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Connecticut court rejects motion for summary judgment because plaintiff claimed he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it

Plaintiff successfully argued he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it. The court bought it.

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of New Haven at New Haven

Plaintiff: Guy DeWitt, Jr.

Defendant: Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC 

Plaintiff Claims: no time to read the release, not told he needed to sign a release

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the plaintiff 

Year: 2017 

Summary

This case looks at demoing a bike in Connecticut. The rider/plaintiff argued that he did not have enough time to read the release, and the bike shop was chaotic creating confusing for him. He was injured when the handlebars broke causing him to fall. 

Facts

The plaintiff participated in the Wednesday night right put on by Pedal Power, LLC, one of the defendants. That night Pedal Power made arrangements for people to demo Felt Bicycles. Most people did so and sent their information to Felt Racing so the bikes were fit and ready to go when they arrived.

The plaintiff arrived with his own bike. However, once he got there he decided to demo a felt. While the bike was being fitted for him, he was handed a release to sign. The plaintiff stated the place was chaotic, and he did not have time to read the release. 

During the ride, the handlebar failed or cracked causing the plaintiff to fall and hit a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride. to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

 The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, and this was the analysis of the motion by the court. 

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

Each state has its own requirements for when a court can grant a motion for summary judgment. The court in this case set forth those requirements before starting an analysis of the facts as they applied to the law.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be
tried. Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.”

Most states apply similar standards to deciding motions for summary judgment. The major point is there is no genuine issue of fact’s material to the case. Meaning no matter how you look at the facts, the motion is going to win because the law is clear.

Additional statements in the case indicated the court was not inclined to grant any motion for summary judgment.

“Summary judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .”

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no  obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.”

The court then analyzed the entire issue of why summary judgments are rarely granted in this judge’s opinion.

“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’

The writing on the wall, or in the opinion, makes it pretty clear this judge was not inclined to grant motions for summary judgment in tort cases when the risk of the injury would transfer to the plaintiff.

The court then reviewed the requirements of what is required in a release under Connecticut law. 

…requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller. 

Nowhere in the requirements does it state a requirement that the plaintiff have enough time to read the release, even if did go ahead and sign the release. 

The language quoted sounds like similar language found in other decisions in other states regarding releases. 

Connecticut also requires “that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and
contain specific reference to the term “negligence
.” 

In this release, the term negligence is only found once. 

The plaintiff argued that he did not have time to sign the release, and the place was chaotic. This was enough for the court to say there were material facts at issue in this case. “If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.”

The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

The motion for summary judgment was denied. 

So Now What? 

This is the first time I have read a decision where the claim there was not enough time to read the release was upheld by a court. Normally, the court states if the release is signed the signor read and agreed to the terms.

This is one more argument that will eliminate releases in Connecticut. There have been several already, and although there are several decisions that support releases, there is a growing list of decisions that are providing opportunities for the courts to throw them out. 

The final issue to be aware of is the language in this case is identical to language in most other release cases. However, here that language was used to throw out a release rather than support it.

Other Connecticut Decisions Involving Releases

Connecticut court works hard to void a release for a cycling event

Poorly written release failing to follow prior state Supreme Court decisions, employee statement, no padding and  spinning hold send climbing wall gym back to trial in Connecticut.

Connecticut court determines that a release will not bar a negligent claim created by statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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bike, ride, summary judgment, public policy, relieve,
bicycle, quotation marks omitted, disputed, participating, chaotic, riding,
custom, rider, tort law, moving party, entitled to judgment, nonmoving party,
question of fact, primary function, exculpatory, unambiguous, genuine, movant,
entities, sufficient time, sponsored, pre-sized, arranged, sponsors, borrow,
Felt Racing, LLC, Pedal Power, LLC, Products Liability, Release,

 

 

 

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DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

Guy DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al.

CV136040482

SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF NEW HAVEN AT NEW HAVEN

2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

February 6, 2017, Decided

February 6, 2017, Filed

NOTICE: THIS DECISION IS UNREPORTED AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO FURTHER APPELLATE REVIEW. COUNSEL IS CAUTIONED TO MAKE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION OF THE STATUS OF THIS CASE.

CORE TERMS: bike, ride, summary judgment, public policy, relieve, bicycle, quotation marks omitted, disputed, participating, chaotic, riding, custom, rider, tort law, moving party, entitled to judgment, nonmoving party, question of fact, primary function, exculpatory, unambiguous, genuine, movant, entities, sufficient time, sponsored, pre-sized, arranged, sponsors, borrow

JUDGES: [*1] Angela C. Robinson, J.

OPINION BY: Angela C. Robinson

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENTS #149 AND #150

Guy DeWitt, Jr., the plaintiff, claims that on June 18, 2013, he was injured as a direct result of the negligence and/or actions of the defendants, Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, in violation of the products liability statute. At the time of the incident, the plaintiff was participating in a group ride of bicyclists that was sponsored by Pedal Power. During the ride, at the time he was injured, the plaintiff was riding a bike he borrowed from Felt Racing. Prior to participating in the ride, and before he was allowed to borrow the Felt bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver and Release.

The defendants both now move for summary judgment based upon the Waiver and Release, which they argue releases them from all liability. The plaintiff objects to the defendants’ motion claiming that the language of the Release and Waiver does not sufficiently relieve the defendants of liability; and that it violates public policy.

Most of the facts pertinent to the resolution of the motion are not in dispute. Pedal Power sponsored a group ride in Middletown, Connecticut. Felt Racing arranged [*2] to have a Felt bicycle demonstration at the Pedal Power store, and brought 35 Felt bikes to loan out for the ride. The plaintiff had brought his own bike to ride during the activity, but decided to try a Felt bike. The plaintiff was provided with a Felt AR2, which was selected and custom fit to him by a Felt employee. He had not arranged to ride the bike ahead of time. According to Mr. Rudzinsky, Certified USA Cycling Professional Mechanic and agent of Felt Racing, the plaintiff was not one of “the guys that was pre-sized . . .” Rather, “he showed up late.” (Rudzinsky Depo p. 57.) In order to borrow the bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver, provided a copy of his driver’s license and left his personal bike as collateral. As the plaintiff was riding the Felt AR2 eastbound on Livingston Street in Middletown, Connecticut the right side of the handle bars failed and/or cracked, ejecting him off the bike and causing him to violently hit the ground and collide with a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic [*3] and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” (Deposition of Plaintiff attached to Plaintiff’s Objection.) Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

The defendants request that judgment enter in their favor on the plaintiff’s complaint based upon the Release and Waiver.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Wilson v. New Haven, 213 Conn. 277, 279, 567 A.2d 829 (1989). Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Webster Bank v. Oakley, 265 Conn. 539, 545, 830 A.2d 139 (2003).

“Summary [*4] judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .” Michaud v Gurney, 168 Conn. 431, 434, 362 A.2d 857 (1975).

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Zielinski v Kotsoris, 279 Conn. 312, 318-9, 901 A.2d 1207 (2006).

The defendants claim to be entitled to judgment because the Waiver contains language transferring all the risks of participating in the group ride from Felt Bicycles, and sponsors of the ride to the participant rider borrowing the Felt bike. Specifically, the Waiver provides:

I HEREBY WAIVE, RELEASE, DISCHARGE, AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE Felt Bicycles, Felt Racing, or its . . . agents . . . members, volunteers and employees, and/or other participants, sponsors [*5] . . . and/or where applicable, owners and lessors or (Sic) premises on which the Event takes place . . . from liability, claims, demands, losses or damages.

Though term “negligence” appears only once in the waiver, in paragraph 1, the defendants maintain that this is not determinative of their motion regarding the negligence claims. Further, the defendants argue that the language of the waiver sufficiently covers the actions of the agents and/or employees of Felt, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, as well as the legal entities, themselves.

To support their arguments, both the defendants and the plaintiff rely primarily upon Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, (2005). The plaintiff also cites and relies upon Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, 265 Conn. 636, 829 A.2d 827 (2003); Lewis v. Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, docket no. CV 095030268 (January 9, 2012, Frechette, J.) [53 Conn. L. Rptr. 512, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 146]; Kelly v. Deere & Co, 627 F.Sup. 564 (D.C. 1986).

In Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant, Corp, the Supreme Court held that because exculpatory agreements relieve a party of liability, they undermine public policy considerations governing our tort system, and should be enforced judiciously, only when certain factors are present. First and foremost, the agreement should be enforced only when “an ordinary person of reasonable intelligence would understand that [*6] by signing the agreement, he or she was releasing the defendants from liability from their future negligence.” Id. at 324-5. But, even if it is clear and unambiguous, it should not be enforced if it violates the principles that undergird Tort Law.

“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lodge v. Arett Sales Corp., 246 Conn. 563, 578-79, 717 A.2d 215 (1998). “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’ Tunkl v. Regents of the Univ. Of Cal., 60 Cal.2d 92, 101, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33 (1963).” Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 327, 885 A.2d 734.

Hanks sets forth the [*7] requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller. These are not the exclusive elements to consider. The “ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” Id. at 330.

Also, the Hyson v. Whitewater Mountain Resorts court required that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and contain specific reference to the term “negligence.” Id. at 643.

The plaintiff argues that the language of the release is not clear; and that there are insufficient references to the [*8] word “negligence.” Also, the plaintiff asserts that the circumstances under which he was required to sign the release prevented him from reading it or considering the ramifications of it. Defense counsel disputed the characterization of the transaction as “chaotic.”

Because of this factual dispute, the court concludes that the motions should be denied. It is irrelevant to the court’s consideration whether the transaction was commercial or not; whether the language was sufficiently clear and unambiguous; or whether the plaintiff could have ridden his own bike during the ride. If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.

There is no dispute that Felt Racing brought the bikes to the ride for the specific purpose of demonstrating and loaning them to interested riders and potential future customers. They were prepared for and anticipated last minute requests for bikes. Additionally, they custom fitted the bikes to the riders, regardless of whether the bikes had been pre-sized for them or not.

There are certainly instances in which it may be appropriate and [*9] in line of public policy to enforce contractual agreements which relieve one party of liability to another for injuries. However, Connecticut has a long history of requiring courts to carefully scrutinize such contracts. See e.g., Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, 280 Conn. 153, 905 A.2d 1156 (2006) (“[T]he law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Conn., Inc. . . .”).

The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

Robinson, A., J.


Connecticut court determines that a release will not bar a negligent claim created by statute.

Statute requires ski area to mark equipment on the slope. The ski area argued the release protected them from negligence claims based on the statute, and the court disagreed.

Laliberte v. White Water Mountain Resorts, 2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2194

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Tolland, Complex Litigation Docket at Rockville

Plaintiff: Alexandra Laliberte

Defendant: White Water Mountain Resorts

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Connecticut Skier Safety Act & release

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2004

The plaintiff was skiing as part of a high school varsity ski team. She hit a snow making device which was inadequately identified and placed on the trail according to the plaintiff.

The defendant moved for summary judgment based on the Connecticut Skier Safety Act and a release the plaintiff had signed to participate on the ski team.

The release had been signed when the plaintiff was a minor, however, she did not rescind the release when she became an adult.

As noted above, the plaintiffs concede that the release was signed by the plaintiffs knowingly and willingly. Also, the plaintiffs make no attack on the efficacy of the waiver because Ms. Laliberte was a minor at the time of its execution.

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

The first argument was whether the Connecticut Skier Safety Act shielded the defendant from liability. The act requires the ski area operator to mark conspicuously the location of snow making equipment.

Sec. 29-211.  (Formerly Sec. 19-418k). Duties of operator of passenger tramway or ski area.

In the operation of a passenger tramway or ski area, each operator shall have the obligation to perform certain duties including, but not limited to: (1) Conspicuously marking all trail maintenance vehicles and furnishing the vehicles with flashing or rotating lights which shall be operated whenever the vehicles are working or moving within the skiing area; (2) conspicuously marking the entrance to each trail or slope with a symbol, adopted or approved by the National Ski Areas Association, which identifies the relative degree of difficulty of such trail or slope or warns that such trail or slope is closed; (3) ensuring that any lift tower that is located on a trail or slope is padded or otherwise protected; (4) maintaining one or more trail boards, at prominent locations within the ski area, displaying such area’s network of ski trails and slopes, designating each trail or slope in the same manner as provided in subdivision (2) of this section and notifying each skier that the wearing of ski retention straps or other devices used to prevent runaway skis is required by section 29-213, as amended by this act; (5) in the event maintenance personnel or equipment are being employed on any trail or slope during the hours at which such trail or slope is open to the public, conspicuously posting notice thereof at the entrance to such trail or slope; (6) conspicuously marking trail or slope intersections; (7) ensuring that passenger tramways, as defined in subparagraph (D) of subdivision (1) of section 29-201, as amended by this act, are equipped with restraint devices; (8) at the entrance of a passenger tramway, as defined in subparagraph (D) of subdivision (1) of section 29-201, as amended by this act, conspicuously posting instructions regarding the proper use of a restraint device on such passenger tramway and notice that the use of a restraint device on such passenger tramway is required by section 29-213, as amended by this act; and (9) ensuring that any hydrant, snow-making equipment and pipes that are located within the borders of a designated slope, trail or area that is approved and open for skiing by the operator and regularly groomed as part of the operator’s normal maintenance activities are padded or marked by portable fencing or a similar device.

Emphasize (bold) added

The plaintiff’s argued it was not marked. The ski area argued that the snow making device was not located on a ski trail or slope. Consequently, the court held that because there was a factual dispute, this matter had to go to trial.

The next issue was whether the release stopped claims created or based upon the statute. Normally, these claims are called negligence per se claims. (See Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability or Motion for Summary Judgement failed because the plaintiff’s claim was based upon a failure to follow a statute or rule creating a negligence per se defense to the release in this Pennsylvania sailing case for more on Negligence Per Se claims.) Negligence per se claims are negligence claims based on a statute or rule created to protect people. Normally, releases do not work against negligence per se claims. That wording or pleading in describing the claim was not used in this case.

The parties agreed that the release itself was valid. The issue was what the release applied to.

“The interpretation of an exculpatory contract is colored by two diametrically opposed legal principles: the first, that it is against public policy to contract away one’s liability for negligent acts in advance and the second, that the court will enforce agreements of the parties made with consideration.”

Squarely presented, however, is the issue of whether a preinjury release is enforceable to relieve the defendant of civil liability for an alleged negligent violation of a statutorily created duty with respect to the operation of a recreational facility.

The court first looked at the Connecticut Skier Safety Act and found the act was silent on the effect of a release. The court then reviewed other Connecticut cases and decisions from other states where a release was raised as a defense to a negligence claim based upon a statute. Generally, the court found “… the statute created a public duty which the tenant had no power to extinguish. Private parties cannot “suspend the law by waiver or express consent.” Quoting from another case the court found ““parties may not stipulate for protection against liability for negligence in the performance of a duty imposed by law or where public interest requires performance.”

The court found two bases for invalidating releases when argued to bar claims like this.

These cases invalidating preinjury waivers where the basis of liability is a violation of a statute appear to be based either on a presumption that such releases are against public policy or on the legal inability of the releasor to waive a duty which protects the public or a class of persons of which the releasor is only one member.

Here the court found using a release to avoid liability for a statutory duty would allow defendants to have free reign to ignore the statute.

If liability for breach of statutory duty may be waived preinjury, the operator of a recreational facility could design, construct, and run a facility in total disregard of the legislatively prescribed rules with impunity, as to civil damages, simply by restricting use of the facility to those patrons willing to sign a release. In other words, the operator could repeal the protection of the legislatively selected class member by member.

The motion for summary judgment was denied and the case set for trial.

So Now What?

This result is probably the result you will find in all cases where the release is raised as a defense to a statutory duty. The only way to avoid this is to have the statute that creates the duty, include a clause that states the release is still valid.

Similar arguments are used by courts when they have determined that a statute that may have statutory duties and also has statutory protections eliminates the use of a release in full. Meaning the statute provided the protection the legislature wanted, that is all you get. Hawaii did this (Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release) and New Mexico in Berlangieri v. Running Elk Corporation, 132 N.M. 332; 2002 NMCA 60; 48, P.3d 70; 2002 N.M. App. 39; 41 N.M. St. B. Bull. 25.

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Laliberte v. White Water Mountain Resorts, 2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2194

Laliberte v. White Water Mountain Resorts, 2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2194

Alexandra Laliberte v. White Water Mountain Resorts

X07CV030083300S

Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Tolland, Complex Litigation Docket at Rockville

2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2194

August 2, 2004, Decided

August 2, 2004, Filed

Notice: [*1]  This decision is unreported and may be subject to further appellate review. Counsel is cautioned to make an independent determination of the status of this case.

Judges: Sferrazza, J.

Opinion By: Sferrazza

Opinion: Memorandum of Decision

The defendant, White Water Mountain Resorts, Inc., moves for summary judgment as to all counts in this action filed by the plaintiff Suzanne Bull, individually and as next friend of her daughter, Alexandra Laliberte. The plaintiffs’ complaint alleges that the defendant, a ski area operator, negligently failed to mark a snow-making device conspicuously so as to comply with General Statutes § 29-211.

The movant contends that judgment ought to enter in its favor because General Statutes § 29-212 exempts the defendant from liability and because the plaintiffs executed a valid waiver of liability. The plaintiffs argue that a genuine factual dispute exists which puts into doubt the applicability of § 29-212 and that the plaintiffs had no power to waive liability for any statutory obligation imposed by § 29-211.

Summary judgment shall be granted if the pleadings and documentary proof submitted demonstrate that [*2] no genuine dispute as to material fact exists and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Practice Book § 17-49.

It is undisputed that on January 13, 2003, Alexandra Laliberte sustained serious injury to her left leg while engaged in ski practice, as a member of the Glastonbury High School varsity ski team, while at the defendant’s ski area. The plaintiffs’ complaint avers that this injury was caused when Laliberte struck a snow-making machine which was inadequately identified and which was positioned upon a portion of a ski trail or slope.

On November 14, 2002, the plaintiffs knowingly and voluntarily signed an anticipatory release of liability absolving the defendant from any claims by the plaintiffs resulting from participation in the ski team practices or events at the defendant’s ski facility, even if such “injury is caused by the negligence” of the defendant. It is uncontroverted that, if this waiver is enforceable, it would exonerate the defendant from the liability on the plaintiffs’ claims.

I

The court first addresses the movant’s contention that § 29-212 exempts the defendant from liability. Section 29-212 must be examined in conjunction with [*3] § 29-211 because these related provisions “form a consistent, rational whole.” Jagger v. Mohawk Mountain Ski Area, 269 Conn. 672, 681, 849 A.2d 813 (2004). These statutes were enacted to delineate the respective responsibilities of the skier and the ski area operator. Id., 682. Section 29-212 enumerates a nonexhaustive list of risks inherent in the sport of skiing for which ski area operators bear no responsibility if injury ensues. Id. Section 29-211, on the other hand, imposes specified duties upon ski area operators. Id., 681.

Subsection 29-211(2) obligates the operator to mark conspicuously the location of snow- making devices that are placed on a trail or slope. A review of the pleadings and documents submitted discloses that a genuine factual dispute exists as to whether the particular device which Laliberte struck was sited on a ski trail or slope. Consequently, summary judgment is unavailable on this ground.

II

The enforceability of the preinjury release poses a more difficult question.

“The interpretation of an exculpatory contract is colored by two diametrically opposed legal principles: the first, that it is [*4] against public policy to contract away one’s liability for negligent acts in advance and the second, that the court will enforce agreements of the parties made with consideration.” Fischer v. Rivest, Superior Court, New Britain J.D. Complex Litigation, dn. X05-CV00-509627, 33 Conn. L. Rptr. 119 (August 15, 2002), Aurigemma, J.

As noted above, the plaintiffs concede that the release was signed by the plaintiffs knowingly and willingly. Also, the plaintiffs make no attack on the efficacy of the waiver because Ms. Laliberte was a minor at the time of its execution. Squarely presented, however, is the issue of whether a preinjury release is enforceable to relieve the defendant of civil liability for an alleged negligent violation of a statutorily created duty with respect to the operation of a recreational facility.

The statutes regarding skiing and ski area operations, General Statutes §§ 29-211 though 29-214 are silent as to whether waiver of the duties imposed on ski area operators are permitted or forbidden.

In Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts, 265 Conn. 636, 829 A.2d 827 (2003), our Supreme Court held that a preinjury waiver [*5] which omitted express reference to negligence was insufficient to absolve the ski area operator, the same defendant as in the present case, from liability for negligence. Id., 643.

The majority explicitly stated that its decision ventured no opinion regarding the viability of an anticipatory release should it include the missing language.

Id., 640 and 643, fn. 11. Despite this disclaimer, the Hyson case, supra, does provide some guidance bearing on the issue before this court because the majority reiterated the proposition that a preinjury release from liability for negligent acts “is scrutinized with particular care.” Id., 642.

The two dissenting justices in Hyson, supra, indicated that such preinjury releases are valid despite the absence of the use of a form of the word negligence expressly. Id., 649. Implicit in the dissenters’ position is that such waiver is possible as to violations of the duties imposed by § 29-211.

While a plausible argument can be made that this implication supports the movant ‘s contention, this Court is reluctant to harvest precedential value on this issue from that dissent [*6] because the precise claim of unenforceability raised in the present case was never raised in Hyson, supra.

In L’Heureux v. Hurley, 117 Conn. 347, 168 A. 8 (1933), the Supreme Court ruled that where a statute compels a landlord to illuminate a common stairwell, a tenant cannot waive that burden and could, indeed, sue the landlord for injury caused by that statutory violation. Id., 355-56. The Supreme Court determined that the statute created a public duty which the tenant had no power to extinguish. Id. Private parties cannot “suspend the law by waiver or express consent.” Id., 357. Of course, L’Heureux, supra, involved a tenancy and not recreational activity.

A similar case is Panaroni v. Johnson, 158 Conn. 92, 256 A.2d 246 (1969). There, another tenant was permitted to sue a landlord based on housing code violations despite a written lease containing a waiver clause. Id., 104. Again, Panaroni v. Johnson, supra, did not involve a recreational activity waiver.

A Connecticut case closer to the facts of the present one is Fedor v. Mauwehu Council, 21 Conn.Sup. 38, 143 A.2d 466 (1958). [*7] The trial court granted a demurrer to a special defense based on a written waiver signed by the injured boy’s father, which waiver purported to release a boy scout camp from liability.

The court stated that “parties may not stipulate for protection against liability for negligence in the performance of a duty imposed by law or where public interest requires performance.” Id., 39.

On the national level, some jurisdictions invalidate recreational activity releases if the negligent conduct contravenes public policy as embodied in statutorily imposed duties while other jurisdictions recognize the enforceability of such preinjury waivers. See 54 A.L.R.5th 513 (2004), §§ 5[a] and [b].

In McCarthy v. National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, 48 N.J. 539, 226 A.2d 713 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s invalidation of a preinjury release in a case where the plaintiff was allegedly harmed by the defendants’ failure to comply with a state regulation governing the placement of fuel lines in racing cars. That Court stated that the “prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be, [*8] the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified.” Id. 54. That opinion recognized that such anticipatory releases are enforceable when they relate to strictly private affairs, however the Court remarked that the “situation becomes an entirely different one in the eye of the law when the legislation in question is . . . 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.

The West Virginia Supreme Court reached a similar result in Murphy v. American River Runners, Inc., 186 W.Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504 (1991). West Virginia has a statutory scheme regarding the division of responsibility for harm resulting from the risks of whitewater rafting. That scheme immunizes commercial rafting operators from liability for risks inherent in that activity but “imposes in general terms certain statutory duties upon commercial whitewater outfitters.” Id., 317. A rafter suffered injuries when the outfitter ‘s employee attempted to use one raft to dislodge another which was hung up on some rocks. Id., 313-14. [*9] That Court concluded “when a statute imposes a standard of care, a clause in an agreement purporting to exempt a party from tort liability to a member of the protected class for failure to conform to that statutory standard is unenforceable.” Id., 318. The West Virginia Supreme Court also observed that that state’s skiing statutes were very similar to their whitewater rafting legislation. Id., 317.

These cases invalidating preinjury waivers where the basis of liability is a violation of a statute appear to be based either on a presumption that such releases are against public policy or on the legal inability of the releasor to waive a duty which protects the public or a class of persons of which the releasor is only one member. The court finds this reasoning persuasive.

Common-law negligence is a breach of a duty to exercise reasonable care with respect to another when confronting a particularized and individualized set of surrounding circumstances which may never arise again. A party is entitled to contract away the right to hold the releasee responsible for careless conduct peculiar to the releasor’s situation.

On the other hand, statutory negligence [*10] is based on deviation from a legislatively mandated course of conduct which governs a generalized set of circumstances. The statutory rule applies in every case in which those generic circumstances may exist and where the injured party falls within the class the statute was designed to protect. Coughlin v. Peters, 153 Conn. 99, 101, 214 A.2d 127 (1965). The doctrine of statutory negligence applies to create liability regardless of whether the defendant acted with reasonable prudence. Jacobs v. Swift & Co., 141 Conn. 276, 279, 105 A.2d 658 (1954).

If liability for breach of statutory duty may be waived preinjury, the operator of a recreational facility could design, construct, and run a facility in total disregard of the legislatively prescribed rules with impunity, as to civil damages, simply by restricting use of the facility to those patrons willing to sign a release. In other words, the operator could repeal the protection of the legislatively selected class member by member.

Given our Supreme Court’s reluctance to afford liberal recognition to preinjury waivers and the need to prevent the undermining of statutorily defined duties, the court holds [*11] as a matter of law, that the plaintiffs’ release in this case is unenforceable to defeat the claims of a violation of § 29-211.

The motion for summary judgment is, therefore, denied.

Sferrazza, J.


Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation et al., 276 Conn. 314; 885 A.2d 734; 2005 Conn. LEXIS 500

Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation et al., 276 Conn. 314; 885 A.2d 734; 2005 Conn. LEXIS 500

Gregory D. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation et al.

(SC 17327)

SUPREME COURT OF CONNECTICUT

276 Conn. 314; 885 A.2d 734; 2005 Conn. LEXIS 500

April 18, 2005, Argued

November 29, 2005, Officially Released

COUNSEL: William F. Gallagher, with whom, on the brief, was David McCarry, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Laura Pascale Zaino, with whom, on the brief, were John B. Farley and Kevin M. Roche, for the appellees (defendants).

JUDGES: Sullivan, C. J., and Borden, Norcott, Katz, Palmer, Vertefeuille and Zarella, Js. 1 In this opinion KATZ, VERTEFEUILLE and ZERELLA, Js., concurred. NORCOTT, J., with whom BORDEN and PALMER, Js., join, dissented.

1 This case originally was argued before a panel of this court consisting of Justices Borden, Norcott, Katz, Palmer and Vertefeuille. Thereafter, the court, pursuant to Practice Book § 70-7 (b), sua sponte, ordered that the case be considered en banc. Accordingly, Chief Justice Sullivan and Justice Zarella were added to the panel. They have read the record, briefs and transcript of the oral argument.

[***2]

OPINION BY: SULLIVAN

OPINION

[*316] [**736] SULLIVAN, C. J.

This appeal 2 arises out of a complaint filed by the plaintiff, Gregory D. Hanks, against the defendants, Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation and White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., doing business as Powder Ridge Ski Resort, seeking compensatory damages for injuries the plaintiff sustained while snowtubing at the defendants’ facility. The trial court rendered summary judgment in favor of the defendants, concluding that this court’s decision in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 829 A.2d 827 (2003), precluded the plaintiff’s negligence claim as a matter of law. We reverse the judgment of the trial court.

2 The plaintiff appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c) and Practice Book § 65-2.

The record reveals the following factual and procedural history. The defendants [***3] operate a facility in Middlefield, known as Powder Ridge, at which the public, in exchange for a fee, is invited to ski, snowboard and snowtube. On February 16, 2003, the plaintiff brought his three children and another child to Powder Ridge to snowtube. Neither the plaintiff nor the four children had ever snowtubed at Powder Ridge, but the snowtubing [*317] run was open to the public generally, regardless of prior snowtubing experience, with the restriction that only persons at least six years old or forty-four inches tall were eligible to participate. Further, in order to snowtube at Powder Ridge, patrons were required to sign a “Waiver, Defense, Indemnity and Hold Harmless Agreement, and Release of Liability” (agreement). The plaintiff read and signed the agreement on behalf of himself and the four children. While snowtubing, the plaintiff’s right foot became caught between his snow tube and the man-made bank of the snowtubing run, resulting in serious injuries that required multiple surgeries to repair.

Thereafter, the plaintiff filed the present negligence action against the defendants. Specifically, the plaintiff alleges that the defendants negligently caused his injuries by: (1) [***4] permitting the plaintiff “to ride in a snow tube that was not of sufficient size to ensure his safety while on the snow tubing run”; (2) “failing to properly train, supervise, control or otherwise instruct the operators of the snow tubing run in the proper way to run the snow tubing course to ensure the safety of the patrons, such as the plaintiff”; (3) “failing to properly groom the snow tubing run so as to direct patrons . . . such as the plaintiff away from the sidewalls of [the] run”; (4) “placing carpet at the end of the snow tubing run which had the tendency to cause the snow tubes to come to an abrupt halt, spin or otherwise change direction”; (5) “failing to properly landscape the snow tubing run so as to provide an adequate up slope at the end of the run to properly and safely slow snow tubing patrons such as the plaintiff”; (6) “failing to place warning signs on said snow tubing run to warn patrons such as the plaintiff of the danger of colliding with the side wall of [the] snow tubing run”; and (7) “failing to place hay bales or other similar materials on the sides of the snow tubing run in order to direct patrons [*318] such as the plaintiff away from the sidewalls of [the] [***5] run.”

[**737] The defendants, in their answer to the complaint, denied the plaintiff’s allegations of negligence and asserted two special defenses. Specifically, the defendants alleged that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by his own negligence and that the agreement relieved the defendants of liability, “even if the accident was due to the negligence of the defendants.” Thereafter, the defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming that the agreement barred the plaintiff’s negligence claim as a matter of law. The trial court agreed and rendered summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Specifically, the trial court determined, pursuant to our decision in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 640-44, that the plaintiff, by signing the agreement, unambiguously had released the defendants from liability for their allegedly negligent conduct. Thereafter, the plaintiff moved to reargue the motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied the plaintiff’s motion and this appeal followed.

The plaintiff raises two claims on appeal. First, the plaintiff claims that the trial court improperly concluded that the agreement clearly [***6] and expressly releases the defendants from liability for negligence. Specifically, the plaintiff contends that a person of ordinary intelligence reasonably would not have believed that, by signing the agreement, he or she was releasing the defendants from liability for personal injuries caused by negligence and, therefore, pursuant to Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 643, the agreement does not bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim. Second, the plaintiff claims that the agreement is unenforceable because it violates public policy. Specifically, the plaintiff contends that a recreational operator cannot, consistent with public [*319] policy, release itself from liability for its own negligent conduct where, as in the present case, the operator offers its services to the public generally, for a fee, and requires patrons to sign a standardized exculpatory agreement as a condition of participation. We disagree with the plaintiff’s first claim, but agree with his second claim.

Before reaching the substance of the plaintiff’s claims on appeal, we review this court’s decision in Hyson. The plaintiff in Hyson was injured while [***7] snowtubing at Powder Ridge and, thereafter, filed a complaint against the defendant, White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., alleging that the defendant’s negligence proximately had caused her injuries. 3 Id., 637-39. Prior to snowtubing at Powder Ridge, the plaintiff had signed an exculpatory agreement entitled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY.” Id., 638 and n.3. The issue presented in Hyson was whether the exculpatory agreement released the defendant from liability for its negligent conduct and, consequently, barred the plaintiff’s negligence claims as a matter of law. Id., 640. We concluded that it did not. Id.

3 We note that White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., is also a defendant in the present matter and that the plaintiff in the present matter was also injured while snowtubing at Powder Ridge.

In arriving at this conclusion, we noted that there exists “widespread support in other jurisdictions for a rule requiring that any agreement intended [***8] to exculpate a party for its own negligence state so expressly”; id., 641-42; and that this court previously had acknowledged “the well established principle . . . that ‘the law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . .'” Id., 643. [**738] Accordingly, we determined that “the better rule is that a party cannot be released from liability for injuries resulting from its future negligence in the absence of [*320] language that expressly so provides.” Id. This rule “prevents individuals from inadvertently relinquishing valuable legal rights” and “does not impose . . . significant costs” on entities seeking to exculpate themselves from liability for future negligence. Id. Examining the exculpatory agreement at issue in Hyson, we observed that “the release signed by the plaintiff [did] not specifically refer to possible negligence by the defendant” but, instead, only referred to “inherent and other risks involved in [snowtubing] . . . .” 4 (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 640. Thus, “[a] person of ordinary intelligence reasonably could believe that, by signing this release, he or she was releasing [***9] the defendant only from liability for damages caused by dangers inherent in the activity of snowtubing.” Id., 643. Accordingly, we concluded that the exculpatory agreement did not [*321] expressly release the defendants from liability for future negligence and, therefore, did not bar the plaintiff’s claims. Consequently, we declined to decide whether a well drafted exculpatory agreement expressly releasing a defendant from prospective liability for future negligence could be enforced consistent with public policy. See id., 640 (“we do not reach the issue of whether a well drafted agreement purporting to have such an effect would be enforceable”); id., 643 n.11 (“we do not decide today whether a contract having such express language would be enforceable to release a party from liability for its negligence”).

4 That exculpatory agreement provided:

“SNOWTUBING

“RELEASE FROM LIABILITY

“PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING

“1. I accept use of a snowtube and accept full responsibility for the care of the snowtube while in my possession.

“2. I understand that there are inherent and other risks involved in SNOW TUBING, including the use of lifts and snowtube, and it is a dangerous activity/sport. These risks include, but are not limited to, variations in snow, steepness and terrain, ice and icy conditions, moguls, rocks, trees, and other forms of forest growth or debris (above or below the surface), bare spots, lift terminals, cables, utility lines, snowmaking equipment and component parts, and other forms [of] natural or man made obstacles on and/or off chutes, as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other snowtubes. Snow chute conditions vary constantly because of weather changes and snowtubing use. Be aware that snowmaking and snow grooming may be in progress at any time. These are some of the risks of SNOWTUBING. All of the inherent risks of SNOWTUBING present the risk of serious and/or fatal injury.

“3. I agree to hold harmless and indemnify Powder Ridge, White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc. and/or any employee of the aforementioned for loss or damage, including any loss or injuries that result from damages related to the use of a snowtube or lift.

“I, the undersigned, have read and understand the above release of liability.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 638 n.3.

[***10] As an initial matter, we set forth the appropriate standard of review. [HN1] “The standard of review of a trial court’s decision to grant a motion for summary judgment is well established. Practice Book [§ 17-49] provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) D’Eramo v. Smith, 273 Conn. 610, 619, 872 A.2d 408 (2005).

[**739] I

We first address the plaintiff’s claim that the agreement does not expressly release the defendants from liability for personal injuries incurred as a result of their own negligence as required by Hyson. Specifically, the plaintiff maintains that an ordinary person of reasonable intelligence would not understand that, by signing the agreement, he or she was releasing the defendants from liability for future negligence. We disagree.

[HN2] “The law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . .” Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., [*322] supra, 265 Conn. 643. [***11] “The law’s reluctance to enforce exculpatory provisions of this nature has resulted in the development of an exacting standard by which courts measure their validity. So, it has been repeatedly emphasized that unless the intention of the parties is expressed in unmistakable language, an exculpatory clause will not be deemed to insulate a party from liability for his own negligent acts . . . . Put another way, it must appear plainly and precisely that the limitation of liability extends to negligence or other fault of the party attempting to shed his ordinary responsibility . . . .

“Not only does this stringent standard require that the drafter of such an agreement make its terms unambiguous, but it mandates that the terms be understand able as well. Thus, a provision that would exempt its drafter from any liability occasioned by his fault should not compel resort to a magnifying glass and lexicon. . . . Of course, this does not imply that only simple or monosyllabic language can be used in such clauses. Rather, what the law demands is that such provisions be clear and coherent . . . .” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) B & D Associates, Inc. v. Russell, 73 Conn. App. 66, 72, 807 A.2d 1001 (2002), [***12] quoting Gross v. Sweet, 49 N.Y.2d 102, 107-108, 400 N.E.2d 306, 424 N.Y.S.2d 365 (1979); see also Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 643 (“a party cannot be released from liability for injuries resulting from its future negligence in the absence of language that expressly so provides”). [HN3] “Although ordinarily the question of contract interpretation, being a question of the parties’ intent, is a question of fact . . . where there is definitive contract language, the determination of what the parties intended by their contractual commitments is a question of law.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) “Goldberg v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co.,” 269 Conn. 550, 559-60, 849 A.2d 368 (2004).

[*323] The agreement 5 at issue in the present case provides in relevant part: “I understand [**740] that there are inherent risks involved in snowtubing, including the risk of serious [*324] physical injury or death and I fully assume all risks associated with snowtubing, even if due to the NEGLIGENCE of [the defendants] . . . including but not limited to: variations in the snow conditions; steepness and terrain; the presence of ice, [***13] moguls, bare spots and objects beneath the snowtubing surface such as rocks, debris and tree stumps; collisions with objects both on and off the snowtubing chutes such as hay bales, trees, rocks, snowmaking equipment, barriers, lift cables and equipment, lift towers, lift attendants, employees, volunteers, other patrons and spectators or their property; equipment or lift condition or failure; lack of safety devices or inadequate safety devices; lack of warnings or inadequate warnings; lack of instructions or inadequate instructions; use of any lift; and the like. . . . I . . . agree I will defend, indemnify and hold harmless [the defendants] . . . from any and all claims, suits or demands by anyone arising from my use of the Powder Ridge snowtubing facilities and equipment including claims of NEGLIGENCE on the part of [the defendants] . . . . I . . . hereby release, and agree that I will not sue [the defendants] . . . for money damages for personal injury or property damage sustained by me while using the snowtubing facilities and equipment even if due to the NEGLIGENCE of [the defendants] . . . .” (Emphasis in original.)

5 The complete agreement provides:

“Waiver, Defense, Indemnity and Hold Harmless Agreement, and Release of Liability

“In consideration for the privilege of participating in snowtubing at Powder Ridge Ski Area, I hereby agree that:

“1. I understand that there are inherent risks involved in snowtubing, including the risk of serious physical injury or death and I fully assume all risks associated with snowtubing, even if due to the NEGLIGENCE of White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., d/b/a Powder Ridge Ski Area and its Affiliates, Officers, Directors, Agents, Servants and/or Employees, including but not limited to: variations in the snow conditions; steepness and terrain; the presence of ice, moguls, bare spots and objects beneath the snowtubing surface such as rocks, debris and tree stumps; collisions with objects both on and off the snowtubing chutes such as hay bales, trees, rocks, snowmaking equipment, barriers, lift cables and equipment, lift towers, lift attendants, employees, volunteers, other patrons and spectators or their property; equipment or lift condition or failure; lack of safety devices or inadequate safety devices; lack of warnings or inadequate warnings; lack of instructions or inadequate instructions; use of any lift; and the like.

“2. I, for myself and for my heirs, assigns, successors, executors, administrators, and legal representatives, agree I will defend, indemnify and hold harmless White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., d/b/a Powder Ridge Ski Area, its Affiliates, Officers, Directors, Agents, Servants and Employees from any and all claims, suits or demands by anyone arising from my use of the Powder Ridge snowtubing facilities and equipment including claims of NEGLIGENCE on the part of White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., d/b/a Powder Ridge Ski Area, its Affiliates, Officers, Directors, Agents, Servants and/or Employees.

“3. I, for myself and for my heirs, assigns, successors, executors, administrators, and legal representatives, hereby release, and agree that I will not sue, White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., d/b/a Powder Ridge Ski Area, its Affiliates, Officers, Directors, Agents, Servants and/or Employees for money damages for personal injury or property damage sustained by me while using the snowtubing facilities and equipment even if due to the NEGLIGENCE of White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., d/b/a Powder Ridge Ski Area, its Affiliates, Officers, Directors, Agents, Servants and/or Employees.

“I have read this Waiver, Defense, Indemnity and Hold Harmless Agreement, and Release of Liability and fully understand its terms. I further understand that by signing this agreement that I am giving up substantial legal rights. I have not been induced to sign this agreement by any promise or representation and I sign it voluntarily and of my own free will.” (Emphasis in original.)

[***14] We conclude that the agreement expressly and unambiguously purports to release the defendants from prospective liability for negligence. The agreement explicitly provides that the snowtuber “fully assumes all risks associated with snowtubing, even if due to the NEGLIGENCE” of the defendants. (Emphasis in original.) Moreover, the agreement refers to the negligence of the defendants three times and uses capital letters to emphasize the term “negligence.” Accordingly, we conclude that an ordinary person of reason able intelligence would understand that, by signing the [*325] agreement, he or she was releasing the defendants from liability for their future negligence. 6 [**741] The plaintiff claims, however, that the agreement does not expressly release the defendants from liability for their prospective negligence because the agreement “defines the word ‘negligence’ solely by reference to inherent [risks] of the activity.” We disagree. The agreement states that the snowtuber “fully assumes all risks associated with snowtubing, even if due to the NEGLIGENCE of [the defendants]” and provides a nonexhaustive list of such risks. (Emphasis in original.) We acknowledge that some of the risks listed [***15] arguably can be characterized as inherent risks because they are innate to the activity, “are beyond the control of the [*326] [recreational] area operator and cannot be minimized by the operator’s exercise of reasonable care.” Jagger v. Mohawk Mountain Ski Area, Inc., 269 Conn. 672, 692, 849 A.2d 813 (2004). Other risks listed in the agreement, for example, “lack of safety devices or inadequate safety devices; lack of warnings or inadequate warnings; lack of instructions or inadequate instructions” are not inherent risks. The recreational operator has control over safety devices, warnings and instructions, and can ensure their adequacy through the exercise of reasonable care. Thus, a snowtuber who, by virtue of signing the present agreement, assumes the risk of inadequate safety devices, warnings or instructions, necessarily assumes the risk of the recreational operator’s negligence.

6 The plaintiff claims that the trial court improperly rendered summary judgment in the present matter because “there [was] a question of fact as to [the plaintiff’s] understanding of the scope of the release.” We reject this claim. [HN4] “It is the general rule that a contract is to be interpreted according to the intent expressed in its language and not by an intent the court may believe existed in the minds of the parties.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Pesino v. Atlantic Bank of New York, 244 Conn. 85, 94, 709 A.2d 540 (1998). Accordingly, where the language of a contract is clear and unambiguous, “[a] party may not assert as a defense to an action on [the] contract that [he] did not understand what [he] was signing.” John M. Glover Agency v. RDB Building, LLC, 60 Conn. App. 640, 645, 760 A.2d 980 (2000).

Regardless, the plaintiff’s deposition testimony establishes that he understood the scope of the agreement, but did not believe that the defendants would seek to enforce the agreement or that the agreement would be upheld as a matter of law. See part II of this opinion. Specifically, the plaintiff testified: “I did not understand that I was saying it was okay for Powder Ridge to willingly kill me or injure me or my children or anyone else that participated in the ride, and it is my understanding of the form as it’s written, that Powder Ridge has the right, from this document, to take my life, injure me, injure my children, without regard or responsibility. That is my under standing of the form now. At the time I read that, I did not believe that, and I had that understanding of the words as they’re written and I did not believe that any organization would attempt to enforce language of that kind nor would any court uphold it.” The plaintiff further testified: “My son, who at that time was [twelve], read [the agreement] as well and he said, ‘Dad, don’t sign this thing.’ And I looked at it and I said, ‘It’s so patently egregious, I don’t see how it could be enforced.’ He was right and I was wrong. ‘Out of the mouths of babes.'”

[***16] We conclude that the trial court properly determined that the agreement in the present matter expressly purports to release the defendants from liability for their future negligence and, accordingly, satisfies the standard set forth by this court in Hyson.

II

We next address the issue we explicitly left unresolved in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 640, namely, whether the enforcement of a well drafted exculpatory agreement purporting to release a snowtube operator from prospective liability for personal injuries sustained as a result of the operator’s negligent conduct violates public policy. We [**742] conclude that it does and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the trial court.

[HN5] Although it is well established “that parties are free to contract for whatever terms on which they may agree”; (internal quotation marks omitted) Gibson v. Capano, 241 Conn. 725, 730, 699 A.2d 68 (1997); it is equally well established “that contracts that violate public policy are unenforceable.” Solomon v. Gilmore, 248 Conn. 769, 774, [*327] 731 A.2d 280 (1999). “The question [of] whether a contract is against [***17] public policy is [a] question of law dependent on the circumstances of the particular case, over which an appellate court has unlimited review.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Parente v. Pirozzoli, 87 Conn. App. 235, 245, 866 A.2d 629 (2005), citing 17A Am. Jur. 2d 312, Contracts § 327 (2004).

As previously noted, “the law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . .” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 643. This is because exculpatory provisions undermine the policy considerations governing our tort system. “The fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when compensation [is] required. . . . An equally compelling function of the tort system is the [***18] prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . . [HN6] The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lodge v. Arett Sales Corp., 246 Conn. 563, 578-79, 717 A.2d 215 (1998). Thus, it is consistent with public policy “to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor” and, if this policy is to be abandoned, “it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not to shift the risk to the weak bargainer.” Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal.2d 92, 101, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33 (1963).

[*328] Although this court previously has not addressed the enforceability of a release of liability for future negligence, the issue has been addressed by many of our sister states. A frequently cited standard for determining whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy was set forth by the Supreme Court of California in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 98-101. In Tunkl, the court concluded that [HN7] exculpatory agreements [***19] violate public policy if they affect the public interest adversely; id., 96-98; and identified six factors (Tunkl factors) relevant to this determination: “[1] [The agreement] concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in per forming a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bar gaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a [**743] superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person [***20] or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.” Id., 98-101. The court clarified that [HN8] an exculpatory agreement may affect the public interest adversely even if some of the Tunkl factors are not satisfied. 7 Id., 101.

7 In Tunkl, the plaintiff filed suit against a charitable research hospital for personal injuries allegedly incurred as a result of the negligence of two physicians employed by the hospital. Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 94. Upon admission, the plaintiff was required to sign an exculpatory agreement that released the hospital from “any and all liability for the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of its employees . . . .” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. Applying the Tunkl factors, the court determined that the exculpatory agreement was unenforceable because it violated public policy. Id., 101-104.

[***21] [*329] Various states have adopted the Tunkl factors to determine whether exculpatory agreements affect the public interest adversely and, thus, violate public policy. See, e.g., Anchorage v. Locker, 723 P.2d 1261, 1265 (Alaska 1986); Olson v. Molzen, 558 S.W.2d 429, 431 (Tenn. 1977); Wagenblast v. Odessa School District, 110 Wn. 2d 845, 851-52, 758 P.2d 968 (1988). Other states have developed their own variations of the Tunkl factors; see, e.g., Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981) (“in determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid, there are four factors which a court must consider: [1] the existence of a duty to the public; [2] the nature of the service performed; [3] whether the contract was fairly entered into; and [4] whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language”); Rawlings v. Layne & Bowler Pump Co., 93 Idaho 496, 499-500, 465 P.2d 107 (1970) (“express agreements exempting one of the parties for negligence are to be sustained except where: [1] one party is at an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power; [2] a public duty is [***22] involved [public utility companies, common carriers]”); while still others have adopted a totality of the circumstances approach. See, e.g., Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 535, 644 A.2d 522 (1994) (expressly declining to adopt Tunkl factors because “the ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of cur rent societal expectations”); Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt. 329, 333-34, 670 A.2d 795 (1995) (same). The Virginia Supreme Court, however, has determined that all exculpatory agreements purporting to release tortfeasors [*330] from future liability for personal injuries are unenforceable because “to hold that it was competent for one party to put the other parties to the contract at the mercy of its own misconduct . . . can never be law fully done where an enlightened system of jurisprudence prevails. Public policy forbids it . . . .” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Ass’n, 244 Va. 191, 194, 418 S.E.2d 894 (1992).

Having reviewed the various methods for determining whether exculpatory [***23] agreements violate public policy, we conclude, as the Tunkl court itself acknowledged, that [HN9] “no definition of the concept of public interest can be contained within the four corners of a formula.” [**744] Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 98. Accordingly, we agree with the Supreme Courts of Maryland and Vermont that “the ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” Wolf v. Ford, supra, 335 Md. 535; Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., supra, 164 Vt. 333-34. Thus, our analysis is guided, but not limited, by the Tunkl factors, and is informed by any other factors that may be relevant given the factual circumstances of the case and current societal expectations.

We now turn to the merits of the plaintiff’s claim. The defendants are in the business of providing snowtubing services to the public generally, regardless of prior snowtubing experience, with the minimal restriction that only persons at least six years old or forty-four inches tall are eligible to participate. [***24] Given the virtually unrestricted access of the public to Powder Ridge, a reasonable person would presume that the defendants were offering a recreational activity that the whole family could enjoy safely. Indeed, this presumption is borne out by the plaintiff’s own testimony. Specifically, the plaintiff testified that he “trusted that [the defendants] [*331] would, within their good conscience, operate a safe ride.”

[HN10] The societal expectation that family oriented recreational activities will be reasonably safe is even more important where, as in the present matter, patrons are under the care and control of the recreational operator as a result of an economic transaction. The plaintiff, in exchange for a fee, was permitted access to the defendants’ snowtubing runs and was provided with snowtubing gear. As a result of this transaction, the plaintiff was under the care and control of the defendants and, thus, was subject to the risk of the defendants’ carelessness. Specifically, the defendants designed and maintained the snowtubing run and, therefore, controlled the steepness of the incline, the condition of the snow and the method of slowing down or stopping patrons. Further, the defendants [***25] provided the plaintiff with the requisite snowtubing supplies and, therefore, controlled the size and quality of the snow tube as well as the provision of any necessary protective gear. Accordingly, the plaintiff voluntarily relinquished control to the defendants with the reasonable expectation of an exciting, but reasonably safe, snowtubing experience.

Moreover, the plaintiff lacked the knowledge, experience and authority to discern whether, much less ensure that, the defendants’ snowtubing runs were maintained in a reasonably safe condition. As the Vermont Supreme Court observed, in the context of the sport of skiing, it is consistent with public policy “to place responsibility for maintenance of the land on those who own or control it, with the ultimate goal of keeping accidents to the minimum level possible. [The] defendants, not recreational skiers, have the expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone can properly maintain and inspect their [*332] premises, and train their employees in risk management. They alone can insure against risks and effectively spread the costs of insurance among [***26] their thousands of customers. Skiers, on the other hand, are not in a position to discover and correct risks of harm, and they cannot insure against the ski area’s negligence.

“If the defendants were permitted to obtain broad waivers of their liability, an important incentive for ski areas to manage risk would be removed, with the public bearing the cost of the resulting injuries. . . . It is illogical, in these circumstances, [**745] to undermine the public policy underlying business invitee law and allow skiers to bear risks they have no ability or right to control.” 8 (Citations omitted.) Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., supra, 164 Vt. 335. The concerns expressed by the court in Dalury are equally applicable to the context of snowtubing, and we agree that [HN11] it is illogical to permit snowtubers, and the public generally, to bear the costs of risks that they have no ability or right to control. 9

8 Exculpatory agreements, like the one at issue in the present matter, shift the costs of injuries from the tortfeasor to the person injured. As a consequence, health care insurance providers or the state, through its provision of medicaid benefits, absorb the costs of the tortfeasor’s negligence. These costs necessarily are passed on to the population of the state through higher health care premiums and state taxes. Accordingly, in the present matter, it ultimately would be the population generally, and not the snowtube operators and their patrons, who would bear the costs if these agreements were to be enforced.

[***27]

9 The dissent claims that “the Dalury court, like the majority in the present case, concluded that a recreational activity affected the public interest because of the considerable public participation.” The dissent mischaracterizes both the conclusion of the Vermont Supreme Court in Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., supra, 164 Vt. 335, and our conclusion today. In Dalury, the court did not rely solely on the volume of public participation in determining that exculpatory agreements violate public policy in the context of skiing. Rather, the court relied on the following relevant factors: “(1) the ski area operated a facility open to the general public, (2) the ski area advertised and invited persons of every level of skiing ability onto its premises, (3) the ski area, and not recreational skiers, had the expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards and to guard against the negligence of its employees and agents, (4) the ski area was in a better position to insure against the risks of its own negligence and spread the cost of the insurance among its customers, and (5) if ski areas were permitted to obtain broad waivers of their liability, incentives for them to manage risks would be removed, with the public bearing the cost.” Spencer v. Killington, Ltd., 167 Vt. 137, 141, 702 A.2d 35 (1997) (discussing Dalury). Likewise, we conclude today that the agreement at issue in this case violates public policy, not solely because of the volume of public participation, but because: (1) the defendants invite the public generally to snowtube at their facility, regardless of snowtubing ability; (2) snowtubers are under the care and control of the defendants as a result of an economic transaction; (3) the defendants, not recreational snowtubers, have the knowledge, experience and authority to maintain the snowtubing runs in reasonably safe condition, to determine whether the snowtubing equipment is adequate and reasonably safe, and to guard against the negligence of its employees and agents; (4) the defendants are in a better position to insure against the risk of their negligence and to spread the costs of insurance to their patrons; (5) if we were to uphold the present agreement under the facts of this case, the defendants would be permitted to obtain broad waivers of their liability and the incentive for them to maintain a reasonably safe snowtubing environment would be removed, with the public bearing the cost; (6) the agreement at issue is a standardized adhesion contract, offered to snowtubers on a “take it or leave it” basis, and without the opportunity to purchase protection against negligence at an additional, reasonable fee; and (7) the defendants had superior bargaining authority.

[***28] [*333] Further, the agreement at issue was a standardized adhesion contract offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis. [HN12] The “most salient feature [of adhesion contracts] is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts.” Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Murphy, 206 Conn. 409, 416, 538 A.2d 219 (1988); see also Black’s Law Dictionary (7th Ed. 1999) (defining adhesion contract as “[a] standard form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position, [usually] a consumer, who has little choice about the terms”). Not only was the plaintiff unable to negotiate the terms of the agreement, but the defendants also did not offer him [**746] the option of procuring protection against negligence at an additional reasonable cost. See Restatement (Third), Torts, Apportionment of Liability 2, comment (e), p. 21 (2000) (factor relevant to enforcement of contractual limit on liability is “whether the party seeking exculpation was willing to provide greater protection against [*334] tortious conduct for a reasonable, additional fee”). Moreover, the defendants did not inform prospective [***29] snowtubers prior to their arrival at Powder Ridge that they would have to waive important common-law rights as a condition of participation. Thus, the plaintiff, who traveled to Powder Ridge in anticipation of snowtubing that day, was faced with the dilemma of either signing the defendants’ proffered waiver of prospective liability or forgoing completely the opportunity to snowtube at Powder Ridge. Under the present factual circumstances, it would ignore reality to conclude that the plaintiff wielded the same bargaining power as the defendants.

The defendants contend, nevertheless, that they did not have superior bargaining power because, unlike an essential public service, “snowtubing is a voluntary activity and the plaintiff could have just as easily decided not to participate.” 10 We acknowledge that snowtubing is a voluntary activity, but we do not agree that there can never be a disparity of bargaining power in the context of voluntary or elective activities. 11 See [*335] Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., supra, 164 Vt. 335 [HN13] (“while interference with an essential public service surely affects the public interest, those services do not represent the universe of activities that [***30] implicate public concerns”). Voluntary recreational activities, such as snowtubing, skiing, basketball, soccer, football, racquetball, karate, ice skating, swimming, volleyball or yoga, are pursued by the vast majority of the population and constitute an important and healthy part of everyday life. Indeed, this court has previously recognized the public policy interest of promoting vigorous participation in such activities. See, e.g., Jagger v. Mohawk Mountain Ski Area, Inc., supra, 269 Conn. 702 (important public policy interest in encouraging vigorous participation in skiing); Jaworski v. Kiernan, 241 Conn. 399, 409, 696 A.2d 332 (1997) (important public policy interest in promoting vigorous participation in soccer). In the present case, the [**747] defendants held themselves out as a provider of a healthy, fun, family activity. After the plaintiff and his family arrived at Powder Ridge eager to participate in the activity, however, the defendants informed the plaintiff that, not only would they be immune from claims arising from the inherent risks of the activity, but they would not be responsible for injuries resulting from their own carelessness and negligence [***31] in the operation of the snowtubing facility. We recognize that the plaintiff had the option of walking away. We cannot say, however, that the defendants had no bargaining advantage under these circumstances.

10 The defendants also claim, and the dissent agrees, that the defendants did not have superior bargaining power because the plaintiff “could have participated in snowtubing elsewhere, either on that day or another day.” We are not persuaded. Snowtubing is a seasonal activity that requires the provision of specific supplies and particular topographic and weather conditions. Although the dissent correctly states that “‘snowtubing occurs regularly at locations all across the state, including parks, backyards and golf courses'”; we point out that, even when weather conditions are naturally appropriate for snowtubing, not all individuals are fortunate enough to have access to places where snowtubing is both feasible topographically and permitted freely. Moreover, the dissent argues that the plaintiff had ample opportunity to select a snowtubing environment “based on whatever safety considerations he felt were relevant.” As already explained in this opinion, however, the defendants, not the plaintiff, had the requisite knowledge and experience to determine what safety considerations are relevant to snowtubing. As such, it was reasonable for the plaintiff to presume that the defendants, who are in the business of supplying snowtubing services, provide the safest snowtubing alternative.

[***32]

11 We need not decide whether an exculpatory agreement concerning a voluntary recreational activity violates public policy if the only factor militating against enforcement of the agreement is a disparity in bargaining power because, in the present matter, there are additional factors that combine to render the agreement contrary to public policy. See footnote 9 of this opinion.

For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the agreement in the present matter affects the public interest adversely and, therefore, is unenforceable because [*336] it violates public policy. 12 Accordingly, the trial court improperly rendered summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

12 We clarify that our conclusion does not extend to the risks inherent in the activity of snowtubing. As we have explained, [HN14] inherent risks are those risks that are innate to the activity, “are beyond the control of the [recreational] area operator and cannot be minimized by the operator’s exercise of reasonable care.” Jagger v. Mohawk Mountain Ski Area, Inc., supra, 269 Conn. 692 (distinguishing between inherent risks of skiing and ski operator’s negligence); see also Spencer v. Killington, Ltd., 167 Vt. 137, 143, 702 A.2d 35 (1997) (same). For example, risks inherent in the sport of skiing include, but are not limited to, the risk of collision with another skier or a tree outside the confines of the slope. See Public Acts 2005, No. 05-78, § 2. The risks inherent in each type of recreational activity will necessarily vary, and it is common knowledge that some recreational activities are inherently more dangerous than others.

[***33] The defendants and the dissent point out that our conclusion represents the “distinct minority view” and is inconsistent with the majority of sister state authority upholding exculpatory agreements in similar recreational settings. We acknowledge that most states uphold adhesion contracts releasing recreational operators from prospective liability for personal injuries caused by their own negligent conduct. Put simply, we disagree with these decisions for the reasons already explained in this opinion. Moreover, we find it significant that many states uphold exculpatory agreements in the context of simple negligence, but refuse to enforce such agreements in the context of gross negligence. See, e.g., Farina v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., 66 F.3d 233, 235-36 (9th Cir. 1995) (Oregon law); Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc., 839 F. Supp. 730, 736 (D. Haw. 1993), superseded in part by Haw. Rev. Stat. § 663-1.54 (1997) (recreational providers liable for simple negligence in addition to gross negligence); McFann v. Sky Warriors, Inc., 268 Ga. App. 750, 758, 603 S.E.2d 7 (2004), cert. denied, 2005 Ga. LEXIS 69 [***34] (January 10, 2005); Boucher v. Riner, 68 Md. App. 539, 543, 514 A.2d 485 (1986); Zavras v. Capeway Rovers Motorcycle Club, Inc., 44 Mass. App. 17, 18-19, [*337] 687 N.E.2d 1263 (1997); Schmidt v. United States, 1996 OK 29, 912 P.2d 871, 874 (Okla. 1996); Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73, 75-76 (Tenn. 1985); Conradt v. Four Star Promotions, Inc., 45 Wn. App. 847, 852, 728 P.2d 617 (1986); see also New Light Co. v. Wells Fargo Alarm Services, 247 Neb. 57, 62-65, 525 N.W.2d 25 (1994); 8 S. Williston, Contracts (4th Ed. 1998) § 19:23, pp. 291-97 (“an attempted exemption from liability for a future intentional tort or crime or for a future willful or grossly negligent act is generally held void, although a release exculpating a party from liability for negligence may also cover gross negligence where the jurisdiction has abolished the distinction between [**748] degrees of negligence and treats all negligence alike”). [HN15] Connecticut does not recognize degrees of negligence and, consequently, does not recognize the tort of gross negligence as a separate basis of liability. See, e.g., Matthiessen v. Vanech, 266 Conn. 822, 833, 836 A.2d 394 and n.10, 266 Conn. 822, 836 A.2d 394 (2003). [***35] Accordingly, although in some states recreational operators cannot, consistent with public policy, release themselves from prospective liability for conduct that is more egregious than simple negligence, in this state, were we to adopt the position advocated by the defendants, recreational operators would be able to release their liability for such conduct unless it rose to the level of recklessness. Id., 832 (recklessness is “a conscious choice of a course of action either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man, and the actor must recognize that his conduct involves a risk substantially greater . . . than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent” [internal quotation marks omitted]). As a result, recreational operators would lack the incentive to exercise even slight care, with the public bearing the costs of the resulting injuries. See 57A Am. Jur. 2d 296, Negligence § 227 (2004) [*338] (“‘gross negligence’ is commonly defined as very great or excessive negligence, or as the want of, or failure to exercise, even slight or scant care or ‘slight diligence'”). [***36] Such a result would be inconsistent with the public policy of this state.

The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings according to law.

In this opinion KATZ, VERTEFEUILLE and ZARELLA, Js., concurred.

DISSENT BY: NORCOTT

DISSENT

NORCOTT, J., with whom BORDEN and PALMER, Js., join, dissenting. Although I concur in part I of the majority opinion, I disagree with its conclusion in part II, namely, that the prospective release of liability for negligence executed by the plaintiff, Gregory D. Hanks, in this case is unenforceable as against public policy. I would follow the overwhelming majority of our sister states and would conclude that prospective releases from liability for negligence are permissible in the context of recreational activities. Accordingly, I respect fully dissent from the majority’s decision to take a road that is, for many persuasive reasons, far less traveled.

I begin by noting that “it is established well beyond the need for citation that parties are free to contract for whatever terms on which they may agree. This freedom includes the right to contract for the assumption of known or unknown hazards and risks that may arise as a consequence [***37] of the execution of the contract. Accordingly, in private disputes, a court must enforce the contract as drafted by the parties and may not relieve a contracting party from anticipated or actual difficulties undertaken pursuant to the contract . . . .” Holly Hill Holdings v. Lowman, 226 Conn. 748, 755-56, 628 A.2d 1298 (1993). Nevertheless, contracts that violate public policy are unenforceable. See, e.g., Solomon v. Gilmore, 248 Conn. 769, 774, 731 A.2d 280 (1999).

[*339] In determining whether prospective releases of liability violate public policy, the majority adopts the Vermont Supreme Court’s totality of the circumstances approach. 1 Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt. 329, 334, [**749] 670 A.2d 795 (1995). Although it also purports to consider the widely accepted test articulated by the California Supreme Court in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal.2d 92, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33 (1963), the majority actually accords the test only nominal consideration. Because I consider the Tunkl factors to be dispositive, I address them at length.

1 The majority also cites Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 535, 644 A.2d 522 (1994), in support of its totality of the circumstances approach. The Wolf court concluded that a release executed in the context of a stockbroker-client relationship did not implicate the public interest. Id., 527-28. Such a result is incongruous with the vast majority of American law and I am aware of no other case in which a court held that a release of liability for negligence in such a sensitive context did not implicate the public interest. In my view, Wolf illustrates the significant problem inherent in employing an amorphous “totality of the circumstances” test.

[***38] “The attempted but invalid [release agreement] involves a transaction which exhibits some or all of the following characteristics. [1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in per forming a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bar gaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bar gaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and [*340] makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control [***39] of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.” Id., 98-101.

“Not all of the Tunkl factors need be satisfied in order for an exculpatory clause to be deemed to affect the public interest. The [Tunkl court] conceded that ‘no definition of the concept of public interest can be contained within the four corners of a formula’ and stated that the transaction must only ‘exhibit some or all’ of the identified characteristics. . . . Thus, the ultimate test is whether the exculpatory clause affects the public interest, not whether all of the characteristics that help reach that conclusion are satisfied.” (Citations omitted.) Health Net of California, Inc. v. Dept. of Health Services, 113 Cal. App. 4th 224, 237-38, 6 Cal.Rptr. 3d 235 (2003), review denied, 2004 Cal. LEXIS 2043 (March 3, 2004).

Notwithstanding the statutory origins of the Tunkl factors, 2 numerous other states [**750] have adopted them to determine whether a prospective release violates public policy under their common law. See, e.g., Morgan v. [*341] South Central Bell Telephone Co., 466 So. 2d 107, 117 (Ala. 1985); Anchorage v. Locker, 723 P.2d 1261, 1265 (Alaska 1986); [***40] La Frenz v. Lake County Fair Board, 172 Ind. App. 389, 395, 360 N.E.2d 605 (1977); Lynch v. Santa Fe National Bank, 97 N.M. 554, 558-59, 627 P.2d 1247 (1981); Olson v. Molzen, 558 S.W.2d 429, 431 (Tenn. 1977); Wagenblast v. Odessa School District, 110 Wn. 2d 845, 852, 758 P.2d 968 (1988); Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057, 1060 (Wyo. 1986). 3

2 The Tunkl court construed California Civil Code 1668, which provides: “All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 95. Despite the sweeping language of the statute, California courts had construed it inconsistently, with many allowing prospective releases from liability for negligence. See id., 95-98. The Tunkl court, in reconciling conflicting lower court decisions, confined the effect of 1668 on releases from liability for negligence to situations affecting the public interest, stating: “While obviously no public policy opposes private, voluntary transactions in which one party, for a consideration, agrees to shoulder a risk which the law would otherwise have placed upon the other party, [circumstances affecting the public interest] pose a different situation.” Id., 101.

[***41]

3 I note that still other states have chosen to adopt variations on the Tunkl factors. See, e.g., Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981) (“in determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid, there are four factors which a court must consider: [1] the existence of a duty to the public; [2] the nature of the service performed; [3] whether the contract was fairly entered into; and [4] whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language”); Rawlings v. Layne & Bowler Pump Co., 93 Idaho 496, 499-500, 465 P.2d 107 (1970) (“on the basis of these authorities we hold that express agreements exempting one of the parties for negligence are to be sustained except where: [1] one party is at an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power; [2] a public duty is involved [public utility companies, common carriers]”).

Applying the six Tunkl factors to the sport of snow tubing, I note that the first, second, fourth and sixth factors support the defendants, Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation and White Water Mountain [***42] Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., doing business as Powder Ridge Ski Resort, which operate the Powder Ridge facility, while the third and fifth factors support the plaintiff. Accordingly, I now turn to a detailed examination of each factor as it applies to this case.

The first of the Tunkl factors, that the business is of a type thought suitable for regulation, cuts squarely in favor of upholding the release. Snowtubing runs generally are not subject to extensive public regulation. Indeed, the plaintiff points to no statutes or regulations that affect snowtubing, and I have located only one statutory reference to it. This sole reference, contained in No. 05-78, § 2, of the 2005 Public Acts, explicitly [*342] exempts snowtubing from the scope of General Statutes (Rev. to 2005) § 29-212, which applies to liability for injuries sustained by skiers. 4 Thus, while the legislature has [**751] chosen to regulate, to some extent, the sport of skiing, it conspicuously has left snowtubing untouched.

4 Public Act 05-78, 2, which amended General Statutes (Rev. to 2005) 29-212 effective October 1, 2005, provides: “(a) For the purposes of this section:

“(1) ‘Skier’ includes any person who is using a ski area for the purpose of skiing or who is on the skiable terrain of a ski area as a spectator or otherwise, but does not include (A) any person using a snow tube provided by a ski area operator, and (B) any person who is a spectator while in a designated spectator area during any event;

“(2) ‘Skiing’ means sliding downhill or jumping on snow or ice using skis, a snowboard, snow blades, a snowbike, a sit-ski or any other device that is controllable by its edges on snow or ice or is for the purpose of utilizing any skiable terrain, but does not include snow tubing operations provided by a ski area operator; and

“(3) ‘Ski area operator’ means a person who owns or controls the operation of a ski area and such person’s agents and employees. “(b) Each skier shall assume the risk of and legal responsibility for any injury to his or her person or property caused by the hazards inherent in the sport of skiing. Such hazards include, but are not limited to: (1) Variations in the terrain of the trail or slope which is marked in accordance with subdivision (3) of section 29-211, as amended by this act, or variations in surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions, except that no skier assumes the risk of variations which are caused by the ski area operator unless such variations are caused by snow making, snow grooming or rescue operations; (2) bare spots which do not require the closing of the trail or slope; (3) conspicuously placed or, if not so placed, conspicuously marked lift towers; (4) trees or other objects not within the confines of the trail or slope; (5) loading, unloading or otherwise using a passenger tramway without prior knowledge of proper loading and unloading procedures or without reading instructions concerning loading and unloading posted at the base of such passenger tramway or without asking for such instructions; and (6) collisions with any other person by any skier while skiing, except that collisions with on-duty employees of the ski area operator who are skiing and are within the scope of their employment at the time of the collision shall not be a hazard inherent in the sport of skiing.

“(c) The provisions of this section shall not apply in any case in which it is determined that a claimant’s injury was not caused by a hazard inherent in the sport of skiing.” (Emphasis added.)

[***43] The second Tunkl factor also works in the defendants’ favor. Snowtubing is not an important public service. Courts employing the Tunkl factors have found [*343] this second element satisfied in the contexts of hospital admission and treatment, residential rental agreements, banking, child care services, telecommunications and public education, including interscholastic sports. See Henrioulle v. Marin Ventures, Inc., 20 Cal.3d 512, 573 P.2d 465, 143 Cal.Rptr. 247 (1978) (residential rental agreements); Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 92 (hospitals); Gavin W. v. YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, 106 Cal. App. 4th 662, 131 Cal.Rptr.2d 168 (2003) (child care); Vilner v. Crocker National Bank, 89 Cal. App. 3d 732, 152 Cal.Rptr. 850 (1979) (banking); Morgan v. South Central Bell Telephone Co., supra, 466 So. 2d 107 (telephone companies); Anchorage v. Locker, supra, 723 P.2d 1261 (telephone companies); Wagenblast v. Odessa School District, supra, 110 Wn. 2d 845 (public schools and interscholastic sports). The public nature of these industries [***44] is undeniable and each plays an important and indispensable role in everyday life. Snowtubing, by contrast, is purely a recreational activity.

The fourth Tunkl factor also counsels against the plaintiff’s position that snowtubing affects the public interest because snowtubing is not an essential activity. The plaintiff’s only incentive for snowtubing was recreation, not some other important personal interest such as, for example, health care, banking or insurance. The plaintiff would not have suffered any harm by opting not to snowtube at Powder Ridge, because snowtubing is not so significant a service that a person in his position would feel compelled to agree to any terms offered rather than forsake the opportunity to participate. Furthermore, “unlike other activities that require the pro vision of a certain facility, snowtubing occurs regularly at locations all across the state, including parks, back yards and golf courses.” Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 650 n.4, 829 A.2d 827 (2003) (Norcott, J., dissenting). Thus, [*344] the plaintiff had ample opportunity to snowtube in an environment of his choosing, which he [***45] could have selected based on whatever safety considerations he felt were relevant. In the absence of a compelling personal need and a limited choice of facilities, I cannot conclude that the defendants enjoyed a significant bar gaining advantage over the plaintiff.

Finally, the sixth Tunkl factor weighs against a determination that the release implicates the public interest. The plaintiff did not place his person or property under the defendants’ control. Unlike the [**752] patient who lies unconscious on the operating table or the child who is placed in the custody of a day care service, the Powder Ridge patron snowtubes on his own, without entrusting his person or property to the defendants’ care. In fact, the attraction of snowtubing and other recreational activities often is the lack of control associated with participating.

In contrast, the third and fifth Tunkl factors support the plaintiff’s position. With respect to the third factor, although the defendants restricted access to the snow tubing run to persons at least six years old or forty-four inches tall, this minimal restriction does not diminish the fact that only a small class of the general public is excluded from [***46] participation. See Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 102 (research hospital that only accepted certain patients nevertheless met third prong of Tunkl because it accepted anyone who exhibited medical condition that was being researched at hospital). Such a small exclusion does not diminish the invitation to the public at large to partake in snowtubing at the defendants’ facility, because the snowtubing run is open to any person who fits within certain easily satisfied parameters. See id., 99-101.

Finally, I examine the fifth Tunkl factor, namely, whether the release agreement is an “adhesion contract . . . .” [*345] Id., 100. “[The] most salient feature [of adhesion contracts] is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts.” Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Murphy, 206 Conn. 409, 416, 538 A.2d 219 (1988). Although the plaintiff made no attempt to bargain as to the terms of the release, it defies logic to presume that he could have done so successfully. As the majority correctly notes, the defendants presented patrons with a “take it or leave it” situation, [***47] conditioning access to the snowtubing run on signing the release agreement. Accordingly, the fifth Tunkl factor indicates that the agreement does affect the public interest.

In sum, I conclude that, under the Tunkl factors, the defendants’ release at issue in this case does not violate public policy with respect to the sport of snowtubing. This conclusion is consistent with the vast majority of sister state authority, which upholds releases of liability in a variety of recreational or athletic settings that are akin to snowtubing as not violative of public policy. See, e.g., Barnes v. Birmingham International Raceway, Inc., 551 So. 2d 929, 933 (Ala. 1989) (automobile racing); Valley National Bank v. National Assn. for Stock Car Auto Racing, 153 Ariz. 374, 378, 736 P.2d 1186 (App. 1987) (spectator in pit area at automobile race); Plant v. Wilbur, 345 Ark. 487, 494-96, 47 S.W.3d 889 (2001) (same); Madison v. Superior Court, 203 Cal. App. 3d 589, 602, 250 Cal.Rptr. 299 (1988) (scuba diving), review denied, 1988 Cal. LEXIS 1511 (October 13, 1988); Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 785 (Colo. 1989) [***48] (horseback riding); Theis v. J & J Racing Promotions, 571 So. 2d 92, 94 (Fla. App. 1990) (automobile racing), review denied, 581 So. 2d 168 (Fla. 1991); Bien v. Fox Meadow Farms Ltd., 215 Ill. App. 3d 337, 341, 574 N.E.2d 1311, 158 Ill. Dec. 918 (horseback riding), appeal denied, 142 Ill. 2d 651, 584 N.E.2d 126, 164 Ill. Dec. 914 (1991); Clanton v. United Skates of America, 686 N.E.2d 896, 899-900 [*346] (Ind. App. 1997) (roller skating); Boucher v. Riner, 68 Md. App. 539, 551, 514 A.2d 485 (1986) (skydiving); Lee v. Allied Sports Associates, Inc., 349 Mass. 544, 551, 209 N.E.2d 329 (1965) (spectator at automobile race); Lloyd v. Sugarloaf Mountain Corp., 2003 ME 117, 833 A.2d 1, 4 (Me. 2003) (mountain biking); Gara v. [**753] Woodbridge Tavern, 224 Mich. App. 63, 66-68, 568 N.W.2d 138 (1997) (recreational sumo wrestling); Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 926 (Minn. 1982) (weightlifting at fitness center); Mayer v. Howard, 220 Neb. 328, 336, 370 N.W.2d 93 (1985) (motorcycle racing); Barnes v. New Hampshire Karting Ass’n, Inc., 128 N.H. 102, 108, 509 A.2d 151 (1986) [***49] (go-cart racing); Kondrad v. Bismarck Park District, 2003 ND 4, 655 N.W.2d 411, 414 (N.D. 2003) (bicycling); Cain v. Cleveland Parachute Training Center, 9 Ohio App. 3d 27, 28, 9 Ohio B. 28, 457 N.E.2d 1185 (1983) (skydiving); Manning v. Brannon, 1998 OK CIV APP 17, 956 P.2d 156, 159 (Okla. App. 1997) (skydiving); Mann v. Wetter, 100 Or. App. 184, 187-88, 785 P.2d 1064 (1990) (scuba diving); Kotovsky v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 412 Pa. Super. 442, 448, 603 A.2d 663 (1992) (ski racing); Huckaby v. Confederate Motor Speedway, Inc., 276 S.C. 629, 631, 281 S.E.2d 223 (1981) (automobile racing); Holzer v. Dakota Speedway, Inc., 2000 SD 65, 610 N.W.2d 787, 798 (S.D. 2000) (automobile racing); Kellar v. Lloyd, 180 Wis. 2d 162, 183, 509 N.W.2d 87 (App. 1993) (flagperson at automobile race); Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063, 1065 (Wyo. 1988) (ski race during decathlon). 5

5 See also McAtee v. Newhall Land & Farming Co., 169 Cal. App. 3d 1031, 1034-35, 216 Cal.Rptr. 465 (1985) (motocross racing); Hulsey v. Elsinore Parachute Center, 168 Cal. App. 3d 333, 343, 214 Cal.Rptr. 194 (1985) (skydiving); Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 375 (Colo. 1981) (skydiving).

[***50] This near unanimity among the courts of the various states reflects the fact that “most, if not all, recreational activities are voluntary acts. Individuals participate in them for a variety of reasons, including to exercise, to experience a rush of adrenaline, and to [*347] engage their competitive nature. These activities, while surely increasing one’s enjoyment of life, cannot be considered so essential as to override the ability of two parties to contract about the allocation of the risks involved in the provision of such activity. When deciding to engage in a recreational activity, participants have the ability to weigh their desire to participate against their willingness to sign a contract containing an exculpatory clause.” Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 649 (Norcott, J., dissenting). It also is consistent with the view of the American Law Institute, as embodied in 2 Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 (1981), 6 and Restatement (Third) of Torts, Apportionment of Liability 2 (2000). 7

6 Section 195 of 2 Restatement (Second) of Contracts provides in relevant part: “(2) A term exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused negligently is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if

“(a) the term exempts an employer from liability to an employee for injury in the course of his employment;

“(b) the term exempts one charged with a duty of public service from liability to one to whom that duty is owed for compensation for breach of that duty, or

“(c) the other party is similarly a member of a class protected against the class to which the first party belongs. . . .” 2 Restatement (Second), Contracts § 195, p. 65 (1981).

[***51]

7 Restatement (Third), Torts, Apportionment of Liability § 2, p. 19 (2000), provides: “When permitted by contract law, substantive law governing the claim, and applicable rules of construction, a contract between the plaintiff and another person absolving the person from liability for future harm bars the plaintiff’s recovery from that person for the harm. Unlike a plaintiff’s negligence, a valid contractual limitation on liability does not provide an occasion for the factfinder to assign a percentage of responsibility to any party or other person.”

The commentary to § 2 further supports our conclusion in the present case. See id., comment (b), p. 20 (“In appropriate situations, the parties to a transaction should be able to agree which of them should bear the risk of injury, even when the injury is caused by a party’s legally culpable conduct. That policy is not altered or undermined by the adoption of comparative responsibility. Consequently, a valid contractual limitation on liability, within its terms, creates an absolute bar to a plaintiff’s recovery from the other party to the contract.”); see also id., comment (e), p. 21 (“Some contracts for assumption of risk are unenforceable as a matter of public policy. Whether a contractual limitation on liability is unenforceable depends on the nature of the parties and their relationship to each other, including whether one party is in a position of dependency; the nature of the conduct or service provided by the party seeking exculpation, including whether the conduct or service is laden with ‘public interest’; the extent of the exculpation; the economic setting of the transaction; whether the document is a standardized contract of adhesion; and whether the party seeking exculpation was willing to provide greater protection against tortious conduct for a reasonable, additional fee.”).

[***52] [*348] [**754] Notwithstanding the foregoing authority, the majority adopts the Vermont Supreme Court’s holding in Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., supra, 164 Vt. 334, and concludes that the release agreement in the present case violates public policy. In Dalury, the plaintiff “sustained serious injuries when he collided with a metal pole that formed part of the control maze for a ski lift line. Before the season started, [the plaintiff] had purchased a midweek season pass and signed a form releasing the ski area from liability.” Id., 330. The release signed by the plaintiff in Dalury clearly disclaimed liability for negligence. Id. Citing the Tunkl factors, but fashioning an alternative test based on the totality of the circumstances, the Dalury court held the release invalid as against public policy. Id., 333-35. The Dalury court, like the majority in the present case, concluded that a recreational activity affected the public interest because of the considerable public participation. Id., 334. I find the Vermont court’s opinion unpersuasive.

Although the number of tickets sold to the public is instructive in determining whether [***53] an agreement affects the public interest, it is by no means dispositive. Private, nonessential industries, while often very popular, wield no indomitable influence over the public. The average person is capable of reading a release agreement and deciding not to snowtube because of the risks that he or she is asked to assume. 8 By contrast, in those fields [*349] implicating the public interest, the patron is at a substantial bargaining disadvantage. Few people are in a position to quibble over contractual obligations when seeking, for example, insurance, medical treatment or child care. A general characteristic of fields entangled with the public interest is their indispensability; snow tubing hardly is indispensable. Under the majority’s reasoning, nearly any release affects the public interest, no matter how unnecessary or inherently dangerous the underlying activity may be. 9 That position remains the distinct minority view, followed only by [**755] the courts of Vermont and Virginia. 10 Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Ass’n, 244 Va. 191, 194, 418 S.E.2d 894 (1992) (“to hold that it was competent for one party to put the other parties to the contract at the mercy of its own [***54] misconduct . . . can never be lawfully done where an enlightened system of jurisprudence prevails”).

8 The majority apparently considers snowtubing to be so important that the average consumer would be unable to pass up participation, stating: “Thus, the plaintiff, who traveled to Powder Ridge in anticipation of snowtubing that day, was faced with the dilemma of either signing the defendants’ proffered waiver of prospective liability or forgoing completely the opportunity to snowtube at Powder Ridge.” Because snowtubing, unlike the important societal considerations that other courts have concluded implicate the public interest, is wholly nonessential, I disagree with the majority’s position that the mere inconvenience of having to forgo it creates an unacceptable disparity in bargaining power.

9 Indeed, the majority states: “Voluntary recreational activities, such as snowtubing, skiing, basketball, soccer, football, racquetball, karate, ice skating, swimming, volleyball or yoga are pursued by the vast majority of the population and constitute an important and healthy part of everyday life.”

[***55]

10 Although New York courts formerly upheld prospective releases from liability; see Lago v. Krollage, 78 N.Y.2d 95, 100, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 N.Y.S.2d 689 (1991); that state’s legislature superseded many of those precedents with New York Gen. Oblig. Law 5-326 (McKinney 2001), which provides: “Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.”

[*350] The majority also contends that, because [***56] of the status of Connecticut negligence law, my conclusion would have broader public policy implications than the decisions of other courts upholding releases. Specifically, the majority contends that because the law of Connecticut does not recognize differing degrees of negligence, my position allows snowtube operators to insulate themselves from liability even for grossly negligent acts. This is a contrast from states that do recognize a separate claim for gross negligence. Thus, the majority avers, in this state, it would be possible to insulate oneself from liability for all acts not rising to the level of recklessness, whereas elsewhere only simple negligence may be disclaimed.

Although the majority’s theory initially appears compelling, closer examination reveals that the line it draws is a distinction without a difference because many states that prohibit prospective releases of liability for gross negligence define gross negligence in a way that mirrors Connecticut recklessness law. 11 See Mich. Comp. Laws § 691.1407 (7) (a) (2005) (governmental immunity statute defining gross negligence as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial [***57] lack of concern for whether an injury results”); see also Williams v. Thude, 188 Ariz. 257, 259, 934 P.2d 1349 (1997) (“Wanton misconduct is aggravated negligence. . . . [*351] Willful, wanton, and reckless conduct have commonly been grouped together as an aggravated form of negligence.” [Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.]); Cullison v. Peoria, 120 Ariz. 165, 169, 584 P.2d 1156 (1978) (“Wanton [or gross] negligence is highly potent, and when it is present it fairly proclaims itself [**756] in no uncertain terms. It is in the air, so to speak. It is flagrant and evinces a lawless and destructive spirit.” [Internal quotation marks omitted.]); Ziarko v. Soo Line R. Co., 161 Ill. 2d 267, 274-75, 641 N.E.2d 402, 204 Ill. Dec. 178 (1994) (“Unlike intentionally tortious behavior, conduct characterized as willful and wanton may be proven where the acts have been less than intentional–i.e., where there has been a failure, after knowledge of impending danger, to exercise ordinary care to prevent the danger, or a failure to discover the danger through . . . carelessness when it could have been discovered by the exercise of ordinary [***58] care. . . . Our case law has sometimes used interchangeably the terms willful and wanton negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton conduct. . . . This court has previously observed that there is a thin line between simple negligence and willful and wanton acts . . . .” [Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.]); Murphy v. Edmonds, 325 Md. 342, 375, 601 A.2d 102 (1992) (“gross negligence . . . has been defined in motor vehicle tort cases as a wanton or reckless disregard for human life in the operation of a motor vehicle” [internal quotation marks omitted]); Stringer v. Minnesota Vikings Football Club, 686 N.W.2d 545, 552-53 (Minn. App. 2004) (“Gross negligence is substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude than ordinary negligence. It is materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence. It is an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care. It is very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the [*352] want of even scant care. It amounts to indifference to present legal duty, and to utter forgetfulness of legal [***59] obligations so far as other persons may be affected. It is a heedless and palpable violation of legal duty respecting the rights of others.” [Internal quotation marks omitted.]), quoting State v. Bolsinger, 221 Minn. 154, 159, 21 N.W.2d 480 (1946), review granted, 2004 Minn. LEXIS 752, Nos. A03-1635, A04-205 (November 23, 2004); State v. Chambers, 589 N.W.2d 466, 478-79 (Minn. 1999) (person is grossly negligent when he acts “without even scant care but not with such reckless disregard of probable consequences as is equivalent to a willful and intentional wrong” [internal quotation marks omitted]), quoting State v. Bolsinger, supra, 159; Bennett v. Labenz, 265 Neb. 750, 755, 659 N.W.2d 339 (2003) (“gross negligence is great or excessive negligence, which indicates the absence of even slight care in the performance of a duty”); New Light Co. v. Wells Fargo Alarm Services, 247 Neb. 57, 64, 525 N.W.2d 25 (1994) (relying on New York law characterizing gross negligence as “conduct that evinces a reckless indifference to the rights of others”); Sommer v. Federal Signal Corp., 79 N.Y.2d 540, 554, 593 N.E.2d 1365, 583 N.Y.S.2d 957 (1992) [***60] (“Gross negligence, when invoked to pierce an agreed-upon limitation of liability in a commercial contract, must smack of intentional wrongdoing. . . . It is conduct that evinces a reckless indifference to the rights of others.” [Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.]); Wishnatsky v. Bergquist, 550 N.W.2d 394, 403 (N.D. 1996) (“[Where] gross negligence is defined [by statute] as the want of slight care and diligence. . . . This court has construed gross negligence to mean no care at all, or the omission of such care which even the most inattentive and thoughtless seldom fail to make their concern, evincing a reckless temperament and lack of care, practically willful in its nature.” [Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.]); [*353] Harsh v. Lorain County Speedway, Inc., 111 Ohio App. 3d 113, 118-19, 675 N.E.2d 885 (1996) (upholding release [**757] for negligence but not “willful and wanton conduct”); 12 Bogue v. McKibben, 278 Or. 483, 486, 564 P.2d 1031 (1977) (“gross negligence refers to negligence which is materially greater than the mere absence of reasonable care under the circumstances, and which is characterized [***61] by conscious indifference to or reckless disregard of the rights of others” [internal quotation marks omitted]); Albright v. Abington Memorial Hospital, 548 Pa. 268, 278, 696 A.2d 1159 (1997) (Pennsylvania Supreme Court approved a trial court’s characterization of gross negligence for purposes of governmental immunity statute as “a form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.”); Jinks v. Richland County, 355 S.C. 341, 345, 585 S.E.2d 281 (2003) (For the purposes of a governmental immunity statute, gross negligence is defined as “the intentional conscious failure to do something which it is incumbent upon one to do or the doing of a thing intentionally that one ought not to do. . . . It is the failure to exercise slight care. . . . Gross negligence has also been defined as a relative term and means the absence of care that is necessary under the circumstances.” [Citations omitted.]). 13

11 Recklessness entails “something more than a failure to exercise a reason able degree of watchfulness to avoid danger to others or to take reasonable precautions to avoid injury to them. . . . Wanton misconduct is reckless misconduct. . . . It is such conduct as indicates a reckless disregard of the just rights or safety of others or of the consequences of the action. . . . Willful, wanton, or reckless conduct tends to take on the aspect of highly unreasonable conduct, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent. . . . It is at least clear . . . that such aggravated negligence must be more than any mere mistake resulting from inexperience, excitement, or confusion, and more than mere thoughtlessness or inadvertence, or simply inattention.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Frillici v. Westport, 264 Conn. 266, 277-78, 823 A.2d 1172 (2003).

[***62]

12 The Ohio Supreme Court has equated willful and wanton conduct with recklessness as that term is defined in the Restatement Second of Torts, stating: “The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of others if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Thompson v. McNeill, 53 Ohio St. 3d 102, 104-105, 559 N.E.2d 705 (1990), quoting 2 Restatement (Second), Torts § 500, p. 587 (1965).

13 Other states do, however, characterize gross negligence as more serious than ordinary negligence, while not rising to the level of recklessness. See Calvillo-Silva v. Home Grocery, 19 Cal. 4th 714, 968 P.2d 65, 80 Cal.Rptr.2d 506 (1998) (characterizing willful and wanton conduct as more serious than gross negligence), overruled on other grounds, Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 25 Cal. 4th 826, 854, 24 P.3d 493, 107 Cal.Rptr.2d 841 (2001); Travelers Indemnity Co. v. PCR, Inc., 889 So. 2d 779, 793 n.17 (Fla. 2004) (defining “‘culpable negligence’ as ‘reckless indifference’ or ‘grossly careless disregard’ of human life” and gross negligence as “an act or omission that a reasonable, prudent person would know is likely to result in injury to another”); Altman v. Aronson, 231 Mass. 588, 592, 121 N.E. 505 (1919) (defining gross negligence as less serious than recklessness); Parret v. Unicco Service Co., 2005 OK 54, *11-13, 2005 Okla. LEXIS 54, 127 P.3d 572 (June 28, 2005) (same); Weaver v. Mitchell, 715 P.2d 1361, 1369-70 (Wyo. 1986) (punitive damages cannot be awarded for gross negligence, which is less serious than reckless or wanton conduct). Despite these decisions, I am not persuaded that our conclusion provides inadequate protection to snowtube patrons.

[***63] [*354] Furthermore, at least one other court has concluded that releases similar to the one in question are valid notwithstanding the absence of a gross negligence doctrine. New Hampshire, like Connecticut, does not recognize differing degrees of negligence, yet its highest court has upheld a release of liability for negligence, stating: “The plaintiff cites a number of cases from other jurisdictions that hold on public policy grounds that an exculpatory agreement does not release defendants from liability for gross negligence. These cases are inapposite because New Hampshire law does not distinguish causes of action based on ordinary and gross negligence. . . . The plaintiff advances no reasons for abandoning this rule and we decline to create an [**758] exception to allow him to pursue his claims of gross negligence.” (Citation omitted.) Barnes v. New Hampshire Karting Assn., Inc., supra, 128 N.H. 108-109; but see Ratti v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 2000 PA Super 239, 758 A.2d 695, 705 n.3 (Pa. Super. 2000) (declining to reach issue of whether agreement that released liability for gross negligence would violate public policy where agreement in question stated [***64] only “negligence”); Bielski v. Schulze, 16 Wis. 2d 1, 18-19, 114 N.W.2d 105 (1962) (recognizing potential problems that Wisconsin’s abolition of gross negligence might raise in area of exculpatory clauses).

[*355] The great weight of these numerous and highly persuasive authorities compels my conclusion that the release at issue herein does not violate public policy as it pertains to the sport of snowtubing. Accordingly, I conclude that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in the defendants’ favor and I would affirm that judgment. I, therefore, respectfully dissent.


Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, et al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006 Conn. LEXIS 330

Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, et al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006 Conn. LEXIS 330

Jessica Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, et al.

SC 17506

SUPREME COURT OF CONNECTICUT

280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006 Conn. LEXIS 330

May 16, 2006, Argued

October 3, 2006, Officially Released

COUNSEL: Jeffrey I. Carton, with whom, on the brief, was Robert J. Levine, for the appellant (plaintiff).

John C. Turner, Jr., for the appellees (defendants).

JUDGES: Borden, Norcott, Katz, Vertefeuille and Zarella, Js. In this opinion KATZ, VERTEFEUILLE and ZARELLA, Js., concurred. NORCOTT, J., concurring.

OPINION BY: BORDEN

OPINION

[*154] [**1157] BORDEN, J. The dispositive issue in this appeal is whether a release signed by the plaintiff, Jessica Reardon, indemnifying the defendants, Windswept Farm, LLC, and its owners, William Raymond and Mona Raymond, from an action brought in negligence, precludes the plaintiff from recovering damages. More specifically, the question before this court is whether the release signed by the plaintiff violates public policy pursuant to our holding in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005). [***2] The plaintiff appeals 1 from the judgment of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff claims that: (1) the trial court incorrectly concluded that the release signed by the plaintiff was clear and unambiguous; and (2) in light of this court’s holding in Hanks, the release violates public policy. 2 [*155] We conclude that our holding in Hanks controls the present case and, therefore, that the release signed by the plaintiff was invalid. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.

1 The plaintiff appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court. We then transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c) and Practice Book § 65-1.

2 Briefly stated, in Hanks this court dealt with an issue left unresolved by our holding in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 643, 829 A.2d 827 (2003), wherein we did not have the opportunity to pass upon the question of whether the enforcement of a well drafted agreement that purports to release a party from liability for its prospective negligence is contrary to public policy. In particular, in Hanks we concluded that an otherwise well drafted, clear and unambiguous exculpatory agreement, purporting to release a defendant from its prospective liability for ordinary negligence, nonetheless violated public policy and was therefore unenforceable. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 326. That decision was issued during the pendency of the present appeal, which led us to order supplemental briefing by the parties regarding whether the trial court’s judgment should be summarily reversed in light of our decision in Hanks.

[***3] The plaintiff brought this personal injury action against the defendants alleging negligence. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the release signed by the plaintiff was clear and unambiguous, and thus satisfied the standard [**1158] that this court set forth in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 643, 829 A.2d 827 (2003), which provided that [HN1] “a party cannot be released from liability for injuries resulting from its future negligence in the absence of language that expressly so provides.” The trial court agreed that the plaintiff had signed a well drafted waiver of liability in the defendants’ favor, granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and rendered judgment thereon. This appeal followed.

The following facts are relevant to our analysis of the plaintiff’s claims. The defendants are in the business of providing horseback riding lessons to the general public. In October, 2002, the plaintiff came to the defendants’ property and requested a horseback riding lesson. As a condition to riding one of the defendants’ horses, the plaintiff was required by the defendants to sign a release and indemnity agreement [***4] (release). The release was printed on a single page and consisted of [*156] three sections entitled, “Warning,” 3 “RELEASE,” 4 and “INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.” 5 It is undisputed that the plaintiff signed and dated the release prior to commencing her horseback riding lesson with the defendants. Similarly, it is undisputed that the plaintiff identified herself on the release as an “[e]xperienced [r]ider” and as someone who had “[r]idden [horses] frequently” several years earlier.

3 The “Warning” portion of the release provided as follows: “Pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes § 52-577p, [now § 52-557p] a person engaged in recreational activities assumes the risk and responsibility for any injury to his person or property arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports, unless the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual engaged in the equestrian activities or the failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity by the person provided the horse or horses or his agents or employees.”

[***5]

4 The “RELEASE” portion of the release provided in relevant part: “For, and in consideration of, the privilege to participate in an equine activity at Windswept Farm this date, receipt and sufficiency of which is hereby acknowledged, the undersigned hereby agrees to release, discharge and acquit WINDSWEPT FARM, its owners, stockholders, officers, directors, employees, agents, and servants from any and all claims, demands, sums of money, actions, rights, causes of action, liabilities and obligations of any kind or nature whatsoever, including ordinary negligence, which I may have had or now have or claim to have had, or hereafter may have, or assert to have, which arise out of, or is in any manner whatsoever directly or indirectly, connected with or related to my participation in the equine activity on this date. . . .” (Emphasis added.)

5 The “INDEMNITY AGREEMENT” portion of the release provided in relevant part: “The undersigned represents and warrants that he/she has read and understood the above-captioned Warning and Release. . . .”

Subsequent to the plaintiff signing the release [***6] provided by the defendants, the defendants paired the plaintiff with one of the horses from their stables and with one of the instructors in their employ. During the course of the plaintiff’s horseback riding lesson, the horse provided by the defendants became excited, bucked back and forth suddenly and without warning, and threw the plaintiff to the ground, causing her serious injuries.

[*157] The plaintiff brought an action in August, 2003, alleging that she had been injured due to the defendants’ negligence. In particular, the plaintiff alleged that her injuries were caused by the “carelessness, recklessness and negligence of the defendants” including, among other things, that (1) the “defendants failed to ensure that the horse on which [she] was placed was an appropriate horse commensurate with [**1159] [the plaintiff’s] skill and experience”; (2) the “defendants failed to prevent, warn or protect the plaintiff from the risk of a fall”; (3) the “defendants knew of the horse’s propensity to buck yet failed to warn [the plaintiff] of the same”; and (4) the “defendants failed properly to hire and train their riding instructor . . . .” In their answer, the defendants raised a special defense, [***7] namely, that “[t]he plaintiff [had] assumed the risk and legal responsibility for any injury to her person per . . . General Statutes [§ ] 52-557p,” 6 and that “[t]he plaintiff’s claims [were] barred [due to the fact] that she signed a waiver/release of all claims in favor of the defendants.”

6 The “Warning” section of the release mirrors General Statutes § 52-557p, which provides: [HN2] “Each person engaged in recreational equestrian activities shall assume the risk and legal responsibility for any injury to his person or property arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports, unless the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual engaged in recreational equestrian activities or the failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity by the person providing the horse or horses or his agents or employees.”

The plaintiff makes two claims on [***8] appeal. First, the plaintiff claims that the release of all claims “includ[ing] ‘ordinary negligence'” set forth in the release was ambiguous when read together with the “Warning” section printed above it, which, tracking § 52-557p, did not exempt from liability injuries “proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual engaged in the equestrian activities . . . .” Second, pursuant to our order for supplemental [*158] briefing, the plaintiff claims that the release is void as a matter of public policy in light of this court’s decision in Hanks v.Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 314. We agree with the plaintiff that our decision in Hanks controls the present case. Accordingly, we need not consider the plaintiff’s claim that the trial court incorrectly concluded that the release signed by the plaintiff was clear and unambiguous. 7

7 Specifically, assuming that the standards identified in Hanks have been satisfied, as we conclude in the present case, it is irrelevant whether the underlying release of liability was clearly and unambiguously drafted and, therefore, was also invalid pursuant to our holding in Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., supra, 265 Conn. 643, which provided that “a party cannot be released from liability for injuries resulting from its future negligence in the absence of language that expressly so provides.”

[***9] We begin with the appropriate standard of review. [HN3] “Practice Book § 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. . . . [HN4] The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the party is, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law. . . . The test is whether the party moving for summary judgment would be entitled to a directed verdict on the same facts. . . . [HN5] Our review of the trial court’s decision to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment is plenary.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Leisure Resort Technology, Inc. v. Trading Cove Associates, 277 Conn. 21, 30-31, 889 A.2d 785 (2006).

[**1160] In light of our holding in Hanks, we cannot conclude that the defendants are entitled to a judgment [***10] in their [*159] favor as a matter of law. Put another way, our reasoning in Hanks requires that we invalidate the release signed by the plaintiff; thus, several genuine issues of material fact surrounding the defendants’ potential negligence remain in dispute.

As previously noted, in Hanks, we concluded that [HN6] the enforcement of a well drafted exculpatory agreement that releases a provider of a recreational activity from prospective liability for personal injuries sustained as a result of the provider’s negligence may violate public policy if certain conditions are met. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 326. In general, we noted that “[t]he law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . . This is because exculpatory provisions undermine the policy considerations governing our tort system . . . [which include] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . .” (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 327. Moreover, we recognized that “it is consistent [***11] with public policy to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor and, if this policy is to be abandoned, it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not to shift the risk to the weak bargainer.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id.

Additionally, when assessing the public policy implications of a particular release or waiver of liability, we concluded that “[n]o definition of the concept of public interest [may] be contained within the four corners of a formula,” and that “[t]he ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 330. Our [*160] analysis in Hanks was also guided, though not limited, by the factors articulated by the Supreme Court of California in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal.2d 92, 98-101, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33 (1963), 8 which include, among other things, [HN7] a consideration as to whether the release pertains to a business thought suitable for [***12] public regulation, whether the party performing the service holds himself out as making the activity available to any member of the public who seeks it, and whether the provider of the activity exercises superior bargaining power [**1161] and confronts the public with a standard contract of adhesion.

8 The complete list of factors identified by the Supreme Court of California are as follows: “[1] [The agreement] concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.” Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 98-101.

[***13] In the context of snowtubing, which was the recreational activity at issue in Hanks, we placed particular emphasis on: (1) the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe; (2) the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with the activity from the burden of proper maintenance of the snowtubing run; and (3) the fact that the release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and [*161] offered to the plaintiff on a “‘take it or leave it'” basis. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 331-34. Moreover, we recognized the clear public policy in favor of participation in athletics and recreational activities. Id., 335 (“[v]oluntary recreational activities, such as snowtubing, skiing, basketball, soccer, football, racquetball, karate, ice skating, swimming, volleyball or yoga, are pursued by the vast majority of the population and constitute an important and healthy part of everyday life”).

We conclude that, based on our decision in Hanks, the totality of the circumstances surrounding [***14] the recreational activity of horseback riding and instruction that was offered by the defendants demonstrates that the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement in their favor from liability for ordinary negligence violates public policy and is not in the public interest. First, similar to the situation at issue in Hanks, the defendants in the present case provided the facilities, the instructors, and the equipment for their patrons to engage in a popular recreational activity, and the recreational facilities were open to the general public regardless of an individual’s ability level. Indeed, the defendants acknowledged that, although the release required riders to indicate their experience level, it also anticipated a range in skills from between “[n]ever ridden” to “[e]xperienced [r]ider,” and that the facility routinely had patrons of varying ability levels. Accordingly, there is a reasonable societal expectation that a recreational activity that is under the control of the provider and is open to all individuals, regardless of experience or ability level, will be reasonably safe.

Additionally, in the present case, as in Hanks, the plaintiff “lacked the knowledge, experience [***15] and authority to discern whether, much less ensure that, the defendants’ [facilities or equipment] were maintained in a reasonably safe condition.” Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant [*162] Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 331. Specifically, although the plaintiff characterized herself as an experienced rider, she was in no greater position then the average rider 9 to assess all the safety issues connected with the defendants’ enterprise. To the contrary, it was the defendants, not the plaintiff or the other customers, who had the “expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone [could] properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 331-32. In particular, the defendants acknowledged that they were responsible for providing their patrons with safe horses, qualified instructors, as well as properly maintained working equipment and riding surfaces. [**1162] In the context of carrying out these duties, the defendants were aware, and were in a position continually to gather more information, regarding any [***16] hidden dangers associated with the recreational activity including the temperaments of the individual horses, the strengths of the various riding instructors, and the condition of the facility’s equipment and grounds. As we concluded in Hanks, it is illogical to relieve the defendants, as the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with engaging in horseback riding at their facility, from potential claims of negligence surrounding an alleged failure to administer properly the activity.

9 We also note that we view the release as it applies to all customers, not solely this plaintiff, who happened to have significant riding experience, albeit several years prior to the date of her accident.

Furthermore, the release that the plaintiff signed broadly indemnifying the defendants from liability for damages resulting from the defendants’ own negligence was a classic contract of adhesion of the type that this court found to be in violation of public policy in Hanks. [***17] Specifically, we have noted that [HN8] “[t]he most salient feature [*163] [of adhesion contracts] is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts,” and that they tend to involve a “standard form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position, [usually] a consumer, who has little choice about the terms . . . .” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 333. In the present case, signing the release provided by the defendants was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the horseback riding lesson, there was no opportunity for negotiation by the plaintiff, and if she was unsatisfied with the terms of the release, her only option was to not participate in the activity. As in Hanks, therefore, the plaintiff had nearly zero bargaining power with respect to the negotiation of the release and in order to participate in the activity, she was required to assume the risk of the defendants’ negligence. This condition of participation violates the stated public policy of our tort system because the plaintiff was required to bear an additional risk despite her status as a patron who was not in a position [***18] to foresee or control the alleged negligent conduct that she was confronted with, or manage and spread the risk more effectively then the defendants.

We are also mindful that, as evidenced by § 52-557p, recreational horseback riding is a business thought suitable for public regulation, but that the legislature has stopped short of requiring participants to bear the very risk that the defendants now seek to pass on to the plaintiff by way of a mandatory release. In particular, the legislature has prescribed that “[e]ach person engaged in recreational equestrian activities shall assume the risk and legal responsibility for any injury to his person or property arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports, unless the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or horses to the individual . . . .” [*164] (Emphasis added.) General Statutes § 52-557p; see footnote 6 of this opinion. This language establishes that the plaintiff assumed the risk for certain injuries when riding at the defendants’ facility due to the nature of horseback riding as an activity, but that an operator of such a facility can still be liable [***19] for injuries caused by its own negligence. For the reasons previously discussed, we conclude that the defendants’ attempt contractually to extend the plaintiff’s assumption of risk one step beyond that identified by the legislature in § 52-557p violates the public policy of the state and, therefore, is invalid.

The defendants contend that the plaintiff’s only claim before the trial court was that the release was ambiguous, and that the plaintiff otherwise conceded the [**1163] release’s enforceability, thereby failing to preserve for appeal the issue of whether the release violated public policy. 10 Put another way, the defendants contend that the issue before the trial court was only whether the addition of the “warning” language to the release as a whole resulted in contradictory language, and that regardless of our decision in Hanks, we still must decide the issue articulated by the trial court. We disagree.

10 As part of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and in an effort to clarify the plaintiff’s case, the trial court asked the plaintiff directly if the release were found to be clear and unambiguous, would it be enforceable: “The Court: You are not trying to claim that it’s not possible under Connecticut law for a person in the defendants’ position to present an effective release to a horse rider and then to rely upon it to avoid liability, are you? “[Plaintiff’s Counsel]: Absolutely not, Your Honor. . . . “The Court: Okay. Then . . . so that what we have to do is to determine whether this is a sufficient release. That’s the only issue before us. “[Plaintiff’s Counsel]: Absolutely, Your Honor.” (Emphasis added.)

[***20] We recognize that [HN9] this court is not “bound to consider a claim unless it was distinctly raised at the trial or arose subsequent to the trial.” Practice Book § 60-5; see also Pestey v. Cushman, 259 Conn. 345, 372-74, 788 A.2d 496 (2002). Additionally, as a general rule, “[a] [*165] party cannot present a case to the trial court on one theory and then ask a reversal in the [S]upreme [C]ourt on another.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sorrentino v. All Seasons Services, Inc., 245 Conn. 756, 770, 717 A.2d 150 (1998). This court, however, has the discretion to act, sua sponte, on grounds not directly raised by the parties. See Burton v. Browd, 258 Conn. 566, 569, 783 A.2d 457 (2001). That is exactly what we did in the present case when, in light of our decision in Hanks, we ordered the parties to brief the issue of whether the release was void as a matter of public policy. 11 In sum, because Hanks resolved an issue previously unaddressed, and because the parties had the opportunity to brief the case’s impact, we conclude that the interest in the uniform application of the plainly [***21] governing law warrants our consideration of a claim beyond the narrow issue that was before the trial court.

11 See footnote 2 of this opinion.

Finally, the defendants contend that horseback riding is somehow different from snowtubing and, therefore, that the defendants’ release does not violate public policy. In particular, the defendants note that horseback riding is not one of the recreational activities that we specifically identified by name in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 335, and that, unlike in Hanks, which involved an injury caused by a defective snowtube run, in the present case the plaintiff was injured when the horse she was riding bucked and threw her to the ground. The defendants claim that this distinction is significant because they characterize a bucking horse as a risk that is inherent to horseback riding in general. We are not persuaded.

The list of recreational activities that we identified in Hanks was meant to be illustrative, [***22] not exhaustive. See id. Indeed, it would be impossible for us to identify all of the recreational activities controlled by the Hanks [*166] decision. 12 Additionally, as previously [**1164] discussed in detail, the circumstances surrounding the defendants’ horseback riding business and the signing of the release by the plaintiff bear many similarities to the circumstances present in Hanks. In particular, the defendants’ horseback riding business was open to the general public regardless of skill level, the plaintiff was ill equipped to discern whether she had been paired negligently with her horse and instructor commensurate with her skill level, the defendants controlled which horse and instructor were assigned to the plaintiff, and the defendants’ release constituted a classic contract of adhesion.

12 We are mindful that contrary to the defendants’ argument, our courts repeatedly have referenced horseback riding as a recreational activity. See Conway v. Wilton, 238 Conn. 653, 668, 680 A.2d 242 (1996) (state legislator commenting on necessity of “maintaining land that could very well serve for . . . horseback riding and for many other recreational activities”); Miskimen v. Biber, 85 Conn. App. 615, 620, 858 A.2d 806 (2004) (“[t]he excess land is also used for . . . horseback riding and other recreational activities”), cert. denied, 272 Conn. 916, 866 A.2d 1287 (2005). Moreover, our characterization of snowtubing as a recreational activity; see Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 330; does not, in and of itself, dictate our public policy.

[***23] Furthermore, the fact that there are certain risks that are inherent to horseback riding as a recreational activity, as the legislature recognized in § 52-557p, one of which may be that horses move unexpectedly, does not change the fact that an operator’s negligence may contribute greatly to that risk. For example, the defendants’ may have negligently paired the plaintiff with an inappropriate horse given the length of time since she last had ridden or negligently paired the plaintiff with an instructor who had not properly been trained on how to handle the horse in question. Both of these scenarios present factual questions that, at trial, may reveal that the defendants’ negligence, and not an inherent risk of the activity, was to blame for the plaintiff’s injuries.

[*167] Moreover, as aptly noted at oral argument before this court, the plaintiff does not challenge the fact that there were risks inherent in the activity of horseback riding that she otherwise was prepared to assume. Rather, she challenges the defendants’ claimed indemnity from the alleged neglect and carelessness of the stable operator and its employees to whom she entrusted her safety. Indeed, the inherent unpredictability [***24] of a horse is something that the legislature already has considered in providing to an operator of a horseback riding facility a defense to a claim of negligence pursuant to the assumption of risk doctrine codified in § 52-557p. This protection granted by the legislature, however, does not permit the operator to avoid liability entirely for its negligence or that of its employees. Accordingly, on the basis of our decision in Hanks, as well as the circumstances of the present case, we are unable to conclude that the recreational activity of horseback riding is so different from snowtubing that the release in this case should be enforced as a matter of law.

The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded to the trial court with direction to deny the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and for further proceedings according to law.

In this opinion KATZ, VERTEFEUILLE and ZARELLA, Js., concurred.

CONCUR BY: NORCOTT

CONCUR

NORCOTT, J., concurring. I agree with the majority that this court’s holding in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) [***25] , controls the present case.


No one saw the deceased drown; no one could prove what happened. Campground was not liable for death of a swimmer.

Legally if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to see it fall it does not make any noise.

De Castro v. Odetah Camping Resort, Inc., 2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2297

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport

Plaintiff: Adelson Luiz De Castro, Administrator of the Estate of Jose Luiz De Castro

Defendant: Odetah Camping Resort, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: failure to provide lifeguards and knew or should have known of the danger associated with encouraging its guests to swim to its recreational flotation devices, yet failed to take reasonable steps to secure their safety in doing so.

Defendant Defenses: No proximate causation

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2015

The defendant is a camping area that allows day users in order to access other recreational opportunities at the campground.

The defendant is an approximately 100-acre campground that offers multiple recreational activities. In addition to facilities to accommodate overnight camping, the defendant offers sporting facilities, which include a pool as well as volleyball, tennis, and basketball courts. The defendant abuts a large, thirty-two-acre freshwater lake, which includes a small beach, and offers swimming and boating activities. A portion of the lake that is adjacent to the beach has a designated swim area. The boundaries of the swim area are designated by a rope line and buoys. Just beyond the roped off swimming area are two inflatable platforms. One was described as a platform or trampoline, and the other was described as an “iceberg.” Both inflatable devices were attractions to be used by the resort guests. T

The plaintiff and friends entered the defendant’s campground and paid an entrance fee. The campground was adjacent to a large lake. There was a swimming area on the campground and roped off in the lake. Outside of the roped area were two large inflatable platforms, one described as a trampoline and the other described as an “iceberg.”

There were no lifeguards at either the defendant’s pool or the lake area. A single sign was posted that warned that there were no lifeguards at the lake.

The plaintiff and a friend entered the designated swimming area for the purpose of swimming out to the trampoline. The trampoline was just beyond the buoy line. The friend made it to the trampoline. However, the plaintiff, deceased never did.

When it was noticed he was missing 911 was called. A firefighter found the deceased floating just below the surface inside the swimming area. A postmortem autopsy determined the cause of death to be “asphyxia due to submersion.”

No one saw the deceased struggling or in distress, and no one saw him drown.

The case went to trial on two theories:

The first allegation was that the defendant was negligent in failing to provide lifeguards. The second allegation was that the defendant was negligent when it knew or should have known of the danger associated with encouraging its guests to swim to its recreational flotation devices, yet failed to take reasonable steps to secure their safety in doing so.

The jury returned a verdict based on the second issue. The defendant filed an appeal.

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

Under Connecticut law to establish a basic or prima facie case, the plaintiff must:

[T]o establish a prima facie case, the proponent must submit evidence which, if credited, is sufficient to establish the fact or facts which it is adduced to prove . . . [T]he evidence offered by the plaintiff is to be taken as true and interpreted in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], and every reasonable inference is to be drawn in [the plaintiff’s] favor.

To win its case the plaintiff must prove negligence.

“In order to make out a prima facie case of negligence, the plaintiff must submit evidence that, if credited, is sufficient to establish duty, breach of duty, causation, and actual injury . . . A defendant’s duty and breach of duty is measured by a reasonable care standard, which is the care [that] a reasonably prudent person would use under the circumstances . . . After the plaintiff establishes that the defendant did not exercise reasonable care, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries. To do so, the plaintiff must first establish causation in fact, that is, that the injury would not have occurred but for the actor’s conduct . . . The plaintiff then must show proximate cause . . . Proximate cause requires that the defendant’s conduct [was] a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s injuries and that there was an unbroken sequence of events that tied [the plaintiff’s] injuries to the [defendant’s conduct] . . . Proximate cause does not require the plaintiff to remove from the realm of possibility all other potential causes of the accident . . . Instead, the plaintiff must establish that it is more likely than not that the cause on which the plaintiff relies was in fact a proximate cause of the accident. The more likely than not standard ensures that the causal connection . . . [is] based [on] more than conjecture or surmise.”

The defendants’ defense was no one saw the deceased drown. There was thus no proof of causation.

Interrogatories were provided to the jury. Interrogatories are questions the jury must answer in reaching its decision or in deciding the case. The interrogatory answers seemed to focus on the fight the owner’s manual of the trampoline warned that users should wear life jackets. Life jackets were available to swimmers in a shed on the beach; however, they were not required to be worn.

The plaintiff hired an expert witness who opined that the defendant campground was liable for failing to have safety measures in place, failing to have life guards and failing to have an emergency safety plan. However, these breaches of duty, if true, still had no link to how the decedent died. There was no way to say having one of the missing items identified by the expert witness was not proof that the plaintiff might have lived. “To do so, the plaintiff must first establish causation in fact, that is, that the injury would not have occurred but for the actor’s conduct…

The court reversed the jury’s decision because there was no evidence of what happened to the plaintiff. Consequently, there was no relationship, no causal link between the failures to require life jackets to the deceased’s death.

The plaintiff failed to present any evidence to establish an unbroken sequence of events causally flowing from the defendant’s conduct that the jury found negligent to the decedent’s drowning. “The establishment of proximate cause is an essential element of a negligence claim and the parties recognize that if proximate cause is lacking, the plaintiff cannot prevail.”

The appellate court reversed the jury findings.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, based on the evidence presented by the plaintiff, no reasonable juror could find that the negligence of the defendant caused or was a substantial factor in causing the decedent’s death by drowning. The lack of any evidence as to what caused this drowning is fatal to the plaintiff’s case.

So Now What?

It is sad when someone dies. However, just because someone dies or a bandage is used, does not mean there is liability and the need to write a check. There must be a connection between something the defendant did wrong and the injury to the victim.

That connection in Connecticut must be an unbroken string of events linking the plaintiff’s injuries to the defendant’s conduct.

 

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