Kelly v. United States of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741

Kelly v. United States of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741

Morgan Kelly; Pamela Kelly; and Terry Kelly, Plaintiffs, v. United States of America, Defendant.

NO. 7:10-CV-172-FL

United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Southern Division

2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741

August 10, 2011, Decided

August 11, 2011, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Morgan Kelly, Pamela Kelly, Terry Kelly, Plaintiffs: Steven Michael Stancliff, LEAD ATTORNEY, James L. Chapman, IV, Crenshaw, Ware and Martin, P.L.C., Norfolk, VA.

For UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant: R. A. Renfer, Jr., W. Ellis Boyle, LEAD ATTORNEYS, U. S. Attorney’s Office, Raleigh, NC.

JUDGES: LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, Chief United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: LOUISE W. FLANAGAN

OPINION

ORDER

This matter comes before the court on plaintiffs’ motion to strike affirmative defenses pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f), or in the alternative, for partial judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) (DE # 20). Plaintiffs’ motion has been fully briefed. Also before the court is the parties’ joint request for hearing on the motion (DE # 24). For the reasons that follow, plaintiffs’ motion to strike is allowed in part and denied in part. The companion joint motion for hearing is denied.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

This is an action pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671, et seq. (“FTCA”), to recover damages for injuries allegedly suffered by Morgan Kelly, a minor, at United States Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune (“Camp Lejeuene”). Morgan Kelly’s parents, Pamela Kelly and Terry [*2] Kelly, join their daughter as plaintiffs in this action.

Plaintiffs filed complaint on September 2, 2010. The government filed answer on December 29, 2010, stating several affirmative defenses. The court conducted a telephonic scheduling conference on February 23, 2011, and afterward entered a preliminary case management order providing for an initial period of written discovery to be completed by April 1, 2011, and for all Rule 12 motions to be filed by May 15, 2011. Further discovery in the case was stayed pending resolution of any motions pursuant to Rule 12.

On May 15, 2011, plaintiffs filed the instant motion to strike the government’s affirmative defenses pursuant to Rule 12(f), or in the alternative, for partial judgment pursuant to Rule 12(c). The motion has been fully briefed. On July 1, 2011, the parties filed joint request for hearing on the motion. On July 6, 2011, the government filed motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c). Plaintiffs were granted an extension of time to respond, and that Rule 12 motion is not yet ripe.

STATEMENT OF THE UNDISPUTED FACTS

In July, 2007, Morgan Kelly, then a fifteen-year-old high school student, was a cadet in the Navy Junior [*3] Reserve Officer Training Corps (“NJROTC”) program at her high school. As part of the program, she voluntarily attended an orientation visit to Camp Lejeune. The United States Marines Corps (“the Marines”) required all NJROTC cadets attending the orientation visit to sign a waiver, which was drafted by the Marines, before being allowed to enter Camp Lejeune. 1 The Marines also required the parent or guardian of any cadet who was a minor to sign the waiver. Morgan Kelly and her mother, Pamela Kelly, both signed the waiver, which is dated July 20, 2007.

1 The waiver is entitled “Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk Agreement United States Marine Corps” and states that the individual promises to waive all rights and claims for damages and any other actions arising out of participation in the event, or use of any Marine Corps base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, or government equipment or facilities in conjunction with such participation. (Pls.’ Mot., Ex. 1). The waiver further stipulates that the individual assumes the risks involved in the activities and agrees to hold the government harmless for any resulting injury. Id.

The NJROTC group arrived at Camp Lejeune on July 23, 2007. On [*4] July 25, 2007, Morgan Kelly participated in scheduled training activities at the confidence course. On the last obstacle, called the “Slide for Life” (“SFL”), Morgan Kelly fell as she was climbing and suffered unspecified but allegedly serious injuries. Plaintiffs now seek damages in excess of ten million dollars ($10,000,000.00).

DISCUSSION

A. Joint Request for Hearing

Counsel for the parties have suggested to the court that, due to the complexity of the matters at issue in plaintiffs’ motion, oral argument would aid the court in its determination of the motion. On this basis, the parties jointly request a hearing on the motion. [HN1] Local Civil Rule 7.1(i) provides that hearings on motions may be ordered by the court in its discretion, but that motions shall be determined without a hearing unless the court orders otherwise. The court is sensitive to counsel’s request, however, hearing is not necessary on this thoroughly briefed motion. Counsel have been quite articulate in their respective written presentations. Accordingly, the parties’ request for hearing on plaintiffs’ motion is denied. The court turns its attention below to the underlying motion.

B. Motion to Strike or for Judgment on the [*5] Pleadings

1. Standard of Review

Plaintiffs have moved, pursuant to Rule 12(f), to strike the government’s fourth and seventh affirmative defenses. 2 [HN2] Rule 12(f) permits a district court, on motion of a party or on its own initiative, to strike from a pleading an “insufficient defense.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f). “A defense is insufficient if it is clearly invalid as a matter of law.” Spell v. McDaniel, 591 F.Supp. 1090, 1112 (E.D.N.C. 1984). “Rule 12(f) motions are generally viewed with disfavor because striking a portion of a pleading is a drastic remedy and because it is often sought by the movant simply as a dilatory tactic.” Waste Management Holdings, Inc. v. Gilmore, 252 F.3d 316, 347 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations omitted). Therefore, motions to strike are rather strictly considered, see Godfredson v. JBC Legal Group, P.C., 387 F.Supp.2d 543, 547 (E.D.N.C. 2005), and the court is required to “view the pleading under attack in a light most favorable to the pleader.” Racick v. Dominion Law Associates, 270 F.R.D. 228, 232 (E.D.N.C. 2010). “Nevertheless, a defense that might confuse the issues in the case and would not, under the facts alleged, constitute a valid defense to the action [*6] can and should be deleted.” Waste Management, 252 F.3d at 347 (internal citations omitted).

2 As noted above, plaintiffs move in the alternative for partial judgment pursuant to Rule 12(c). The court, however, will examine the arguments through the lens of Rule 12(f), because [HN3] “a Rule 12(f) motion to strike is more fitting for situations, such as the one at bar, where a plaintiff challenges only some of the defenses raised in a defendant’s pleading.” Bradshaw v. Hilco Receivables, LLC, 725 F.Supp.2d 532, 534 (D.Md. 2010) (noting that “Rule 12(f) serves as a pruning device to eliminate objectionable matter from an opponent’s pleadings and, unlike the Rule 12(c) procedure, is not directed at gaining a final judgment on the merits”).

2. Analysis

Plaintiffs move to strike the government’s fourth affirmative defense, which asserts that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear plaintiffs’ claims pursuant to [HN4] the Feres doctrine, which provides the government with immunity from tort claims advanced by armed services personnel. See Feres v. U.S., 340 U.S. 135, 146, 71 S. Ct. 153, 95 L. Ed. 152 (1950). It is undisputed that Morgan Kelly has never been a member of the armed forces. Pls.’ Mot., at 5; Govt’s Resp. in Opp’n, [*7] at 1 n. 1. Therefore, as the government concedes, it is not entitled to defend on the basis of the Feres doctrine. 3 Because the fourth affirmative defense does not constitute a valid defense to the action under the facts alleged, see Waste Management, 252 F.3d at 347, plaintiffs’ motion to strike in this part is granted. The government’s fourth affirmative defense is stricken from its answer.

3 The government also informs that it has abandoned this defense. Govt’s Resp. in Opp’n, at 1 n. 1.

Plaintiffs also move to strike the government’s seventh affirmative defense. At issue is whether, under North Carolina law, 4 the liability waiver signed by the minor, Morgan Kelly, on her own behalf, and also by Pamela Kelly on the minor’s behalf, is enforceable. It is well-established [HN5] under North Carolina law that liability waivers are generally enforceable. See Hall v. Sinclair Refining Co., 242 N.C. 707, 709, 89 S.E.2d 396, 397 (1955) (“[A] person may effectively bargain against liability for harm caused by his ordinary negligence in the performance of a legal duty.”). North Carolina courts strictly construe the terms of exculpatory agreements against the parties seeking to enforce them. Id. Nevertheless, [*8] courts will enforce such contracts unless the contract (1) is violative of a statute; (2) is gained through inequality of bargaining power; or (3) is contrary to a substantial public interest. Waggoner v. Nags Head Water Sports, Inc., 141 F.3d 1162 (4th Cir. 1998) (unpublished table decision); see also Strawbridge v. Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc., 320 F.Supp.2d 425, 432 (W.D.N.C. 2004).

4 [HN6] Under the FTCA, the government is liable in tort “in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.” 28 U.S.C. § 2674. In such actions, “federal courts apply the substantive law of the state in which the act or omission giving rise to the action occurred.” Myrick v. U.S., 723 F.2d 1158, 1159 (4th Cir. 1983). Because the alleged act or omission giving rise to the action occurred in North Carolina, North Carolina law governs the nature and extent of the government’s liability for plaintiffs’ injuries. The parties further agree that North Carolina law governs the interpretation and enforceability of the waiver. Pls.’ Mot., at 8-9, Govt’s Resp. in Opp’n, at 2, n. 2.

Although liability waivers are generally enforceable, it is beyond dispute that Morgan Kelly’s own waiver [*9] is unenforceable. [HN7] Under North Carolina law, the contract of a minor generally is not binding on him. See Baker v. Adidas America, Inc., 335 Fed.App’x. 356, 359 (4th Cir. 2009); see also Creech ex rel. Creech v. Melnik, 147 N.C. App. 471, 475, 556 S.E.2d 587, 590 (2001) (citing Freeman v. Bridger, 49 N.C. 1 (1956)). The rule is based on the theory that minors do not have contractual capacity. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Chantos, 293 N.C. 431, 443, 238 S.E.2d 597, 605 (1977). “[B]ecause a minor lacks legal capacity there cannot be a valid contract in most transactions, unless it is for necessaries or the statutes make the contract valid.” Creech, 147 N.C. App. at 477, 238 S.E.2d at 591. Accordingly, contracts entered into by a minor, except those for necessities or authorized by statute, are voidable at the election of the minor, and may be disaffirmed. Id. (citing Jackson v. Beard, 162 N.C. 105, 78 S.E. 6 (1913)). Having disaffirmed the waiver by filing complaint, Morgan Kelly’s own contract purporting to waive her personal injury claims is not enforceable. Therefore, the seventh affirmative defense, to the extent it reaches the actions of minor plaintiff Morgan Kelly, is clearly invalid [*10] as a matter of law and therefore insufficient. See Spell, 591 F.Supp. at 1112. For this reason, the court allows plaintiff’s motion to strike the seventh affirmative defense as it pertains to any waiver by Morgan Kelly.

The question now turns on whether, under North Carolina law, a liability waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child 5 is enforceable, or whether such a waiver is unenforceable as contrary to a substantial public interest under the third Waggoner factor. 6 The parties agree that there is no controlling precedent, and the court similarly is unaware of any. The court therefore must forecast how the North Carolina Supreme Court would rule on the question. See Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Triangle Indus., 957 F.2d 1153, 1156 (4th Cir. 1992) (holding that [HN8] where state law is unclear, federal courts must predict the decision of the state’s highest court). Because no North Carolina case or statute directly addresses the issue, the court turns to the law of other jurisdictions for persuasive guidance. Each party relies on a series of decisions from other jurisdictions that fall on either side of the issue. The cases indicate the difficulty in reaching the proper balance [*11] between the important interests and policies at stake.

5 In North Carolina, a minor is defined as any person who has not reached the age of eighteen (18) years. N.C. Gen. Stat. 48A-2.

6 Plaintiffs also argue that the liability waiver is unenforceable under the first two prongs of the Waggoner analysis. Plaintiffs first assert that enforcement of the waiver would violate a statute. However, they point to no specific statute that would be violated by enforcement of the waiver, relying instead on legislative history reciting the purposes of the NJROTC program. The court is unwilling to find that the waiver is violative of statute on this basis, where plaintiffs can offer no statute in clear support of their argument.

Plaintiffs also claim that the waiver was obtained through inequality of bargaining power because plaintiffs were not free to negotiate different terms. In Waggoner, plaintiff rented a jet ski from defendant, signed a liability waiver as part of the rental agreement, and was injured while using the rented equipment. The Fourth Circuit rejected plaintiff’s argument that the waiver was obtained through inequality of bargaining power, reasoning that “[i]t is true that Waggoner could [*12] not negotiate the terms of the contract, but either had to sign the exculpatory clause or decline to rent the jet ski; however, this supposed inequality of bargaining power . . . is more apparent than real. It is not different from that which exists in any other case in which a potential seller is the only supplier of the particular article or service desired. [HN9] Only where it is necessary for [the plaintiff] to enter into the contract to obtain something of importance to him which for all practical purposes is not obtainable elsewhere will unequal bargaining power void an exculpatory clause.” Waggoner, 141 F.3d at 1162. In this case as well, the supposed inequality of bargaining power is more apparent than real, where Morgan Kelly was free to forego participation in the voluntary program. The court therefore declines to find the waiver unenforceable based on the second Waggoner factor.

As plaintiffs correctly note, [HN10] the majority rule in the United States is that parents may not bind their children to pre-injury liability waivers by signing the waivers on their children’s behalf. See Galloway v. State, 790 N.W.2d 252, 256 (Iowa 2010) (listing cases and concluding that “the majority of state [*13] courts who have examined the issue . . . have concluded public policy precludes enforcement of a parent’s pre-injury waiver of her child’s cause of action for injuries caused by negligence“); see also Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 356 (Fla. 2003) (listing cases, and stating that “[i]n holding that pre-injury releases executed by parents on behalf of minor children are unenforceable for participation in commercial activities, we are in agreement with the majority of other jurisdictions”).

[HN11] Many of the states holding that parents cannot bind children to pre-injury releases have reached that conclusion by relying on legal principles that also are recognized in North Carolina. For example, in many states, a parent may not bind a minor child to a post-injury settlement agreement releasing tort claims without court approval. See Galloway, 790 N.W.2d at 257 (noting that, under Iowa law, parents may not compromise and settle a minor child’s tort claim without court approval, and that therefore it would not make sense to permit a parent to prospectively release a child’s cause of action); see also J.T. ex rel. Thode v. Monster Mountain, LLC, 754 F.Supp.2d 1323, 1328 (M.D. Ala. 2010) (observing [*14] that under Alabama law, a parent may not bind a child to a settlement without court approval); see also Scott v. Pacific West Mountain Resort, 119 Wash.2d 484, 494, 834 P.2d 6, 11-12 (1992) (concluding that since, under Washington law, “a parent generally may not release a child’s cause of action after injury, it makes little, if any, sense to conclude a parent has the authority to release a child’s cause of action prior to an injury”).

Similarly, under North Carolina law, a parent cannot bind his minor child by settling a tort claim and executing a release of liability on the minor’s behalf. Sell v. Hotchkiss, 264 N.C. 185, 191, 141 S.E.2d 259, 264 (1965). “The settlement of an infant’s tort claim becomes effective and binding upon him only upon judicial examination and adjudication.” Id. Indeed, “failure to present proof of court approval of a [settlement] contract on behalf of a minor is fatal at any stage of a proceeding seeking to enforce such a contract.” Creech, 147 N.C. App. at 475, 556 S.E.2d at 590. It seems, therefore, that the North Carolina Supreme Court would join those other state courts listed above in holding that, in general, a parent may not bind a child to a pre-injury [*15] liability waiver by signing the liability waiver on the child’s behalf.

[HN12] Although the majority rule is that parents may not bind their children to pre-injury liability waivers, many states recognize an exception where the liability waiver is in the context of non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations. See Monster Mountain, 754 F.Supp.2d at 1327 (noting that “the only published decisions from other jurisdictions that have bound children to pre-injury releases executed by a parent or guardian on the child’s behalf have done so in the context of a minor’s participation in school-run or community-sponsored activities”). 7 For example, courts have upheld liability waivers in the context of school-sponsored fundraising events, high school athletic programs, municipal athletic programs, and voluntary extracurricular programs. See Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So.2d 1067, 1067-68 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2004); Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 747 (2002); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201 (1998); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal.App.3d 1559, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647 (1990).

7 Indeed, [HN13] where the liability [*16] waiver is in the context of a for-profit activity, it is almost certainly unenforceable. See Monster Mountain, 754 F.Supp.2d at 1327 (stating that “this court is not aware of a single case, that has not been overturned, that has held these clauses to be binding in the context of a for-profit activity”). The many cases cited by plaintiffs overwhelmingly demonstrate the tendency of courts to strike down exculpatory agreements in the context of a commercial activity. See, e.g., Meyer v. Naperville Manner, Inc., 262 Ill.App.3d 141, 634 N.E.2d 411, 199 Ill. Dec. 572 (1994) (horseback riding lessons); Paz v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 757 F. Supp.2d 658 (S.D. Tex. 2010) (fitness center); Johnson v. New River Scenic Whitewater Tours, Inc., 313 F.Supp.2d 621 (S.D.W.Va. 2004) (whitewater rafting); Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349 (Fla. 2003) (motor sports park).

In Gonzalez, the parent of a fifteen-year-old high school student signed a liability waiver in order for the student to participate in a school-sponsored training program at the municipal fire station, for which she was to receive class credit. 871 So.2d 1067. In holding that the waiver was enforceable, the court concluded that the program fell “within the [*17] category of commonplace child oriented community or school supported activities for which a parent or guardian may waive his or her child’s litigation rights in authorizing the child’s participation.” Id. Also in the context of school-sponsored extracurricular activities, a California state court and a Massachusetts state court each upheld liability waivers executed in conjunction with high school fundraising events and high school cheerleading practice, respectively. See Hohe, 224 Cal.App.3d at 1563 (noting specifically the voluntary and recreational nature of the activity, which was sponsored by plaintiff’s high school); Sharon, 437 Mass. at 107-08. Finally, apart from the school-sponsored context, the Ohio Supreme Court held that a liability waiver was enforceable in the context of a community-based recreational soccer club. Zivich, 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201. The court in that case held the waiver enforceable to bar the claim of a child who was injured on the soccer field, noting that “the [*18] public as a whole received the benefit of these exculpatory agreements [which allowed the club] to offer affordable recreation and to continue to do so without the risks and overwhelming costs of litigations.” Id. at 372..

Plaintiffs rely heavily on Galloway, wherein the Iowa Supreme Court held a liability waiver unenforceable where it was executed in the context of a high school field trip. 790 N.W.2d at 258-59. In declining to adopt the exception described above, the court noted that the policy concerns justifying the exception were “speculative and overstated,” finding that “the strong public policy favoring the protection of children’s legal rights must prevail over speculative fears about their continuing access to activities.” Id. at 259. This case, however, appears to be an outlier, as the exception is well-established by the majority of state court cases that have discussed the issue, as discussed above.

The court is persuaded by the analysis of those courts that have upheld such waivers in the context of litigation filed against schools, municipalities, or clubs providing activities for children, and concludes that, if faced with the issue, the North Carolina Supreme Court would [*19] similarly uphold a preinjury release executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child in this context.

Applying these principles to the case now at bar, the court observes that the activity at issue here was not commercial in nature, unlike those at issue in Meyer, Paz, Johnson, and Kirton, among others cited by plaintiffs. Here, it is undisputed that the liability waiver was executed on behalf of a fifteen-year-old high school student by her mother in conjunction with the student’s participation in a school-sponsored activity. The facts, therefore, are very similar to those in Gonzalez. As in that case, the court concludes that the activity falls “within the category of commonplace child oriented community or school supported activities for which a parent or guardian may waive his or her child’s litigation rights in authorizing the child’s participation.” Gonzalez, 871 So.2d 1067.

Here, the liability waiver was executed so that Morgan Kelly could participate in a school-sponsored enrichment program that was extracurricular and voluntary. On these facts, the court anticipates that the North Carolina Supreme Court would hold the liability waiver enforceable under the exception for non-commercial [*20] or community-based activities. Therefore, the seventh affirmative defense is not “clearly invalid as a matter of law” as it relates to a waiver of claims by Pamela Kelly, and therefore is not an insufficient defense. See Spell, 591 F.Supp. at 1112. As such, plaintiff’s motion to strike the seventh affirmative defense must be and is denied as to that issue. 8

8 Plaintiffs argue in the alternative that even if the waiver is enforceable to bar Morgan Kelly’s claims, it is not enforceable against the claims of her parents. Plaintiffs argue that “the text of the waiver form envisions an agreement only between the United States and the minor participant.” Pls.’ Mot., at 13. In support, plaintiffs point to language of the waiver which, they claim, emphasizes Morgan Kelly over her parents. For example, the contract refers to “my participation [in the training program]” and the provision that “should I decline to execute this agreement, I will not be permitted to attend the organized event.” Pls.’ Mot., at 13-14. However, the waiver clearly states that “I, the undersigned person, intending to be legally bound, hereby promise to waive for myself, my guardians, heirs, executor, administrators, [*21] legal representatives and any other persons on my behalf, any and all rights and claims for damages” arising out of “my participation in the activities comprising the aforesaid event.” As such, the waiver’s plain language extends not only to Morgan Kelly’s claims but those of her parents as well.

CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the parties’ joint request for hearing (DE # 24) is DENIED. Plaintiffs’ motion to strike affirmative defenses (DE # 20) is ALLOWED as to the fourth affirmative defense. As to the seventh affirmative defense, plaintiffs’ motion to strike is ALLOWED as to the minor’s waiver of her own claims. Attempted defense on this basis is not supported under law. Affirmative defense persists however, at to the mother’s waiver of the minor’s claims. As discussed at length above, plaintiffs’ motion to strike is DENIED in this remaining part.

SO ORDERED, this the 10th day of August, 2011.

/s/ Louise W. Flanagan

LOUISE W. FLANAGAN

Chief United States District Judge

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North Carolina Sales Representative

General Statutes of North Carolina

CHAPTER 66. COMMERCE AND BUSINESS

ARTICLE 27. SALES REPRESENTATIVE COMMISSIONS

Go to the North Carolina Code Archive Directory

§ 66-190. Definitions

The following definitions apply in this Article:

(1) “Commission” means compensation accruing to a sales representative for payment by a principal, the rate of which is expressed as a percentage of the amount of orders, sales, or profits or as a specified amount per order or per sale.

(2) “Person” means an individual, corporation, limited liability company, partnership, unincorporated association, estate, trust, or other entity.

(3) “Principal” means a person who:

a. Manufactures, produces, imports, or distributes a product or service;

b. Contracts with a sales representative to solicit orders for the product or service; and

c. Compensates the sales representative, in whole or in part, by commission.

(4) “Sales representative” means a person who:

a. Contracts with a principal to solicit orders for products or services;

b. Is compensated, in whole or in part, by commission;

c. Is not a seller who complies with:

1. G.S. 25A-39 and G.S. 25A-40; or

2. Part 429 of 16 Code of Federal Regulations (January 1, 2003);

d. Repealed by Session Laws 2003-331, s. 1, effective October 1, 2003.

e. Is not an employee of the principal;

f. Does not sell or take orders for the sale of advertising services; and

g. Is not a person requiring a real estate broker’s or sales agent’s license under Chapter 93A of the General Statutes.

(5) “Terminate” and “termination” mean the end of the business relationship between the sales representative and the principal, whether by agreement, by expiration of time, or by exercise of a right of termination of either party.

§ 66-191. Payment of commissions; termination.

When a contract between a sales representative and a principal is terminated for any reason other than malfeasance on the part of the sales representative, the principal shall pay the sales representative all commissions due under the contract within 30 days after the effective date of the termination and all commissions that become due after the effective date of termination within 15 days after they become due. If the principal does not make payment as required by this section, the sales representative shall make a written demand upon the principal, sent by certified mail, for the commissions then due. The principal shall respond in writing to the demand within 15 days after the principal receives the written demand.

§ 66-192.1. Revocable offers of commission; entitlement

If a principal makes a revocable offer of a commission to a sales representative, the sales representative is entitled to the commission agreed upon if:

(1) The principal revokes the offer of commission;

(2) The sales representative establishes that the revocation was for the purpose of avoiding payment of the commission;

(3) The revocation occurs after the principal has obtained a written order for the principal’s product or service because of the efforts of the sales representative; and

(4) The principal’s product or service that is the subject of the order is provided to and paid for by a customer.

§ 66-190.1. Written contracts

The agreement or contract between a sales representative and a principal shall be in writing. The absence of a written agreement or contract shall not bar a cause of action by, or any remedy available to, a party.

§ 66-192. Civil liability

(a) A principal who fails to comply with the provisions of G.S. 66-191 or is shown to have wrongfully revoked an offer of commission under G.S. 66-192.1 is liable to the sales representative in a civil action for (i) all amounts due the sales representative plus exemplary damages in an amount not to exceed two times the amount of commissions due the sales representative, (ii) attorney’s fees actually and reasonably incurred by the sales representative in the action, and (iii) court costs.

(b) Where the court determines that an action brought by a sales representative against a principal under this Article is frivolous, the sales representative is liable to the principal for court costs and for attorney’s fees actually and reasonably incurred by the principal in defending the action.

(c) A principal who is not a resident of this State who contracts with a sales representative to solicit orders in this State shall be subject to personal jurisdiction as provided in G.S. 1-75.4.

(d) Nothing in this Article shall invalidate or restrict any other or additional right or remedy available to a sales representative or preclude a sales representative from seeking to recover in one action on all claims against a principal.

§ 66-193. Contracts void

A provision in any contract between a sales representative and a principal purporting to waive any provision of this Article, whether by expressed waiver or by a contract subject to the laws of another state, is void.

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North Carolina may allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue for injuries when the minor is engaged in non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations

Kelly v. United States of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741

However, the decision was not made by the North Carolina Supreme Court and not a ruling by the court and the actual legal issue.

In this case the plaintiff, a fifteen year old minor went on an orientation visit to Camp Lejeune as part of her Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at her high school. While participating in the confidence course (or what used to be called the obstacle course) she was injured. Her injuries were not identified in the lawsuit; however, she was suing for $10,000,000.00.

The minor could not attend the camp unless she and her mother signed the release.

The reason for the decision was based on the plaintiff’s motion to strike the defendants’ answers. This is a preliminary motion that attempts to knock out the specific defenses of the defendant. One of the defenses the plaintiff attempted to eliminate was the defense of release.

This order and decision from the court are not a final decision on the merits of the case. This is only a preliminary motion; however, it is interesting in how the court ruled on the issue of the mother signing the release.

So?

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The court reviewed release law in general and found that in North Carolina, releases are generally enforceable. Releases are strictly construed against the party attempting to enforce them (the defendants). To be valid in North Carolina a release cannot be enforced if it:

(1) is violative of a statute;

(2) is gained through inequality of bargaining power; or

(3) is contrary to a substantial public interest.

The release in this case did not violate any of the above three prohibitions.

The court then looked at whether the release signed by the minor plaintiff was valid. Under North Carolina law, like all other states, a release signed by a minor is voidable by the minor unless it meets rare exceptions. The exception to the contract prohibition is contracts for necessities or when a statute allows a minor to sign a contract. Here, neither of these issues was the reason the release was signed. So the release signed by the minor has no value and is void.

The court then looked at the release signed by the mother. The court found that a minority of states that had looked at the issue, had found releases for minors signed by parents so the minor could engage in “non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations.”

The analysis then looked at whether the North Carolina Supreme Court would hold the same way. The activity the minor engaged in was extracurricular and voluntary and done for the benefit of the child. As such the court held the North Carolina Supreme Court would hold the release valid.

So Now What?

Before a rule, law can be cast in wet concrete (nothing is ever cast in stone) it must be decided by the highest court in the state. Here, the federal court looking at the issue made the decision. The North Carolina Supreme Court at some later time could decide that this is not the way it wants to rule.

Furthermore, the ruling is not that the release signed by the mother is valid. The ruling is the defense of release being argued by the defendant is not thrown out by the court. The legal issue of whether or not the release is a valid release under North Carolina law is still at issue.

The decision is important and will probably be followed later in the case, but there is no guaranty. However, it is a positive step to stop lawsuits.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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