Is it a negligent act to open a car door into a bike lane when a cyclist is in the lane in New Jersey?

At the same time, if the defendant photographed the scene, measured the distance his car was from the curb or how wide his door was, the plaintiff might not have succeeded in her claims.

Gwinner, v. Michael Matt, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108827

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

Plaintiff: Sheila Gwinner and Horst Gwinner

Defendant: Michael Matt, et al.

Plaintiff Claims: failing to observe [her] bicycle on the bicycle path” and “failing to keep a reasonable lookout for other vehicles lawfully on the road

Defendant Defenses: Plaintiff cannot prover her claims that the defendant opened his car door into the bikeway

Holding: For the Plaintiff, sent back for trial

Year: 2012

This is sort of an odd case for me, but after spending a week with the bicycle community at Interbike it seemed appropriate. This case looks at the legal issues when a driver of a car after parking opens his door into a bicycle lane injuring a cyclist.

In this case, the defendant was from Pennsylvania visiting his parents at a tourist town in New Jersey. The Plaintiff was also from Pennsylvania riding her bike in the bike lane in the same town in New Jersey.

Allegedly, the defendant parked his car and opened his car door into the bike lane where the plaintiff was riding and caused her injury.

The real issue was the plaintiff could not recall the accident and could not say with certainty that the defendant’s door was in the bike lane. However, she was in the bike lane, and she hit the defendant’s car door.

The case was filed in Federal Court because the accident occurred in New Jersey, where the lawsuit was occurred but the plaintiff was a resident of Pennsylvania.

The basis for this decision was a motion filed by the defendant to dismiss the case because the plaintiff’s lack of proof of whether the door opened in the bike lane. There was also substantial discussion about the application of New Jersey automobile law to the accident (a bicycle is a vehicle) and what damages would be applicable to this case. That part of the decision is not covered in this article.

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

The court started its analysis looking to the requirements to prove a negligence case under New Jersey law.

Under New Jersey law, for a plaintiff to establish a negligence claim she must show that the defendant “breached a duty of reasonable care, which constituted a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.” Furthermore, “negligence must be proved and will never be presumed, indeed there is a presumption against it, and the burden of proving negligence is on the plaintiff.”

As in all states, the plaintiff must prove, and has the burden of proving that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, which he breached causing her injuries. In this case, the allegation of the Plaintiff was the duty was not to open a car door into the bike lane.

To establish a duty of care in New Jersey requires the passing of a two-part test. “The question of whether a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid the risk of harm to another exists is one of fairness and policy that implicates many factors.”

The first part is whether the accident was foreseeable.  The second test in New Jersey is whether the application of the duty would be fair and be supported by public policy.

The defendant knew about the bike lanes and was a resident of the city; he also knew about the bike lanes on that particular road. And whenever a bike is in close proximity to a car, there is an obvious risk of harm to the cyclist.

As a result, where bicycles and motor vehicles are in close proximity, the risk of harm presented by obstructing or entering into the bike lane, or, more generally a bicyclist’s lane of travel, was clearly foreseeable to Mr. Matt at the time of the accident.

The fairness and policy considerations were easy and obvious.

…both were using vehicles on the limited roadway space of a public thoroughfare. Imposing a duty of care on Mr. Matt in terms of obstructing or otherwise interfering with a bicyclist’s lane of travel is fair as a matter of public policy. The City of Avalon has created bike lanes presumably to promote bicycling generally and as an attempt to attract visitors. The explicit purpose of a bike lane is to minimize the risks inherent in roadways that accommodate automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians by providing bicyclists an exclusive lane of travel. Finally, imposing a duty of care in terms of keeping a proper lookout before crossing, entering into, or otherwise obstructing a bicyclists’ lane of travel does not unduly burden motorists. At most, this duty requires a driver to ensure his automobile is parked fully in the parking lane and to check his review mirrors, or otherwise look out for bicyclists, prior to opening his car door and exiting his vehicle.

The bike lanes were built to make cycling safer, and the bike lanes were put in by the city. It is fair to assume that there was an expectation of safety while riding the bike lanes and since the bike lanes were created by the city, there was obviously no violation of public policy.

In conclusion, the possibility of a collision between a cyclist and a car or car door on roadways shared by cyclists and motorists, is foreseeable. Moreover, the public interest in promoting bicycle safety and the minimal burden placed on motorists to exercise reasonable care can lead only to the conclusion that Mr. Matt owed Ms. Gwinner a duty of care when parking and exiting his vehicle along Dune Drive.

The next issue the court looked at was whether the plaintiff could prove the defendant breached a duty to her. Because she could not remember whether or not the car door was in the bike lane, the defendant argued the door was not in the lane, and it did not breach a duty to the plaintiff.

The evidence in the record pertaining to Plaintiff’s negligence claim is scant. There were no witnesses to the accident, aside from Mr. Matt and Ms. Gwinner. Neither Mr. Matt nor Ms. Gwinner took photographs or made measurements of the accident scene; more specifically, there are no photographs 4 or measurements relating to the distance of Mr. Matt’s passenger-side tires from the curb or how far Mr. Matt’s car door extended when opened on the day of the incident. Finally, though both parties independently visited the Avalon Police Station after the accident, no police report was produced.

However, the pleadings and deposition testimony of the plaintiff were enough to make a case that should be heard by a jury.

However, Ms. Gwinner’s deposition testimony describing the accident is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of a question of material fact, which should be decided by a jury. She states, “Is all I know I was [sic] riding my bike. And the poor man was as startled as I was. The door started opening and I just went into it.” When Ms. Gwinner’s description of the accident is considered along with her testimony that she was riding her bike within the bike lane when she collided with Mr. Matt’s car door a fact finder could reasonably infer Mr. Matt’s car door must have entered the bike lane and caused the collision, and choose to believe Ms. Gwinner’s account of the accident rather than Mr. Matt’s.

Although there was not specific proof the car door was in the bike lane, the jury could reach a conclusion by a preponderance of the evidence that car door was in the bike lane.

As such, the case was sent back for trial.

The decision continues on the application of New Jersey automobile and insurance law to the case and whether there were any limits on the damages available for the plaintiff.

So Now What?

Here the plaintiff or the defendant could have photographed the scene, measured the door, the car to the curb, and the width of the bike lane and ended this case. If you have the opportunity, after the victim(s) have been taken care of document the accident.

At the same time, when both victims filed complaints at the police department, the police did nothing. Don’t wait and go to the police department, call 911 and have them show up.

These facts will also lead to a big argument on the actual damages the plaintiff suffered. If she was able to go to the police department rather than going to the hospital, she must not have been injured as much as she might claim. 

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Gwinner, v. Michael Matt, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108827

Gwinner, v. Michael Matt, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108827

Sheila Gwinner and Horst Gwinner, Plaintiffs, v. Michael Matt, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 10-3001 (JBS/AMD)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108827

August 2, 2012, Decided

August 3, 2012, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] Appearances: Thomas Sacchetta, Esq., SACCHETTA & BALDINO, Marlton, NJ, Attorney for Plaintiffs.

Barbara J. Davis, Esq., Jessica D. Wachstein, Esq., MARSHALL, DENNEHY, MARSHALL, COLEMMAN & GOGGIN, Cherry Hill, NJ, Attorneys for the Defendants.

JUDGES: HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE, Chief United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: JEROME B. SIMANDLE

OPINION

SIMANDLE, Chief Judge:

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter involving the alleged negligence of a motorist opening his car door on a roadway with a designated bike lane is before the Court on Defendant’s motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). [Docket Item 17.] The principal issue to be determined is whether a dispute of fact exists that Defendant breached a duty of care owed to Plaintiff when she collided with his car door as he was exiting his vehicle. As will be explained at length below, the Court finds Plaintiff’s negligence claim raises a question of material fact to be decided by a jury. Plaintiff has also raised a dispute of fact that her alleged injuries are permanent and causally related to the accident for purposes of the limitation-on-lawsuit threshold of the New Jersey Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act, so Defendant’s motion will be [*2] denied.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Sheila Gwinner, filed this lawsuit against Defendant, Michael Matt, based on an accident that occurred in June 2008, when Ms. Gwinner collided with Mr. Matt’s car door while she was bicycling on Dune Drive in Avalon, New Jersey. Ms. Gwinner alleges Mr. Matt negligently opened his car door into the bike lane where she was traveling, striking her and causing her to suffer serious personal injuries.

On June 14, 2010, Plaintiff commenced a civil action against Defendant in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey based on diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d). 1 [Docket Item 1.] According to Ms. Gwinner’s Complaint, Mr. Matt’s negligence consisted of, in part, “failing to observe [her] bicycle on the bicycle path” and “failing to keep a reasonable lookout for other vehicles lawfully on the road.” Compl. at ¶ 12. Ms. Gwinner then claims that, as a result of Mr. Matt’s negligence, she suffered “severe and painful injuries,” which required medical treatment, restricted her personal and work activities, and resulted in permanent injuries. Id. at ¶ 13.

1 Both Plaintiffs are citizens of Pennsylvania, and Defendant is a citizen of [*3] New Jersey. Compl. at ¶ 1.

On the morning of June 15, 2008 Mr. Matt parked his vehicle in front of his father’s house, in the parking lane along Dune Drive. Matt Dep., Ex. F at 17:23-24. At this location, Dune Drive is a four-lane roadway, two lanes north and two lanes south, with a bike lane and a parking lane. Id. at 19:4-7. When Mr. Matt opened his door, he “heard a loud bang,” and then observed a “young lady [] on the ground with her bicycle in front of the car to the left a little bit.” Id. at 28:5-8. Ms. Gwinner was traveling at fifteen miles per hour along Dune Drive on the morning of the accident, and she did not observe Mr. Matt’s vehicle prior to the collision. Gwinner Dep., Ex. H at 34:5-10. Additionally, Ms. Gwinner testified that, when the accident occurred, she was riding within the bike lane (id. at 34:20-21); however, she did not observe and does not know whether Mr. Matt’s car door actually extended into the bike lane. Id. at 40:7-13.

Ms. Gwinner carries automobile insurance provided by Progressive Insurance, an insurance company authorized to conduct business in the State of New Jersey. She alleges that as a result of the accident, she suffered “traumatic multi level [*4] disc herniation/protrusion/radiculopathy, traumatic right knee fracture/contusion/anterior horn tear, and traumatic right hand/thumb tendonitis with radial/median nerve neuritis and joint inflammation.” Compl. at ¶ 13. 2 Plaintiff claims that these injuries demonstrate a “permanent injury” as set forth in the New Jersey Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act (“AICRA”) at N.J. Stat. Ann. § 39:6A-8(a) and that she has produced sufficient objective medical evidence to support her claim. Pl.’s Opp’n Br. at 4.

2 Plaintiff includes a medical report in support of this allegation. Pl. Ex. D.

In the present motion, Defendant argues that he is entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff has failed to “establish proof a negligence claim as a matter of law.” Def.’s Br. in Supp. Summ. J. at 2. Specifically, Defendant argues Plaintiff has failed to establish the alleged breach of duty, as she “produced no evidence that Mr. Matt’s car door extended into the bike lane.” Id. at 3. Defendant also argues that Plaintiff is barred from pursuing noneconomic damages 3 because she has failed to produce objective medical evidence demonstrating she suffered permanent injuries, as a result the accident in question, [*5] to her neck, right knee, and right wrist. Id. at 15-16.

3 “Noneconomic damages” are defined by statute as “pain, suffering and inconvenience.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 39:6A-2(i). By contrast, “economic loss” is defined as “uncompensated loss of income or property, or other uncompensated expenses, including, but not limited to, medical expenses.” Id. at § 39:6A-2(k). The Court notes that Plaintiff appears to claim only noneconomic losses. Additionally, Defendant requests dismissal of Plaintiff’s claim in its entirety, not just dismissal of Plaintiff’s claim for noneconomic losses. Plaintiff does not refute this by presenting economic losses and arguing that, should the Court find in Defendant’s favor, her claims for economic losses must survive. Therefore, dismissal is the result of finding for Defendant.

For the following reasons, the Court finds Plaintiff has sufficiently raised a question of material fact regarding her breach of duty claim; Defendant’s motion is denied on this issue. Additionally, the Court finds Plaintiff has provided sufficient objective medical evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that she suffered permanent injuries as a result of the accident; therefore, [*6] Plaintiff has met AICRA’s limitation-on-lawsuit threshold, and Defendant’s motion is denied.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A fact is “material” only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable rule of law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment will not be denied based on mere allegations or denials in the pleadings; instead, some evidence must be produced to support a material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A); United States v. Premises Known as 717 S. Woodward Street, Allentown, Pa., 2 F.3d 529, 533 (3d Cir. 1993). However, the Court will view any evidence in favor of the nonmoving party and extend any reasonable favorable inferences to be drawn from that evidence to that party. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552, 119 S. Ct. 1545, 143 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1999). Where the nonmoving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, the moving party may be entitled to summary judgment merely by showing that there is an absence of evidence to support an essential element of [*7] the nonmoving party’s case. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(B); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986).

B. Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff’s Negligence Claim

[HN2] Under New Jersey law, for a plaintiff to establish a negligence claim she must show that the defendant “breached a duty of reasonable care, which constituted a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.” Brown v. Racquet Club of Bricktown, 95 N.J. 280, 288, 471 A.2d 25, 29 (1984). Furthermore, ” [HN3] negligence must be proved and will never be presumed, [] indeed there is a presumption against it, and [] the burden of proving negligence is on the plaintiff.” Buckelew v. Grossbard, 87 N.J. 512, 525, 435 A.2d 1150 (1981) (citing Hansen v. Eagle-Picher Lead Co., 8 N.J. 133, 139, 84 A.2d 281 (1951)).

Plaintiff claims Defendant acted negligently when he opened his car door “into the bike lane where [she] was operating her bicycle.” Pl.’s Opp’n Br. 2. She also alleges she suffered injuries as a result of Defendant’s negligence. Id.

Defendant argues Plaintiff has failed to present a valid negligence claim because she has not alleged a breach of duty that was the proximate cause of her injuries. Def.’s Br. in Supp. Summ. J. 2. Defendant [*8] argues Plaintiff has not produced evidence showing his car door entered into or obstructed the bike lane. Id. at 3. Defendant also claims the evidence shows Ms. Gwinner was solely responsible for her injuries because she was riding her bicycle outside of the bike lane when she collided with his car door. Id. To support this claim, Defendant argues that after the accident, he fully opened his door to see if it extended into the bike lane, which, he claims, it did not. Id. at 1.

1. Duty of Care

Neither party has addressed the existence of a duty of care in the instant case. Because the existence of a duty is essential to all negligence claims, however, the Court must tackle the issue.

[HN4] “The question of whether a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid the risk of harm to another exists is one of fairness and policy that implicates many factors.” Carvalho v. Toll Bros. and Developers, 143 N.J. 565, 573, 675 A.2d 209, 212. (citing Dunphy v. Gregor, 136 N.J. 99, 110, 642 A.2d 372 (1994)). Foreseeability is the first factor considered, as it is “the predicate for the duty to exercise reasonable care.” Id. at 573. While foreseeability is needed to determine whether a duty of care exists, it [*9] is not the only factor. Id. at 572. Courts also consider fairness and policy factors such as “the relationship of the parties, the nature of the attendant risk, the opportunity and ability to exercise care, and the public interest in the proposed solution.” Id. at 573 (quoting Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 439, 625 A.2d 1110. (1993)).

The Court will first address foreseeability. Mr. Matt was a resident of Avalon, who was aware of the existence of the bike lane along Dune Drive, and who had used the Dune Drive bike lane prior to the accident in question. Matt Dep., Ex. F at 9:20; 20:16-19, 22-23; 21:1-2. Mr. Matt was also aware that the Dune Drive bike lane was regularly used during the summer months, Avalon’s tourist season. Id. at 46:3-7. The risk of harm posed by a collision between a cyclist and an automobile, or automobile door, is obvious. As a result, where bicycles and motor vehicles are in close proximity, the risk of harm presented by obstructing or entering into the bike lane, or, more generally a bicyclist’s lane of travel, was clearly foreseeable to Mr. Matt at the time of the accident.

” [HN5] Once the foreseeability of an injured party is established, . . . considerations [*10] of fairness and policy govern whether the imposition of a duty is warranted.” Carvalho at 573, 675 A.2d at 212 (quoting Carter Lincoln Mercury, Inc. v. EMAR Group, Inc., 135 N.J. 182, 194-95, 638 A.2d 1288 (1994)). In Carvalho, a construction worker was killed when trench walls collapsed on him. Id. at 571-572, 675 A.2d at 212. In a suit against the site engineer, the New Jersey Supreme Court, after determining the risk of harm was foreseeable, held that imposing a duty of care on the engineer was warranted because there was a contractual relationship between the parties; the engineer was responsible for monitoring work progress, which implicated worksite safety; the engineer had control to change work conditions; and the engineer had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition because other trench walls had collapsed at the site. Id. at 575-578, 675 A.2d at 214-15.

Here, Mr. Matt and Ms. Gwinner had no prior existing relationship. In fact, their first actual encounter occurred after Ms. Gwinner had already collided with Mr. Matt’s car door. Matt Dep., Ex. F at 28:4-15; Gwinner Dep., Ex. H at 37:4-10. Additionally, Mr. Matt had never previously been involved in an automobile accident [*11] involving a bicyclist. Ex. F at 46:12-16. But their relationship was a functional one: both were using vehicles on the limited roadway space of a public thoroughfare. Imposing a duty of care on Mr. Matt in terms of obstructing or otherwise interfering with a bicyclist’s lane of travel is fair as a matter of public policy. The City of Avalon has created bike lanes presumably to promote bicycling generally and as an attempt to attract visitors. The explicit purpose of a bike lane is to minimize the risks inherent in roadways that accommodate automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians by providing bicyclists an exclusive lane of travel. Finally, imposing a duty of care in terms of keeping a proper lookout before crossing, entering into, or otherwise obstructing a bicyclists’ lane of travel does not unduly burden motorists. At most, this duty requires a driver to ensure his automobile is parked fully in the parking lane and to check his review mirrors, or otherwise look out for bicyclists, prior to opening his car door and exiting his vehicle.

In conclusion, the possibility of a collision between a cyclist and a car or car door on roadways shared by cyclists and motorists, is foreseeable. Moreover, [*12] the public interest in promoting bicycle safety and the minimal burden placed on motorists to exercise reasonable care can lead only to the conclusion that Mr. Matt owed Ms. Gwinner a duty of care when parking and exiting his vehicle along Dune Drive.

2. Breach of Duty

[HN6] Because breach of duty is an essential element of a negligence claim, facts relating to a defendant’s breach are material to the success of the claim. In the instant case, the material fact regarding breach of duty is whether Defendant Matt’s car door entered into the bike lane, causing the collision. Because Ms. Gwinner has the burden of proving negligence at trial, Mr. Matt would be “entitled to summary judgment merely by showing that there is an absence of evidence” supporting Ms. Gwinner’s negligence claim. Celotex Corp. at 325. The Court finds Plaintiff has minimally succeeded in providing evidence to support her claim that Defendant breached a duty of care.

Ms. Gwinner alleges Mr. Matt breached the duty by negligently opening his car door into the bike lane, causing her to collide with the door and suffer injuries. Mr. Matt claims Ms. Gwinner has failed to produce evidence his car door entered the bike lane. Mr. [*13] Matt also claims the evidence in the record shows that Ms. Gwinner was actually the sole cause of the collision and her injuries because his car door did not extend into the bike lane, so, he infers, Ms. Gwinner must have been riding her bicycle in the parallel parking lane at the time of the accident.

The evidence in the record pertaining to Plaintiff’s negligence claim is scant. There were no witnesses to the accident, aside from Mr. Matt and Ms. Gwinner. Matt Dep., Ex. F at 35:5-7; Gwinner Dep., Ex. H at 44:14-15. Neither Mr. Matt nor Ms. Gwinner took photographs or made measurements of the accident scene; more specifically, there are no photographs 4 or measurements relating to the distance of Mr. Matt’s passenger side tires from the curb or how far Mr. Matt’s car door extended when opened on the day of the incident. Matt Dep., Ex. F at 37:22-24, 38:1-2; Gwinner Dep., Ex. H at 47:1-5. Finally, though both parties independently visited the Avalon Police Station after the accident, no police report was produced. Matt Dep., Ex. F at 43:19-22, 44:1-3; Gwinner Dep., Ex. H at 70:13-15, 71:18-21.

4 There is photographic evidence of Dune Drive at the accident site as of February 2011. While [*14] the photographs tell us little about the actual scene of the accident in June 2008, they do confirm that a Honda Accord parked close enough to the curb in the parking lane can fully open its driver side door without the door entering into the bike lane. However, the photographer used a Honda Accord to make this demonstration. Ex. G. On the day of the accident, Mr. Matt was driving a Cadillac CTS. Ex. F at 23:5-6. Car width and door length vary from make to make and model to model; as a result, the Court notes that Defendant’s photographs are of limited value on the relevant question of whether Mr. Matt’s Cadillac could similarly park in the parking lane and fully open his car door without obstructing the bike lane. The demonstrative Honda exhibit’s materiality also depends upon how close to the curb Defendant’s vehicle was parked at the time of the accident.

Ms. Gwinner’s recitation of what she remembers from the date of the accident is also meager. Though she claims to have been riding in the bike lane along the right side of the lane, at no time before, during or after the accident did she observe Mr. Matt’s car door extending into the bike lane. 5 Gwinner Dep., Ex. H at 34:8-10, [*15] 40:7-10, 19-23. Additionally, she did not observe and does not know how close to the curb Mr. Matt parked his car. Id. at 48:2-5.

5 During her deposition, Ms. Gwinner participated in the following exchange with Defense attorney Barbara J. Davis:

Q: But did you see at all how far the car door extended out?

A: No, I didn’t.

Q: As you sit here today, do you know if the car door extended out into the bike lane, Mr. Matt’s car door?

A: I don’t.

However, Ms. Gwinner’s deposition testimony describing the accident is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of a question of material fact, which should be decided by a jury. She states, “Is all I know I was [sic] riding my bike. And the poor man was as startled as I was. The door started opening and I just went into it.” Id. at 34:6-10. When Ms. Gwinner’s description of the accident is considered along with her testimony that she was riding her bike within the bike lane when she collided with Mr. Matt’s car door (id. at 36:15-17), a fact finder could reasonably infer Mr. Matt’s car door must have entered the bike lane and caused the collision, and choose to believe Ms. Gwinner’s account of the accident rather than Mr. Matt’s.

Because all reasonable inferences [*16] must be given to the nonmovant, the Court finds Ms. Gwinner has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mr. Matt breached a duty of care by negligently opening his car door into a bicyclist’s lane of travel, or otherwise failing to reasonably look out for bicyclists before exiting his vehicle. Therefore, Mr. Matt has failed to meet the summary judgment standard set forth under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(B) and Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986) and his motion will be denied as to Plaintiff’s negligence claim.

C. Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff’s Inability to Satisfy AICRA’s Limitation-on-Lawsuit Threshold

1. The Applicability of the New Jersey’s “Deemer Statute” and AICRA

Because Ms. Gwinner is insured by Progressive Insurance, an insurance company authorized to conduct business in the State of New Jersey, Defendant argues, and Plaintiff does not dispute, Plaintiff is subject to New Jersey’s “Deemer Statute” and the “limitation-on-lawsuit threshold” set forth in AICRA.

[HN7] The Deemer Statute, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:28-1.4, “requires insurers authorized to transact automobile insurance business in New Jersey to provide coverage to out-of-state residents consistent [*17] with New Jersey law ‘whenever the automobile or motor vehicle insured under the policy is used or operated in this State.'” Zabilowicz v. Kelsey, 200 N.J. 507, 513-514, 984 A.2d 872, 875-876 (2009). The Deemer Statute also requires affected insurance companies “to provide personal injury protection [(“PIP”)] benefits pursuant to N.J. Stat. Ann. [§] 39:6A-4.” Id. at 514, 984 A.2d at 876. “In short, the Deemer Statute furnishes the covered out-of-state driver with New Jersey’s statutory no-fault PIP and other benefits and, in exchange, deems that driver to have selected the limitation-on-lawsuit option of [N.J. Stat. Ann. §] 39:6A-8(a).” Id. Because Plaintiff conceded to Defendant’s assertion that Plaintiff is subject to the limitation-on-lawsuit threshold via the Deemer Statute, even though Plaintiff was riding her bicycle rather than driving an automobile at the time the accident, the Court assumes that the Deemer Statute applies to the facts of this case.

AICRA represents an effort by the New Jersey’s Legislature to curb rising auto insurance costs by limiting the opportunities for accident victims to sue for noneconomic damages. This effort began with New Jersey’s implementation of [*18] a no-fault insurance scheme in 1972 when New Jersey passed the New Jersey Automobile Reparation Act and has since undergone numerous revisions, in a process described as “tortured,” which need not be recounted here. See, e.g., Branca v. Matthews, 317 F. Supp. 2d 533, 537-539 (D.N.J. 2004). The New Jersey Legislature passed AICRA in 1998 with three distinct goals “containing [insurance premium] costs, rooting out fraud within the system, and ensuring a fair rate of return for insurers.” DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 488, 874 A.2d 1039, 1046 (2005).

2. The Limitation-on-Lawsuit Threshold

[HN8] To contain automobile insurance costs, AICRA established the limitation-on-lawsuit threshold, which “bars recovery for pain and suffering unless the plaintiff suffers an injury that results in (1) death; (2) dismemberment; (3) significant disfigurement or significant scarring; (4) displaced fractures; (5) loss of fetus; or (6) permanent injury within a reasonable degree of medical probability ….” Id. (quoting N.J. Stat. Ann. § 39:6A-8(a))(internal quotation marks omitted).

[HN9] An insured bound by the limitation-on-lawsuit threshold is barred from suing for noneconomic damages unless her injuries fall [*19] within AICRA’s six categories. Johnson v. Scaccetti, 192 N.J. 256, 261, 927 A.2d 1269, 1273 (2007). In the summary judgment context, a plaintiff can proceed to trial if she demonstrates that her alleged injuries, if proven, fall into one of the six threshold categories. Davidson v. Slater, 189 N.J. 166, 187, 914 A.2d 282, 295 (2007) (citing Oswin v. Shaw, 129 N.J. 290, 294, 609 A.2d 415, 417 (1992)). A plaintiff must also prove that the alleged statutory injury was caused by the accident in question or “risk dismissal on summary judgment if the defendant can show that no reasonable fact-finder could conclude that the defendant’s negligence caused plaintiff’s alleged … injury.” Id. at 188, 914 A.2d at 295. However, where, as here, a plaintiff alleges she suffered more than one injury as a result of the accident in question, the plaintiff need only establish one of her injuries meets the limitation-on-lawsuit threshold for the jury to consider all of the injuries when calculating noneconomic damages. Johnson at 279, 927 A.2d at 1282.

3. Permanent Injury

[HN10] AICRA defines “permanent injury” as “[w]hen the body part or organ, or both, has not healed to function normally and will not heal to [*20] function normally with further medical treatment.” N.J. Stat. Ann. 39:6A-8(a). Additionally, in adopting AICRA, the New Jersey Legislature explicitly adopted a threshold requirement, the objective medical evidence standard, established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Oswin v. Shaw, 129 N.J. 290, 609 A.2d 415 (1992). DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 495, 874 A.2d 1039, 1050 (2005). A plaintiff’s alleged limitation-on-lawsuit injury “must be based on and refer to objective medical evidence.” Id. (emphasis removed).

Plaintiff claims her neck, right wrist, and right knee injuries are permanent injuries within the meaning of AICRA. See supra pp. 4-5. Additionally, Ms. Gwinner claims the medical report created by Dr. James F. Bonner, her physical therapy physician (Pl.’s Opp’n Br., Ex. D), “sets forth his opinion within a reasonable degree of certainty as to the permanency of [her] injuries and their relatedness to the accident”; as such, she has satisfied the limitation-on-lawsuit threshold. Pl.’s Opp’n Br. 4.

Mr. Matt argues that Ms. Gwinner has failed to produce objective medical evidence demonstrating she suffered permanent injuries, as a result the accident in question, to her neck, [*21] right knee, and right wrist. Def.’s Br. in Supp. Summ. J. at 11. First, Defendant claims Dr. Bonner’s report shows that Ms. Gwinner had a pre-existing cervical injury and that the report fails to present evidence showing Ms. Gwinner’s cervical condition is causally connected to the accident. Id. at 11-12. Second, Defendant argues Plaintiff’s alleged knee injuries fail to meet the threshold because there is evidence of pre-existing injuries and surgeries, a failure to connect the injuries to the accident, and Plaintiff “has testified she has full use of her right knee and is not restricted in any of her physical activities.” Id. 12-14. Finally, Defendant claims Plaintiff has not presented objective medical evidence of a permanent injury to her right wrist because the medical reports show that she had been treated for right wrist problems prior to the accident and that the reports alleging a right wrist injury after the accident are based on Ms. Gwinner’s subjective complaints and not objective medical testing. Id. at 14-15.

Because Ms. Gwinner need only demonstrate that one of her injuries, if proven, is permanent under AICRA’s definition, the Court will evaluate each alleged injury [*22] individually. First, however, the Court will address Defendant’s broader assertion that Plaintiff’s claim should be dismissed because she did not provide a comparative analysis distinguishing the injuries allegedly caused by the accident from other, preexisting injuries, as required by Davidson v. Slater, 189 N.J. 166, 914 A.2d 282 (2007). In Davidson, The New Jersey Supreme Court did not create a blanket rule. Instead, it held,

When a plaintiff alleges aggravation of preexisting injuries as the animating theory of the claim, then plaintiff must produce comparative evidence to move forward with the causation element of that tort action. When a plaintiff does not plead aggravation of preexisting injuries, a comparative analysis is not required to make that demonstration.

189 N.J. at 179, 914 A.2d at 284. The New Jersey Supreme Court then cautioned plaintiffs with preexisting injuries not required to provide such a report, stating, ” [HN11] [T]he plaintiff who does not prepare for comparative medical evidence is at risk of failing to raise a jury-worthy factual issue about whether the subject accident caused the injuries.” Davidson, at 188, 914 A.2d at 295.

As was the case in Davidson, Plaintiff [*23] Gwinner has not explicitly alleged that her injuries were aggravations of preexisting injuries. 6 The only medical report provided by Ms. Gwinner to support her claim that she suffered permanent injuries as a result of the accident, however, makes no mention of new injuries. Pl. Ex. D. Instead, the one-page report prepared in 2009 by Dr. Bonner states Ms. Gwinner had previous injuries or previously received medical treatment to the alleged injured areas and that she suffered “advanced impairment … as a direct result of her 6/15/08 trauma.” Id. Moreover, the report specifically mentions Plaintiff’s “old knee problem” and concludes the accident caused “a higher pain/dysfunction level.” Id. While this report might appear to indicate all of Plaintiff’s alleged injuries are exacerbations, Dr. Bonner produced a more detailed report on July 1, 2008, on which the 2009 report partially relies. 7 Reviewing the medical reports referenced in Dr. Bonner’s report reveals some of the injuries described are in fact new injuries.

6 Plaintiff did not allege her injuries were either new or exacerbations of previous injuries and conditions; she was silent on this issue. Compl. at ¶ 13. However, Plaintiff’s [*24] allegations regarding her injuries appear to be direct quotes from Dr. Bonner’s 2009 report. See supra. p. 4. and note 2.

7 In addition to his July 1, 2008 report, Dr. Bonner also referenced a July 9, 2008 report created by Dr. Philip S. Yussen of Mainline Open MRI (Def. Ex. I). Both reports discuss new injuries Ms. Gwinner suffered as a result of the accident. See infra pp. 23-26.

When considering Ms. Gwinner’s complaint and supporting evidentiary documents, it is clear some of her alleged injuries are aggravations of previously existing injuries and medical conditions. But because she has not alleged aggravation injuries in her Complaint, she is not required to provide a comparative report to support the causation element of her tort claim. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s warning in Davidson, however, is pertinent to the instant case because the lack of a comparative analysis has clouded the Court’s effort to properly evaluate whether Plaintiff provided sufficient evidence of causation. Nevertheless, the surplus of medical reports provided has allowed the Court to satisfactorily investigate which alleged injuries are sufficiently supported by evidence of causation and which are not.

a. [*25] Cervical Injury

Though Ms. Gwinner claims to have suffered permanent injury in the form of traumatic multi level disc herniation, protrusion, and radiculopathy, there is no evidence suggesting the alleged injuries are permanent. First, Ms. Gwinner had an MRI done in 2007, prior to the accident, because she was experiencing pain in her neck dating back to 2000. Gwinner Dep., Ex. H 13:15-21, 14:15-23. At the request of Dr. Bonner, Ms. Gwinner received another MRI in July 2008. The report written by Dr. Philip S. Yussen states, “Current examination demonstrates the cervical vertebral bodies to maintain normal stature. There is partial straightening of the cervical lordosis, which may be related to patient positioning, muscle spasm, or even a chronic finding given that this was evident on the previous MRI study as well.” Def. Ex. O (emphasis added). The report goes on to conclude,

There has not been a significant change in the MRI appearance of the cervical spine as compared to the previous MRI study of 8/9/07. The previously noted fatty marrow island at C7 and small low signal presumed development focus at C5 right of midline are again noted, and are stable. No new osseous abnormalities [*26] are seen referable to the cervical vertebrae as compared to the previous study.

Id. Dr. Yussen’s report can only be read to state that the condition of Ms. Gwinner’s neck has not changed, let alone deteriorated, as a result of the accident.

Additionally, Defendant’s medical expert, Dr. Brian K. Zell examined Ms. Gwinner in May of 2011, two years after the medical report provided by Plaintiff, and produced a report (Def. Ex. N). According to Dr. Zell, Ms. Gwinner suffered from a preexisting degenerative disease of the cervical spine, and “[t]he automobile accident in question is not considered a responsible event for the progression of preexisting degenerative changes in the cervical spine.” Def. Ex. N. at 17. Ms. Gwinner has not offered any evidence to rebut these findings. As a result, Plaintiff’s cervical injury cannot serve as a basis for her noneconomic claims. See Kauffman v. McCann, Civ. No. 05-3687, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23514, 2007 WL 1038696 at *4 (D.N.J. March 29, 2007) (” [HN12] Because it is plaintiff’s burden at trial to show Defendant caused her permanent injuries within the meaning of AICRA, Plaintiff may not merely rest on her pleadings once Defendant has come forward with evidence tending to show that Plaintiff [*27] is not suffering permanent injury.”). Plaintiff has offered no evidence raising a dispute of fact that, since at least 2008, she has suffered from any spinal injury caused by the 2008 accident.

b. Right Knee Injury

Plaintiff also claims her “traumatic right knee fracture/contusion/anterior horn tear” constitutes a permanent injury under AICRA. The evidence in the record is very close as to whether Ms. Gwinner’s right knee injuries are permanent; however, there is insufficient evidence demonstrating the injuries are causally related to the accident.

Ms. Gwinner underwent medial meniscus surgery to her right knee in 1999. Gwinner Dep., Ex. H 8:23-24, 9:1-4. After the accident, Ms. Gwinner was first evaluated Dr. Bonner on July 1, 2008. Regarding Ms. Gwinner’s right knee, Dr. Bonner wrote, “Her past medical history is remarkable for a medical meniscetomy seven years ago for which she recovered had not had problems involving the right knee.” Def. Ex. K. Dr. Bonner then concluded that, “as a direct result of the accident,” Ms. Gwinner suffered a “contusion to the distal one third of the medial subcutaneous surface of the tibia.” Id. Thus, Dr. Bonner’s initial evaluation attributed only a contusion [*28] to the accident in question.

Eight days later, Ms. Gwinner received an MRI and evaluation at Main Line MRI. In a report dated July 9, 2008, Dr. Philip S. Yussen also noted symptoms consistent with “mild strain or subtle contusion.” Def. Ex. I. Dr. Yussen further noted that the MRI revealed there were no tears to the posterior cruciate ligament, anterior cruciate ligament, or medial collateral ligament. Id. Additionally, “no lateral meniscal tear or significant degenerative signal change” was apparent. Id. Finally, while Dr. Yussen’s examination did reveal “free edge blunting of the posterior horn region” as well as some “small” tears in the medial meniscus region, he was unable to determine the cause of these injuries. Id. He stated, “Given the provided history, the appearance may in part be related to previous partial meniscus tear.” Id.

An orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Marc S. Zimmerman, then evaluated Ms. Gwinner’s right knee. In a report dated July 28, 2008, Dr. Zimmerman stated, “[Ms. Gwinner’s] right knee gives out on her. She denies popping and clicking. She does not think it is swollen at this time.” Def. Ex. J at 1. Dr. Zimmerman described his evaluation of Ms. Gwinner’s right knee [*29] as follows:

Evaluation of the right knee reveals no swelling or effusion. She has full range of motion without pain. There is minimal tenderness over the lateral joint line with no tenderness over the medial joint line. On the McMurray’s test on internal rotation, there is a click appreciated over the lateral joint line. There is a negative Lachman’s test. There is no varus/vulgus laxity.

Id. at 2. Dr. Zimmerman found there “appear[ed] to be a tear in the posterior horn of the medial meniscus,” but concluded the possible tear was “most likely related to the previous surgery and injury.” Id. As with the two previous evaluations, Dr. Zimmerman noted a bone contusion “at the lateral plateau in the anterolateral aspect.” Id.

In conclusion, because Plaintiff has failed to provide a comparative analysis detailing her previous right knee injuries and then distinguishing any preexisting conditions from the injuries she allegedly suffered as a result of the accident in question, the Court is only able to find causation with regards to the bone contusion. This injury was consistently reported in all three medical evaluations conducted in 2008 and was the only injury explicitly connected to the [*30] accident. However, this injury cannot be considered permanent. Plaintiff’s medical report was prepared on December 16, 2009. Regarding Ms. Gwinner’s right knee, the report merely states, “She also injured her right knee.” It then concludes Ms. Gwinner suffered “traumatic right knee fracture/contusion/anterior horn tear.” Defendant’s medical expert, Dr. Zell, examined Ms. Gwinner’s right knee approximately one-and-a-half years later in May 2011. This represents the most recent evaluation of Ms. Gwinner’s right knee. Dr. Zell noted that the MRI taken by Main Line MRI in 2008 revealed a contusion, but concluded that as of May 2011, the right knee “is entirely within normal limits … [and] further intervention with respect to the patient’s right knee as a consequence of the bicycle versus automobile collision is not warranted.” Def. Ex. N. at 17.

Again, Plaintiff has not offered any evidence to rebut the evidence offered by Defendant showing Plaintiff’s right knee is within normal limits and does not require further treatment. Moreover, Plaintiff offers no additional evidence permitting the reasonable inference that the right knee contusion is permanent. Therefore, it is insufficient to [*31] support a claim for noneconomic damages under AICRA.

c. Right Wrist Injury

Ms. Gwinner alleges that, as a result of the accident, she suffered traumatic right hand/thumb tendonitis with radial/median nerve neuritis and joint inflammation. After reviewing the many doctors’ reports discussing Ms. Gwinner’s right wrist, the Court finds Ms. Gwinner has successfully demonstrated that, if proven, these injuries constitute a causally related permanent injury with the meaning of AICRA.

Dr. Bonner was the first medical professional to evaluate Ms. Gwinner’s wrist after the June 2008 accident. On July 1, 2008, Dr. Bonner wrote that Ms. Gwinner reports “numbness in the right thumb, index finger, and long finger primarily on the tip.” Def. Ex. K. Dr. Bonner then noted Ms. Gwinner had been previously treated for numbness in her right hand and that she stopped treatment in November 2007, prior to the accident. Id. Relevant to causation, this report stated, the “condition had resolved until following this accident.” Id. Dr. Bonner also found “positive phalen’s 8 and tinel’s sign 9 [sic] at the right wrist with tenderness over the … carpal metacarpal joint of the thumb.” Id. The report concludes that [*32] “as a direct result” of the accident in question Ms. Gwinner’s right wrist is indicative of “[p]ost traumatic sprain of the carpal/metacarpal joint of the right thumb with carpal tunnel syndrome being evident.” Id.

8 Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary 1714 (Elsevier Saunders 32nd ed. 2012) defines “Phalen sign” as the “appearance of numbness or paresthesias within 30 to 60 seconds during the Phalen test, a positive sign for carpal tunnel syndrome.” A Phalen sign is detected by performing a Phalen test, which is a “[a] test for carpal tunnel syndrome. The patient flexes the wrist for 1 minute. Carpal tunnel syndrome is confirmed if the patient experiences a tingling that radiates into the thumb, index finger and the middle and lateral half of the ring finger.” Volume 4 M-PQ, J.E. Schmidt, M.D., Attorney’s Dictionary of Medicine P-208 (Matthew Bender). In light of these definitions, the Court interprets positive Phalen sign to represent that carpal tunnel syndrome was detected.

9 Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary 1716 (Elsevier Saunders 32nd ed. 2012) defines “Tinel sign” as “a tingling sensation in the distal end of a limb when percussion is made over the site of a divided [*33] nerve. It indicates a partial lesion or the beginning regeneration of the nerve.” The Court thus interprets Positive Tinel sign to indicate possible presence of a lesion(s) in the tested area.

Dr. Zimmerman also evaluated Ms. Gwinner’s right wrist during her July 28, 2008 visit because she reported “some numbness and tingling in the thumb and second finger of her right hand.” Def. Ex. J. Dr. Zimmerman’s report sheds light on the issues of previous existing injuries and causation. He states that while Ms. Gwinner’s past medical history includes numbness and tingling in her right hand, that condition “had resolved but is now present again . . . since the most recent accident.” Id. Moreover, an EMG was performed on Ms. Gwinner in 2007, and “she was told there was no permanent damage.” 10

10 It should be noted, however, that Dr. Zimmerman determined there were “negative Tinel’s and negative Phalen’s signs.” Def. Ex. J.

In December of 2008, Ms. Gwinner visited Dr. William H. Kirkpatrick of Hand Surgical Associates. Def. Ex. L. In his report, Dr. Kirkpatrick similarly noted, “[Ms. Gwinner] had approximately six months of tingling in the thumb, index and long fingers before her bike accident [*34] for which she was treated by a chiropractor” but that the symptoms resolved prior to the June 2008 collision. Id. Dr. Kirkpatrick saw no swelling in the right wrist, full active range of motion, and no tenderness. However, the report found positive Tinel signs “over the superficial radial nerve several centimeters proximal to the wrist” and ultimately diagnosed Ms. Gwinner with right “superficial radial nerve neuritis, probably right median neuritis, and right thumb joint CMC joint inflammation.” Id. This report also noted that Ms. Gwinner’s right wrist injuries were her “primary concern.” Id.

The Court finds the reports of Dr. Bonner, Dr. Zimmerman and Dr. Kirkpatrick sufficient to demonstrate that while Ms. Gwinner had experienced some numbness and tingling prior to the June 2008, that condition had ceased and was deemed nonpermanent prior to the accident. Because both Dr. Bonner and Dr. Zimmerman’s reports noted positive Phalen and Tinel signs, among other injuries, a reasonable fact finder could determine that any injuries found in Ms. Gwinner’s right wrist in these post-accident reports are causally connected to the June 2008 collision. Therefore, Ms. Gwinner has sufficiently demonstrated [*35] causation.

Dr. Bonner’s December 16, 2009 report and Dr. Zell’s May 31, 2011 report are relevant to the Court’s inquiry into the permanency of Ms. Gwinner’s alleged right wrist injuries. Dr. Bonner’s 2009 report described Ms. Gwinner’s injuries as “traumatic right hand/thumb tendonitis with radial/median nerve neuritis and joint inflammation.” Pl. Ex. D. The report stated these injuries have resulted in “permanent restriction to no impact forces to those affected areas.” Id.

Again, the Defendant’s medical expert, Dr. Zell, was the last doctor to evaluate Ms. Gwinner’s right wrist. As of May 2011, Ms. Gwinner’s still complained of tightness and numbness in her right wrist. Def. Ex. N. at 5. Dr. Zell found, “The bicycle versus automobile collision in question has a chronological association with ongoing complaints referable to the median nerve at the right wrist.” Id. And while he found “the absence of a Tinel at the carpal tunnel on the right side,” Dr. Zell did not entirely rule out carpal tunnel syndrome, concluding, “If this patient does in fact have a carpal tunnel syndrome, it is subclinical.” Id.

There is substantially more evidence regarding Ms. Gwinner’s alleged right wrist injury. [*36] While some of the medical reports seem to contradict each other, particularly in regard to Phalen and Tinel signs, all reasonable inferences must be given to the nonmovant. Thus, the Court finds Plaintiff has provided evidence sufficient for a reasonable fact finder to determine her right wrist injuries are permanent and causally connected to the June 2008 accident.

Defendant’s final argument in support of his motion for summary judgment is that Ms. Gwinner’s deposition testimony indicates “she does not have any physical restrictions or limitations.” Def.’s Br. in Supp. Summ. J. at 15. Defendant claims Ms. Gwinner experiences no restrictions in her ability to “perform all of her household chores, go[] skiing, and … ride her bike approximately 50 miles.” Id. While Ms. Gwinner did state she did not miss any time from work as a result of the accident (Gwinner Dep., Ex. H 7:12-14) and she is able to conduct her life somewhat normally, Defendant has not provided a full picture of Ms. Gwinner’s statements. Regarding her ability to perform household chores, Ms. Gwinner participated in the following exchange:

Q: Are you able to do all your household chores?

A: I can do almost everything I that [*37] want. It’s–I’m losing dexterity in this hand because of numbness.

Q: Indicating your right hand?

A: Yes. Like I have good strength it in to go like this.

Q: To make a fist?

A: To make a fist. And if you put your hand, I can break your fingers with my strength, but it dwindles, it doesn’t stay.

Gwinner Dep., Ex. H 66:18-24, 67:1-6. And while Ms. Gwinner stated that she is able to ride her bike, she also stated that when she is finished her hands are numb. Id. at 67:23-24. When viewing Ms. Gwinner’s statements in their entirety, it appears they are supportive of the proposition that the injuries suffered to her wrist are permanent within the meaning of AICRA, especially because, as of the deposition date, May 16, 2011, Ms. Gwinner’s right wrist had not healed to function normally.

In conclusion, the Court finds Ms. Gwinner has provided evidence sufficient to demonstrate injuries suffered to her right wrist were permanent and caused by the accident in question. Because Plaintiff need only demonstrate one of her injuries, if proven, satisfies AICRA’s limitation-on-lawsuit threshold, and she has done so, the Court will allow all of her noneconomic claims to go to a jury.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons [*38] set forth above, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment shall be denied. The accompanying Order will be entered, and the case will be scheduled for trial.

August 2, 2012

DATE

/s/ Jerome B. Simandle

JEROME B. SIMANDLE

Chief U.S. District Judge


New Jersey decision explains the reasoning why ski areas owe the highest degree of care to people riding chairlifts.

Chair lifts are to be operated under the common carrier standard of care by ski areas in New Jersey.

D’Amico, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., 265 N.J. Super. 496; 627 A.2d 1164; 1992 N.J. Super. LEXIS 499

State: New Jersey

Plaintiff: Kathleen A. D’Amico and Allen N. D’Amico

Defendant: Great American Recreation, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in its operation and supervision of the ski lift

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 1992

The facts don’t lend themselves to what you would normally think as a chairlift accident. However, the decision explains in easy detail why the court requires the operator of a chairlift to operate it at the highest degree of care for the riders.

The plaintiff was in line to ride the chairlift. When she was next to board, another skier, skied into the path of the chair. The intervening skier hit the chair the plaintiff was to ride making the chair swing and hitting the plaintiff. The plaintiff suffered injuries from being hit by the chair.

The plaintiff and her husband sued. Prior to trial, the plaintiff moved for a motion in limine determining the standard of care of a ski area to riders of a chairlift. This decision is the result of that motion.

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

The court looked at decisions from all the other states where the question had been answered. What is the duty of care owed by an operator of a chair lift to a passenger.

At the time of this decision, most other states that had looked into the issue had determined that the standard of care was that of a common carrier. A common carrier is required to exercise the highest degree of care to is passengers.

A passenger of a common carrier places himself in the care of that common carrier. A passenger is unable to use his own faculties in order to prevent or avoid accidents and is forced to rely on the common carrier to ensure that accidents are avoided.  The carrier has this responsibility because they exercise control of the equipment used in the transportation of the passenger. Only the carrier can ensure that the equipment is in proper working order and is being operated correctly.

Just like a passenger on a train who has no opportunity to ensure that the locomotive is operating properly, a skier cannot determine whether a ski lift is operating properly.  When skiers board a ski lift, they are entrusting their care in the hands of another.  Once they have committed themselves to riding that chair up the mountain, they are powerless to control their own safety.  The chair lifts the skier off the ground as she sits down.  The chair is suspended off the ground at considerable distance.  The skier has no ability to stop the cable from moving.  Furthermore, a skier can’t exit the chair once it has begun  its ascent.  Because of the skier’s helplessness, ski lift operators should be held to the highest standard of care.

The defendant argued it was not a common carrier because it did not hold itself out to the public as a transportation carrier. Also, the transportation provided by the chairlift was incidental to the sport of skiing. However, the court did not buy that argument.

However, skiers come to ski areas to ski. If ski areas did not provide transportation up a mountain, it would be impossible for skiers to ski down the mountain. Transportation of skiers up the mountain is one of the primary functions of a ski area operator.  It is the reason skiers purchase “lift tickets”.

The ski area also argued that the plaintiff was not on the lift when she was injured. However, the court did not agree with this argument either.

The fact that this plaintiff was not physically on the lift when she was injured does not help defendant. The duty of care of a common carrier includes providing a safe means of ingress and egress for its passengers.

The court summed up its analysis.

Based upon the applicable well-reasoned decisions from other jurisdictions and the analysis set forth above, this court holds that ski area operators are common carriers in the operation of ski lifts. It is, of course, within the power of the Legislature to follow the examples of New York and New Hampshire and amend existing law to exclude ski lift operators from common carrier liability.  Great American Recreation will be held to the standard of care applicable to other types of common carriers in the operation of its Vernon Valley chairlift. This standard has been de-scribed as the highest possible care consistent with the nature of the undertaking involved.

So Now What?

There were still defenses available to the defendant ski area. The first is the intervening skier. The actions that lead to the injury of the plaintiff were not caused by the ski area but by a third party who intervened, was between the actions of the ski area and the injury to the plaintiff.

However, in New Jersey, from the moment a skier gets on the loading ramp until the skier leaves, the ski area is held to the highest degree of care to riders of its lifts, that of a common carrier.

Don’t know how this applies to lift lines?

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D’Amico, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., 265 N.J. Super. 496; 627 A.2d 1164; 1992 N.J. Super. LEXIS 499

D’Amico, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., 265 N.J. Super. 496; 627 A.2d 1164; 1992 N.J. Super. LEXIS 499

Kathleen A. D’Amico and Allen N. D’Amico, her husband, Plaintiffs, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., a Corporation of the State of New Jersey, Defendant

DOCKET No. W-029746-88

Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County

265 N.J. Super. 496; 627 A.2d 1164; 1992 N.J. Super. LEXIS 499

December 24, 1992, Decided

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [***1] Approved for Publication June 9, 1993.

CASE SUMMARY:

COUNSEL: Craig L. Klafter for plaintiffs (Hanlon, Lavigne, Herzfeld & Rubin, attorneys).

Samuel A. DeGonge for defendant (Samuel A. DeGonge, attorneys).

JUDGES: RUSSELL, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: RUSSELL

OPINION

[***2] [*497] [**1165] On February 27, 1987, plaintiff was injured while attempting to board a ski lift at defendant’s ski resort, Vernon Valley. Functionally, [*498] chairlifts consist of a series of metal and wooden chairs which are suspended from a wire cable. They are spaced evenly apart along the cable which rests on wheels attached to tall steel towers. At the bottom and top of the mountain, there is a large wheel which reverses the direction of the cable to enable the chairs to go up and down the mountain. The skier skis to a waiting area to board the lift. As the chair comes closer, the skier sits down onto the chair and is picked up off the snow and transported up the mountain. A safety bar across the front of the chair is lowered into place to prevent the skier from falling out of the chair.

Plaintiff was in the boarding area of the ski lift when the accident occurred. As she was waiting for the chair, an unidentified skier skied into the path of the chair. He struck the chair intended to transport plaintiff up the mountain. As a result, the chair began to swing and struck plaintiff causing serious injury. Plaintiff alleged, inter alia, that defendant ski area was negligent in its operation and supervision of the ski lift. Plaintiff moved in limine for an order declaring defendant to be a common carrier in the operation of the ski lift.

This issue has not been addressed by any reported decisions in New Jersey. Plaintiff seeks to have this court adopt the reasoning of the Third District Court of Appeals of California in Squaw Valley Ski Corp. v. Superior Court, 2 Cal.App.4th 1499, 3 Cal.Rptr.2d 897, (1992) that a ski area is a common carrier in the operation of its ski lifts and the highest standard of care applies

There are two New Jersey statutes which regulate ski areas, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 et seq. (hereinafter “Ski Act”) and N.J.S.A. 34:4A-1 et seq. (hereinafter “Ski Lift Safety Act”). Neither act resolves the issue presently before this court. The Ski Act imposes duties on ski area operators and skiers involving the act of [***3] skiing. The Ski Lift Safety Act authorizes the adoption of standards for the construction, operation and inspection of ski lifts.

Plaintiff asserts that the New Jersey Ski Lift Safety Act of 1975 was modeled after a similar statute in New Hampshire originally [*499] enacted in 1957. Plaintiff derives this assertion from the similarity between the statements of purpose of the two acts. N.J.S.A. 34:4A-2 and N.H.R.S.A. 225-1:1. However, the definition of a ski area operator is significantly different in that a provision of the New Hampshire statute was added in 1965 to specifically provide that ski area operators shall not be deemed to be common carriers. Plaintiff argues that since the New Jersey Legislature was relying largely on the New Hampshire statute when it adopted the Ski Lift Safety Act, the absence of a comparable provision excluding common carrier liability evidences an intent to impose such liability.

There is nothing in the legislative history of the Ski Act or the Ski Lift Safety Act which indicates such an intent. However, the similarity between the New Hampshire and New Jersey statutes indicates that the Legislature was aware of the New Hampshire law [***4] and presumably they were also aware of the 1967 New York law which also specifically excludes ski lift operators from common carrier liability. N.Y.Trans.Law Sec. 2(6).

[HN1] It is a long-standing tenet of statutory construction that the legislature will not be said to change the common law without clear statutory language. See State v. Dalglish, 86 N.J. 503, 432 A.2d 74 (1981). Furthermore, [HN2] N.J.S.A. 34:4A-4 specifically provides that the Ski Lift Safety Act shall not “reduce or diminish the standard of care imposed upon passenger tramway operators under existing law.”

New Jersey case law provides little assistance in this matter; however, a number of other courts have grappled with this issue. In 1959, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court decided Grauer v. New York, 9 A.D.2d 829, 192 N.Y.S.2d 647 (1959). The court held that the state of New York would be deemed to be a common carrier in the operation of a chair lift at a state park. The court noted that in [**1166] the operation of the chair lift, “(a) fee was charged for transportation and the public was invited [***5] to use the service.” Id. 192 N.Y.S.2d at 649. This holding by the New York Court was later overturned by the Legislature in 1967 [*500] when it amended New York’s transportation law. See N.Y.Trans. Law Sec. 2(6).

In Fisher v. Mt. Mansfield Co., 283 F.2d 533 (2nd Cir.1960), the court upheld the trial judge’s ruling that the standard of care of a common carrier applied to a Vermont ski lift operator. In Summit County Development Corp. v. Bagnoli, 166 Colo. 27, 441 P.2d 658 (1968), the trial judge instructed the jury that the ski area operator owed plaintiff the highest degree of care because it was a common carrier in the operation of its ski lifts. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld this decision.

In Allen v. New Hampshire, 110 N.H. 42, 260 A.2d 454 (1969), the court applied the standard of care of a common carrier to a ski lift operator. New Hampshire later changed its law through legislative action. N.H.R.S.A. Sec. 225-A:1. See Bolduc v. Herbert Schneider Corp., 117 N.H. 566, 374 A.2d 1187 (1977).

[***6] In one case, Pessl v. Bridger Bowl, 164 Mont. 389, 524 P.2d 1101 (1974), the court did not apply the common carrier standard to a ski lift operator because of specific state legislation preventing such application. See Mont.Code Ann. Sec. 69-6615 (1947).

Grauer, Fisher, Bagnoli, Allen and Pessl were all decided before the New Jersey Legislature adopted the Ski Lift Safety Act in 1975. As such, the Legislature must be said to have been aware of the trend of courts addressing this issue to hold ski lift operators to the standard of care of common carriers. See Guzman v. City of Perth Amboy, 214 N.J.Super. 167, 518 A.2d 758 (App.Div.1980).

This trend was continued in the recent, well reasoned decision of Squaw Valley Ski Corp. v. Superior Court, 2 Cal.App.4th 1499, 3 Cal.Rptr.2d 897 (1992). The court defined [HN3] a common carrier as “any entity which holds itself out to the public generally and indifferently to transport goods or persons from place to place for profit” and held that a ski lift operator fit within [***7] this definition. Id. at 1508, 3 Cal.Rptr.2d 897.

[*501] The defendant in the Squaw Valley case and the defendant in the case sub judice both argued that a ski lift operator is not a common carrier because ski lift riders are required to possess special equipment and skills in order to use the lift, hence, a ski lift is not offered for use indiscriminately to the general public. This court agrees with the conclusion of the Squaw Valley Court that defendant’s argument must fail. [HN4] A common carrier does not lose its status as such merely because the nature of its services is specialized. All members of the general public who possess the necessary equipment and expertise may avail themselves of the Vernon Valley chair lift.

The rationale behind requiring common carriers to exercise the highest degree of care furthers its application here. A passenger of a common carrier places himself in the care of that common carrier. A passenger is unable to use his own faculties in order to prevent or avoid accidents and is forced to rely on the common carrier to ensure that accidents are avoided. The carrier has this responsibility [***8] because they exercise control of the equipment used in the transportation of the passenger. Only the carrier can ensure that the equipment is in proper working order and is being operated correctly.

Just like a passenger on a train who has no opportunity to ensure that the locomotive is operating properly, a skier cannot determine whether a ski lift is operating properly. When skiers board a ski lift, they are entrusting their care in the hands of another. Once they have committed themselves to riding that chair up the mountain, they are powerless to control their own safety. The chair lifts the skier off the ground as she sits down. The chair is suspended off the ground at considerable distance. The skier has no ability to stop the cable from moving. Furthermore, a skier can’t exit the chair once it has begun [**1167] its ascent. Because of the skier’s helplessness, ski lift operators should be held to the highest standard of care.

Defendant argues that it should not be deemed to be a common carrier because “(i)t does not hold itself out to the public for [*502] compensation for the transportation of persons.” Great American Recreation asserts that the transportation of skiers [***9] up the mountain is only “incidental” to its business. Ski areas provide customers with many services including snow making, trail grooming and maintenance, lessons, parking, equipment rentals and restaurant facilities. However, skiers come to ski areas to ski. If ski areas did not provide transportation up a mountain, it would be impossible for skiers to ski down the mountain. Transportation of skiers up the mountain is one of the primary functions of a ski area operator. It is the reason skiers purchase “lift tickets”.

Defendant also argues that holding ski lift area operators to the standard of care of a common carrier would necessitate holding operators of elevators, escalators and other people movers to the standard of care of common carriers. However, many states have imposed this standard of care on operators of these devices. See, e.g., Kaminsky v. Arthur Rubloff & Co., 72 Ill.App.2d 68, 218 N.E.2d 860 (1906) (elevator); Norman v. Thomas Emery’s Sons, Inc., 7 Ohio App.2d 41, 218 N.E.2d 480 (1942) (elevator); [***10] Vandagriff v. J.C. Penney Co., 228 Cal.App.2d 579, 39 Cal.Rptr. 671 (1964). But see Tolman v. Wieboldt Stores, Inc., 38 Ill.2d 519, 233 N.E.2d 33 (1968) (holding that escalators are not common carriers). The reported New Jersey decisions involving elevators or escalators do not address the issue of whether to hold the operators to the standard of care of a common carrier. See Pisano v. S. Klein on the Square, 78 N.J.Super. 375, 188 A.2d 622 (1963); Dombrowska v. Kresge-Newark, Inc., 75 N.J.Super. 271, 183 A.2d 111 (App.Div.1962).

The fact that this plaintiff was not physically on the lift when she was injured does not help defendant. [HN5] The duty of care of a common carrier includes providing a safe means of ingress and egress for its passengers. See Buchner v. Erie Railroad Co., 17 N.J. 283, 111 A.2d 257 (1955).

Based upon the applicable well-reasoned decisions from other jurisdictions and the analysis set forth above, [HN6] this court holds that ski area operators are common carriers in the operation of ski [*503] lifts. It is, of course, within the [***11] power of the Legislature to follow the examples of New York and New Hampshire and amend existing law to exclude ski lift operators from common carrier liability. Great American Recreation will be held to the standard of care applicable to other types of common carriers in the operation of its Vernon Valley chairlift. This standard has been described as the highest possible care consistent with the nature of the undertaking involved. Harpell v. Public Serv. Coord. Transp., 20 N.J. 309, 120 A.2d 43 (1956). See Model Jury Charges 5.31.


Tobogganing is added to the NJ Skier Safety Act, yet in this case, it allows the ski area to be sued.

However, the courts in this case seemed to want the plaintiff’s to win no matter what.

Brett, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., et al., 279 N.J. Super. 306; 652 A.2d 774; 1995 N.J. Super. LEXIS 53

State: New Jersey, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

Plaintiff: Patrick Brett and Elisa Ramundo

Defendant: Great American Recreation, Inc. et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: (1) defendant owed no duty to plaintiffs under either the common law or the Statute because they were trespassers at the time of the accident, and (2) even if plaintiffs were not barred from recovery as trespassers, the facts of this case do not render defendant liable under the terms of the Statute.

Holding: For the plaintiff’s

Year: 1995

This is an old decision; however, it explains how a statute created to and passed to protect an activity, can be used to hold the operators of the activity liable.

There are numerous claims, cross claims, third party claims and claimants. Several parties were dismissed prior to trial. Basically, everyone who was brought into the lawsuit also made claims against the people bringing them in and anyone else that could have any liability.

Thirteen college friends intended to spend the weekend in a condo owned by the uncle of one of the thirteen. The condo was sitting next to the Great Gorge North ski area. Between the ski area and the condos was a vacant strip of land. The land is owned by two condo associations, including one of the plaintiffs were staying in.

During the day, the vacant strip of land is used by the ski area as a bunny hill. When the ski hill is closed the lights are turned off.  However, the lights are turned back on later in the night for the groomers to operate.

One of the party of 13 found in the condo a toboggan. After the lights were turned back on, several of the thirteen went tobogganing on the bunny hill. They were not alone tobogganing; other people were tobogganing, sledding and using the hill after it had closed but with the lights on.

Different people in the group used the toboggan at different times; taking turns because the toboggan could only hold six at a time. On the third run, the toboggan was launched higher up the hill.

The toboggan went down the bunny hill across a fifty to sixty foot flat section of land, over a flattened snow fence then over the edge of a 20’ embankment landing in the parking lot below. One of the six was able to fall off the toboggan before it went over the embankment. The five remaining riders were seriously injured landing in the parking lot and hitting a light pole.

Security guards were employed by the defendant condo association. Part of their duties included keeping people off the bunny hill. However, this night the security guards were shorthanded, and hill was not checked. The plaintiff’s even argued that the defendants were negligent because they failed to eject people on the bunny hill.

Stonehill employed security personnel to police the entire condominium area, including the Bunny Buster trail. That policing included keeping trespassers off the trail at night, but the security force was short-handed that night and failed to police the trail. Defendant’s attorney argued in his summation that Stonehill was negligent because it failed to have its security force eject after-hours trespassers.

The case proceeded to trial, and the plaintiffs were awarded $2,475,000 among the five of them. The damages were apportioned under comparative negligence as: plaintiffs 22%, defendant 54% and Stonehill 24% (one of the condo associations).

The defendants appealed.

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

The court first pointed out that even if the plaintiffs were found to be trespassers that did not mean, under New Jersey law that no duty was owed to the trespassers. If the land contained a dangerous instrumentality, then a duty is owed to a trespasser to warn them of the danger.

Traditionally, a landowner owed no duty to a trespasser other than to refrain from acts willfully injurious.” The Court held, however, that even traditionally there was a higher standard of care due a trespasser “when the property owned by the landowner can be classified as a dangerous instrumentality.” Here, the design of the Bunny Buster trail rendered it unexpectedly dangerous.

In this case, the court concluded that next to a bunny hill, an embankment is a dangerous instrumentality. The court’s opinion of the situation is pretty clear in the next discussion when the embankment is called a fatal trap.

Here, on one side of that relationship are young people attracted to a condominium because of its proximity to snow trails and who, not unexpectedly, used defendant’s adjacent lighted trail to toboggan after skiing hours. On the other side of the relationship is the operator of the trail, which, as designed, was a near-fatal trap to those using the trail to toboggan.

New Jersey has a Skier Safety Act. The court found that the New Jersey Skier Safety Act applied to this case.

To determine whether it applies to the exclusion of common-law principles, one must look at two sections of the Statute: N.J.S.A. 5:13-4, which lists the duties of skiers, 1 and N.J.S.A. 5:13-5, which describes the risks that a skier is deemed to have assumed. If a factfinder finds that a skier was injured because he or she had violated one or more of those statutory duties or is deemed by the Statute to have assumed one or more of the stated risks of skiing, the Statute applies.

Once it is determined the act applies, the court, or jury, determines if the injuries of the plaintiff were caused by the ski operators violation of the act. If so the plaintiff recovers.

If the factfinder finds that the injuries were not proximately caused by the ski operator’s violation of any of its statutory responsibilities, the Statute bars the injured skier from recovering compensation from the operator. If the factfinder finds that the injuries were proximately caused by the ski operator’s violation of one or more of its statutory responsibilities, the skier is entitled to recover under principles of comparative negligence.

The court also found the plaintiff’s violated one statute of the New Jersey Skier Safety Act. The plaintiff’s failed to maintain control of their toboggan and did not know their abilities.

Here it is obvious that plaintiffs violated at least one of the statutory duties and therefore the Statute applies.  [HN7] N.J.S.A. 5:13-4d provides:

A skier shall be the sole judge of his ability to negotiate any trail, slope, or uphill track and shall not attempt to ski or otherwise traverse any trail, slope or other area which is beyond the skier’s ability to negotiate.

The court also found the plaintiff’s assumed the risk because they still went down the slope. However, this assumption of the risk, the court found was not a complete bar, but only proved the plaintiffs contributed to their injuries. Which is contrary to how the assumption of risk provision reads and is somewhat contrary to earlier statements in the case?

It is important to note that these statutory violations and risk assumptions do not affect the percentage of a skier’s comparative negligence. That determination is left to the factfinder if it finds that the skier contributed to his or her own injuries by violating one or more of the skier’s responsibilities. The skiers’ statutory violations and risk assumptions initially serve merely to invoke application of the Statute.

This interpretation of the statute effectively render’s the inherent risk section of the statute void. An inherent risk is a risk that is part of the activity. In inherent risk is something that cannot be removed from the activity without rendering the activity moot. You cannot sue for an injury you receive from an inherent risk of the activity, allegedly. Skier Safety Acts are written to broaden the risks that are inherent and to make them, if assumed an absolute bar to a claim, in most states.

However, in New Jersey, this is not the case.

It is important to note that these statutory violations and risk assumptions do not affect the percentage of a skier’s comparative negligence. That determination is left to the factfinder if it finds that the skier contributed to his or her own injuries by violating one or more of the skier’s responsibilities. The skiers’ statutory violations and risk assumptions initially serve merely to invoke application of the Statute.

The case took a somewhat amusing turn. The court reviewed the plaintiff’s claim that a stronger fence should have been built and that the defendants were liable because they had not built a fence strong enough to keep the plaintiff’s from going over the embankment. Aren’t the injuries going to be different when a toboggan going fast enough to over an embankment hits a fence, but still severe?

The argument then went back to the New Jersey Skier Safety Act. The act differentiates between manmade hazards and natural ones. The statute defines a ski area as real property “…”utilized for skiing, operating toboggans, sleds, or similar vehicles during the skiing season.”

However, the court simply stated, “Being borne off an embankment after reaching the bottom of a trail is not an inherent risk of tobogganing.”

Then the court looked at the hazard and determined the act required removal of a hazard. If the hazard could not be removed, then the plaintiff’s had to be warned of the hazard.

Where physical removal of a hazard is not possible, reasonable warnings of the hazard may constitute its practicable removal. The Statute impliedly contemplates that an operator at least has a duty to post suitable warnings of danger. It will be recalled that N.J.S.A. 5:13-5 expressly charges skiers with the reciprocal duty “to heed all posted warnings.”

The decision then went back to the duty owed to trespassers. The defendants argued the New Jersey Skier Safety Act does not apply to trespassers. However, the court stated that even if the plaintiffs were trespassers a high duty was owed with or without the New Jersey Skier Safety Act.

We already suggested that even at common law, defendant may owe plaintiffs a duty of reasonable care because their presence on the lighted trail was reasonably foreseeable, the risk of grave injury was great and the duty of care was not delegable.

The court then summed out the analysis it was making to allow a recovery by the plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs were not merely “in” the ski area; they were “utilizing the ski area for recreational purposes such as . . . operating toboggans.” They were therefore skiers entitled to recover under principles of comparative negligence if defendant violated any of its limited statutory responsibilities.

The statutory responsibility was the failure to remove the embankment or post a warning about it.

A major issue at trial was whether defendant violated any of its statutory responsibilities. The focus was on the meaning of  [HN10] N.J.S.A. 5:13-3, which provides in relevant part:

a. It shall be the responsibility of the operator to the extent practicable, to:

* * * *

(3) Remove as soon as practicable obvious, man-made hazards.

The appellate court upheld the jury’s decision and award at trial.

So Now What?

In New Jersey, you must make your property safe for all users of the property, even if they are doing so without our permission. If you cannot remove the hazard, you must post a warning of the hazard, if the hazard is considered ultra-hazardous.

Simply put, risk management is not controlling what people are expected to do at your program or business. Risk Management is looking at all aspects of the operation and finding ways that people can be hurt doing things other than what they came for.

The Zip Line may be perfect but is someone can mistake an anchor for a zip line you will be sued. See Federal court voids release in Vermont based on Vermont’s unique view of release law. Someone uses the equipment incorrectly, and the court is going to hold you to the fire. See Sometimes you get screwed; here Petzl was shafted by the court.

However, a person can use a piece of equipment, try a ride, climb up or down; they will do it wrong, be hurt and sue.

Risk Management is looking at things from every point of view, for every age group, for every activity, if you don’t think those people, those age groups or that activity can be done.

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Brett, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., et al., 279 N.J. Super. 306; 652 A.2d 774; 1995 N.J. Super. LEXIS 53

Brett, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., et al., 279 N.J. Super. 306; 652 A.2d 774; 1995 N.J. Super. LEXIS 53

Patrick Brett and Elisa Ramundo, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., Defendant-Appellant, and Stonehill Property Owners Association, Inc., Hotel Section Condominium Council, Inc., Defendants/Third-Party-Plaintiffs, and Rudolph Maurizzi, Defendant/Third-Party-Plaintiff/Respondent, v. Denise Mcdade, Nancy Morgan, Third-Party-Defendants. Karen Furman, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., Defendant-Appellant, and Stonehill Property Owners Association Inc., Hotel Section Condominium Council, Inc., Defendants/Third-Party-Plaintiffs, v. Rudolph Maurizzi, Third-Party-Defendant/Respondent. Donald Pisarcik, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., Defendant-Appellant, and Stone Hill Property Owners Association Inc., Hotel Section Condominium Council, Inc., Defendants, and Rudolph Maurizzi, Defendant-Respondent. Megan Russell, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., Defendant-Appellant, and Stone Hill Property Owners Association Inc., Hotel Section Condominium Council, Inc., Defendants/Third-Party-Plaintiffs, and Rudolph Maurizzi, Lisa Carmelitano, Third-Party-Defendants/Respondents, and Karen Furman, Third-Party-Defendant.

A-4010-92T3

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY, APPELLATE DIVISION

279 N.J. Super. 306; 652 A.2d 774; 1995 N.J. Super. LEXIS 53

November 29, 1994, Argued

February 8, 1995, Decided

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [***1] Approved for Publication February 8, 1995. As Amended.

Certification granted Brett v. Great Am. Recreation, 141 N.J. 97, 660 A.2d 1196, 1995 N.J. LEXIS 379 (1995)

Affirmed by Brett v. Great Am. Rec., 144 N.J. 479, 677 A.2d 705, 1996 N.J. LEXIS 787 (1996)

PRIOR HISTORY: On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County.

COUNSEL: Samuel A. DeGonge argued the cause for appellant Great American Recreation, Inc. (Samuel J. McNulty, on the brief).

Philip G. Auerbach argued the cause for respondents Patrick Brett, Elisa Ramundo, Karen Furman and Donald Pisarcik (Auerbach & Cox, attorneys; Mr. Auerbach, on the brief).

John P. Doran argued the cause for respondent Megan Russell.

Anthony P. Pasquarelli argued the cause for respondent Rudolph Maurizzi (Methfessel & Werbel, attorneys; Jared E. Stolz, of counsel and on the brief).

Kevin J. Decoursey argued the cause for respondent Lisa Carmelitano (O’Toole & Couch, attorneys; Michael Della Rovere, on the brief).

JUDGES: Before Judges BRODY, LONG and ARNOLD M. STEIN. The opinion of the Court was delivered by BRODY, P.J.A.D.

OPINION BY: Warren Brody

OPINION

[*310] [**776] The opinion of the Court was delivered by

BRODY, P.J.A.D.

Plaintiffs in this consolidated personal injury action are five of thirteen college friends, then twenty and twenty-one years old, who had planned to be together for a winter weekend at a condominium in Vernon Township. The owner of the condominium, third-party defendant Rudolph Maurizzi, is the uncle of third-party defendant [***2] Lisa Carmelitano, one of the group. He allowed the group to use his condominium, which is one of many such buildings built along the slope of Great Gorge North on either side of a vacant strip of land. During the winter, the vacant strip, which is about a thousand feet long, is the Bunny Buster ski trail. Defendants Stonehill Property Owners Association, Inc. and Hotel [*311] Section Condominium Council, Inc. (Stonehill) own the land that contains the condominiums and the Bunny Buster trail. Defendant Great American Recreation, Inc. (defendant) operates the trail as a business under the terms of an easement from Stonehill.

Members of the group arrived on Friday at different times. Early arrivals spent part of the day skiing along various trails in the area. When they finished skiing, some of those returning to the condominium used or crossed the Bunny Buster trail even though defendant had turned off the lights on the trail because by then it had closed for the day. Between ten and eleven o’clock that night, after everyone in the group had arrived at the condominium, defendant turned on the Bunny Buster trail lights to enable its employees to groom the trail for the next day. Grooming [***3] is accomplished by using motor vehicles to pull heavy rollers over the trail to tamp down the snow.

Earlier that day, one member of the group discovered a toboggan that Maurizzi had stored in his condominium with other snow equipment. After the lights were turned on, the group decided to slide down part of the trail on the toboggan. There was evidence that other people at the time were using the trail for sledding and tobogganing. The toboggan could hold no more than six people so members of the group took turns riding it. The first two runs were uneventful.

[**777] The third run, with six on board, was a disaster. Starting from a point a bit higher than where the first two runs had begun, the toboggan slid down the trail, across a fifty- to sixty-foot flat expanse of snow at the base of the trail, over a flattened snow fence, and then over the edge of a twenty-foot dirt embankment to a parking lot below. One of the six fell off the toboggan before it dropped over the edge, thereby escaping injury. The other five, the plaintiffs, were seriously injured as their bodies hit the embankment, the parking lot and a parking-lot light pole. There was evidence that, at the time of the rescue operation, [***4] other people, not associated with plaintiffs’ group, who were tobogganing [*312] escaped injury by tumbling off their toboggan just before it dropped over the edge.

Claims against all third-party defendants were dismissed on their motions for partial summary judgment. Plaintiffs settled with Stonehill before trial. The jury found that under the New Jersey Ski Statute (Statute), N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 et seq., plaintiffs as a group, defendant and Stonehill were all negligent. The jury apportioned the negligence as follows: plaintiffs 22%, defendant 54% and Stonehill 24%. The jury found that fair and adequate total compensation to all plaintiffs would be $ 2,475,000.

Defendant’s main arguments are: (1) defendant owed no duty to plaintiffs under either the common law or the Statute because they were trespassers at the time of the accident, and (2) even if plaintiffs were not barred from recovery as trespassers, the facts of this case do not render defendant liable under the terms of the Statute. Defendant raised these issues when it moved, unsuccessfully, for involuntary dismissal upon the conclusion of plaintiffs’ presentation of evidence, R. 4:37-2(b), and for judgment at the close [***5] of all evidence, R. 4:40-1. For reasons that follow, we conclude that defendant is liable under the Statute and that the Statute does not bar the claims of trespassers.

Before discussing those issues, we note that, contrary to defendant’s contention, although plaintiffs were trespassers at the time of the accident their claims would not necessarily be barred at common law. ” [HN1] Traditionally, a landowner owed no duty to a trespasser other than to refrain from acts willfully injurious.” Renz v. Penn Cent. Corp., 87 N.J. 437, 461, 435 A.2d 540 (1981). The Court held, however, that even traditionally there was a higher standard of care due a trespasser “when the property owned by the landowner can be classified as a dangerous instrumentality.” Id. at 462, 435 A.2d 540. Here, the design of the Bunny Buster trail rendered it unexpectedly dangerous. As this accident demonstrated, tobogganers who reached the bottom of the trail would be carried by momentum over the edge of a twenty-foot embankment resulting in serious injury.

[*313] The Court in Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 625 A.2d 1110 (1993), [***6] signaled its movement away from the rigid common-law distinctions among the standards of care due trespassers, licensees and invitees. There the Court held that a real estate broker owed a duty of reasonable care to a prospective home buyer who was injured when she failed to notice a step and fell while viewing the premises. She was there to attend an “open house” conducted by the broker. In imposing a duty of care on the broker, thereby departing from the common-law requirement that only the property owner had such a duty, the Court said:

The inquiry should be not what common law classification or amalgam of classifications most closely characterizes the relationship of the parties, but . . . whether in light of the actual relationship between the parties under all of the surrounding circumstances the imposition on the broker of a general duty to exercise reasonable care in preventing foreseeable harm to its open-house customers is fair and just. That approach is itself rooted in the philosophy of the common law.

[Id. at 438, 625 A.2d 1110]

Here, on one side of that relationship are young people attracted to a condominium because of its proximity [***7] to snow trails and who, not unexpectedly, used defendant’s adjacent lighted trail to toboggan after skiing hours. On the other side of the relationship is the operator of the trail, which, as designed, [**778] was a near-fatal trap to those using the trail to toboggan. Without having to decide the question, we suggest that even if the Ski Statute did not apply, the operator would have a common-law duty to take reasonable measures to warn such trespassers of that latent danger.

Indeed, such an obligation was recognized by defendant in its cross-claim against Stonehill. Stonehill employed security personnel to police the entire condominium area, including the Bunny Buster trail. That policing included keeping trespassers off the trail at night, but the security force was short-handed that night and failed to police the trail. Defendant’s attorney argued in his summation that Stonehill was negligent because it failed to have its security force eject after-hours trespassers. We add that [HN2] the duty of an owner or occupier of land to warn of such a serious [*314] danger may not be delegable. Hopkins, supra, at 441, 625 A.2d 1110 (citing Sanna v. National Sponge Co., 209 N.J.Super. 60, 506 A.2d 1258 (App.Div.1986)). [***8]

The Legislature enacted the Ski Statute in 1979 in response to a decision by the Vermont Supreme Court that deprived operators of ski areas of the absolute defense of assumption of risk. Sunday v. Stratton Corp., 136 Vt. 293, 390 A.2d 398 (1978), held that in adopting comparative negligence by statute the legislature of that state intended to replace the absolute defense of assumption of risk with the defense of plaintiff’s comparative negligence. Our Legislature was thus moved to consider whether its adoption of the doctrine of comparative negligence in 1973 left ski area operators unfairly vulnerable to personal injury actions caused by accidents that are an inherent risk of skiing and related sports such as toboganning. See generally Reisman v. Great Am. Recreation, 266 N.J.Super. 87, 92-95, 628 A.2d 801 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 134 N.J. 560, 636 A.2d 519 (1993).

[HN3] Actions against a ski operator for personal injuries sustained by a skier on its ski slope are governed by common-law negligence principles unless the Ski Statute applies. Reisman, supra,266 N.J. Super. at 97, 628 A.2d 801. [***9] The Statute, however, has wide application.

To determine whether it applies to the exclusion of common-law principles, one must look at two sections of the Statute: N.J.S.A. 5:13-4, which lists the duties of skiers, 1 and N.J.S.A. 5:13-5, which describes the risks that a skier is deemed to have assumed. If a factfinder finds that a skier was injured because he or she had violated one or more of those statutory duties or is deemed by the Statute to have assumed one or more of the stated risks of skiing, the Statute applies. The common law, and not the Statute, was applied in Reisman because there the skier’s injury [*315] was the result of neither the violation of a statutory duty nor the assumption of a statutory risk. He was injured while properly proceeding slowly down a beginner’s slope when a drunken skier knocked him to the ground.

1 [HN4] N.J.S.A. 5:13-2c defines “skier” to include “a person utilizing the ski area for recreational purposes such as . . . operating toboggans.”

[HN5] Once it is determined that the [***10] Statute applies, one must look at N.J.S.A. 5:13-3, which lists the responsibilities of the ski operator. 2 If the factfinder finds that the injuries were not proximately caused by the ski operator’s violation of any of its statutory responsibilities, the Statute bars the injured skier from recovering compensation from the operator. If the factfinder finds that the injuries were proximately caused by the ski operator’s violation of one or more of its statutory responsibilities, the skier is entitled to recover under principles of comparative negligence. N.J.S.A. 5:13-6.

2 [HN6] N.J.S.A. 5:13-2a defines “operator” to include “a person . . . who . . . manages . . . the operation of an area where individuals come to . . . operate . . . toboggans.”

Here it is obvious that plaintiffs violated at least one of the statutory duties and therefore the Statute applies. [HN7] N.J.S.A. 5:13-4d provides:

A skier shall be the sole judge of his ability to negotiate any trail, slope, or uphill track and shall not attempt to ski or otherwise [***11] traverse any trail, slope or other [**779] area which is beyond the skier’s ability to negotiate.

Plaintiffs were not able to negotiate the Bunny Buster trail. It is also obvious that plaintiffs are deemed to have assumed at least one statutory risk. [HN8] N.J.S.A. 5:13-5 provides in part:

Each skier is assumed to know the range of his ability, and it shall be the duty of each skier to conduct himself within the limits of such ability, to maintain control of his speed and course at all times while skiing, to heed all posted warnings and to refrain from acting in a manner which may cause or contribute to the injury of himself or others.

Given that assumption, plaintiffs acted in a manner that contributed to their own injury.

It is important to note that these [HN9] statutory violations and risk assumptions do not affect the percentage of a skier’s comparative [*316] negligence. That determination is left to the factfinder if it finds that the skier contributed to his or her own injuries by violating one or more of the skier’s responsibilities. The skiers’ statutory violations and risk assumptions initially serve merely to invoke application of the Statute.

A major issue at trial was whether [***12] defendant violated any of its statutory responsibilities. The focus was on the meaning of [HN10] N.J.S.A. 5:13-3, which provides in relevant part:

a. It shall be the responsibility of the operator to the extent practicable, to:

* * * *

(3) Remove as soon as practicable obvious, man-made hazards.

Much of the confusion in arguing the liability issue at trial was caused by the next subsection of the Statute, which expressly excuses an operator from certain specific responsibilities to skiers. In that regard, [HN11] N.J.S.A. 5:13-3 provides in relevant part:

b. No operator shall be responsible to any skier or other person because of its failure to comply with any provisions of subsection 3.a. if such failure was caused by:

* * * *

(3) Subject to the provisions of subsection 3.a.(3), the location of man-made facilities and equipment necessary for the ordinary operation of the ski area, such as . . . fencing of any type. . . .

Plaintiffs argued that the man-made hazard for which defendant was responsible was fencing. At first they seemed to suggest that the snow fence was a direct cause of the accident because it constituted a ramp that “launched” the toboggan down the embankment. Defendant [***13] responded by claiming the benefit of subsection -3b(3), which relieved it of any responsibility for the “location” of “fencing” “necessary for the ordinary operation of the ski area.”

As plaintiffs developed their case with expert testimony, however, it became apparent that they were not claiming that the flimsy snow fence was a cause of the accident, but rather that a cause of the accident was defendant’s failure to erect a more resistant fence that would restrain a toboggan and its passengers from [*317] going over the edge of the embankment. Aside from whether such a fence would effectively reduce injury or be “practicable” (a requirement of section -3a), defendant argued that the absence of a stronger fence was still related to the location of fencing and therefore not actionable because of subsection -3b(3).

The trial judge rejected defendant’s argument when he denied its motions. He interpreted “man-made hazards” comprehensively to include the design of the trail, which directed toboggans, known to be difficult if not impossible to control, over the edge of the twenty-foot embankment and down to the parking lot and light pole. As he understood the Legislature’s intent, the requirement [***14] that operators “remove . . . man-made hazards” was broad enough to include warning people not to use the trail for tobogganing. The judge instructed the jury that “remove” not only means “to . . . uproot” but also means “to eliminate or reduce or obviate.” This left the jury free to decide whether the hazard of falling over the edge of the embankment could be removed by warnings. We agree with the trial judge.

[**780] [HN12] An obvious man-made hazard, as contemplated in N.J.S.A. 5:13-3a(3), is a man-made danger, obvious to an operator, that is not an inherent risk of using a “ski area.” A ski area is defined in part by N.J.S.A. 5:13-2b as real property “utilized for skiing, operating toboggans, sleds, or similar vehicles during the skiing season.” Being borne off an embankment after reaching the bottom of a trail is not an inherent risk of tobogganing.

Where physical removal of a hazard is not possible, reasonable warnings of the hazard may constitute its practicable removal. The Statute impliedly contemplates that an operator at least has a duty to post suitable warnings of danger. It will be recalled that N.J.S.A. 5:13-5 expressly charges skiers with the reciprocal duty “to heed [***15] all posted warnings.”

Defendant argues alternatively that even if plaintiffs may recover under the Ski Statute, the Statute does not apply to trespassers. We already suggested that even at common law, [*318] defendant may owe plaintiffs a duty of reasonable care because their presence on the lighted trail was reasonably foreseeable, the risk of grave injury was great and the duty of care was not delegable. We find nothing in the statute that suggests that the Legislature meant to supplant the common law in that respect. The Statute does not exempt trespassers from the definition of skiers to whom operators have a limited responsibility. We quote the [HN13] N.J.S.A. 5:13-2c definition in full:

“Skier” means a person utilizing the ski area for recreational purposes such as skiing or operating toboggans, sleds or similar vehicles, and including anyone accompanying the person. Skier also includes any person in such ski area who is an invitee, whether or not said person pays consideration.

[Emphasis added.]

Plaintiffs were not merely “in” the ski area; they were “utilizing the ski area for recreational purposes such as . . . operating toboggans.” They were therefore skiers entitled to recover [***16] under principles of comparative negligence if defendant violated any of its limited statutory responsibilities.

Our understanding of the Legislature’s intent is fortified by a change in the Assembly bill before it became the Statute. The bill originally contained a section that read:

No operator shall be liable to any person who is a trespasser, which shall include, but not be limited to, persons using the facilities who fail, when required to do so, to pay lift fees or other fees required in connection with the use of these facilities. The operator shall be liable to skiers and others only as specified in this section.

[A. 1650, 198th Leg., 1st Sess. § 3(c) (1978).]

That provision was deleted before the Statute was adopted. The Statement accompanying the final version of the bill stated in part, “The complete removal of liability on the part of a ski area operator to trespassers would be eliminated.” Assembly Judiciary, Law, Public Safety and Defense Committee Statement to Assembly No. 1650 (November 20, 1978).

The two remaining arguments that we will briefly address are that the motion judge erroneously granted partial summary judgments to Maurizzi and to Carmelitano. [***17] The motions were properly granted.

[*319] There was no evidence presented in opposition to Maurizzi’s motion that he authorized plaintiffs to use his toboggan, which he had stored in his home. There was no evidence that a toboggan is so inherently dangerous that Maurizzi should have secured it from use by adults. There was no evidence that Maurizzi knew that using the toboggan on the Bunny Buster trail would be especially dangerous.

As to Carmelitano, although there was evidence, presented in opposition to her motion, that some members of the group drank beer at the condominium before the accident, there was no evidence that Carmelitano served the beer, much less that she served it to anyone who was visibly intoxicated. Indeed, there was no evidence that beer-drinking was a cause of the accident. See Gustavson v. Gaynor, 206 N.J.Super. 540, 503 A.2d 340 (App.Div.1985), certif. denied, 103 N.J. 476, 511 A.2d 655 (1986).

[**781] We are satisfied from a careful reading of this record that the remaining issues that defendant has raised in its brief are clearly without merit and therefore require no discussion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).

[***18] Affirmed.


New Jersey does not support fee shifting provisions (indemnification clauses) in releases in a sky diving case.

Plaintiff’s claims were dismissed because the plaintiff failed to present enough evidence to support any elements of his claim for his injuries skydiving.

Dare v. Freefall Adventures, Inc., 349 N.J. Super. 205; 793 A.2d 125; 2002 N.J. Super. LEXIS 155

State: New Jersey, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

Plaintiff: Joseph Dare and Patricia Dare

Defendant: Freefall Adventures, Inc., John Ed-Dowes, Warren Acron and Eric Keith Johnson, Defendants-Respondents.

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses:

Holding:

Year: 2002

The plaintiff was injured when he attempted to avoid colliding with another sky diver. The co-participant had left the airplane first and was lower than the plaintiff; therefore, the co-participant had the right of way.

The plaintiff had been jumping from this site with the defendant for two years, which totaled 137 jumps, including every week the six months before the accident.

Prior to jumping the plaintiff signed a release. The release was five pages long and included an indemnity agreement. The plaintiff also signed a release for Cross Keys Airport, Inc.

The plaintiff sued his co-participant sky diver, as well as the jump facility for his injuries.

The plaintiff denied that it was the cause of his injury; however, he had made arrangements to have his wife photograph him during the jump. In order to allow his wife the opportunity to photograph him, he had to steer through buildings towards the concession trailer where his wife was located.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted because the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence.

Prima facie, Latin for first look, which legally means the plaintiff, could not establish any facts or sufficient facts to support its claims. A plaintiff must show enough to the court to establish the very basics supporting the elements in its claim.

The defendant had argued that based on the release it should be awarded its attorney fees and costs also; however, the trial court did not grant this motion.

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

The court first looked at the standard of care between participants in a sporting event.

…the duty of care applicable to participants in informal recreational sports is to avoid the infliction of injury caused by reckless or intentional conduct.” The Court’s determination was grounded on two policy considerations; the promotion of vigorous participation in athletic activities, and the avoidance of a flood of litigation generated by voluntary participation in games and sports.

The reckless standard is a greater standard than the negligence standard. That means the acts of the co-participant to be liable for the injuries of another participant must be beyond negligent acts.

The applicability of the heightened standard of care for causes of action for personal injuries occurring in recreational sports should not depend on which sport is involved and whether it is commonly perceived as a “contact” or “noncontact” sport. The recklessness or intentional conduct standard of care articulated in Crawn was not meant to be applied in a crabbed fashion. That standard represented the enunciation of a more modern approach to our common law in actions for personal injuries that generally occur during recreational sporting activities.

Another reason for the application of the reckless standard rather than the negligence standard is the concern that the lower standard would create a flood of lawsuits for any sporting injury.

Recklessness under New Jersey law “entails highly unreasonable conduct, involving “an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent.”

“The standard is objective and may be proven by showing that a defendant ‘proceeded in disregard of a high and excessive degree of danger either known to him [or her] or apparent to a reasonable person in his [or her] position.'”. “Recklessness, unlike negligence, requires a conscious choice of a course of action, with knowledge or a reason to know that it will create serious danger to others.”

The court also felt that a failure on the part of the plaintiff to provide expert testimony as to what standard of care was for skydiving doomed the plaintiff’s claims.

   skydiving requires the training and licensing of participants. According to the record, it involves knowledge and conduct peculiar to the activity, including an understanding of wind direction and velocity, proper diver spacing, control of descent, and avoidance of ground hazards.

The appellate court upheld the trial courts dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims against the other co-participant sky diver. The court then looked at the plaintiffs’ claims against the defendant sky diving operation. The court found that the recklessness standard did not apply to the facility.

Consequently, the question here was whether, under the ordinary duty owed to business invitees, considering the nature of the risks associated with skydiving and the foreseeability of injury, plaintiff’s risk of injury was materially increased beyond those reasonably anticipated by skydiving participants as a result of the manner by which Freefall operated its facility. Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate such a material increase in risk.

For the plaintiff to make a claim against the defendant facility, he would have to prove that facility materially increased the risks over that of a normal sky-diving facility. Again, the plaintiff failed to prove that or provide enough evidence to proceed with his claims.

There was absolutely no evidence presented that Freefall failed to supervise the divers on the day of plaintiff’s accident. The record established that the loading of the aircraft, its operation, and the jumps themselves, were uneventful. Nothing suggests that Freefall personnel knew or should have known that plaintiff, or any other diver, was in peril because of the conduct of other participants. Moreover, Freefall had no way of controlling plaintiff’s, Johnson’s, or any other jumper’s maneuvering of their parachute canopies during the descent. Both plaintiff and Johnson were trained and licensed sky-divers. It is undisputed that once airborne, it was their duty alone to proceed with due care.

Plaintiff also claimed the landing zone of the defendant facility was not in accordance with regulatory minimums; however, he never stated what those minimums were or how the defendant’s facility failed to meet those minimums.

The appellate court upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

We conclude that the recklessness standard applied to Johnson and the ordinary negligence standard applied to Freefall, and, based on the evidentiary material submitted, summary judgment was properly granted to all defendants.

The court then looked at the indemnification provisions in the release which the court called “fee shifting provisions.”

The court looked at how other states had handled fee shifting provisions in sky-diving cases. New Jersey had not looked at the issue in skydiving, but had examined the issue in other cases, which had found the provisions were void.

The court reiterated that the plaintiff’s claim had been dismissed based on the plaintiff’s failure to present a prima facie case, not based on the release. The fee shifting provisions were part of the release. Under New Jersey law, “that sound judicial administration is best advanced if litigants bear their own counsel fees.” Even when fee shifting provisions are allowed, they will be strictly construed.

Essentially, the fee-shifting clause in Freefall’s release/waiver may be construed as an indemnification agreement, whereby plaintiff has agreed to pay counsel fees incurred by Freefall in defending plaintiffs’ suit, even if the cause of plaintiff’s injuries was Freefall’s own negligence. Such agreements, of course, must also be strictly construed against the indemnitee.

Reviewing construction law and finding no recreational case law where a fee shifting provision had been upheld the court determined the provisions were void as a violation of public policy.

Against this backdrop, we conclude that the fee-shifting provision in Freefall’s agreement is void as against public policy. It obviously runs counter to our strong policy disfavoring fee shifting of attorneys’ fees.

The deterrent effect of enforcing such a fee-shifting agreement offends our strong policy favoring an injured party’s right to seek compensation when it is alleged that the injury was caused by the tortious conduct of another.

The court also justified its decision by saying that because skydiving was regulated boy by the FAA and the New Jersey Department of Transportation it would be wrong to allow recovery of attorney fees by the defendant when the plaintiff argued the regulations had been violated, Even though the plaintiff’s arguments had no proof.

The defendant also attempted to argue the plaintiff’s complaint was frivolous which under a New Jersey statute would have allowed the defendant to recover their attorney fees defending a frivolous claim. However, the court found there were enough bases in the plaintiff’s complaint that it did not meet the frivolous claim threshold.

So Now What?

As stated in several other cases, indemnification clauses, even when well written, as you might assume from a five-page release, rarely result in recovery of attorney fees.

This also shows that the length of the release is not a deterrent, whether the release is effective in some court. Some people balk at a release over one page. However, when stopping a multi-million dollar claim a few pieces of paper are not a big issue.

Have your release written so that it protects you and all possible co-defendants and maybe includes a well-written indemnification clause.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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