Whitewater rafting case where one of the claims is the employer should have provided eye protecting during the rafting trip.

Plaintiff was injured during a corporate team building exercise when she ended up with a small rock in her eye after the whitewater rafting trip.

Chavarria, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

State: Florida, United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division

Plaintiff: Carmen Elena Monteilh Chavarria

Defendant: Intergro, Inc., Timothy Dolan, Felix Renta

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for breach of contract

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Mostly for the Defendants

Year: 2018

Summary

A whitewater rafting trip in Honduras booked as a team-building event ended up in litigation in the US. The allegations were the corporation that booked the team building for its employees failed to provide the necessary safety equipment for whitewater rafting.

The allegations may be taken to allege there is a higher duty owed to employees of a corporation partaking in a sport or recreation event then to other participants. The duty of the raft company appears to remain the same. Only employers are argued to have a requirement of higher standards of care.

Facts

Contracting with Intergro in October 2014, the plaintiff, a Honduran national, agreed to provide accounting services at Intergro’s “Shared Services Center” in Honduras. The plaintiff reported to Felix Renta, CFO of the group of companies owned by Timothy Dolan. The plaintiff alleges that both Intergro and Seproma3 “conduct-ed” in Honduras a joint training session for employees. The activities included a white-water rafting event in which the employees were purportedly “supplied with a life jacket and a helmet, but with no other protective equipment, including no eye protection gear.”

After the rafting event, the plaintiff noticed a burning sensation in her right eye. Later she required eye surgery to remove a small stone. After the surgery, the plaintiff began experiencing “significant” difficulty with her vision. Following a diagnosis of “post traumatic cataract disorder,” the plaintiff required two further surgeries. In June 2016, a doctor diagnosed her with a 75% loss of vision in the injured eye.

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

There were legal discussions about what law applied and other items that won’t be discussed here. It is unclear how a Honduran corporation, and a raft trip in Honduras ended up in a Florida Federal District Court.

The court was succinct in its analysis of the law and facts. The plaintiff argued the defendants were negligent.

To state a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant owed the plain-tiff a duty of care, that the defendant breached that duty, and that the breach caused the plaintiff damage.

According to the plaintiff, there was a duty of the employer, Integro not to select the rafting event and to: “provide effective personal protective gear instead of “solely allowing the operator of the rafting event to make the decision as to what protective equipment to provide.”

The plaintiff alleges that the defendants, who purportedly authorized, sponsored, and paid for the work event, owed her a duty of care; that the defendants breached that duty by failing to ensure that employees were adequately protected; that the breach caused her injury; and that she has suffered actual damages as a result of the defend-ants’ negligence. The plaintiff states a claim for negligence.

The next argument made by the plaintiff was a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

To state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant intentionally or recklessly committed outrageous conduct and that the conduct caused severe emotional distress. The standard for outrageous conduct is distinctly high

The court dismissed this claim finding the plaintiff failed to allege any instances of outrageous, extreme or atrocious conduct.

The plaintiff also sued for breach of contract. “To state a claim for breach of contract, a plaintiff must allege the existence of a contract, a material breach of the contract, and damages resulting from the breach.”

The court dismissed the breach of contract claims against the individual defendants and granted the plaintiff’s motion to amend her complaint against the corporate defendant to clarify or restate her breach of contract claim.

So Now What?

Simple case, right? Well maybe. In the negligence complaint which survived the motion to dismiss, the plaintiff’s allegations stated:

The plaintiff alleges that both Intergro and Seproma “conducted” in Honduras a joint training session for employees. The activities included a white-water rafting event in which the employees were purportedly “supplied with a life jacket and a helmet, but with no other protective equipment, including no eye protection gear.”

Two issues surface here. The first is the allegation that white-water rafting requires you to have eye protection. However, the second has possibly greater results. The complaint of not providing enough safety gear is not against the raft company, but against the plaintiff’s employer who booked the trip. The allegation is the employer who booked the trip had a duty to provide proper gear for the trip.

This shifts the burden away from the people who understand the risks, rafting companies, to people who do not understand the risks, companies, churches, groups that book raft trips. Every raft company might be able to argue successfully, that the standards in the industry are to provide a PFD.

However, the company will have to rely on the industry standards of whitewater rafting (or any other sport or recreational activity) but then check to see if there is a higher standard of care owed to employees.

Here the plaintiff seemed to lose most of here employment law claims. The decision indicates she was denied worker’s compensation for her injuries. However, if the activity was argued to be part of her employment, then this may create a greater duty and a greater reluctance on the part of corporations to do team building events.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Chavarria, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

Chavarria, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

Carmen Elena Monteilh Chavarria, Plaintiff, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., Defendants.

CASE NO. 8:17-cv-2229-T-23AEP

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF FLORIDA, TAMPA DIVISION

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

July 16, 2018, Decided

July 16, 2018, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Carmen Elena Monteilh Chavarria, Plaintiff: Carlos A. Leyva, LEAD ATTORNEY, Digital Business Law Group, P.A., Palm Harbor, FL; Linda Susan McAleer, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Law Offices of Linda S. McAleer, San Diego, CA.

For Intergro, Inc., Timothy Dolan, Felix Renta, Defendants: Catherine M. DiPaolo, Richard M. Hanchett, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Trenam, Kemker, Scharf, Barkin, Frye, O’Neill & Mullis, Tampa, FL.

JUDGES: STEVEN D. MERRYDAY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: STEVEN D. MERRYDAY

OPINION

ORDER

On September 25, 2017, the plaintiff sued (Doc. 1) the defendants for negligence, for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for breach of contract. Asserting the same claims, the plaintiff amended (Doc. 15) her complaint on October 25, 2017. On November 8, 2017, the defendants moved (Doc. 19) to dismiss the amended complaint,1 and on April 28, 2018, the plaintiff moved (Doc. 39) — for the first time — for an order determining that Honduran law governs the claims in this action.2

1 “Defendants’ motion to dismiss amended complaint, alternative motion to strike certain allegations and the affidavit of attorney Carlos A. Leyva, and alternative notice of objection to testimony of Carlos A. Leyva.” (Doc. 19)

2 Also, the plaintiff moves “for partial summary judgment as to liability only, pursuant to [the] breach of contract claim.” (Doc. 43 at 1)

By failing to timely assert the claim, a party waives the application of foreign law. Daewoo Motor Am., Inc. v. Gen. Motors Corp., 459 F.3d 1249, 1257 (11th Cir. 2006); Lott v. Levitt, 556 F.3d 564, 568 (7th Cir. 2009) (holding that the plaintiff “explicitly submitted to Illinois [not Virginia] law and relied solely on it, and having done so, the district [*2] court was right to apply it to the dispute. . . . The principle of waiver is designed to prohibit this very type of gamesmanship — [the plaintiff] is not entitled to get a free peek at how his dispute will shake out under Illinois law and, when things don’t go his way, ask for a mulligan under the laws of a different jurisdiction.”); Vukadinovich v. McCarthy, 59 F.3d 58, 62 (7th Cir. 1995) (holding that choice of law is “normally waivable”); Anderson v. McAllister Towing and Transp. Co., 17 F. Supp. 2d 1280, 1286 n.6 (S.D. Ala. 1998) (Volmer, J.) (holding that the defendant waived the right to have Saudi Arabian law applied to a contractual dispute because the defendant failed to give reasonable notice of its intent to assert that foreign law applied). “The failure to give proper notice of the applicability of foreign law does not warrant dismissal . . . . It is more likely that a failure to give reasonable notice will result in a waiver of the applicability of foreign law to the case.” Moore’s Federal Practice, Vol. 9, § 44.1.03[3] (3d ed. 2016).

In both the complaint and the amended complaint, the plaintiff asserts emphatically (and highlights in bold) that each claim is brought under Florida common law. The plaintiff’s response to the motion to dismiss is based entirely on Florida law. Seven months elapsed between the day the plaintiff sued [*3] and the day the plaintiff moved for “choice of law.” Because the plaintiff failed to give timely notice of the claimed applicability of foreign law, she has waived her right to assert that Honduran law governs her claims.

BACKGROUND

Contracting with Intergro in October 2014, the plaintiff, a Honduran national, agreed to provide accounting services at Intergro’s “Shared Services Center” in Honduras. (Doc. 15 at 4) The plaintiff reported to Felix Renta, CFO of the group of companies owned by Timothy Dolan. (Doc. 15 at 4) The plaintiff alleges that both Intergro and Seproma3 “conducted” in Honduras a joint training session for employees. The activities included a white-water rafting event in which the employees were purportedly “supplied with a life jacket and a helmet, but with no other protective equipment, including no eye protection gear.” (Doc. 15 at 5)

3 Seproma, a subsidiary of Intergro, is not a party to this action.

After the rafting event, the plaintiff noticed a burning sensation in her right eye. Later she required eye surgery to remove a small stone. After the surgery, the plaintiff began experiencing “significant” difficulty with her vision. (Doc. 15 at 6) Following a diagnosis of “post traumatic cataract disorder,” the plaintiff required two [*4] further surgeries. In June 2016, a doctor diagnosed her with a 75% loss of vision in the injured eye. (Doc. 15 at 6)

DISCUSSION

Negligence

To state a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, that the defendant breached that duty, and that the breach caused the plaintiff damage. Lewis v. City of St. Petersburg, 260 F.3d 1260, 1262 (11th Cir. 2001). The plaintiff alleges that Integro owed her a duty “not to select” the rafting event in which she was injured and a duty to provide effective personal protective gear instead of “solely allowing the operator of the rafting event to make the decision as to what protective equipment to provide.” (Doc. 15 at 8) The defendants argue (1) that the plaintiff fails to allege sufficiently that the defendants knew that the rafting event posed an unreasonable risk of harm and (2) that, even if the plaintiff had alleged a duty of care owed by Intergro to the plaintiff, she fails to allege any individual duty owed by Dolan or Renta.

The plaintiff alleges that the defendants, who purportedly authorized, sponsored, and paid for the work event, owed her a duty of care; that the defendants breached that duty by failing to ensure that employees were adequately protected; [*5] that the breach caused her injury; and that she has suffered actual damages as a result of the defendants’ negligence. The plaintiff states a claim for negligence.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

To state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant intentionally or recklessly committed outrageous conduct and that the conduct caused severe emotional distress. Stewart v. Walker, 5 So. 3d 746, 749 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009) The standard for outrageous conduct is distinctly high. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. McCarson, 467 So. 2d 277, 278 (Fla. 1985) (“Liability has been found only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”). Whether a person’s alleged conduct is sufficiently outrageous or intolerable is a matter of law. De La Campa v. Grifols America, Inc., 819 So. 2d 940 (Fla. 3d DCA 2002).

The plaintiff alleges (1) that the “[d]efendants understood that their collective refusal to compensate Plaintiff for work related injurious activities, including lost wages and medical care, would cause emotional anxiety and distress to a single working mother of three children[]” (Doc. 15 at 7) and (2) that the defendants’ “intentional refusal to pay Plaintiff’s lost [*6] wages, medical expenses, and other benefits as required by Honduran law . . . caused Plaintiff emotional distress” (Doc. 15 at 9). The plaintiff fails to allege a single instance of “outrageous,” “extreme,” and “atrocious” conduct. Count II is dismissed for failing to state a claim.

Breach of contract

The plaintiff sues for breach of contract “pursuant to non-payment of employment termination benefits.” (Doc. 15 at 1) To state a claim for breach of contract, a plaintiff must allege the existence of a contract, a material breach of the contract, and damages resulting from the breach. Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1272 (11th Cir. 2009).

Intergro

The amended complaint fails to identify an unfulfilled contractual obligation. Instead, the plaintiff claims entitlement to payment of benefits under Honduran law but fails to identify the law or the benefits to which she is entitled. Construed as a motion for a more definite statement of Count III, the motion (Doc. 19) is granted. In amending Count III to provide a more definite statement of the claim against Intergro for breach of contract, the plaintiff must clarify the allegation that “Intergro breached the Contract by failing to pay Plaintiff the benefits that were due under same pursuant to [*7] Honduran law.” (Doc. 15 at 10) Ambiguity exists as to whether Honduran law or the contract governs the obligation to pay, whether Honduran law or the contract governs the amount of the required payment, or to whether and to what extent Honduran law and the contract otherwise control the obligation to pay and the amount of the payment. The amended complaint must clarify the plaintiff’s claim in this respect, among others.

Dolan and Renta

The plaintiff fails to state a claim against either Dolan or Renta. In Count III, the plaintiff alleges that the plaintiff’s “employment with Intergro was controlled by a binding contract” and that Intergro breached the contract “by failing to pay Plaintiff the benefits that were due under same pursuant to Honduran law.” (Doc. 15 at 9-10) But in the prayer for relief, the plaintiff (who purportedly contracted only with Intergro) prays for judgment against all defendants “for the full amount of contractual benefits due under Honduran law.” (Doc. 15 at 10) The complaint lacks an allegation that Dolan and Renta are parties to the contract. Count III fails to state a claim against Dolan and Renta.

Motion to strike

The defendant moves (Doc. 19) under Rule 12(f), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to strike [*8] the allegations in paragraphs 7, 8, 14, 31, 32, 35, and 37 of the amended complaint and moves to strike the affidavit of Carlos A. Leyva (Doc. 15-1). Under Rule 12(f), “[t]he court may strike from a pleading an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.” “A motion to strike is a drastic remedy” and “will usually be denied unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties.” Augustus v. Board of Public Instruction of Escambia County, Fla., 306 F.2d 862, 868 (5th Cir. 1962). “An allegation is ‘impertinent’ or ‘immaterial’ when it is neither responsive nor relevant to the issues involved in the action. . . . ‘Scandalous’ generally refers to any allegation that unnecessarily reflects on the moral character of an individual or states anything in repulsive language that detracts from the dignity of the court.” Moore’s Federal Practice, Vol. 2, s 12.37[3] (3d ed. 2016). The defendant fails to identify and describe why the allegations are immaterial, irrelevant, and scandalous, and the plaintiff argues plausibly that the allegations are “related” to the controversy, are material, and are pertinent.

The defendant argues that Carlos Leyva’s affidavit contains allegations that have “no relation to [*9] this controversy and cause prejudice to Defendants because they are inadmissible hearsay.” (Doc. 19 at 12) The plaintiff responds that the “[d]efendants . . . conflate what is required for summary judgment with what is required in the pleadings. . . . The evidentiary burden that Defendants assume . . . does not exist at this stage in the proceedings.” (Doc. 21 at 16) For the reasons stated by the plaintiff, the defendants’ motion to strike Carlos Leyva’s affidavit is denied.

CONCLUSION

The defendant’s motion (Doc. 19) to dismiss is GRANTED IN PART. Count II is DISMISSED. Count III is DISMISSED against Dolan and Renta. Construed as a motion for a more definite statement of Count III, the motion (Doc. 19) is GRANTED. The plaintiff must amend Count III to provide a more definite statement of the claim against Intergro for breach of contract.

The defendant’s “alternative motion [Doc. 19] to strike certain allegations and to strike the affidavit of attorney Carlos A. Leyva” is DENIED. The plaintiff’s motion (Doc. 39) for “choice of law” is DENIED. The plaintiff’s motion (Doc. 43) for partial summary judgment on Count III is DENIED.

No later than JULY 27, 2018, the plaintiff must amend the complaint [*10] to comply with this order4 The plaintiff must add no new claim.

4 That is, the plaintiff must (1) remove the claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and (2) remove the claims against Dolan and Renta for breach of contract. Also, the plaintiff must amend Count III to provide a more definite statement of the claim against Integro for breach of contract.

ORDERED in Tampa, Florida, on July 16, 2018.

/s/ Steven D. Merryday

STEVEN D. MERRYDAY

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


One box was unchecked in the release which was signed online, and the court would not grant the motion for summary judgment of the defendant because whether or not the release was valid was a decision for the jury.

This judge was either not going to make a decision or only allow the plaintiff to win. However, the defendants set themselves up to lose by having a check box in the release.

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

State: Florida: United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Panama City Division

Plaintiff: Brian Moore

Defendant: North America Sports, Inc., USA Triathlon

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the risk, Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

Having a box unchecked on a release sent the case to trial because the judge would not decide if that made the release valid. Having no jurisdiction and venue clause also created an opening, left unresolved on whether Florida or Montana’s law would apply. If Montana’s law, the releases would be void.

Overall, a poorly prepared or thought-out motion and supporting documents that helped the plaintiff more than the defendant left the defendant in a worse position than before they filed the motion.

Facts

The deceased lived in Montana and signed up in Montana to enter a triathlon in Panama City Beach Florida. In the process of signing up, he signed two releases. One for the website and one for the triathlon. The defendant also stated that the deceased signed two more releases upon registering for the event in Florida. The release signed for the website was not a factor in this decision.

During the swim portion of the triathlon the deceased experienced distress and died three days later.

His survivors filed this lawsuit.

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

The first issue reviewed by the court was the defense of assumption of the risk. The court resolved this issue in favor of the plaintiff in a short paragraph. Whether or not the deceased assumed the risk of his injury is a question for the jury. It cannot be resolved in a Motion for Summary Judgment.

When a participant volunteers to take certain chances, he waives his right to be free from those bodily contacts inherent in the chances taken.” However, it is the jury’s function to determine whether a participant should have anticipated the particular risk, and whether the defendant made the activity as safe as possible.

The second argument made by the plaintiff was whether or not the USA Triathlon was liable as a sanctioning body. “In order for a sanctioning organization, or sponsoring organization, to be liable, it must have some control over the event.” USA Triathlon argued they did not control the event and should be dismissed.

Again, the court stated whether or not USA Triathlon had any control over the event was a question of fact for the jury.

The next issues were the releases. The first issue was what law applied to the releases. There was obviously no jurisdiction and venue clause in the release or because there was an issue of the validity of the release, the court took it upon itself to determine what law applied.

The plaintiff’s argued that Montana’s law should apply. Montana does not allow the use of a release. See Montana Statutes Prohibits Use of a Release.

All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, for willful injury to the person or property of another, or for violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.” Mont. Code Ann. § 28-2-702 (2007). However, Plaintiff fails to take into account that first the applicable choice-of-law must be determined, and then the contract is interpreted according to that state’s substantive law.

Since this decision, the statute has been amended to allow the use of releases for sport or recreational opportunities. See Montana Recreation Responsibility Act.

However, the court never made a definitive statement as to whose law would be applied to the releases in this situation.

The next issue was a review of the releases signed on-line when the deceased registered for the event. The on-line release required a box to be checked. In the discovery process, the defendant provided a copy of the release signed by the deceased that had a box that was unchecked.

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

Again, the court saved this issue for the jury. Somehow the deceased was able to register for the event and leave a box unchecked; consequently, the court found one unchecked box was enough to deny a motion for summary judgment as to the validity of the release.

The defendant then argued that there were two additional releases signed by the deceased that would have stopped the plaintiff’s claims. However, the copies the defendant provided did not have signatures on them.

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

This allowed the plaintiff to plead the deceased never signed the documents and the court again through the decision to the jury.

So Now What?

Remember this decision was decided nine years ago. At that time, the law concerning assumption of the risk has changed, and more courts are determining that the risk the plaintiff suffered was inherent in the sport. Therefore, the plaintiff assumed the risk. Whether or not that evolution in the law has occurred in Florida. I have not researched.

I suspect that USA Triathlon now has written agreements with all races it sanctions setting forth the legal requirements of the relationship. Absent an agreement, an industry practice can easily be proven, but not in a motion for summary judgement. A contract outlining the legal responsibilities between the parties can be used in a motion for summary judgment.

Check Boxes in a Release are landmines waiting to explode.

Why do you have boxes to be checked in a release? They do not support a contract, they only support the theory that the unchecked section is not valid or as in this case the entire release is not valid.

It was just stupid not to have your ducks in a row as a defendant when filing or defending motions for summary judgment. Here the defendants looked bad. Their arguments were strong, but they had no proof to support their arguments. For more on how check boxes can void your release see Trifecta of stupidity sinks this dive operation. Too many releases, operation standards and dive industry standards, along with an employee failing to get releases signed, sunk this ship on appeal.

You can prove the deceased signed a release if you don’t have a copy of the signature on the release, however, to do so you have to be able to prove that your system would not have allowed the deceased to race unless he signed. Nothing like that was introduced for all three of the releases the defense argued the decedent signed.

That does not even take into account novation. The second and third release might have been void because they were not signed for consideration. Only the first release had consideration, a benefit flowing to the decedent, entrance into the race. The decedent was in the race when he signed the second and third release, so there was no new consideration. See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.

Two many releases, no contracts between the defendants and this order made the defendants look bad and guaranteed a trial.

Honestly, the decision reads like either a judge, who does not want to make a decision or one that was heavily leaning towards the Plaintiff. At the same time, the defendants made easy for the judge to rule this way. However, there is not much choice, you have to play with the cards the court clerk gives you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

    

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Negligence Per Se is the violation of a law or regulation created to protect a group of people. If you are Negligent Per Se, you have no defenses.

Defendant took plaintiffs on a guided personal watercraft tour with an employee/guide who had not been trained as required by Florida’s law.

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

State: Florida: United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida

Plaintiff: Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, individually, and as next best friend of Ashley Silva

Defendant: Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Defendant. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Third-Party Plaintiff

Third Party Defendant(s): Jeffrey Wilkerson, Third-Party Defendant

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence Per Se

Defendant Defenses: : (1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness; (2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness; (3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and (4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2007

Summary

If there is a statute that applies to your business or activity, you must know and abide by the statute. Failure to do so can void all of your defenses and in some cases the claim may not be covered by your insurance policy.

Here the defendant rented personal watercraft to the plaintiffs without instructing the guests as required by Florida Statute. By not abiding by the statute, the defendant’s defenses were void and the defendant’s liability was decided by the court.

Facts

The plaintiff’s, husband, wife and daughter paid for a guided personal watercraft (PWC or formerly known as jet ski) tour. During the tour, another tour participant panicked and drove his PWC at a high rated of speed into the plaintiff’s.

The plaintiff’s sued the defendant PWC tour company. The PWC tour company sued the participant who drove the PWC into the plaintiff’s as third-party plaintiffs versus third party defendants.

The defendants relied on four defenses:

(1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness;

(2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness;

(3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and

(4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.

The plaintiff argued that because the defendant did not hire or require it’s guides to meet educational requirements required by state law, the defendant was negligent per se.

Negligence per se is negligence that violates a law or regulation which was created for the purpose of protecting a group of people that were injured by the plaintiff.

The Florida statutes in question were:

Florida Statute § 327.39

§ 327.39. Personal watercraft regulated.

(b) 1. It is unlawful for the owner of any leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, or any person having charge over or control of a leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, to authorize or knowingly permit the watercraft to be operated by any person who has not received instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft, in compliance with rules established by the commission.

The second statute was Florida Statute § 327.54

§ 327.54. Liveries; safety regulations; penalty.

(1) A livery may not knowingly lease, hire, or rent a vessel to any person:

(e) When the vessel is equipped with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater, unless the livery provides prerental or preride instruction that includes, but need not be limited to:

1. Operational characteristics of the vessel to be rented.

2. Safe vessel operation and vessel right-of-way.

3. The responsibility of the vessel operator for the safe and proper operation of the vessel.

4. Local characteristics of the waterway where the vessel will be operated.

Any person delivering the information specified in this paragraph must have successfully completed a boater safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and this state.

The first statute required the person renting a PWC to instruct the renter on the use of the PWC. The second statute identified the instructions to be given and required the person giving the instructions to have successfully completed a boater safety course. The defendant’s employee in this case had not given the necessary instructions and had not completed a boater safety course.

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

Federal judiciary has a rule they apply to these situations called the Pennsylvania Rule. The Pennsylvania Rule states:

…when a ship at the time of an collision is in actual violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent collisions, it is no more than a reasonable presumption that the fault, if not the sole cause, was at least a contributory cause of the disaster and in such a case the burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been.

Basically, the Pennsylvania rule shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff, who normally has the burden to proof the defendant was at fault, to the defendant, requiring the defendant to prove, it was not at fault.

The next hurdle is the state law’s relationship to admiralty law. Admiralty law is a Federal law, in fact, a series of international laws, to control transportation of goods and people across borders and international travel. States can only make laws concerning admiralty issues if there is not federal law on the subject already. If the federal law conflicts with the state law, the federal law applies.

Applying the Pennsylvania rule, because Defendant violated statutory rules intended to prevent boat collisions, the Court presumes that Defendant’s fault caused the collision and the burden shifts to Defendant to show this violation could not have caused the accident.

There is no federal law concerning the rental of PWCs. So, the two Florida statutes were available to the plaintiff. Additionally, the Florida statutes were created to protect a specific group of people, and the plaintiffs were part of the group to be protected.

These statutes, under Chapter 327 Vessel Safety, were enacted to protect boater safety, including the prevention of collisions. Further, these statutes were enacted, in part, to protect the safety of renters of watercraft (see e.g. § 327.54), so Plaintiffs are among the class of persons intended to be protected by the statutes.

Side note: the defendant co-owner admitted he was not familiar with Florida’s statutes that were at issue. The court’s response was the classic you learn in law school, and you should learn in kindergarten. “…ignorance of the law is not a defense.”

The defendant argued that instruction would have changed the accident or prevented the accident. The court did not buy that argument.

However, greater knowledge often gives a greater sense of control. Therefore, it is possible that if Jeffrey Wilkerson had received proper instruction in handling the watercraft, he might not have panicked. Defendant has not shown that its violation of statutory rules “could not” have contributed to the accident. Therefore, Defendant’s fault is presumed.

For the defendant not to be liable, the must be completely free of fault, and the violation of the Florida statute created fault on the part of the defendant; consequently, the defendant was not free of fault.

The defendant then argued the limitation of liability under admiralty law applied. The limitation of liability states the defendant is liable to the value of the vessel after the accident. Here the defendant argued the extent of their liability was $3,000 because that was what the PWC was worth.

For the defendant to use this defense, required a two-step test:

(1) “the court must determine what acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident;” and (2) “the court must determine whether the ship owner had knowledge or privity of those same acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness.

Since the defendants could have easily investigated whether their employee had taken a boater safety course, and they did not, they could not take advantage of the limitation of liability because the defendant should have had knowledge of the unseaworthiness of the PWC.

The next defense argued was the release signed by the plaintiff. Here the release was void because it violated public policy. The statute created a safety requirement on the part of the defendant. The statute was enacted to keep the public safe. Therefore, failing to keep the public safe was a public policy issue.

[A] clause in an agreement exempting a party from tort liability is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if the agreement would exempt a party from liability arising from that party’s failure to comply with a safety statute, as the safety obligation created by the statute for such purpose is an obligation owed to the public at large and is not within the power of any private individual to waive.”

In this case, the Florida statutes violated are boater safety statutes imposing a standard of conduct on owners and liveries of vessels. It would be against public policy to enforce contract clauses purporting to exempt liveries from liability for violating these statutes. While the release and waiver provisions in the rental contracts are sufficient to release Defendant from liability for ordinary negligence, the provisions are invalid as against public policy when applied to liability arising from violation of these statutes.

The defendant’s motion for summary judgement was denied. The plaintiff had filed a motion for summary judgment as to the liability of the defendant. That motion was granted. The sole remaining issue then was the amount of the liability, how much the defendant owed the plaintiff.

So Now What?

Releases are the best defense to lawsuits in most states. However, the most effective legal argument to void a release is to claim the defendant was Negligence Per Se. Here the court found that because the statutes were created for public policy reasons, the release violated public policy and thus was void.

Most state courts just void the release stating the release cannot prevent claims based on violation of a statute.

More importantly, any time a statute is created that applies to your business or activity, you must understand and follow the statute. Both statutes argued above had criminal penalties for violation of the statutes. Not only was the defendant liable in a lawsuit for violating the statutes, the defendants could be fined by the state.

Don’t get into business without knowing the law.

More articles on Negligence Per Se

Motion for Summary Judgment 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.

Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability

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

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

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

CASE NO. 5:08cv343/RS/MD

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

2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557

June 26, 2009, Decided

June 26, 2009, Filed

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

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

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

JUDGES: RICHARD SMOAK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: RICHARD SMOAK

OPINION

Order

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

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

II. FACTS

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

III. DUTY OWED TO PLAINTIFF

a. Assumption of Risk

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

b. Sanctioning Body

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

IV. WAIVERS

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

THIRD AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

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

FOURTH AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

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

a. Choice of Law

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

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

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

b. Online Waivers

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

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

c. Onsite Registration

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

V. BAY MEDICAL

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

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

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

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

VI. CONCLUSION

IT IS ORDERED:

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

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

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

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

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

ORDERED on June 26, 2009.

/s/ Richard Smoak

RICHARD SMOAK

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


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

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

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

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

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA

2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

June 27, 2007, Decided

June 27, 2007, Entered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OPINION BY: K. MICHAEL MOORE

OPINION

ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT AS TO DEFENDANT’S LIABILITY

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

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

I. Background

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

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

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

II. Standard of Review

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

The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

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

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

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

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

III. Discussion

A. The Pennsylvania Rule and Florida Statutory Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. Exoneration From Liability

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

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

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

E. Waiver and Hold Harmless Provisions of the Rental Agreement

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

IV. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, it is

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

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

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

K. MICHAEL MOORE

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue

If your state is not listed here, you should assume a parent cannot waive a minor’s right to sue in your state.

State

By Statute Restrictions
Alaska Alaska: Sec. 09.65.292 Sec. 05.45.120 does not allow using a release by ski areas for ski injuries
Arizona ARS § 12-553 Limited to Equine Activities
Colorado C.R.S. §§13-22-107
Florida Florida Statute § 744.301 (3) Florida statute that allows a parent to release a minor’s right to sue
Virginia Chapter 62.  Equine Activity Liability § 3.2-6202.  Liability limited; liability actions prohibited Allows a parent to sign a release for a minor for equine activities
Utah 78B-4-203.  Limitations on Liability for Equine and Livestock Activities Limited to Equine Activities
(b) providing a document or release for the participant, or the participant’s legal guardian if the participant is a minor, to sign.
 

By Case Law

California Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal.App.3d 1559, 274 Cal.Rptr. 647 (1990)
Florida Global Travel Marketing, Inc v. Shea, 2005 Fla. LEXIS 1454 Allows a release signed by a parent to require arbitration of the minor’s claims
Florida Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So.2d 1067, 29 Fla. L. Weekly D1147 Release can be used for volunteer activities and by government entities
Maryland BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, 435 Md. 714; 80 A.3d 345; 2013 Md. LEXIS 897 Maryland top court allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. Release was not fantastic, but good enough.
Massachusetts Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99; 769 N.E.2d 738; 2002 Mass. LEXIS 384
Minnesota Moore vs. Minnesota Baseball Instructional School, 2009 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 299
North Dakota McPhail v. Bismarck Park District, 2003 ND 4; 655 N.W.2d 411; 2003 N.D. LEXIS 3 North Dakota decision allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue
Ohio Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 696 N.E.2d 201, 82 Ohio St.3d 367 (1998) Ohio Appellate decision upholds the use of a release for a minor for a commercial activity
Wisconsin Osborn v. Cascade Mountain, Inc., 655 N.W.2d 546, 259 Wis. 2d 481, 2002 Wisc. App. LEXIS 1216, 2003 WI App 1 However the decision in Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2 may void all releases in the state
 

On the Edge, but not enough to really rely on

Decisions are by the Federal District Courts and only preliminary motions
North Carolina Kelly v. United States of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741 North Carolina may allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue for injuries when the minor is engaged in non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations
New York DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695 New York Federal Magistrate in a Motion in Limine, hearing holds the New York Skier Safety Statute allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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