosser and Keaton on the Law of Torts § 8 (5th ed. 1984)). Here, notwithstanding the descriptive adjectives employed by the plaintiff, the facts and allegations pled do not suggest that, to anyone affiliated with Mount Sunapee, there was “a substantial certainty” that serious foreseeable harm would occur based on its alleged conduct or that Mount Sunapee’s conduct involved an unreasonable risk of physical harm “substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that the risk was one involving an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.

Plaintiff relies on a recent New Hampshire Superior Court case involving an injured ski lift [**42]  passenger in which the trial judge held that the plaintiff’s allegations of recklessness were sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment.46 In Perry v. SNH Dev., No. 2015-CV-00678, 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 (N.H. Super. Ct., Sept. 13, 2017) (Temple, J.), the child plaintiff was injured after first dangling from, and then falling from, a chair lift into which she was improperly loaded. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. There, the plaintiff successfully pled facts that alleged recklessness and avoided the ski area‘s enforceable negligence release. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *23. Specifically, the plaintiffs in Perry alleged that the ski area‘s:

employee(s)[‘] total and complete failure to monitor the safe and proper loading of the Rocket chair lift in any fashion, coupled with the undisputed failure (actions or inactions) to stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress and ongoing for a considerable period of time, were failures to do acts which the employees had a duty to perform for [plaintiffs] and constitute a reckless disregard of safety.

2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *27. The court denied the ski area‘s motion for summary judgment on the recklessness issue, first noting the allegation that there “were multiple employees of Crotched Mountain in or around [**43]  the area observing that Sarah was not able to properly and/or safely board the Rocket chair lift; but rather [was] dangling from the chair lift.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. The court found this allegation sufficient to support an inference that the ski area‘s employees  [*602]  “knew that [the child plaintiff] was not properly loaded on the chair lift, but chose not to act.” Id. The court additionally cited the allegations that the ski area‘s employees knew that their failure to “stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress” would create an “unreasonable risk of physical harm or death.” Id. These facts, the Superior Court concluded, were sufficient to establish a claim of reckless conduct. Id.

In reaching its decision, the Perry court assumed that recklessness involved a defendant’s “conscious choice.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *32 (citing State v. Hull, 149 N.H. 706, 713, 827 A.2d 1001 (2003)). Here, plaintiff argues that a reasonable inference can be made that Mount Sunapee knowingly disregarded the risk of harm posed by hidden snowmaking equipment, and that they “knew that ‘hidden’ hydrants posed a danger, but chose not to act.47

The court finds no such inference. As noted, the amended allegations do not pertain to a time or place related to Miller’s accident. [**44]  There is nothing in the Ritchie affidavit that supports an allegation that Mount Sunapee made a “conscious choice” to create a “risk that was substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that . . . [involved] an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422 (internal quotation marks omitted). Significantly, the allegations in this case stand in stark contrast to those in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby lift passenger already in obvious danger, a child literally dangling from the moving chair lift. Under plaintiff’s theory, any collision with buried snowmaking equipment would constitute a claim for recklessness.

One of the cases cited in Perry supports the court’s conclusion. In Migdal v. Stamp, 132 N.H. 171, 564 A.2d 826 (1989), the plaintiff, a police officer, was shot by a 15-year old who had been involuntarily hospitalized due to mental health issues. Id. at 173. The day after his release into his parents’ custody, the teen took several guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from an unsecured gun cabinet in their home, fired them throughout the house, and then shot and injured the plaintiff, who responded to the scene. Id. The injured officer sued the shooter’s parents, [**45]  who sought dismissal based on the “fireman’s rule.”48 After first noting that the rule bars claims of negligent, but not reckless, conduct, id. at 176, the Court concluded that the plaintiff had adequately pled recklessness by alleging that the parents “failed to seek recommended medical treatment” for their son and allowed him access to “an array of firearms and ammunition,” despite their knowledge that their son “was suffering from mental and emotional instabilities,” had “exhibited dangerous propensities,” and had ransacked and vandalized the house the day before. Id. Mount Sunapee’s conduct — failure to mark or make visible the snow gun holder — is neither of the same type nor degree as the defendants’ conduct in Migdal.

A ski case from the District of Massachusetts is also instructive. In Brush v. Jiminy Peak Mountain, 626 F. Supp. 2d 139 (D. Mass. 2009), a ski racer was injured when she lost control and collided with a ski tower support located off the trail. Id.
 [*603]  at 143. In suing, inter alia, the ski area, the plaintiff alleged that netting and other safety devices should have been placed around the support, as required by certain ski racing standards and as had been done by the defendant in the past. Id. at 145. In order to avoid application of a release, the plaintiff asserted [**46]  a claim for gross negligence, which, under Massachusetts law, is a less culpable standard than recklessness. Id. at 151 (citing Altman v. Aronson, 231 Mass. 588, 121 N.E. 505, 506 (Mass. 1919)). The Court concluded that plaintiff had alleged only simple negligence. Id. The Court first observed that “[t]here is no evidence in the record, and indeed no allegation, that any of the Defendants, or anyone at the competition, became aware that there was an area of the trail without netting where netting was normally placed and declined to remedy the situation.” Id. Ultimately, the Court held, “[a]t most there was a collective failure to take a step that might have lessened the injuries suffered by Plaintiff. No reasonable jury could find that this simple inadvertence, no matter how tragic its consequences, constituted gross negligence.” Id.

The court views the conduct alleged here as much more akin to that alleged in Brush — which alleged conduct that was less culpable than recklessness — than that in Perry
or Migdal. The factual allegations in this case fall far short of recklessness. First, as previously noted, the grooming report on which plaintiff relies is remote both in time and location. Next, the conduct alleged here is significantly less egregious than the [**47]  allegations in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby passenger already in danger of falling from a lift chair, or the conduct in Migdal, where the defendant parents, one day after their son had exhibited mental instability, ransacked the family home, and exhibited dangerous tendencies, failed to seek treatment for him and to secure multiple firearms and ammunition. As in Brush, the most that can be said here is that Mount Sunapee failed to take a step that — while not legally required, see supra, § III.A.1 — might have prevented plaintiff’s accident. These allegations do not support a claim that their acts or omissions in not clearing snow away from a snow gun holder in an ungroomed area “were substantially more serious” than ordinary negligence. Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.
49

2. Wanton and positive misconduct

In an attempt to characterize his claims in such a way to avoid the language of the release, plaintiff’s Amended Complaint describes them as “wanton and positive acts of misconduct,” that is, more culpable than negligence, but not intentional.50 The court, however, has already determined that the Complaint alleges no more than ordinary negligence, so this argument fails.

3. Potential [**48]  certification

If the court had found that the facts alleged by the plaintiff could constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, it would have considered certifying an unresolved question to the New Hampshire  [*604]  Supreme Court: whether conduct more culpable than negligence, but less than intentional could be the subject of a release like the one at issue here. See
N.H. Sup. Ct. R. 34. In the absence of such allegations, certification is unnecessary.

IV. Conclusion

The undisputed factual record shows that plaintiff purchased and affixed to his clothing a lift ticket at Mount Sunapee that unambiguously released the ski area from liability from its own negligence, that such a release does not violate public policy, and that plaintiff’s signature was not required to effectuate its terms. Furthermore, there is no material factual dispute that plaintiff had the opportunity to read both the cautionary language on the ticket’s peel-off backing and the release language itself, that he would have understood that language to constitute a release and that a reasonable person in his position would have understood that the release exculpated Mount Sunapee from its own negligence.

As plaintiff has alleged only that Mount [**49]  Sunapee’s negligence caused his injuries, and that the facts he alleges do not constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, the court finds that plaintiff’s claims fall within the ambit of the Mount Sunapee release and that the release is enforceable against the plaintiff. Therefore, defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, having been converted to a motion for summary judgment51 is GRANTED.52

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Joseph N. Laplante

Joseph N. Laplante

United States District Judge

March 31, 2018


Illinois upholds release stopping a claim for injury from bouldering at defendant North Wall.

However, defendant climbing wall admitted it had not followed its own procedures or Climbing Wall Association manual with the plaintiff, law in Illinois saved defendant.

Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Patricia Cizek

Defendant: North Wall, Inc., d/b/a North Wall Rock Climbing Gym

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence & Willful & Wanton Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Open & Obvious & Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Plaintiff was boulder for the first time and not given the normal or required introduction at the bouldering gym. She fell off the wall and missed a crash pad breaking her ankle. Court held the release she signed stopped her lawsuit.

Facts

On February 14, 2013, she attended respondent’s gym with Kosinski, a coworker. She characterized Kosinski as a “good climber, experienced.” Kosinski told her climbing was one of his hobbies. She did not think climbing would involve any risk because “[k]ids were doing it.” Further, climbing occurred at a gym, which she viewed as a “safe zone.” Also, based on what she saw on television, she believed she would be using a harness. She and Kosinski did not consume any alcohol prior to arriving at North Wall, and she was not taking any medication at the time.

When they arrived, Kosinski paid the fee. Plaintiff signed and returned a waiver form. Kosinski had climbed at North Wall before. At the time, plaintiff did not know whether Kosinski was a member at North Wall, though she later learned that he had been at the time she was injured. Plaintiff acknowledged that she did, in fact, read and understand the waiver form. She did not look at the back of the form, but she recalled that she was given only one sheet of paper. She was provided with a pair of climbing shoes.

When she first arrived, she observed “children in harnesses with ropers.” There were two large green pads that covered most of the floor. Plaintiff did not recall seeing any bulletin boards or posters. She also did not recall seeing a black line running “continuously around the parameter [sic] of the climbing wall.” At the time of the deposition, she was aware that such a line existed. Beyond signing the waiver when she arrived, she had no further interaction with respondent’s staff. Plaintiff reviewed a number of pictures of the facility and testified that it had changed since her accident. She also identified a photograph taken in October 2013 that showed where she was injured.

She and Kosinski then proceeded to the climbing wall. She asked, “What about my harness?” Kosinski said that harnesses were “more trouble than they were worth.” Plaintiff stated that she “kind of was dumbfounded.” Plaintiff proceeded to climb without a harness. Kosinski went first. He told her to follow some yellow markers, as they were for beginners. While she watched Kosinski, she did not see a black, horizontal line on the wall. Prior to climbing, Kosinski placed a mat below the area in which he intended to climb. Plaintiff found climbing “very difficult,” explaining that “[y]ou use your core.” Plaintiff would “shimmy” down when she got “sore.” She added, “[i]ts tough work getting up there, so I need[ed] to get down.” She would jump down from two to three feet off the ground. Plaintiff made three or four climbs before she was injured.

Large green mats covered almost the entire floor of the gym. There were also smaller black mats that could be placed in different locations by climbers. Kosinski was not near plaintiff when she was injured. Before being injured, plaintiff had moved to a new climbing area. She placed a black mat where she planned on climbing. A green mat also abutted the wall in that area. The black mat was three to six inches away from the wall.

Plaintiff was injured during her third attempt at climbing that day, and she did not feel comfortable climbing. She explained that she was not wearing a harness, but was trying to do her best. There was a part of the floor that was not covered by a green mat in this area, which is where plaintiff landed when she was injured. Plaintiff stated she jumped off the wall and when she landed, her right foot was on a green mat, but her left foot landed on the uncovered floor. She felt pain in her left ankle and could not put weight on it. Kosinski and an employee came over to assist plaintiff. Kosinski got plaintiff some ibuprofen. Plaintiff felt “a little dizzy.” An employee called the paramedics. The paramedics stated that plaintiff’s ankle was broken. They assisted plaintiff to Kosinski’s car, and he drove her to St. Alexius hospital. At the hospital, they x-rayed plaintiff’s ankle and confirmed that it was broken. She was given some sort of narcotic pain killer, and her ankle was placed in a cast. Plaintiff was discharged and told to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon.

She followed up with Dr. Sean Odell. Odell performed a surgery six days after the accident. He installed eight pins and a plate. Plaintiff had broken both leg bones where they intersect at the ankle. She took Norco for months following the surgery. She engaged in physical therapy for years, including what she did at home. The hardware was removed in December 2013. Her ankle continues to be stiff, she has trouble with many activities, and she takes ibuprofen for pain several times per week.

The court also went through a litany of issues the defendant climbing gym did not do with the plaintiff.

Novice climbers were supposed to sign a waiver and view a video. Spencer trained Cipri [gym manager] to go over “any and all safety procedures” with new climbers.

There was no manual on “how to run North Wall,” but there was an “unofficial manual” kept on the front desk. This was comprised of a couple of binders that concerned how to teach climbing, use of the telephone, memberships, employee conduct, and various rules. He did not recall anything specific relating to dealing with novice climbers. There was a copy of the Climbing Wall Association manual in a file-cabinet drawer; however, he never used it for anything. Cipri did not recall Spencer [gym owner] instructing him to use this manual. Spencer did train employees on climbing, particularly new hires. Cipri described Spencer as an “absentee” manager.” He would come in early in the day, and Cipri typically would not see him.

Aside from ascertaining a customer’s age and climbing experience, they did nothing else to assess his or her proficiency. They would show new climbers a video and explain the rules of the gym to them. Cipri could not say whether a copy of a manual shown to him was the manual they were actually using when he worked for respondent. However, he stated various forms shown to him, including one concerning bouldering orientation, were not used when he was there. Spencer never told Cipri to get rid of any document; rather, he was adamant about keeping such material. Weekly inspections of the premises were conducted, but no records documenting them were maintained.

One document stated, “If the facility allows bouldering, the staff provides an orientation before novice climbers are allowed to boulder without assistance or direct supervision.” Cipri testified that this was not generated by respondent, but they followed it. Employees working the counter were trained to have new customers watch a video, instruct them on safety procedures, and assess their abilities. To the left of the front door, posters from the Climbing Wall Association were displayed. There was also one near the back door. Cipri did not remember what they were about beyond that they concerned “stable rules” of the Climbing Wall Association.

On redirect-examination, Cipri agreed that beyond verbal questioning, they did not test new customers. They did not “inspect or observe climbers while they were actually climbing to determine competency.” They did “orientate climbers” and show them the video. Further, new climbers read the waiver forms. Climbers were instructed on general and bouldering safety rules. Cipri was aware of an earlier incident where a young boy cut his head while climbing. Cipri stated that it was arguable that climbing with a rope was more dangerous than bouldering because a person could get tangled in the rope. Cipri did not give plaintiff an orientation, and he had no recollection of anyone giving her one.

Employees were instructed to follow the policies of the Climbing Wall Association. If an employee did not spend time with a new customer “explaining the policies and procedures of bouldering, that would be a violation of company policy.” This is true even if the new customer is accompanied by a more experienced climber.

Obviously, the defendant gym failed to follow its own rules or the rules and ideas of the CWA that the gym, in the court’s mind, had adopted.

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

The court first looked at the issue that falling was an open and obvious risk.

In Illinois, obvious dangers include fire, drowning in water, or falling from a height.”). Thus, for the purpose of resolving this appeal and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will presume that plaintiff was aware that falling off the climbing wall presented certain obvious dangers.

The court moved on to review release law in Illinois. Illinois supports the use of releases, unless the contract is between parties with unequal bargaining power, violates public policy or there is a special relationship between the parties.

Absent fraud or willful and wanton negligence, exculpatory agreements of this sort are generally valid. An agreement may be also vitiated by unequal bargaining power, public policy considerations, or some special relationship between the parties; however, such issues are not present here. This court has previously explained that “[a]n exculpatory agreement constitutes an express assumption of risk insofar as the plaintiff has expressly consented to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him [or her].

When written the release must be expressed in clear, explicit an unequivocal language. The release must also be written in a way that both parties to the contract intended to apply to the conduct of the defendant which caused the harm to the plaintiff. However, the release must not be written precisely to cover the exact conduct or exact harm.

Thus, an exculpatory agreement will excuse a defendant from liability only where an “injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff.” The foreseeability of the danger defines the scope of the release.

The court found the language “…arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym, whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however, the injury or damage is caused.” w sufficient to the injury the plaintiff received based on the conduct (or lack of conduct in this case) of the defendant.

The court held “In sum, the release, here is clear, pertains to use of defendant’s climbing gym, and is broad enough to encompass falling or jumping from the climbing wall.”

The court then reviewed the willful and wanton claims of the plaintiff. The court described willful and wanton as “”Conduct is “willful and wanton” where it involves a deliberate intention to harm or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. It is an “aggravated form of negligence.”

The plaintiff argued that failing to follow the defendant bouldering gym’s own policies or evaluate her abilities was proof of willful and wanton conduct. She also pointed out the defendant failed to tell her not to climb above the bouldering line.

Quickly, the court determined the plaintiff had not pled or provided any facts to support her willful and wanton claims. Even if the defendant had followed its own policies, the plaintiff could not show that would have prevented her injuries. Falling at a height above the bouldering line is an open and obvious risk so failing to tell the plaintiff not to climb high is not relevant.

The risk of falling is open and obvious and none of the arguments made by the plaintiff as to the defendants actions overcame that doctrine.

So Now What?

It is great that Illinois supports the use of releases. Even in a case where the defendant failed to follow its own policies or the “manual” of the trade association it belonged to. Even better the court did not find the CWA manual or the defendant’s failure to follow its policies as an issue that could over come the release.

However, from the court’s writing, it is obvious, that the open and obvious doctrine was the most persuasive in supporting both the release and ignoring the defendant’s actions or lack of action.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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