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Any angry injured guest or a creative attorney will try about anything to win. In this case, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act was used to bring a Pennsylvania Ski Area to court in New Jersey

The lawsuit failed, this time. However, the failure was due to  Pennsylvania law more than New Jersey law. The plaintiff argued it was a violation of the act to advertise to New Jersey residents to come skiing in Pennsylvania and now warn of the difficulty of suing for injury’s skiing.

Cole, et al., v. Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, et al., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100183

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Gyl Cole, Ronald Cole, her husband

Defendant: Camelback Mountain Ski Resort

Plaintiff Claims: Violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act

Defendant Defenses: The statute did not apply

Holding: For the defendant 

Year: 2017 

Summary

In this case the plaintiff sued arguing, the New Jersey consumer Fraud Act was violated by the defendant ski area because it did not put a notice in its ad that was seen in New Jersey, that suing a Pennsylvania ski area was difficult, if not impossible, because of the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act

However, there was nothing in the act that applied to advertising nor was there anything in the law requiring a defendant to inform the consumer about the law that might apply to any relationship between the guest and the ski area. 

Facts 

The plaintiff and her husband lived in Waretown New Jersey. They went skiing at defendant Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, which is located in Pennsylvania. Although not stated, allegedly they went skiing after reading an advertisement by Camelback.

While skiing on a black diamond run the plaintiff slammed into a six-inch metal pipe and sustained severe injuries.

The plaintiff sued, first in New Jersey state court. The case was transferred to the Federal District Court in New Jersey. How the case was transferred to the Pennsylvania Federal court that issued this opinion is not clear. 

The Pennsylvania Federal District Court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint with the above captioned opinion.

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

The basis of the plaintiff’s complaint was that a ski area advertising in New Jersey needed to inform New Jersey residents that it was impossible to sue and win a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania ski area. Because the ads of the defendant ski area did not mention that fact, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendant had violated the New Jersey New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.

All states have a Consumer Fraud Act. Each states act is different from any other state, but generally they were enacted to prevent scam artists from ripping people off. The New Jersey Act awards treble damages and attorney’s fees if a consumer could prove there was “(1) an unlawful practice, (2) an ascertainable loss, and (3) a causal relationship between the unlawful conduct and the ascertainable loss.…

Most state consumer fraud statutes include greater than simple damages as a penalty to keep fraudulent acts from happening. Many also include attorney fees and costs to encourage attorneys to take up these cases to defend the  consumer put fraudulent practices or business on notice or out of business.

Under the act, an unlawful practice was defined as: 

[t]he act, use or employment by any person of any unconscionable commercial practice, deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, misrepresentation, or the knowing, concealment, suppression, or omission of any material fact with intent that others rely upon such concealment, suppression or omission, in connection with the sale or advertisement of any merchandise or real estate . . .

An unlawful practice was defined as falling into one of three categories: “affirmative acts, knowing omissions, and regulation violations.” 

A failure to inform, the argument being made by the plaintiff, was an omission. You could sue based upon the omission if you could prove the defendant “(1) knowingly concealed (2) a material fact (3) with the intention that the consumer rely upon the concealment.” 

The underlying duty on the part of the defendant was a duty to disclose. If there was no duty to disclose, then there was no omission. The plaintiffs argued, the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act prevented lawsuits against ski areas, or as the
plaintiff’s argued, indemnified ski areas from lawsuits. That information the plaintiff argued needed to be included in the ad, or it violated the New Jersey Act. 

The court then looked at Pennsylvania Supreme Courts interpretations of the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility
Act
. Those decisions stated the act did not create new law, but kept in place long standing principles of the common law. Meaning that the act reinforced the common law assumption of the risk defense that preceded the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act
.

The common law in which the Act preserves, the doctrine of voluntary assumption of risk, “has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.” In Pennsylvania, “this ‘no-duty’ rule applies to the operators of ski resorts, so that ski resorts have no duty to protect skiers from risks that are ‘common, frequent, and expected,’ and thus ‘inherent’ to the sport of downhill skiing.

Since the act did not create new law, only codified the law, there was little if any requirement of a duty to inform anyone of the law.

Going back to the New Jersey New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, nothing in the act nor had any court decision interpreting the act held a requirement to inform any consumer of any law. In fact, the law is based on the fact that all people know and understand the law. (A tenet of the law that I personally find confusing. You must know the law; however, to give legal advice you must go to law school. After law school, I know I don’t know all the laws!)

Consequently, there can be no duty to tell a consumer what the law states because they already know law. “…a finding that Plaintiffs’ claim was cognizable under the NJCFA would run counter to a well-known legal maxim: “[a]ll citizens are presumptively charged with knowledge of the law.”

There are exceptions to this rule, when a statute specifically requires some type of notice be given to the consumer, but that was not the case here. 

Finally, the court held that to find in favor of the plaintiffs would create a never-ending liability on businesses. In that part of the US, an ad could be seen by someone living in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. No ad could fully inform consumers in all three states about the possible laws that might be in play in that particular ad. “Indeed, the number of relevant legal concept that a business “omitted” from its advertisement would only be limited by the creativity and imagination of the lawyers involved.”

The case was dismissed. 

So Now What?

I don’t think you can simply think that this case has no value. You need to take a look, or have your attorney look, at your own state consumer fraud statute. Placing disclaimers in ads would not be logical, but making sure you don’t cross the line and violate your state consumer fraud law can keep you from being sued for violation of the statute in your own state. And damages can skyrocket in many cases once they are trebled and attorney fees, costs and interest are added.

 Remember, Marketing makes Promises Risk Management has to pay for©

What do you think? Leave a comment. 

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Cole, et al., v. Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, et al., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100183

Cole, et al., v. Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, et al., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100183

Gyl Cole, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, et al., Defendants.

3:16-CV-1959

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100183

June 28, 2017, Decided

June 28, 2017, Filed

CORE TERMS: skiing, advertisement, omission, ski resort, consumer, immunity, consumer fraud, presumed to know, residents, quotation marks omitted, downhill, common law, cause of action, factual allegations, assumption of risk, unlawful practice, sport, business practice, ascertainable loss, material fact, merchandise, concealment, advertised, cognizable, actionable, misleading, snow, Skier’s Responsibility Act, tort liability, reasonable inference

COUNSEL: [*1] For GYL COLE, RONALD COLE, her husband, Plaintiffs: EDWARD F. BEZDECKI, LEAD ATTORNEY, TOMS RIVER, NJ.

For CAMELBACK MOUNTAIN SKI RESORT, Defendant: Samuel J. McNulty, LEAD ATTORNEY, Hueston, McNulty, PC, Florham Park, NJ.

JUDGES: Robert D. Mariani, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Robert D. Mariani

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter presents the following question to the Court: Does a plaintiff state a cause of action for violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act when he or she alleges that a Pennsylvania ski resort advertised its business in New Jersey but failed to include any information in its advertisements regarding the protections from tort liability the business enjoyed under Pennsylvania law? For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that such a claim is not cognizable under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.

I. Introduction and Procedural History

The above captioned matter was first removed from the Superior Court of New Jersey, (Doc. 1), and then transferred by the District Court for the District of New Jersey to this Court, (Docs. 10). Plaintiffs, Gyl and Ronald Cole, represented by counsel, bring a two count Complaint against Camelback Mountain Ski Resort (“Camelback”), and two John [*2] Doe maintenance companies, (Doc. 1-1), concerning injuries that Gyl Cole sustained while skiing at Defendant Camelback’s skiing facility. Plaintiffs, both residents of New Jersey, allege that Defendants are liable both for negligence (Count I), and for violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:8-2, (Count II). Defendant Camelback now moves to dismiss Count II of Plaintiffs’ Complaint. (Doc. 20).

II. Factual Allegations

Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges the following facts:

Plaintiffs, Gyl and Ronald Cole, are husband and wife and reside in Waretown, New Jersey. (Doc. 1-1). Camelback is a snow skiing resort facility located in Pennsylvania. (Id. at 14). According to Plaintiffs’ Complaint, Camelback advertises its business heavily in New Jersey through a variety of forms of media. (Id.). Camelback’s advertisements, however, contain no information that, under Pennsylvania law, skiing facilities enjoy “immunity” from liability for the injuries patrons sustain while skiing. (Id.). On March 15, 2014, presumably after viewing one of Camelback’s advertisements, Gyl and Ronald Cole went skiing at Camelback’s skiing facility. (Id. at ¶¶ 1 , 3-4). While skiing on one of the black diamond slopes, Gyl Cole [*3] slammed into a six inch metal pipe and sustained severe injuries. (Id. at ¶ 3).

III. Standard of Review

A complaint must be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) if it does not allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1974, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009).

“While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff’s obligation to provide the ‘grounds’ of his ‘entitlement to relief’ requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action’s elements will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal citations and alterations omitted). In other words, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. A court “take[s] as true all the factual allegations in the Complaint and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those facts, but . . . disregard[s] legal conclusions and threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.” Ethypharm S.A. France v. Abbott Laboratories, 707 F.3d 223, 231 n.14 (3d Cir. 2013) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

Twombly and Iqbal [*4] require [a court] to take the following three steps to determine the sufficiency of a complaint: First, the court must take note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim. Second, the court should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. Finally, where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.

Connelly v. Steel Valley Sch. Dist., 706 F.3d 209, 212 (3d Cir. 2013).

“[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged–but it has not show[n]–that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S. Ct. at 1950 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). This “plausibility” determination will be a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id.

IV. Analysis

Count II of Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges a violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”). (Doc. 1-1 at ¶¶ 13-22). The NJCFA was enacted to address “sharp practices and dealings in the marketing of merchandise1 and real estate whereby the consumer could be victimized by being lured [*5] into a purchase through fraudulent, deceptive or other similar kind of selling or advertising practices.” Daaleman v. Elizabethtown Gas Co., 77 N.J. 267, 390 A.2d 566, 569 (N.J. 1978). “The Act creates a private cause of action, but only for victims of consumer fraud who have suffered an ascertainable loss.” Weinberg v. Sprint Corp., 173 N.J. 233, 801 A.2d 281, 291 (N.J. 2002).

1 Under the NJCFA, the term “merchandise” is broadly defined to “include any objects, wares, goods, commodities, services or anything offered, directly or indirectly to the public for sale.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:8-1

“A consumer who can prove (1) an unlawful practice, (2) an ascertainable loss, and (3) a causal relationship between the unlawful conduct and the ascertainable loss, is entitled to legal and/or equitable relief, treble damages, and reasonable attorneys’ fees.” Gonzalez v. Wilshire Credit Corp., 207 N.J. 557, 25 A.3d 1103, 1115 (N.J. 2011) (quotation marks omitted).

Unlawful practices include

[t]he act, use or employment by any person of any unconscionable commercial practice, deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, misrepresentation, or the knowing, concealment, suppression, or omission of any material fact with intent that others rely upon such concealment, suppression or omission, in connection with the sale or advertisement of any merchandise or real estate . . .

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:8-2. The New Jersey Supreme Court has specified that “[u]nlawful practices fall into three general categories: affirmative acts, knowing omissions, and regulation violations.” Cox v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 138 N.J. 2, 647 A.2d 454, 462 (N.J. 1994).

In the case at hand, Plaintiffs assert that the unlawful practice that Defendant Camelback allegedly engaged [*6] in was a failure to inform, i.e., an omission. (Doc. 1-1 at ¶ 14; Doc. 29 at 4). Under the NJCFA, an omission is actionable “where the defendant (1) knowingly concealed (2) a material fact (3) with the intention that the consumer rely upon the concealment.” Arcand v. Brother Int’l Corp., 673 F. Supp. 2d 282, 297 (D.N.J. 2009). “Implicit in the showing of an omission is the underlying duty on the part of the defendant to disclose what he concealed to induce the purchase.” Id.

Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges that Defendant Camelback failed to include any information in its advertisements with respect to the protections from tort liability it enjoyed under Pennsylvania law. Specifically, Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges the following:

Camelback knew that their [sic] advertising heavily in New Jersey induced New Jersey residents to attend Camelbacks [sic] site in Pennsylvania. Camelback knew that it had immunity granted to it through the legislation passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature but at no time did Camelback ever tell New Jersey residences [sic] that if they utilize the services of Camelback that they would be subject to the immunity clause granted to Camelback. Knowing full well that they [sic] had this immunity, Camelback elected not to notify any of [*7] the invitees to their [sic] site about the immunity.

(Doc. 1-1 at ¶ 14).2 Defendant Camelback argues that this is insufficient to state a claim under NJCFA. (Doc. 22 at 7). Plaintiffs respond that they have adequately pleaded that “Camelback knew and should have advised the skiing public [through its advertisements] . . . that if they utilize the services of Camelback that they would be subject to the immunity clause granted to Camelback by the Pennsylvania Legislature.” (Doc. 29 at 4).

2 Additionally, and somewhat confusingly, the Complaint also alleges that “Camelback misrepresented to the New Jersey residents at large through its media blitz that the New Jersey residences [sic] can use Camelback facilities for snow skiing.” (Doc. 1-1 at ¶ 17). This singular statement is in stark contrast with the rest of the Complaint which alleges that Plaintiffs, both residents of New Jersey, did in fact engage in snow skiing at Camelback.

The inaptly described “immunity clause” Plaintiffs refer to is no doubt the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act, 42 Pa. C.S. § 7102(c). The Act states:

(c) Downhill skiing.–

(1) The General Assembly finds that the sport of downhill skiing is practiced by a large number of citizens of this Commonwealth and also attracts to this Commonwealth large numbers of nonresidents significantly contributing to the economy of this Commonwealth, It is recognized that as in some other sports, there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.

(2) The doctrine of voluntary assumption of risk as it applies to downhill skiing injuries and damages is not modified by [42 Pa. C.S. § 7102(a)-(a.1)]

42 Pa. C.S. § 7102, The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has made clear that “the Act did [*8] not create a new or special defense for the exclusive use of ski resorts, but instead kept in place longstanding principles of common law.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1186 (Pa. 2010). The common law in which the Act preserves, the doctrine of voluntary assumption of risk, “has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.” Id. In Pennsylvania, “this ‘no-duty’ rule applies to the operators of ski resorts, so that ski resorts have no duty to protect skiers from risks that are ‘common, frequent, and expected,’ and thus ‘inherent’ to the sport of downhill skiing.” Id.

Thus, the Court arrives at the question of whether Plaintiffs’ state a claim under the NJCFA when they allege that Defendant Camelback advertised its Pennsylvania skiing facility to New Jersey residents but failed to include a disclaimer with respect to the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act or the common law doctrine of voluntary assumption of risk. As this is a question of New Jersey state law, this Court must turn to the decisions of that state’s courts for an answer. U.S. Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 80 F.3d 90, 93 (3d Cir. 1996). The parties have not directed the Court to any [*9] New Jersey case–and the Court’s own research did not uncover any–that squarely addresses this issue. Nor have New Jersey courts apparently addressed the analogous issue of whether, under the NJCFA, advertisers are ever obliged to educate the public on the law applicable to their product absent other specific authority requiring such disclosures. Accordingly, it falls to this Court to predict how the highest tribunal in New Jersey would rule on the matter. Id. For the following reasons, this Court predicts that the New Jersey Supreme Court would find that such a claim is not cognizable under the NJCFA.

First, this is simply not the type of omission contemplated by the NJCFA. The Court is cognizant of the fact the NJCFA “is intended to be applied broadly in order to accomplish its remedial purpose, namely, to root out consumer fraud, and therefore to be liberally construed in favor of the consumer.” Gonzalez, 25 A.3d at 1115 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Additionally, the Court is aware that “[t]he statutory and regulatory scheme is . . . designed to promote the disclosure of relevant information to enable the consumer to make intelligent decisions in the selection of products and services.” Div. of Consumer Affairs v. Gen. Elec. Co., 244 N.J. Super. 349, 582 A.2d 831, 833 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1990). [*10] Nevertheless, the NJCFA has limits. To qualify as an unlawful practice under the NJCFA, “[t]he practice must be misleading and outside the norm of a reasonable business practice.” Hughes v. TD Bank, N.A., 856 F. Supp. 2d 673, 680 (D.N.J. 2012); see also Miller v. Bank of Am. Home Loan Servicing, L.P., 439 N.J. Super. 540, 110 A.3d 137, 144 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2015). Indeed, the “advertisement must have ‘the capacity to mislead the average consumer in order for it to be actionable. Adamson v. Ortho-McNeil Pharm., Inc., 463 F. Supp. 2d 496, 501 (D.N.J. 2006) (quoting Union Ink Co., Inc. v. AT&T Corp., 352 N.J. Super. 617, 801 A.2d 361, 379 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2002)). Finally, the omission must concern a material fact. Arcand, 673 F. Supp. 2d at 297. The alleged omission in this case, however, is not one of fact, is not misleading, and does not fall outside the norm of reasonable business practices.

Plaintiffs’ allege that Defendant Camelback failed to provide information in its advertisements concerning the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act and the common law doctrine of voluntary assumption of risk. Initially, as omissions of law, these allegations fall outside of the statutory language of the NJCFA. Additionally, the type or nature of legal defenses to liability which a business may assert in the event of a lawsuit is not information normally included in an advertisement, as both parties have equal access to that information. Consequently, Defendant Camelback’s alleged failure to include such information does not imply its nonexistence and is therefore not [*11] misleading nor outside of the norm of a reasonable business practice. As such, omissions of this type are not actionable under the NJCFA.

Second, a finding that Plaintiffs’ claim was cognizable under the NJCFA would run counter to a well-known legal maxim: “[a]ll citizens are presumptively charged with knowledge of the law.” Atkins v. Parker, 472 U.S. 115, 130, 105 S. Ct. 2520, 86 L. Ed. 2d 81 (1985); see also Gilmore v. Taylor, 508 U.S. 333, 360, 113 S. Ct. 2112, 124 L. Ed. 2d 306 (1993) (“[A] citizen . . . is presumed to know the law . . . .”); Anela v. City of Wildwood, 790 F.2d 1063, 1067 (3d Cir. 1986) (“Private citizens are presumed to know the law . . . .”); State v. Moran, 202 N.J. 311, 997 A.2d 210, 216 (N.J. 2010) (“Every person is presumed to know the law.”); Maeker v. Ross, 219 N.J. 565, 99 A.3d 795, 802 (N.J. 2014) (“[E]veryone is presumed to know the law . . . .”); Widmer v. Mahwah Twp., 151 N.J. Super. 79, 376 A.2d 567, 569 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1977) (“[T]he principle is well established that every person is conclusively presumed to know the law, statutory and otherwise.”); cf. Commonwealth v. McBryde, 2006 PA Super 289, 909 A.2d 835, 838 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006) (“[E]veryone is presumed to know the law; an out-of-state driver is not absolved from following the laws of this Commonwealth or any other state in which he or she chooses to drive.”). Thus, as a matter of law, Defendant Camelback’s advertisement did not have the capacity to mislead because the law presumes that Plaintiffs–and everyone else for that matter–already knew the information Defendant Camelback allegedly omitted. Stated otherwise, the law should not obligate Defendant Camelback to inform its prospective customers of what they [*12] already know.3

3 The Court, however, may have come to a different conclusion had Plaintiffs alleged that Defendant Camelback made an affirmative misrepresentation of the law in its advertisements. Nevertheless, such a situation is not presently before this Court.

Finally, if this Court were to come to the opposite conclusion, businesses would have almost unending liability. For example, a Pennsylvania retailor may be liable under the NJCFA if it advertised its clothing outlet to New Jersey residents but failed to include a disclaimer stating that a customer injured at the store by an employee’s negligence may have his or her recovery reduced if the shopper was also negligent. See 42 Pa. C.S. § 7102(a) (“[A]ny damages sustained by the plaintiff shall be diminished in proportion to the amount of negligence attributed to the plaintiff.”). Or a marketer of a curling iron may be liable under the NJCFA for failing to disclose to consumers that, even if they are injured due to a design flaw in the product, the users may not be able to recover for their injuries if “there was no reasonable alternative design” for the curling iron at the time of manufacturing. See Cavanaugh v. Skil Corp., 164 N.J. 1, 751 A.2d 518, 520 (N.J. 2000) (quotation marks omitted); see also N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:58C-3(a)(1). Indeed, the number of relevant legal concept that a business “omitted” from its advertisement would only be limited by the creativity and imagination of the lawyers involved.

V. Conclusion

For the reasons outlined above, this Court will grant Defendant Camelback Mountain [*13] Ski Resort’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ claim for violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, (Doc. 20). A separate Order follows.

/s/ Robert D. Mariani

Robert D. Mariani

United States District Judge

ORDER

AND NOW. THIS 29th DAY OF JUNE, 2017, upon consideration of Defendant Camelback Mountain Ski Resort’s partial Motion to Dismiss, (Doc.20), IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT the Motion is GRANTED. Count II of Plaintiffs’ Complaint, (Doc. 1-1), is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

/s/ Robert D. Mariani

Robert D. Mariani

United States District Court Judge


Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., Defendant.

3:14-CV-1894

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

September 26, 2016, Decided

September 26, 2016, Filed

CORE TERMS: trail, summary judgment, exculpatory, recklessness, equine, stirrup, stable, immunity, genuine, horse, horseback riding, recreational, animal, material fact, skiing, ride, assumption of risk, faulty, broken, ski, rider, inherent risk, exculpatory clause, riding, sport, skier, enumerate, counter, rental, entity

COUNSEL:  [*1] For Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, Counterclaim Defendant: Robin A. Feeney, LEAD ATTORNEY, FINE & STAUD LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For Happy Trails and Riding Center, Incorporated, Defendant, Counterclaim Plaintiff: Dennis M. Marconi, Barnaba & Marconi, LLP, Trenton, NJ.

JUDGES: Robert D. Mariani, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Robert D. Mariani

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. Introduction and Procedural History

On September 30, 2014, Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, filled a one count Complaint with this Court against Defendant, Happy Trails and Riding Center, lnc.1 (Doc. 1). The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff suffered injury as a result of Defendant’s negligence in its operation of a business which rented horses and equipment to the public for recreational horseback riding. After the conclusion of fact discovery, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) and supporting brief (Doc. 20) on October 29, 2015. Plaintiff filed a Brief in Opposition (Doc. 22) and Defendant filed a Reply. (Doc. 23). Oral argument on the matter was held on April 4, 2016.

1 Defendant points out that the business is owned and operated by Randolph Bennett, d/b/a Happy Trails Stables, and was incorrectly pleaded as Happy Trails Riding [*2]  Center, Inc. For the purposes of this motion, the error, if any, is immaterial and the opinion will refer to Defendant as “Defendant” or “Happy Trails.”

The motion is now ripe for decision. For the reasons set forth below the Court will deny Defendant’s motion in its entirety.

II. Statement of Undisputed Facts

In accordance with Local Rule 56.1, Defendant submitted a Statement of Material Facts in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 20), as to which it contends that there is no genuine dispute for trial. Plaintiff submitted a response, a Counter Statement of Facts, (Doc. 22), with the result being that the following facts have been admitted, except as specifically noted:

Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, went to Defendant’s stable on May 31, 2014, for the purpose of going horseback riding. (Doc. 20, ¶¶ 1, 2). After his group arrived, Plaintiff went into the stable’s office to register. (Id. at ¶ 5). Plaintiff was presented with a form (the “agreement”), which stated, in pertinent part:

AGREEMENT FOR PARTICIPATION AND\OR VOLUNTEERS [sic] I RELEASE AND DISCHARGE, ACCEPTANCE OF RESPONSIBILITY AND ACKNOWLEDGE [sic] OF RISK:

IN CONDERATION [sic] FOR BEING PERMITTED TO UTILIZE THE FACILITIES AND EQUIPMENT [*3]  OF HAPPY TRAILS RIDING STABLES AND TO ENGAGE IN HORSEBACK RIDING, AND ALL RELATED ACTIVITIES.

….

1. I understand and acknowledge that the activity I am voluntarily engage [sic] in as a participant and/or [sic] bears certain know [sic] risk [sic] and unanticipated risks which could result in jury, [sic] death, illness, or disease, physical or mental, or damage to myself, to my property, or to spectators or other third parties. I understand and acknowledge those risk [sic] may result in personal claims against “HAPPY TRAILS STABLES” or claims against me by spectators or other third parties.

1. [sic] The nature of the activity itself, including the possible risks to you the rider.

A. The animal may be startled by unforeseen or unexpected noises from other animals, people, vehicles, activities and as a result you the rider may be hurt or injured should the animal react to said noises or activity, by running, bucking, rolling, or kicking, etc.

B. That you as the rider realizes [sic] that the animal is reacting to your physical instructions, conduct, and verbal instructions and commands, and therefore, the animal will respond in accordance with your reactions or commands. However, there are [*4]  times when the animal may be confused or distracted during course [sic] of your instructions and/or commands.

C. You the rider understands [sic] that an animal may kick or bite you the rider, or you the pedestrian, and that other animals which may be on tour, could kick or bite you the rider and/or pedestrian.

D. You the rider are aware that physical conditions of the trails may cause injury or risk to you, should these physical conditions such as low tree limbs, bushes, or other type of natural growth come in contact with animal [sic] or yourself.

2. I hereby release and discharge Happy Trails Stables, instructors, trail guides, stable managers, employees, owners of the horses and related equipment and land utilized for Happy Trails Stables activities, hereinafter referred to as the “Released Parties,” from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I, or any of my heirs, successors or assigns, [sic] may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence of the released parties.

3. I further agree that I, my heirs, successors, or assigns, [sic] will not sue or make claim [*5]  against the Released Parties for damage or other loses sustained as a result of my participation in Happy Trails activities.

….

4. I understand and acknowledge that Happy Trails activities have inherent dangers that no amount of cares, [sic] caution, instruction, or expertise can eliminate and I expressly and voluntarily assume all risk of personal injury or death sustained while participating in “Happy Trails Stables” activities weather [sic] or not caused by negligence of the Released Parties ….

….

6. I hereby expressly recognize that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence of the Released Parties. I also assume the risk of the equine activities pursuant to the [sic] Pennsylvania law.

(Id. at ¶¶ 5, 11; Doc. 20-7) (emphasis original). An employee of Happy Trails informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff must sign the agreement in order to go horseback riding. (Doc. 20, 5). Plaintiff signed the agreement. (Id. at ¶ 8). In addition to the agreement, there were signs posted inside the office, outside [*6]  the office, and by the stable which read “You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania Law.” (See id. at ¶¶ 12-15; Doc. 20-8).

After completing the agreement, Plaintiff waited while a Happy Trails employee saddled up a horse. (Doc. 20, ¶ 17). Plaintiff then mounted the horse and participated in a guided group horseback ride for the next forty-five minutes without incident. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 21). On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. (Id. at ¶¶ 22, 23). Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail. (Id.). At the end of the ride, one of the guides brought Plaintiff away from the group so that Plaintiff could canter the horse. (Id. at ¶ 26). Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal. (id. at ¶¶ 27-29).

Plaintiff maintains that the stirrup Defendant provided him was faulty or defective and that this was the cause of his fall. (Doc. 22 at 1). Plaintiff further maintains that this fall resulted in fractured ribs and pneumothorax. (Id. at 3).

III. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those [*7]  claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “As to materiality, ….[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Once such a showing has been made, the non-moving party must offer specific facts contradicting those averred by the movant to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990). Therefore, the non-moving party may not oppose summary judgment simply on the basis of the pleadings, or on conclusory statements that a factual issue exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing to particular parts of materials in the record…or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). In evaluating whether summary judgment should be granted, “[t]he court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). “Inferences [*8]  should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied 507 U.S. 912, 113 S. Ct. 1262, 122 L. Ed. 2d 659 (1993).

However, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine’ dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). If a party has carried its burden under the summary judgment rule,

its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact. When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

Id. (internal quotations, citations, and alterations omitted).

IV. Analysis [*9]

Plaintiffs complaint alleges that Defendant was negligent in providing broken or defective equipment–the stirrup–to Plaintiff, which directly resulted in his injury. (Doc. 1, ¶ 20). Defendant puts forth two arguments that it maintains are separate and independent grounds for summary judgment. First, Defendant argues that the agreement that Plaintiff signed prior to the horseback ride insulates Defendant from liability under these facts. (Doc. 20 at 9). Second, Defendant argues that, pursuant to 4 P.S. §§ 601-606 (hereinafter “Equine Activities Immunity Act,” “EAIA,” or “the Act”), Happy Trails is immune from liability as a provider of equine activities. (Id.).

A. Exculpatory Agreement

An exculpatory clause is valid if (1) the clause does “not contravene public policy”; (2) the contract is “between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs”; and (3) each party is “a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (Pa. 2010) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993)). However, a valid exculpatory clause will nevertheless be unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Contracts immunizing a [*10]  party against liability for negligence are not favored by law and therefore established standards must be “met before an exculpatory provision will be interpreted and construed to relieve a person of liability for his own or his servants’ acts of negligence.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (Pa. 1963). Thus, Pennsylvania courts have established several standards governing the enforceability of exculpatory clauses:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (Pa. 2012) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Further, exculpatory clauses may not immunize a party for intentional or reckless behavior. Id. at 1202-03.

Defendant contends that the agreement Plaintiff signed is valid, enforceable, and encompasses broken equipment. (Doc. 20 at 13-16). Therefore, Defendant argues, Plaintiffs negligence [*11]  claim is barred and Happy Trails is entitled to summary judgment. (Id. at 16).

Plaintiff does not appear to argue that the agreement is not valid on its face. Nor should he, considering that the agreement easily satisfies the validity requirements under Chepkevich. First, the agreement does not violate any public policy of Pennsylvania. In light of the Equine Activities Immunity Act–discussed in the next section–and similar statutes addressing other recreational activities, it is the policy of the state to encourage participation in those activities, despite their inherent danger, and assign the risk of loss to those who choose to participate in them. Cf. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (finding that, in light of a statute that preserves the assumption of risk defense in the context of downhill skiing, it is “the clear policy of this Commonwealth . . .to encourage the sport and to place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier.”). Further, Pennsylvania courts have held as valid similar exculpatory agreements in the context of a variety of other inherently dangerous recreational activities. See, e.g., id. (downhill skiing); Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 2007 PA Super 283, 933 A.2d 110, 113-14 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007) (snow tubing); Valeo v. Pocono Int’l Raceway, Inc., 347 Pa. Super. 230, 500 A.2d 492, 492-93 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985) (auto racing); Nissley v. Candytown Motorcycle Club, Inc., 2006 PA Super 349, 913 A.2d 887, 889-91(Pa. Super. Ct. 2006) (motorcycle riding).

Second, the agreement was between two private [*12]  parties, Happy Trails and Mr. Melendez, concerning the purely private matter of renting a horse for recreational purposes. Finally, this is not a contract of adhesion. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1190-91 (“The signer I is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”). Thus, the agreement is facially valid.

Turning to enforceability, Plaintiff contends that Defendant has failed to meet its burden to show either that defective equipment is an inherent risk of horseback riding, or that the language of the agreement shows that Plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 11). Plaintiff points out that the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk. (Id.). Further, Plaintiff argues that a broken stirrup is not an inherent risk of horseback riding as demonstrated by the testimony of both Happy Trails’ owner and a Happy Trails’ employee who both stated they had never seen a stirrup break before. (Id. at 12-13). Thus, Plaintiff argues, because the risk was not foreseeable and was not expressly in the agreement, Plaintiff could [*13]  not appreciate the risk and could therefore not assume it. (Id. at 13).

Plaintiffs argument essentially states that the second element from Tayar –that “the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties”–is not met in this case because the agreement did not specifically enumerate the risk of defective equipment. Pennsylvania courts, however, have rejected this argument before. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193-94.

In Chepkevich, a skier, Lori Chepkevich, sued a ski resort after she fell from a ski lift and was injured. Id. at 1175-76. She claimed her injury occurred because an employee promised to stop the ski lift briefly to allow Chepkevich to help a child board the lift and then the employee failed to do so. Id. Prior to the accident, Chepkevich had signed a document titled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY” which stated, in pertinent part,

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowblading, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks which include but are not limited to [certain enumerated risks]…. I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley [*14]  Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part.

Id. at 1176. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court first rejected Chepkevich’s argument that she did not assume the specific risk that caused her injury and instead found that a fall from a ski lift was an inherent risk in the sport of skiing. Id. at 1188. Therefore, the Court found that the suit was barred by the Skier’s Responsibility Act, 42 PA. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7102(c), which preserves the common law assumption of the risk defense in the context of downhill skiing. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88.

Turning to an alternative ground for summary judgment–the release–the Chepkevich Court held that the term “negligence” did not require any definition or illustration to be given effect. Id. at 1193. Indeed, reversing the court below on that point, the Court found “no reason to require the drafters of exculpatory releases to provide definitions and context for commonly used terms such as ‘negligence.”‘ Id. The Court then found that the plain language of the release encompassed Chepkevich’s claim for negligence and therefore barred the claim. Id. at 1194-95. Because the Court had already found that the risk involved was inherent, the Court found it unnecessary to address the merits of Chepkevich’s [*15]  final argument “that the Release exempted Hidden Valley from liability only when its negligence gave rise to a risk otherwise inherent to the sport of skiing.” Id. at 1193-94.

Concerning the case at hand, while this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the provision of defective equipment is not an inherent risk in the sport of horseback riding, this point is not dispositive. As one Pennsylvania court explained, “the assumption of the risk doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering in tort for risks inherent to a certain activity. In contrast, the explicit, broad, and valid language of the exculpatory clause bars all claims, regardless of whether they arise from an inherent risk.” Nissley, 913 A.2d at 892 (footnote and internal citations omitted). Thus, as long as the language of the exculpatory agreement applies, any inherent risk analysis is superfluous. The fact that the court in Chepkevich found it unnecessary to its holding to address the plaintiffs argument that non-inherent risks cannot be released in exculpatory agreements does not affect this analysis. As that court saw no need to overturn the language in Nissley, this Court sees no reason not to follow it.

As for enforceability of the agreement, in the realm of recreational [*16]  activities, Pennsylvania has upheld expansive language in exculpatory agreements. See, e.g., Nissley, 913 A.2d at 890-91 (upholding motor cycle club’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that plaintiff “hereby give[s] up all my rights to sue or make claim”); Zimmer v. Mitchell & Ness, 385 A.2d 437, 440 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1978), aff’d per curiam, 416 A.2d 1010 (1980) (upholding ski rental shop’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that skier released defendant from “any liability”); Valeo, 500 A.2d at 492-93 (upholding race track’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action where race car driver signed an agreement releasing “defendants ‘from all liability …for all loss or damage'”).

Here, Plaintiff signed an agreement that he knew to be a waiver. (Doc. 20-2 at 51-53; Doc. 20-7). Paragraph two of the agreement stated that Plaintiff released Happy Trails “from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I…may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence.” Further, paragraph six states that Plaintiff “hereby expressly recognize[s] that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the [*17]  Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence.” Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant was negligent in providing him defective equipment during his trail ride. The plain language of the agreement signed by Plaintiff releases Defendant from “all claims” including those “caused by negligence.” Thus, Plaintiffs claim, in as much as it is alleging that Defendant acted negligently, is encompassed by the exculpatory language of the agreement and therefore barred.2

2 This Court notes that there is some language in Chepkevich that seems to support Plaintiffs argument. As an aside, the Chepkevich Court states that “the risk [in this case] was not so unexpected, or brought about in so strange a manner, as to justify placing this injury beyond the reach of the plain language of the Release.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. Plaintiff has pointed out that a broken stirrup is a very uncommon, and therefore unexpected, occurrence. (Doc. 22 at 12-13). Nevertheless, because Chepkevich does not give any standards for what type of risks fall beyond the realm of the plain language of an exculpatory agreement, this Court must turn to other cases. This Court finds  [*18]  Zimmer v. Mitchell and Ness  instructive.

In Zimmer, a skier, Joseph Zimmer, sued a ski rental company after the bindings on the skis he rented failed to release as they were supposed to during a fall, causing him substantial injury. Zimmer, 385 A.2d at 438. Zimmer argued that the rental company was negligent in renting him skis without testing and fitting the bindings. Id. at 440. The court granted the ski rental company’s motion for summary judgment based on an exculpatory agreement that Zimmer signed when he rented the skis that released the rental company “from any liability for damage and injury to myself or to any person or property resulting from the use of this equipment.” Id.

Thus, while the specific issue of a broken stirrup may be very uncommon, Pennsylvania courts have enforced exculpatory agreements in the case of a released party negligently providing the releasing party with defective or broken equipment.

Plaintiff advances a more narrow reading of the agreement and argues that because the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk, he did not expressly assume it. The Chepkevich Court, however, was clear that no illustrations or examples are required to give common terms effect in an exculpatory [*19]  agreement. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193. “All claims” and “negligence” are commonly used terms and Pennsylvania law does not require drafters of exculpatory clauses to enumerate every possible contingency that is included in broader language they choose to use. Plaintiff agreed to release Defendant from “all claims” including those that arose from Defendant’s negligence. Plaintiff cannot now protest that he did not know what “all claims” included.3

3 At oral argument, Plaintiff advanced a slightly different argument. Plaintiff argued, in effect, that because paragraph one of the agreement enumerates risks associated with horseback riding, the rest of the agreement is limited to those enumerated lists. This argument was also advanced in Chepkevich. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. There, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that “by enumerating risks inherent to downhill skiing and then requiring the skier to accept those risks, the Release only bars suits that arise out of the listed risks.” Id. The court found that the release, which stated that skiing “is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks,” was not limited to the enumerated the risks, but clearly included “other risks.” Here, as in Chepkevich, Plaintiff’s argument [*20]  fails on textual grounds. It is true that the agreement, in paragraph one, lists some risks inherent to horseback riding. However, in paragraph two and six, the agreement states that Plaintiff relinquishes “any and all claims.” There is no limiting language in paragraph two or six that would indicate that Plaintiff was only relinquishing claims arising out of the enumerated risks in paragraph one.

Plaintiff finally argues that Defendant’s conduct amounts to recklessness and exculpatory agreements cannot immunize reckless conduct. (Doc. 22 at 14); see Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1202-03. Defendant concedes that the agreement only releases it from suits for negligence, not recklessness, and counters that its “conduct at most amounts to ordinary negligence.” (Doc. 23 at 10). “Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200.

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable [*21]  man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Id. at 1200-01 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500).

Defendant’s bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. The record shows that Happy Trails provided a saddle for Plaintiffs ride, that a stirrup on that saddle broke during the ride, and that Plaintiff fell from a horse when the stirrup broke. (Doc. 22-5 at 35-36, 39-40). It was the responsibility of Happy Trails, not the customer, to inspect the equipment, but no records of inspections or repairs were kept, nor was the Happy Trails’ owner able to say if any inspection of the specific stirrup occurred on the day of the accident. (Id. at 13, 53-55, 58, 60). Happy Trails’ owner testified that he bought used saddles on the internet and also from individuals who walk into his business. (Id. at 18). He was unable to say where he procured the saddle in question, how long he had had it, or how old it was. (Id. at 18-19, 58, 60). Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards [*22]  safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal. (Id. at 32-33). Viewing the record in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains as to whether Defendant’s action rose to the level of recklessness.

Defendant goes on to argue that Plaintiff failed to plead recklessness and that if “recklessness is the standard to apply in this case, plaintiffs compliant must be dismissed with prejudice.” (Doc. 23 at 10). This argument, however, runs counter to the holding in Archibald v. Kemble, 2009 PA Super 79, 971 A.2d 513 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009).

Archibald involved a lawsuit stemming from Robert Archibald’s participation in a “no-check” adult hockey league. Id. at 515. In his complaint, Archibald alleged that another player, Cody Kemble, checked him into the boards of the ice hockey rink. Id. The complaint went on to say that

Cody Kemble’s negligence consisted of the following:

a. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was aware and/or warned that the check was going to be attempted before checking him into the boards;

b. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was willing [*23]  to be checked;

c. checking Robert Archibald when not safe to do so;

d. failing to understand and learn the rules, prohibition and limitation on any checking prior to participating in the non-checking league and game.

Id. at 516. First determining that Archibald would only be able to recover if he showed that Kemble acted recklessly, the Court went on to hold that recklessness “may be averred generally.” Id. at 517, 519. Thus, “merely determining the degree of care is recklessness does not give rise to a separate tort that must have been pled within the applicable statute of limitations.” Id. at 519. Instead, “Archibalds’ cause of action was…subsumed within the negligence count pled in their Complaint.” Id.; see also M.U. v. Downingtown High Sch. E., 103 F. Supp. 3d 612, 629 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (construing a separately pleaded recklessness claim “simply as a mechanism to recover punitive damages under [the] negligence claim” because “[t]here is no cause of action for recklessness under Pennsylvania law” and “recklessness is a heightened standard of care required to potentially recover punitive damages”).

Consequently, under Archibald, the fact that Plaintiff did not specifically plead recklessness in his Complaint is not fatal to his claim. In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleged that, among other things, [*24]  Defendant “provid[ed] equipment or tack that defendant knew or should have known was faulty.” This statement encompasses the allegation that Defendant recklessly provided Plaintiff with defective or faulty equipment. The fact that Plaintiffs Complaint does not contain the word “reckless” is immaterial.

In sum, because the agreement that Plaintiff signed is only enforceable to immunize Defendant for its negligence, and not for its recklessness, and because there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether Defendant acted recklessly in this case, the Court finds that the agreement is not a sufficient basis for summary judgment.

B. Equine Activities Immunity Act

Defendant next points to the Equine Activities Immunity Act, 4 P.S. §§ 601-606, as an alternative, independent basis for summary judgment. The EAIA limits the liability of certain providers of equine activities if specific requirements are met. Defendant argues that, as a provider of a qualifying equine activity who has complied with the EAIA’s statutory requirements, it is entitled to immunity from suit. (Doc. 20 at 10-11). Plaintiff counters that Defendant’s negligent provision of defective or faulty equipment puts the suit outside of the EAIA’s [*25]  protections. (Doc. 22 at 4).

The issue of whether a covered entity is immunized from liability under the EAIA for providing defective or faulty equipment is a question of first impression. As such, this Court must engage in statutory interpretation. For this Court to interpret state law, it “must determine how the highest court of the State would decide an issue.” Baker ex rel. Thomas v. Gen. Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 249, 118 S. Ct. 657, 139 L. Ed. 2d 580 (1998). Pennsylvania interprets statutes according to the Statutory Construction Act of 1972, 1 Pa.Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 1501-1991. “When interpreting statutory language, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is guided by the ‘plain meaning’ rule of construction.” Hofkin v. Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co., 81 F.3d 365, 371 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Commonwealth v. Stanley, 498 Pa. 326, 446 A.2d 583, 587 (Pa. 1982)). “The object of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly. Every statute shall be construed, if possible, to give effect to all its provisions.” 1 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1921(a). “When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit.” Id. at § 1921(b).

The EAIA provides immunity for “an individual, group, club or business entity that sponsors, organizes, conducts or provides the facilities for an equine activity” including “[r]ecreational rides or drives which involve riding or other activity [*26]  involving the use of an equine.” 4 P.S. §§ 601, 602(b)(6). The EAIA, however, only provides immunity where signs of at least a certain size are “conspicuously posted on the premises…in two or more locations, which states the following: You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania law.” Id. at § 603. For covered entities in compliance with the signs requirement, “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven with respect to damages due to injuries or death to an adult participant resulting from equine activities.” Id. at § 602(a). Finally, the Act is clear that “[t]he immunity provided for by this act shall be narrowly construed.” Id. at § 606.

Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant, as a provider of recreational horseback riding activities, is not a covered entity under the statute. Additionally, Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant did not have the appropriate signs as prescribed under the EAIA. Plaintiffs sole argument is that the Act does not bar actions for the negligent provision of faulty or defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 6). Stated otherwise, Plaintiff argues that because he did not know he might be given defective or faulty [*27]  equipment, he could not knowingly assume the risk of such. Defendant counters that “[o]nce plaintiff entered the stables property and took part in recreational horse riding, he assumed the risk of harm associated with such activities.” (Doc. 20 at 11).

The EAIA states that “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven.” 4 P.S. § 602(a). The Act, therefore, appears to preserve the common law assumption of risk doctrine in the context of equine activities. In delineating the contours of this doctrine, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has looked to the Restatement Second of Torts. See Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 341-42 (Pa. 2000). The Restatement outlines four varieties of the doctrine, the first two of which are of interest in this case. See Restatement (second) of Torts § 496A cmt. c. The first, express assumption of risk occurs when lithe plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. (emphasis added). This is the type of assumption of risk examined above in respect to the agreement signed by Plaintiff. The second, implied assumption of risk, occurs when lithe plaintiff has [*28]  entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.” Id. (emphasis added).

It is self-evident that a person “cannot be found to have implicitly assumed a risk of which he had no knowledge.” Rutter v. Ne. Beaver Cty. Sch. Dist., 496 Pa. 590, 437 A.2d 1198, 1204 (Pa. 1981) (plurality opinion). As such, lithe defense of assumption of the risk requires that the defendant show that the plaintiff was subjectively aware of the facts which created the danger and…must have appreciated the danger itself and the nature, character and extent which made it unreasonable.”‘ Berman v. Radnor Rolls, Inc., 374 Pa. Super. 118, 542 A.2d 525, 532 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988) (alteration in original) (quoting Crance v. Sohanic, 344 Pa. Super. 526, 496 A.2d 1230, 1232 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985)); See also Restatement (second) of Torts § 496D.4 Thus, for a defendant to prevail on a summary judgment motion based on the assumption of risk defense, it must be “beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.” Barrett v. Fredavid Builders, Inc., 454 Pa. Super. 162, 685 A.2d 129, 131 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1996) (citing Struble v. Valley Forge Military Acad., 445 Pa. Super. 224, 665 A.2d 4 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1995)). Finally, “[t]he mere fact one engages in activity that has some inherent danger does not mean that one cannot recover from a negligent party when injury is subsequently sustained.” Bullman v. Giuntoli, 2000 PA Super 284, 761 A.2d 566, 572 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2000).

4 Of course, a plaintiff’s own assertion about whether he knew of and understood [*29]  the risk is not conclusive.

There are some risks as to which no adult will be believed if he says that he did not know or understand them. Thus an adult who knowingly comes in contact with a fire will not be believed if he says that he was unaware of the risk that he might be burned by it; and the same is true of such risks as those of drowning in water or falling from a height, in the absence of any special circumstances which may conceal or appear to minimize the danger.

Restatement (Second) of Torts §496D cmt. d.

In short, to preclude Plaintiffs negligence action under the EAIA, Defendant must show that Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge. Only then can Plaintiff be said to knowingly assume the risk. Defendant, however, has made no such showing. Defendant has failed to point to anything in the record to show that Plaintiff decided to use the equipment with the knowledge that the stirrup or any other equipment Plaintiff was provided with might break. Nor is this a case where the risk is so obvious that the knowledge could be inferred. The owner of Happy Trails testified that, in the approximately ten years he operated [*30]  the stable, he never remembered a single stirrup breaking. (Doc. 20-3 at 20-21). Given that it is not a common occurrence, it strains credibility to argue that a recreational participant would know that being provided broken equipment was likely.

Therefore, because there has been no showing that Plaintiff knew of the risk and voluntarily disregarded it, the EAIA provides no relief for Defendant.5

5 At oral argument, counsel for the Defendant conceded that, even under the broad interpretation of the Act that Defendant argued for, the Act would not immunize a covered entity for acts of recklessness or gross negligence. As this Court has already found that there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether the Defendant acted recklessly, this provides an alternative ground for the finding that the Act does not provide immunity under these facts.

V. Conclusion

For the reasons stated above, the Court will deny Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19). A separate Order follows.

/s/ Robert D. Mariani

Robert D. Mariani

United States District Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, THIS 26th DAY OF SEPTEMBER, 2016, upon consideration of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19), IT IS HEREBY ORDERED [*31]  THAT:

1. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) is DENIED.

2. A telephone scheduling conference will be held on Wednesday, October 5, 2016, at 4:00 p.m. Counsel for Plaintiff is responsible for arranging the call to (570) 207-5750, and all parties should be ready to proceed before the undersigned is contacted.

/s/ Robert D. Mariani

Robert D. Mariani

United States District Judge

 


Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act

Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act

Pennsylvania Statutes

Title 4.  Amusements

Chapter 13.  Equine Activity

§ 601.  Scope. 1

§ 602.  Immunity. 1

§ 603.  Signing. 2

§ 604.  Equine propensity. 3

§ 605.  Effect on other laws. 3

§ 606.  Construction.. 3

§ 601.  Scope
This act shall apply to an individual, group, club or business entity that sponsors, organizes, conducts or provides the facilities for an equine activity as defined in this act.

HISTORY: Act 2005-93 (S.B. 618), P.L. 472, § 1, approved Nov. 22, 2005, eff. in 60 days.

§ 602.  Immunity
(a) ASSUMPTION OF RISK.–

As to those within the scope of this act, liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven with respect to damages due to injuries or death to an adult participant resulting from equine activities.

(b) EQUINE ACTIVITIES.–

For the purposes of this act, immunity shall apply where an equine is utilized in the following manner:

(1) Equine training, teaching, riding instruction, shows, fairs, parades, competitions or performances which involve breeds of equine participating in an activity. This paragraph shall include, but not be limited to, dressage, hunter and jumper shows, Grand Prix jumping, three-day eventing, combined training, rodeos, reining, cutting, team penning and sorting, driving, pulling, barrel racing, steeplechasing, English and Western performance riding and endurance and nonendurance trail riding. This paragraph shall also include Western games, gymkhana, hunting, packing, therapeutic riding and driving and recreational riding.

(2) Equine or rider and driver training, teaching, instruction or evaluation. This paragraph includes clinics, seminars and demonstrations.

(3) Boarding equines, including normal daily care.

(4) Breeding equines, whether by live cover or artificial insemination.

(5) Inspecting, riding or evaluating an equine belonging to another by a purchaser or agent, whether or not the owner of the equine has received anything of value for the use of the equine or is permitting a prospective purchaser or a purchaser’s agent to ride, drive, inspect or evaluate the equine.

(6) Recreational rides or drives which involve riding or other activity involving the use of an equine.

(7) Placing, removing or replacing of horseshoes or the trimming of an equine’s hooves.

(8) Leading, handling or grooming of an equine.

HISTORY: Act 2005-93 (S.B. 618), P.L. 472, § 2, approved Nov. 22, 2005, eff. in 60 days.

1. In support of an affirmance on appeal, judgment was properly entered for a decedent’s estate administratrix on her claims of negligence, wrongful death, and survival against a race track entity that arose when the thoroughbred race horse that decedent was exercising reacted to chickens that were roaming freely on the track, as the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Act was inapplicable to the decedent’s activity. Calderon v. Phila. Park Casino & Racetrack, 2014 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 394 (Pa. C.P. Nov. 24, 2014).

2. In support of an affirmance on appeal, judgment was properly entered for a decedent’s estate administratrix on her claims of negligence, wrongful death, and survival against a race track entity that arose when the thoroughbred race horse that decedent was exercising reacted to chickens that were roaming freely on the track, as the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Act was inapplicable to the decedent’s activity. Calderon v. Phila. Park Casino & Racetrack, 2014 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 394 (Pa. C.P. Nov. 24, 2014).

§ 603.  Signing
%   This act shall provide immunity only where signing is conspicuously posted on the premises on a sign at least three feet by two feet, in two or more locations, which states the following:   You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania law.

HISTORY: Act 2005-93 (S.B. 618), P.L. 472, § 3, approved Nov. 22, 2005, eff. in 60 days.

§ 604.  Equine propensity
Evidence of viciousness of the equine shall not be required before a possessor of an equine shall be subject to liability for harm.

HISTORY: Act 2005-93 (S.B. 618), P.L. 472, § 4, approved Nov. 22, 2005, eff. in 60 days.

§ 605.  Effect on other laws

This act shall not affect common law or any statute for the protection of the user of the equine. In no event shall this act apply to any matter involving a motor vehicle covered by 75 Pa.C.S. Ch. 17 (relating to financial responsibility) or a successor act or to any non-equine-related activity or entity.

HISTORY: Act 2005-93 (S.B. 618), P.L. 472, § 5, approved Nov. 22, 2005, eff. in 60 days.

§ 606.  Construction
The immunity provided for by this act shall be narrowly construed.

HISTORY: Act 2005-93 (S.B. 618), P.L. 472, § 6, approved Nov. 22, 2005, eff. in 60 days.

LexisNexis (R) Notes: Go to CASE NOTESCASE NOTESGo back to the top of LexisNexis (R) NotesCASE NOTES

1. In support of an affirmance on appeal, judgment was properly entered for a decedent’s estate administratrix on her claims of negligence, wrongful death, and survival against a race track entity that arose when the thoroughbred race horse that decedent was exercising reacted to chickens that were roaming freely on the track, as the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Act was inapplicable to the decedent’s activity. Calderon v. Phila. Park Casino & Racetrack, 2014 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 394 (Pa. C.P. Nov. 24, 2014).

2. In support of an affirmance on appeal, judgment was properly entered for a decedent’s estate administratrix on her claims of negligence, wrongful death, and survival against a race track entity that arose when the thoroughbred race horse that decedent was exercising reacted to chickens that were roaming freely on the track, as the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Act was inapplicable to the decedent’s activity. Calderon v. Phila. Park Casino & Racetrack, 2014 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 394 (Pa. C.P. Nov. 24, 2014).

 


Pennsylvania wrongful death statute is written in a way that a split court determined the deceased release prevented the surviving family members from suing.

Plaintiff argued that because she did not sign the release, the release did not apply to her. However, the court found that the release was written broadly enough that it covered the plaintiff’s suit as well as finding that the release included enough assumption of risk language that the deceased knowingly assume the risk.

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania

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

Defendant: Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees, outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages.

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2016

This is an interesting case, because the Pennsylvania, wrongful death statute is written in a way that almost prevented a release from stopping a claim by a widow. The decision was also in front of the entire court of appeals and was a split decision.

This case centers on the Philadelphia triathlon. The deceased signed up for the triathlon electronically in January. While signing up for the triathlon, he signed a release to enter the race electronically.

At the start of the triathlon the deceased entered the water and never finished the swim part of the race. His body was found the following day by divers.

On June 26, 2010, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Mr. Valentino entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first part of the Triathlon. He never completed the swimming portion of the competition or any other part of the race. The following day, on June 27, 2010, divers retrieved his body from the Schuylkill River.

The widow of the deceased, the plaintiff, filed a complaint under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. Most states have a wrongful-death  statute. The wrongful-death  statute is the specific ways that the survivors can sue the person who caused the death of a loved one.

After filing the original complaint the plaintiff then filed an amended complaint. The defendant filed objections which the trial court upheld arguing that the complaint failed to state facts, which would allow the court or jury to reach a claim of outrageous acts, gross negligence or recklessness and thus award punitive damages.

The defendant filed an additional motion for summary judgment which the court granted dismissing all the claims of the plaintiff. The plaintiff then appealed the dismissal of her claims.

Most appellate courts may have anywhere from 3 to 15 or more judges sitting on the appellate court. When appeals are filed, judges are then assigned to these cases. Not all judges are assigned to every case. The majority the time a case is heard by three Appellate Ct. judges.

The decision in this case was split. Three judges affirmed the trial court’s order concerning some motions. However, two of the members of the appellate court concluded that the release executed by the deceased did not apply to his widow, the plaintiff, because she was not a signor release.

…however, two of the three members of the petite panel concluded that the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino did not apply to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the agreement.

The defendant then petitioned the court for hearing en banc. En banc means in front of the entire panel of the appellate court. The entire panel agreed to hear the case again specifically looking at five specific issues set forth below. In this case en banc meant in front of nine judges.

Consequently, this Court vacated summary judgment in favor of Appellee as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.5 Thereafter, both Appellant and Appellee requested reargument en banc. By order filed on March 11, 2016, this Court granted en banc reargument and withdrew our opinions of December 30, 2015. We now address the following questions:

1. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] where, when the material facts set forth in the [a]mended [c]omplaint, as well as all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, are accepted as true, it cannot be said with certainty that [Appellee’s] actions were not sufficiently reckless, outrageous and/or egregious to warrant an award of punitive damages?

2. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred [*8]  in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] and striking para-graph[s] 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) of the [a]mended [c]omplaint where these averments, and the [a]mended [c]omplaint in general, were sufficiently specific to enable [Appellee] to respond and prepare a defense?

3. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] second [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the issue of waiver and release was previously decided in the [o]rder of January 29, 2013 that denied [Appellee’s] first [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment, and the [c]ourt was precluded by the coordinate jurisdiction rule from revisiting the question?

4. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where, when the record is viewed in the light most favorable to [Appellant], questions of fact remain as to whether the purported release in question was effectively executed by the decedent and, if it was, whether it was enforceable?

5. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the report issued by Mark Mico fully and adequately addressed the questions of duty, breach of duty and causation and, in addition, he was fully qualified to render opinions in these regards?

Only the fourth and fifth issues that the court identified, are relevant to us. The first is whether or not the decedent effectively executed an electric agreement and whether not the case should be dismissed because of the release.

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

The court first looked at the issue punitive damages and defined punitive damages were under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania like most of the states, defines punitive damages for acts that are outrageous because of an evil motive or recklessness or an indifference towards the rights of others.

In Pennsylvania, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” As the name suggests, punitive damages are penal in nature and are proper only in cases where the defendant’s actions are so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton or reckless conduct.” To support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk. “Ordinary negligence, involving inadvertence, mistake or error of judgment will not support an award of punitive damages.”

The plaintiff argued in her amended complaint that the defendant was inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect and maintain the course, failed to warn or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards and failed to properly train and supervise its employees.

…inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees

The court looked at these allegations and held that they simply argued simple negligence, and none of the allegations rose to the level to be outrageous, evil or showing an indifference the welfare of others. The court sustained, upheld, dismissal of the gross negligence claims against the defendant.

These allegations, however, averred nothing more than ordinary negligence arising from inadvertence, mistake, or error in judgment; they do not support a claim involving outrageous behavior or a conscious disregard for risks confronted by Triathlon participants. Hence, the trial court correctly dismissed

The next issue important to us, is whether or not the plaintiff can contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct.

Appellant next maintains that a plaintiff cannot contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct and that, as a result, the liability waiver executed in this case is incapable of extinguishing such claims. Appellant also asserts that, pursuant to our prior decision in Pisano, a decedent’s liability waiver is ineffective as to non-signatory third-party wrongful death claimants. Lastly, Appellant claims that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation.

The first major argument made by the plaintiff was there were two different releases presented to the court in different motions filed by the defendant. One was two pages long I will was 2 ½ pages long.

Appellant draws our attention to differences between the version of the liability waiver introduced in support of Appellee’s first motion for summary judgment and the version submitted in support of its second motion. Appellant notes that the second version was two and one-half pages in length while the first version was only two pages. Appellant also notes that the second version bore the date “2011” while the event occurred in 2010. Lastly, the second version included the words “Yes, I agree to the above waivers” above the signature line while the first version did not.

However, the court found that this was not an issue, and both pieces of evidence were the same release. The defendant hired  a third-party firm to administer the sign up for the event and the execution of the release by the participants. The principle of the third-party firm testified that once the release is signed it is stored electronically and in storing the document it is shrunk so that when it is presented a second time it is actually a different size but the identical document.

The record shows that Appellee retained the services of ACTIVE Network (ACTIVE) to implement the online registration process for the Triathlon. ACTIVE implemented the required specifications for online registration, including guidelines for specific waiver and assumption of the risk language, supplied by Appellee and USA Triathlon (USAT), the national governing body of the sport of triathlon. USAT sanctioned the Triathlon because Appellee followed USAT registration guidelines.

According to Mr. McCue’s affidavit, “ACTIVE’s computer system condenses older registration and waiver documents for storage purposes, making any printed version of the older retained registration and waiver documents appear smaller than when they were viewed online by the reader/registrant.”

The third-party also demonstrated that there was no way the participant could’ve entered the race without a bib. The only way to get a bib was to sign the release.

Appellee also demonstrated that no one could participate in the Triathlon without registering online, a process that could not be completed without the execution of a liability waiver.

The plaintiff next argued that the release is unenforceable against claims of reckless or intentional conduct. However, the court quickly dismissed this, by referring to its earlier ruling that the complaint did not allege facts to support a claim of reckless or intentional conduct.

The next issue centered on the definition and wording of the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. To be successful in the plaintiff’s Pennsylvania wrongful death claim, the plaintiff must show that the actions of the defendant were tortious. Because the release was validly executed by the deceased, and it showed that he knowingly and voluntarily assume the risk of taking part in the competition, the deceased assumed of the risk and eliminated the tortuous act of the defendant.

Here, Mr. Valentino, in registering online for the Triathlon, executed a detailed liability waiver under which he expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon and agreed to indemnify Appellee for liability stemming from his involvement in the event. The valid liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino was available to support Appellee’s claim that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of taking part in the competition and that, therefore, Appellee’s actions were not tortious. Since Appellant’s wrongful death claims required her to establish that Appellee’s conduct was tortious, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee.

The plaintiff argued that a prior decision by the court had invalidated releases for wrongful-death  claims. The court distinguished that prior decision from this one because the prior decision required arbitration of the claims and that the decedent in that case had not signed the actual agreement. In that case the husband of the deceased when putting her in a nursing home signed  all the paperwork. The deceased did not sign a release or arbitration agreement.

A liability waiver, however, operates quite differently from an arbitration clause. By executing a liability waiver, the decedent signatory acknowledges and assumes identified risks and pledges that the defendant will not be held liable for resulting harms. If the decedent executes the waiver in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner (as here), the waiver is deemed valid and it shifts the risk of loss away from the defendant and onto the decedent. In effect, an enforceable waiver under which the decedent assumes specified risks transforms the nature of the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the decedent from tortious to non-tortious.

The court held that a release stops a claim under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute when it is signed by the deceased.

Our conclusion that Appellee may rely on a liability waiver signed only by the decedent to defeat Appellant’s wrongful death claims is undiminished by Pennsylvania case law holding that a settlement and release agreement does not bind non-signatories.

Consequently, the court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the claims against the plaintiff based upon the release.

So Now What?

Wrongful-death  statutes are quite specific in how they must operate and how they are to be interpreted by the courts. You should look at your wrongful-death  statute or have your attorney look at the wrongful-death  statute for the state where your release will be argued to make sure that it passes or succeeds in stopping a wrongful-death  claim. It would be extremely rare to find a release that did not stop the claims, absent proof of misrepresentation or fraud.

The second thing you need to do you always make sure you that your release covers not only all the defendants if you want to protect from any lawsuit but also includes all the possible plaintiffs who might sue you. This includes the deceased obviously but also a spouse and any children of the deceased. If the deceased is single, you want to make sure it includes any siblings or parents who may have a legal claim upon the deceased death.

The outcome would be pretty forgone in most states. However, nothing is ever set in stone in the law.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in her Own Right, Appellant v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, Appellee

No. 3049 EDA 2013

SUPERIOR COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

November 15, 2016, Decided

November 15, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] Appeal from the Order Entered September 30, 2013. In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Civil Division at No(s): April Term, 2012 No. 1417.

Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 2015 PA Super 273, 2015 Pa. Super. LEXIS 862 (Pa. Super. Ct., 2015)

JUDGES: BEFORE: GANTMAN, P.J., FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., BENDER, P.J.E., BOWES, PANELLA, SHOGAN, LAZARUS, OLSON and OTT, JJ. OPINION BY OLSON, J. Gantman, P.J., Bender, P.J.E., Bowes, Shogan and Ott, JJ., join this Opinion. Ford Elliott, P.J.E., files a Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in which Panella and Lazarus, JJ. join.

OPINION BY: OLSON

OPINION

OPINION BY OLSON, J.:

Appellant, Michele Valentino (in her own right and as administratrix of the estate of Derek Valentino), appeals from an order entered on September 30, 2013 in the Civil Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County granting summary judgment on behalf of Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC (Appellee). After careful consideration, we affirm.

In 2010, Appellee organized an event known as the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon Sprint (the Triathlon). Three events comprised the Triathlon: a one-half mile swim, a 15.7 mile bicycle race, and a three and one-tenth mile run. Trial Court Opinion, 8/14/14, at 2. The swimming portion of the competition occurred in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [*2]

To compete in the Triathlon, each participant was required to register for the event. As part of the registration process, participants paid a fee and electronically executed a liability waiver form.1 Each participant also completed and submitted a registration form to obtain a number and a bib to wear on the day of the race. Mr. Valentino electronically registered as a participant in the Triathlon on January 24, 2010.

1 Among other things, the lengthy form stated that Mr. Valentino “underst[ood] and acknowledge[d] the physical and mental rigors associated with triathlon,” “realize[d] that running, bicycling, swimming and other portions of such [e]vents are inherently dangerous and represent[ed] an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits,” and, “underst[ood] that participation involves risks and dangers which include, without limitation, the potential for serious bodily injury, permanent disability, paralysis and death [as well as] dangers arising from adverse weather conditions, imperfect course conditions, water, road and surface hazards, equipment failure, inadequate safety measures, participants of varying skill levels, situations beyond the immediate control of [Appellee], and other presently unknown risks and dangers[.]” Appellee’s Motion [*3]  for Summary Judgment Ex. G, 8/5/13. The form further provided that Mr. Valentino “underst[ood] that these [r]isks may be caused in whole or in part by [his] actions or inactions, the actions or inactions of others participating in the [e]vent, or the acts, inaction or negligence of [Appellee]” and that he “expressly assume[d] all such [r]isks and responsibility for any damages, liabilities, losses or expenses” that resulted from his participation in the event. Id. The liability waiver form also included a provision stating as follows: “[Mr. Valentino] further agree[s] that if, despite this [a]greement, he, or anyone on [his] behalf, makes a claim of [l]iability against [Appellee], [he] will indemnify, defend and hold harmless [Appellee] from any such [l]iability which [it] may [] incur[] as the result of such claim.” Id.

In block capital lettering above the signature line, the liability waiver provided that Mr. Valentino’s acceptance of the agreement confirmed that he read and understood its terms, that he understood that he would surrender substantial rights (including the right to sue), and that he signed the agreement freely and voluntarily. Id. Lastly, the form states that acceptance of the agreement constituted “a complete and unconditional release of all liability [*4]  to the greatest extent allowed by law.” Id.

On June 26, 2010, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Mr. Valentino entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first part of the Triathlon. He never completed the swimming portion of the competition or any other part of the race. The following day, on June 27, 2010, divers retrieved his body from the Schuylkill River.

Appellant (Mr. Valentino’s widow) filed her original complaint on April 12, 2012, asserting wrongful death and survival claims against various defendants, including Appellee. Thereafter, she amended her complaint on June 22, 2012. All of the defendants filed preliminary objections on June 22, 2012. On July 27, 2012, the trial court sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections and struck all references in Appellant’s amended complaint that referred to outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages. The court concluded that these allegations were legally insufficient since the alleged facts showed only ordinary negligence. In addition, the court struck paragraphs 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) in the amended complaint on grounds that those averments lacked sufficient specificity. The defendants answered the amended complaint [*5]  and raised new matter on August 9, 2012.

Shortly after discovery commenced, the defendants moved for summary judgment in December 2012. The trial court denied that motion on January 29, 2013. Eventually, Appellant stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants except Appellee. At the completion of discovery, Appellee again moved for summary judgment on August 5, 2013. The trial court granted Appellee’s motion on September 30, 2013.2 Appellant sought reconsideration but the trial court denied her request. Appellant then filed a timely notice of appeal on October 23, 2013. Pursuant to an order of court, Appellant filed a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal in accordance with Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b). Subsequently, the trial court explained its reasons for sustaining Appellee’s preliminary objections in an opinion issued on March 18, 2014. In a separate opinion issued on August 14, 2014, the trial court set forth its rationale for granting Appellee’s motion for summary judgment.3

2 Because the trial court previously sustained preliminary objections to Appellant’s claims of outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages, we read the trial court’s summary judgment order as dismissing [*6]  claims of ordinary negligence that comprised Appellant’s survival and wrongful death actions. In reaching this decision, the court relied upon the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino.

3 This Court filed its decision in Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 2013 PA Super 232, 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 2890, 189 L. Ed. 2d 838 (2014) on August 12, 2013, holding that  [HN1] a non-signatory wrongful death claimant was not bound by an arbitration agreement signed by a decedent. Owing to our decision in Pisano, the trial court in its Rule 1925(a) opinion urged this Court to vacate the order granting summary judgment as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.

On December 30, 2015, a divided three-judge panel of this Court affirmed, in part, and reversed, in part, the rulings issued by the trial court. Specifically, the panel unanimously affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining Appellee’s preliminary objections. In addition, the panel unanimously agreed that: (1) the completion of discovery and the further development of the factual record defeated application of the coordinate jurisdiction rule and eliminated factual issues surrounding Mr. Valentino’s execution of the liability waiver; (2) Appellant’s failure to state viable claims involving recklessness, outrageousness, and intentional [*7]  misconduct on the part of Appellee mooted Appellant’s argument that a contractual waiver of such claims would be ineffective; and, (3) there was no basis to consider the sufficiency of the testimony of Appellant’s expert since the trial court did not address that issue. Citing Pisano, however, two of the three members of the petite panel concluded that the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino did not apply to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the agreement.4 Consequently, this Court vacated summary judgment in favor of Appellee as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.5 Thereafter, both Appellant and Appellee requested reargument en banc. By order filed on March 11, 2016, this Court granted en banc reargument and withdrew our opinions of December 30, 2015. We now address the following questions:

1. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] where, when the material facts set forth in the [a]mended [c]omplaint, as well as all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, are accepted as true, it cannot be said with certainty that [Appellee’s] actions were not sufficiently reckless, outrageous and/or egregious to warrant an award of punitive damages?

2. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred [*8]  in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] and striking paragraph[s] 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) of the [a]mended [c]omplaint where these averments, and the [a]mended [c]omplaint in general, were sufficiently specific to enable [Appellee] to respond and prepare a defense?

3. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] second [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the issue of waiver and release was previously decided in the [o]rder of January 29, 2013 that denied [Appellee’s] first [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment, and the [c]ourt was precluded by the coordinate jurisdiction rule from revisiting the question?

4. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where, when the record is viewed in the light most favorable to [Appellant], questions of fact remain as to whether the purported release in question was effectively executed by the decedent and, if it was, whether it was enforceable?

5. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the report issued by Mark Mico fully and adequately addressed the questions of duty, breach of duty and causation and, in addition, he was fully qualified to render opinions in these regards?

Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 7-8.

4 Distinguishing the arbitration clause at issue in Pisano, the dissent found that Appellant’s claims were subject [*9]  to the liability waiver under which Mr. Valentino expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon since Appellant’s wrongful death action required her to demonstrate that Mr. Valentino’s death resulted from tortious conduct on the part of Appellee.

5 Our ruling did not purport to alter the trial court’s reliance on the liability waiver as grounds for entering summary judgment as to Appellant’s survival claims.

In the first issue, Appellant asserts that the trial court erred in sustaining the preliminary objections and striking all references to outrageous acts, gross negligence, and reckless conduct. Appellant also asserts that the trial court erred in dismissing her claims for punitive damages. The basis for these contentions is that, when the allegations set forth in the amended complaint are taken as true, the pleading asserts a claim that, “[Appellee] intentionally created a situation where swimmers [went] into a river with inadequate supervision and no reasonable means of rescue if they got into trouble.” Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 22 (emphasis in original).

The standard of review we apply when considering a trial court’s order sustaining preliminary objections is [*10]  well settled:

 [HN2] [O]ur standard of review of an order of the trial court overruling or [sustaining] preliminary objections is to determine whether the trial court committed an error of law. When considering the appropriateness of a ruling on preliminary objections, the appellate court must apply the same standard as the trial court.

 [HN3] Preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer test the legal sufficiency of the complaint. When considering preliminary objections, all material facts set forth in the challenged pleadings are admitted as true, as well as all inferences reasonably deducible therefrom.  [HN4] Preliminary objections which seek the dismissal of a cause of action should be sustained only in cases in which it is clear and free from doubt that the pleader will be unable to prove facts legally sufficient to establish the right to relief. If any doubt exists as to whether a demurrer should be sustained, it should be resolved in favor of overruling the preliminary objections.

HRANEC Sheet Metal, Inc. v. Metalico Pittsburgh, Inc., 2014 PA Super 278, 107 A.3d 114, 118 (Pa. Super. 2014).

[HN5] In Pennsylvania, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” Hutchison v. Luddy, 582 Pa. 114, 870 A.2d 766, 770 (Pa. 2005), quoting, Feld v. Merriam, 506 Pa. 383, 485 A.2d 742, 747 (Pa. 1984).  [HN6] “As the name suggests, [*11]  punitive damages are penal in nature and are proper only in cases where the defendant’s actions are so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton or reckless conduct.” Hutchison, 870 A.2d at 770.  [HN7] To support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk. Id. at 772.  [HN8] “Ordinary negligence, involving inadvertence, mistake or error of judgment will not support an award of punitive damages.” Hutchinson v. Penske Truck Leasing Co., 2005 PA Super 179, 876 A.2d 978, 983-984 (Pa. Super. 2005), aff’d, 592 Pa. 38, 922 A.2d 890 (Pa. 2007).

Appellant’s amended complaint alleges that Mr. Valentino died while swimming in the Schuylkill River during the Triathlon. The amended complaint alleges further that Appellee was inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees. These allegations, however, averred nothing more than ordinary negligence arising from inadvertence, mistake, or error in judgment; they do not support a claim involving outrageous [*12]  behavior or a conscious disregard for risks confronted by Triathlon participants. Hence, the trial court correctly dismissed Appellant’s allegations of outrageous and reckless conduct and properly struck her punitive damage claims.

In the second issue, Appellant asserts that the trial court erred in sustaining the preliminary objections and striking paragraphs 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) from her amended complaint. Appellant maintains that these averments are sufficiently specific to enable Appellee to respond to Appellant’s allegations and to formulate a defense in this case.

Contrary to Appellant’s argument, we agree with the trial court’s assessment that the challenged portions of the amended complaint are too vague and ambiguous to satisfy the requirements found in Pa.R.C.P. 1019. [HN9]  Under Rule 1019, “[t]he material facts on which a cause of action or defense is based shall be stated in a concise and summary form.” Pa.R.C.P. 1019.  [HN10] “Pennsylvania is a fact-pleading state; a complaint must not only give the defendant notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, but the complaint must also formulate the issues by summarizing those facts essential to support the claim.” Feingold v. Hendrzak, 2011 PA Super 34, 15 A.3d 937, 942 (Pa. Super. 2011).

The challenged provisions of [*13]  Appellant’s amended complaint referred only to “dangerous conditions” (¶ 22(a)), “warnings” (¶ 22(c)), “failures to reasonably plan, operate, supervise, and organize the event” (¶ 22(e)), and “failures to employ adequate policies, procedures, and protocols in conducting the event” (¶ 22(m)) as the basis for her claims. Upon review, we concur in the trial court’s determination that this boilerplate language was too indefinite to supply Appellee with adequate information to formulate a defense.

Appellant cites the decision of the Commonwealth Court in Banfield v. Cortes, 922 A.2d 36 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007) as supportive of her contention that the amended complaint set forth material facts with sufficient specificity. Banfield, however, is distinguishable. In that case, a group of electors filed suit alleging that the Secretary of the Commonwealth, in certifying the use of certain electronic systems in elections, failed to adopt uniform testing procedures that addressed the security, reliability, and accuracy of voting systems. The Secretary requested an order directing the plaintiffs to re-plead their allegations with greater specificity. In rejecting this request, the Commonwealth Court explained that in challenging the adequacy of the testing [*14]  features inherent in the newly adopted electronic voting systems, the plaintiffs provided sufficient facts to enable the Secretary to prepare a defense. Id. at 50.

Here, in contrast, Appellant referred vaguely, and without elaboration, to unspecified dangerous conditions, indefinite warnings, and generic failures to reasonably plan and employ adequate policies in carrying out the Triathlon. Moreover, even if Appellee possessed some knowledge of the facts around which Appellant’s allegations centered, this alone would not relieve Appellant of her duty to allege material facts upon which she based her claims. See Gross v. United Engineers & Constructors, Inc., 224 Pa. Super. 233, 302 A.2d 370, 372 (Pa. Super. 1973). Thus, Appellant’s reliance on Banfield is unavailing and we conclude that the trial court committed no error in striking paragraphs 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) from the amended complaint.

The final three claims challenge the entry of summary judgment in favor of Appellee. Our standard of review over such claims is well settled.

 [HN11] Th[e] scope of review of an order granting summary judgment is plenary. Our standard of review is clear: the trial court’s order will be reversed only where it is established that the court committed an error of law or clearly abused its discretion.  [HN12] Summary judgment is [*15]  appropriate only in those cases where the record clearly demonstrates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The reviewing court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, resolving all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact against the moving party. When the facts are so clear that reasonable minds cannot differ, a trial court may properly enter summary judgment.

Atcovitz v. Gulph Mills Tennis Club, Inc., 571 Pa. 580, 812 A.2d 1218, 1221-1222 (Pa. 2002).

Appellant advances several arguments in support of her contention that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. First, Appellant asserts that the coordinate jurisdiction rule precluded the trial court from addressing Appellee’s motion since a prior summary judgment motion was denied. Second, Appellant contends that genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Mr. Valentino actually executed a liability waiver form barred the entry of summary judgment in Appellee’s favor. Appellant next maintains that a plaintiff cannot contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct and that, as a result, the liability waiver executed in this case is incapable of extinguishing [*16]  such claims. Appellant also asserts that, pursuant to our prior decision in Pisano, a decedent’s liability waiver is ineffective as to non-signatory third-party wrongful death claimants. Lastly, Appellant claims that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation. We address these contentions in turn.

We begin with Appellant’s claim alleging that the coordinate jurisdiction rule precluded consideration of Appellee’s motion for summary judgment since the trial court denied a prior summary judgment motion.  [HN13] The coordinate jurisdiction rule holds that, “upon transfer of a matter between trial judges of coordinate jurisdiction, a transferee trial judge may not alter resolution of a legal question previously decided by a transferor trial judge.” Zane v. Friends Hospital, 575 Pa. 236, 836 A.2d 25, 29 (Pa. 2003). An exception to this rule applies, however, “when there has been a change in the controlling law or where there was a substantial change in the facts or evidence.” Id. We agree with the trial court that the completion of discovery and the development of a more complete record defeated application of [*17]  the coordinate jurisdiction rule in this case. Hence, this contention merits no relief.

Appellant next advances a claim asserting that genuine issues of fact surrounding Mr. Valentino’s execution of the liability waiver preclude summary judgment in favor of Appellee. In developing this contention, Appellant draws our attention to differences between the version of the liability waiver introduced in support of Appellee’s first motion for summary judgment and the version submitted in support of its second motion. Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 37-41. Appellant notes that the second version was two and one-half pages in length while the first version was only two pages. Appellant also notes that the second version bore the date “2011” while the event occurred in 2010. Lastly, the second version included the words “Yes, I agree to the above waivers” above the signature line while the first version did not.

There is ample support for the trial court’s finding that Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver when he electronically registered for the Triathlon. See Trial Court Opinion, 8/14/14, at 4 (“In the second motion for summary judgment, it is undisputed that a waiver was among the [*18]  decedent’s possessions, prior to being discovered in the Schuykill River.”). The record shows that Appellee retained the services of ACTIVE Network (ACTIVE) to implement the online registration process for the Triathlon. ACTIVE implemented the required specifications for online registration, including guidelines for specific waiver and assumption of the risk language, supplied by Appellee and USA Triathlon (USAT), the national governing body of the sport of triathlon. USAT sanctioned the Triathlon because Appellee followed USAT registration guidelines.

Appellee also demonstrated that no one could participate in the Triathlon without registering online, a process that could not be completed without the execution of a liability waiver. It is not disputed that Mr. Valentino registered online by completing the required process. He paid his registration fee with a credit card issued in his name and for which he retained exclusive possession.

Appellee also offered the affidavit of Eric McCue, the general manager of ACTIVE, to explain why the appearance of the liability waiver varied between the submission of the first and second motions for summary judgment. According to Mr. McCue’s affidavit, [*19]  “ACTIVE’s computer system condenses older registration and waiver documents for storage purposes, making any printed version of the older retained registration and waiver documents appear smaller than when they were viewed online by the reader/registrant.” Appellee’s Motion for Summary Judgment Ex. L at ¶ 9, 8/5/13. Mr. McCue also stated that “the reader/registrant would view the online registration for the subject event exactly as it appears on Exhibit B [of Appellee’s August 5, 2013 motion for summary judgment] on his or her computer screen.” Id. at ¶ 10. Appellant offered no evidence to dispute Mr. McCue’s affidavit testimony.

Lastly, Appellee relied upon the deposition testimony of witnesses to demonstrate that Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver during the electronic registration process. At her deposition, Appellant admitted she had no reason to believe that Mr. Valentino did not read and understand the liability waiver or that he did not sign it during the registration process. In addition, Appellee pointed to the deposition testimony of Andrea Pontani, Mr. Valentino’s friend. Ms. Pontani testified that Appellant and Mr. Valentino were aware of the liability waiver because [*20]  they spoke with her about it before the competition, stating that Mr. Valentino signed the form and presented it in order to obtain his competitor’s bib during the registration process on the day of the event. Based upon the forgoing, we agree with the trial court that Appellant presented no evidence raising a genuine issue of fact as to whether Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver at issue in this case.

We turn next to Appellant’s position that, even if Mr. Valentino executed the liability waiver, the agreement is unenforceable with regard to claims asserting reckless or intentional conduct. Here, however, we have previously affirmed the trial court’s determination that Appellant did not state viable claims involving reckless or intentional conduct. See infra. As such, Appellant’s contention cannot serve as a basis for disturbing the trial court’s summary judgment order, which dismissed allegations of ordinary negligence comprising Appellant’s wrongful death and survival actions.6

6 Appellant does not challenge the substantive validity of the liability waiver as a bar to her claims of ordinary negligence. Consequently, we need not address the validity of the exculpatory provisions [*21]  in the context of this case.

Appellant forwards a claim that our decision in Pisano bars Appellee’s reliance on a liability waiver to defend wrongful death claims asserted by a non-signatory statutory claimant. See Appellant’s Substituted Brief at 45-47; see also Trial Court Opinion, 8/14/14, at 5. In Pisano, a nursing home resident signed a contract agreeing to submit all claims against the home to binding arbitration. When the resident died, the administrator of the resident’s estate asserted wrongful death claims against the home and the home invoked the arbitration clause. The trial court denied the home’s petition to compel arbitration. On appeal, this Court affirmed, concluding that the arbitration clause was not binding against wrongful death claimants who did not sign the agreement because they possessed a separate and distinct right of action. Pursuant to this holding, Appellant maintains that since she did not sign the liability waiver executed by her late husband, the contractual waiver cannot be asserted as a bar to her wrongful death claims. We disagree.

The statute authorizing wrongful death claims in Pennsylvania provides as follows:

§ 8301. Death action

(a)General rule.– An [*22]  action may be brought [for the benefit of the spouse, children or parents of the deceased], under procedures prescribed by general rules, to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another if no recovery for the same damages claimed in the wrongful death action was obtained by the injured individual during his lifetime and any prior actions for the same injuries are consolidated with the wrongful death claim so as to avoid a duplicate recovery.

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8301 (emphasis added) (sometimes referred to as “Wrongful Death Act”). Eight decades ago, our Supreme Court interpreted a prior, but similar, version of the statute. The Court made clear that the statute contemplated that a claimant’s recovery required a tortious act on the part of the defendant:

[W]e have held that  [HN14] a right to recover must exist in the party injured when he died in order to entitle[] those named in the act to sue. We have therefore held, in order that the death action impose no new and unjust burden on the defendant, that where the deceased would have been barred by contributory negligence, or by the statute of limitations, the parties suing for his death [*23]  are likewise barred. We have announced the principle that the statutory action is derivative because it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action. Its derivation, however, is from the tortious act, and not from the person of the deceased, so that it comes to the parties named in the statute free from personal disabilities arising from the relationship of the injured party and tort-feasor.

Kaczorowski v. Kalkosinski, 321 Pa. 438, 184 A. 663, 664 (Pa. 1936) (internal citations omitted; emphasis added).

Our decision in Pisano limited a decedent’s authority to diminish or alter a non-signatory third-party claimant’s procedural election to pursue a claim in the forum of his or her choice. That decision, however, did not purport to undermine the fundamental principle that  [HN15] both an estate in a survival action, and a statutory claimant in a wrongful death action, shoulder the same burden of proving that tortious conduct on the part of the defendant caused the decedent’s death. Under Pisano,  [HN16] “wrongful death actions are derivative of decedents’ injuries but are not derivative of decedents’ rights.” Pisano, 77 A.3d at 659-660. Thus, while a third party’s wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s right of action, [*24]  a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.

As suggested above,  [HN17] Pennsylvania case law has long held that a wrongful death claimant’s substantive right to recover is derivative of and dependent upon a tortious act that resulted in the decedent’s death. Our reasoning in Sunderland v. R.A. Barlow Homebuilders, 2002 PA Super 16, 791 A.2d 384 (Pa. Super. 2002), aff’d, 576 Pa. 22, 838 A.2d 662 (Pa. 2003) illustrates this point:

 [HN18] A wrongful death action is derivative of the injury which would have supported the decedent’s own cause of action and is dependent upon the decedent’s cause of action being viable at the time of death. [Moyer v. Rubright, 438 Pa. Super. 154, 651 A.2d 1139, 1143 (Pa. Super. 1994)].  [HN19] “As a general rule, no action for wrongful death can be maintained where the decedent, had he lived, could not himself have recovered for the injuries sustained.” Ingenito v. AC & S, Inc., 430 Pa. Super. 129, 633 A.2d 1172, 1176 (Pa. Super. 1993). Thus, although death is the necessary final event in a wrongful death claim, the cause of action is derivative of the underlying tortious acts that caused the fatal injury. Id.

Sunderland, 791 A.2d at 390-391 (emphasis added; parallel citations omitted).

Applying these settled principles in the present case, we conclude that  [HN20] a decedent may not compromise or diminish a wrongful death claimant’s right of action without consent. Nevertheless, a third-party wrongful death claimant is subject to substantive defenses supported by the decedent’s [*25]  actions or agreements where offered to relieve the defendant, either wholly or partially, from liability by showing that the defendant’s actions were not tortious. Here, Mr. Valentino, in registering online for the Triathlon, executed a detailed liability waiver under which he expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon and agreed to indemnify Appellee for liability stemming from his involvement in the event. The valid liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino was available to support Appellee’s claim that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of taking part in the competition and that, therefore, Appellee’s actions were not tortious. Since Appellant’s wrongful death claims required her to establish that Appellee’s conduct was tortious, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee.

Appellant construes Pisano as holding that a wrongful death claimant’s rights are wholly separate, in all contexts and for all purposes, from not just the “rights” of a decedent but also the injuries sustained by a decedent. This reading of Pisano conflates the concept of a right of action under Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Act, referring [*26]  to the non-derivative right of a statutory claimant to seek compensation, with the principle that a claimant’s substantive right to obtain a recovery always remains, even in the wake of Pisano, “depend[ant] upon the occurrence of a tortious act.” Pisano, 77 A.3d at 654 (emphasis added). The issue in Pisano was whether a wrongful death claimant should be bound by an arbitration clause that he did not sign. This is a uniquely procedural issue that differs greatly from the enforcement of a valid liability waiver such as the one at issue in the present case. An arbitration clause dictates the forum where a litigant may present his claim. The terms of such a clause do not fix substantive legal standards by which we measure a right to recovery. Because the decedent signatory agreed to submit his claim to arbitration, his claim is subject to the compulsory provisions of the agreement.  [HN21] A non-signatory wrongful death claimant, on the other hand, cannot be compelled to present his claim to an arbitrator since he has not consented to arbitration and since he possesses an independent, non-derivative right to air his claim in the forum of his choice.

A liability waiver, however, operates quite differently from an arbitration clause. [*27]  By executing a liability waiver, the decedent signatory acknowledges and assumes identified risks and pledges that the defendant will not be held liable for resulting harms. If the decedent executes the waiver in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner (as here), the waiver is deemed valid and it shifts the risk of loss away from the defendant and onto the decedent. In effect, an enforceable waiver under which the decedent assumes specified risks transforms the nature of the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the decedent from tortious to non-tortious. Since Pisano retains the requirement that the decedent’s death result from a tortious act, even non-signatory wrongful death claimants remain subject to the legal consequences of a valid liability waiver.

Appellant also overinflates the importance of the presence of a wrongful death claimant’s signature when evaluating the enforceability of a liability waiver. Under Pisano, a wrongful death claimant possesses an independent, non-derivative right of action that cannot be subject to compulsory arbitration in the absence of consent. Thus, to enforce an arbitration clause in the wrongful death context, the claimant’s signature is necessary [*28]  to demonstrate that she agreed to submit her claim to binding arbitration. The same is not true for a liability waiver, however. As explained above,  [HN22] a valid waiver signed only by the decedent transfers the risk of harm from the defendant to the decedent, effectively rendering the defendant’s conduct non-tortious. Since the wrongful death claimant’s substantive right of recovery presupposes tortious conduct on the part of the defendant, the claimant’s signature on the waiver is unnecessary.

Although we have uncovered no recent Pennsylvania case law that discusses the application of a valid waiver in a subsequent wrongful death action, several decisions from California are instructive on this point. These cases illustrate that,  [HN23] while a valid waiver does not bar a wrongful death claim, it can support a defense asserting that the alleged tortfeasor owed no duty to the decedent:

 [HN24] Although a wrongful death claim is an independent action, wrongful death plaintiffs may be bound by agreements entered into by decedent that limit the scope of the wrongful death action. Thus, for example, although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his heirs’ wrongful [*29]  death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk.

Ruiz v. Podolsky, 50 Cal. 4th 838, 114 Cal. Rptr. 3d 263, 237 P.3d 584, 593 (Cal. 4th 2010). Hence,  [HN25]

where a decedent executes a valid waiver:

the express contractual assumption of the risk, combined with the express waiver of defendants’ negligence, constitute[s] a complete defense to the surviving heirs’ wrongful death action. This is different than holding th[at the wrongful death] action is barred.

Scroggs v. Coast Community College Dist., 193 Cal.App.3d 1399, 1402, 239 Cal. Rptr. 916 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 1987); Eriksson v. Nunnink, 233 Cal. App. 4th 708, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2015); Madison v. Superior Court 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 250 Cal. Rptr. 299 (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. 1988).

These cases align with Pennsylvania law in a way that the decisional law of other states does not. For example, in Gershon v. Regency Diving Center, Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720 (N.J. Super. 2004), the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court rejected the rationale in Madison and the other California cases, noting that the California approach was “internally inconsistent” since it allowed claimants to file a lawsuit that ultimately would not succeed. This reasoning constitutes a one-dimensional view of the issue. Take, for example, a case in which the decedent executes a valid liability waiver, as here. Thereafter, the defendant raises a successful assumption of the risk defense against the decedent’s estate in a survival action. Under the holding in Gershon, the defendant cannot raise the defense in a companion wrongful death action. [*30]  Gershon thus trades one “inconsistency” for another since it allows a wrongful death action to proceed in the face of a valid waiver that precludes a related survival action. Since the same underlying conduct by the defendant is the focus of scrutiny in this hypothetical situation, it is entirely consistent to reject a wrongful death claim where a valid waiver precludes recovery in a related survival action.7

7 This Court recently required consolidation of related wrongful death and survival actions since wrongful death beneficiaries cannot be compelled to arbitrate wrongful death claims. Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 2015 PA Super 64, 113 A.3d 317 (Pa. Super. 2015), appeal granted, 122 A.3d 1036 (Pa. 2015). However, our Supreme Court overruled our decision in Taylor, concluding that the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 2, preempted application of Pa.R.C.P. 213(e) (requiring consolidation of survival and wrongful death actions at trial) and required arbitration of survival claims where a valid and enforceable arbitration clause exists. Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 2016 Pa. LEXIS 2166, 2016 WL 5630669 (Pa. 2016).

Our conclusion that Appellee may rely on a liability waiver signed only by the decedent to defeat Appellant’s wrongful death claims is undiminished by Pennsylvania case law holding that a settlement and release agreement does not bind non-signatories. See, e.g., Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (Pa. 1989). In Buttermore [*31] , James Buttermore sustained injuries in an automobile accident. Eventually, he resolved his claims against the tortfeasor in exchange for the sum of $25,000.00 and executed a release and settlement agreement in which he agreed to release any and all persons from liability, whether known or unknown. Later, Buttermore and his wife initiated an action against Aliquippa Hospital and certain physicians claiming that treatment he received aggravated the injuries he sustained in the accident. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the strength of the release. Our Supreme Court held that the release barred Buttermore’s claims against all tortfeasors, including those who were unnamed. The Court further held, however, that Buttermore’s wife had an independent cause of action for loss of consortium, which was not barred by the release since she did not sign the agreement.

A pair of examples illustrates the distinction between the situation in Buttermore and the situation presently before us. In the first example, the driver of car A operates his vehicle on a public highway. He is injured after a rear-end collision caused by the driver of car B. Litigation ensues between the two drivers and, [*32]  eventually, the driver of car A resolves his claims against the driver of car B for the sum of $30,000.00. At that time, the driver of car A executes a release and settlement agreement, releasing all persons from liability — whether known or unknown — for claims stemming from injuries and losses he sustained in the accident. His spouse does not sign the release. As in Buttermore, the release signed by the driver of car A bars all claims he initiates in the future but does not bar loss of consortium claims or wrongful death claims (should he succumb to his injuries) brought by his spouse, who possesses independent causes of action. In this scenario, the execution of the release manifests the driver of car A’s agreement to forgo all future claims but does not establish his assumption of the risk of operating his vehicle. Nothing in the release suggests that the driver of car A intended to shift the risk of loss away from the driver of car B and onto himself. Indeed, the execution of the release after the injury-causing accident leaves no room for the inference that he assumed this risk of negligence on the part of the driver of car B. Since nothing in the release precludes a finding [*33]  that the driver of car B acted tortiously, the release has no preclusive effect on the spouse’s right to seek damages in the context of a subsequent loss of consortium or wrongful death action.

In the second example, the driver of car A decides to participate in a demolition derby. As a condition of entry, he voluntarily executes a liability waiver under which he assumes the risk of participation in the event and waives all potential claims against other participants and event organizers. Again, the spouse of the driver of car A does not sign the liability waiver. During the demolition derby, the driver of car A sustains injuries and eventually dies as a result of a collision with another participant. In this scenario, loss of consortium and wrongful death claims asserted by the spouse of the driver of car A are subject to the liability waiver. This is because the driver of car A expressly manifested his intent to assume the risk of participating in the demolition derby, thereby shifting the risk of loss or injury away from other participants and event organizers. Unlike the release and settlement agreement in the first example that said nothing about assumption of the risk or any other [*34]  substantive basis to oppose tort liability, the liability waiver in this hypothetical supports a complete bar to financial responsibility for injury and losses and bears directly on the formula by which we assess whether a defendant acted tortiously in causing damages. Because even non-signatory wrongful death claimants bear the burden of proving that tortious conduct caused the decedent’s death, their claims are subject to liability waivers under which the deceased assumed the risk of engaging in a particular activity.8 As the circumstances before us more closely reflect this second example, the instant appeal calls for application of the principles alluded to in prior Pennsylvania cases and specifically articulated in the California line of authority. See infra. Thus, we are not persuaded that Pennsylvania case law construing the applicable scope of release and settlement agreements undermines our conclusion that Appellant’s wrongful death claims are subject to the liability waiver signed by Mr. Valentino.

8  [HN26] Although strictly construed, Pennsylvania law recognizes the enforceability of valid liability waivers, particularly in cases where the injured party elects to engage in activities [*35]  that entail an obvious risk of injury or loss. See, e.g., Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738 (Pa. Super. 2016) (en banc) (gym membership), appeal denied, 2016 Pa. LEXIS 1407, 2016 WL 3910827 (Pa. 2016). We would substantially reduce the utility of liability waivers if we were to hold that they are enforceable only against signatories, but not against non-signatory wrongful death claimants. Moreover, it would be extremely impractical to expect defendants to acquire signatures from all such potential plaintiffs. Indeed, it should almost go without saying that event organizers and hosts of activities that entail a risk of injury would likely cease operations if valid liability waivers could not be enforced against non-signatory statutory claimants such as Appellant.

For related reasons, we conclude that the decision in Brown v. Moore, 247 F.2d 711 (3rd Cir. 1957), cert. denied, 355 U.S. 882, 78 S. Ct. 148, 2 L. Ed. 2d 112 (1957) is also unpersuasive. In that case, Brown, a neurotic, entered a sanitarium for treatment which included electrical shock therapy. While in the sanitarium, Brown fell down a flight of stairs. After the fall, sanitarium employees picked Brown up by his extremities, causing paralysis. Upon entry into the sanitarium, Brown and his wife signed a release relieving the sanitarium and its employees from liability for injuries resulting from his mental health [*36]  treatment, including electro-shock therapy or similar treatments. As Brown’s widow and the executrix of his estate, Brown’s wife brought claims under the Wrongful Death Act on behalf of herself and her three minor children, as well as a Survival Act claim. The court’s opinion in Brown suggested that the release was sufficient to alleviate the defendants’ liability under the Survival Act and to defeat Brown’s widow’s claims under the Wrongful Death Act since the decedent and Brown’s wife signed the agreement. Nevertheless, the court opined that Brown’s children could recover on their wrongful death claims since they were non-signatories. We find it significant, however, that immediately before reaching this conclusion, the court concluded that Brown’s treatment following his fall down the stairs was unrelated to his treatment for his mental health issues, which was the subject of his release. In essence, then, the court held that while Brown may have assumed the risk of electro-shock therapy or similar treatments, he did not assume the risk of faulty medical treatment for injuries sustained during his fall. Accordingly, Brown does little to support Appellant’s claim before us.9

9 As our [*37]  analysis suggests,  [HN27] courts must exercise great care and caution to differentiate between an agreement that addresses only the procedural rights of a signatory (i.e., an arbitration agreement) or a signatory’s right to pursue further claims (i.e., a release and settlement agreement) from an agreement that goes further and unambiguously manifests a signatory’s intent to assume the risk of involvement in a particular event or activity (i.e., a liability waiver). This is because the former binds only the parties to the agreement while the latter extends to non-signatory third-parties. We accord broader reach to liability waivers under which the signatory assumes a particular risk because, where valid, such agreements support a complete bar to tort liability and therefore form an important part of the assessment of whether tortious conduct brought about injury, loss, or death. A court’s examination of this issue necessarily will involve the nature and purpose of the agreement, as expressed in the exculpatory language of the instrument, together with the circumstances under which the parties entered the contract. The analysis should not be limited simply to the label applied to the agreement [*38]  and, occasionally, will ask whether the signatory expressly assumed the precise risk that resulted in his injury. In Brown, for example, we doubt whether the release should have been given preclusive effect at all since the precise injury sustained in that case fell outside the scope of the exculpatory waiver.

The learned Dissent rejects the conclusion that assumption of the risk and the liability waiver support the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of Appellee. The Dissent instead argues that, “Pisano is clear that a wrongful death action is an independent cause of action, created by statute, and is not derivative of the decedent’s rights at the time of death.” Dissenting Opinion at 8. This position overlooks settled Supreme Court precedent and over eight decades of Pennsylvania case law holding that wrongful death actions are derivative of “the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action.” Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (noting that wrongful death action would be barred by affirmative defenses such as contributory negligence or statute of limitations); see also Sunderland, 791 A.2d at 390-391; Moyer, 651 A.2d at 1143; Ingenito, 633 A.2d at 1176. Not only does the Dissent ignore binding Pennsylvania precedent, the premise of the Dissent’s [*39]  conclusion is unavailing.

Citing Pisano, the Dissent asserts that Appellant is not “bound” by the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino and, therefore, the agreement does not bar her from bringing a wrongful death action. Respectfully, these contentions miss the point. First, Appellant filed a wrongful death action in the venue of her choosing and no one asserts that the liability waiver precluded her from doing so. Second, since it is undisputed that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily executed the liability waiver, the issue of whether Appellant was “bound” by the waiver agreement is irrelevant to whether Appellee was entitled to an order granting summary judgment as to the negligence claims asserted in Appellant’s wrongful death action. We explain.

The record undeniably contains a valid waiver agreement. As such, the agreement itself constitutes tangible and, indeed, overwhelming proof that Mr. Valentino intelligently and willingly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon. This is so regardless of whether Appellant was “bound” by the agreement. The law is clear that a wrongful death claimant’s recovery must derive from a tortious actious act. Sunderland, 791 A.2d at 390-391. As even the Dissent [*40]  concedes, “[a] wrongful death claimant [must] prove negligence.” Dissenting Opinion at 8, fn.6. The law is also clear that [HN28]  the doctrine of assumption of the risk is a function of the duty analysis required in any negligence action and that summary judgment may be entered where the record discloses an absence of general issues of material fact. Thompson v. Ginkel, 2014 PA Super 125, 95 A.3d 900, 906-907 (Pa. Super. 2014), appeal denied, 630 Pa. 745, 108 A.3d 36 (Pa. 2015). Since assumption of the risk serves as a complete bar to tort recovery, Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2(2) permitted Appellee to seek summary judgment based upon Mr. Valentino’s voluntary and knowing assumption of the hazards attendant to triathlon participation. See Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc., 2000 PA Super 87, 749 A.2d 522, 527 (Pa. Super. 2000).10

10 In Staub, this Court explained:

 [HN29] For summary judgment purposes, affirmative defenses are generally decided under Pa.R.Civ.P. 1035.2(1), where it is the moving party’s burden to establish the defense as a matter of law. Under [Howell v. Clyde, 533 Pa. 151, 620 A.2d 1107 (Pa. 1993) and Hardy v. Southland Corp., 435 Pa. Super. 237, 645 A.2d 839 (Pa. Super. 1994), appeal denied, 539 Pa. 679, 652 A.2d 1324 (Pa. 1994)], however, assumption of risk is now considered part of a “no-duty” analysis. As such, the doctrine now falls under the second type of summary judgment motion, described in Pa.R.Civ.P. 1035.2(2). Under Rule 1035.2(2), a party may obtain summary judgment by pointing to the adverse party’s lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim. . . .  [HN30] One of the essential elements of a negligence claim is that [*41]  the defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care. Under Rule 1035.2(2), the defendant’s method for pointing to a lack of evidence on the duty issue is to show that the plaintiff assumed the risk as a matter of law. This process will entail gathering and presenting evidence on the plaintiff’s behavior, and attempting to convince the court that the plaintiff knew the risk and proceeded to encounter it in a manner showing a willingness to accept the risk. Thus, for all practical purposes, the process for showing “no-duty” assumption of the risk under Rule 1035.2(2) is indistinguishable from showing assumption of the risk as an affirmative defense under Rule 1035.2(1).

Staub, 749 A.2d at 527. For purposes of proving negligence, the only legal duty referred to in this case is the one allegedly owed by Appellee to Mr. Valentino. The Dissent identifies no source and no proof of a separate and independent legal duty owed by Appellee to Appellant.

More broadly, we note that the Dissent places great weight on its contention that Appellant’s wrongful death action is not derivative of Mr. Valentino’s injuries. Notwithstanding, even a brief review of Appellant’s amended complaint and the submissions of the parties reveals that all of the allegations of negligence [*42]  underpinning Appellant’s wrongful death claims involve legal duties, alleged breaches, proximate causation, and harms that focus exclusively upon Mr. Valentino. Thus, in substantive terms, the conclusion that Appellant’s wrongful death claims are derivative of the injuries sustained by Mr. Valentino is inescapable.

In this case, Appellant does not dispute that the liability waiver constituted an express assumption of the risk by Mr. Valentino. This confirms that Appellee owed no legal duty to Mr. Valentino and, therefore, Appellee cannot be found to be negligent. It follows, then, that the waiver agreement not only defeated the negligence claims asserted in the context of Appellant’s survival action, but also the negligence claims asserted in the context of Appellant’s wrongful death action. Appellee’s right to summary judgment simply did not depend upon Appellant’s execution of the agreement.11

11 The Dissent also makes the point that wrongful death claims are intended to compensate for the loss of the decedent. Wrongful death claims, however, were not intended to place new and unjust burdens on defendants and compensation is due only when tortious conduct results in death. In the present [*43]  case, the trial court properly entered summary judgment because Appellant cannot demonstrate that Appellee was negligent, as Appellee owed no duty to Mr. Valentino. Thus, the goal of compensation does not support reversal of the trial court’s order. This holding does not “eviscerate” but wholly aligns with our Wrongful Death Statute, which imposes liability only where the defendant’s tortious conduct causes death. Compare Dissenting Opinion at 5.

We turn now to Appellant’s claim that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation. Here, Appellant relies on Mark Mico, an experienced triathlete, race director, and race management consultant. Mr. Mico concluded that Appellee’s negligence caused Mr. Valentino to drown in the Schuylkill River. Among other things, Mr. Mico stated in his report that Appellee failed to provide a sufficient number of lifeguards and allowed too many swimmers into the water during wave launches. He also stated that contestants were not permitted to wear buoyant wetsuits and that Appellee failed to provide to lifeguards [*44]  appropriate instruction and training in open water safety. Mr. Mico opined that swimmers were given black swimming caps that offered poor visibility in open water. Finally, Mr. Mico stated that most lifeguards were familiar only with conditions in swimming pools, not open water.

In this case, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Appellee based upon the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino. The trial court did not consider the contents of Mr. Mico’s report and did not discuss the issue in its Rule 1925(a) opinion. Nonetheless, since our scope of review is plenary, we may and must examine Mr. Mico’s report to determine if it precludes the entry of summary judgment based on the liability waiver. We conclude that it does not.

Assuming for purposes of argument that Mr. Mico’s expert report establishes a prima facie case of negligence, the liability waiver operated to release Appellee from liability for negligence, and Appellant does not challenge the validity of the release on that basis. Furthermore, Mr. Mico’s conclusory opinion that Appellee’s “conduct was to such a degree of carelessness that it amounts to reckless disregard for the safety of its participants[,]” does not permit [*45]  Appellant to avoid the liability waiver. Report of Michael Mico, 6/30/13, at unnumbered 7. As we previously determined, the trial court properly held that the facts alleged in the amended complaint did not support claims that Appellee acted outrageously, recklessly, or intentionally, and dismissed such claims with prejudice. Expert opinion to the contrary cannot alter that legal assessment. In particular, Mr. Mico’s report did not identify specific actions or omissions that rose to the level of reckless disregard.  [HN31] Reckless disregard requires a different state of mind and a substantially greater knowledge of impending risks than ordinary negligence, not simply a higher degree of carelessness, a distinction the expert failed to appreciate.12 See Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1200 (Pa. 2012) ( [HN32] “Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.”) Consequently, nothing in Mr. Mico’s expert report alters our determination that the liability waiver is dispositive of Appellant’s wrongful death and survival claims.

12 Section 500 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts defines reckless disregard of safety as follows:

 [HN33] The actor’s [*46]  conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500.

In sum,  [HN34] Pennsylvania law distinguishes a wrongful death claimant’s non-derivative right to bring an action from her derivative right to recover damages based upon a defendant’s tortious conduct. This distinction allows a defendant, like Appellee, to assert an express, contractual assumption of risk based upon a valid liability waiver against a wrongful death claimant, even where the claimant does not sign the liability waiver agreement. Applying these settled principles to the case at hand, the order granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee fully comports with prevailing Pennsylvania law. Thus, we affirm the court’s summary judgment order dismissing Appellant’s wrongful death and survival claims.

Order affirmed.

Gantman, P.J., Bender, P.J.E., Bowes, Shogan [*47]  and Ott, JJ., join this Opinion.

Ford Elliott, P.J.E., files a Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in which Panella and Lazarus, JJ. join.

Judgment Entered.

Date: 11/15/2016

Because I conclude that Derek Valentino’s release agreement did not bind appellant and did not preclude her from bringing a wrongful death action, I must respectfully dissent from that part of the Majority’s Opinion. I join the Opinion in all other respects.

While the Majority attempts to distinguish Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (Pa. 1989), and Brown v. Moore, 247 F.2d 711 (3rd Cir. 1957), cert. denied, 355 U.S. 882, 78 S. Ct. 148, 2 L. Ed. 2d 112 (1957), I find those cases to be instructive. In Buttermore, James Buttermore was involved in an automobile accident, sustaining injuries. Buttermore, 561 A.2d at 734. He signed a release in settlement of his claim against the tortfeasor for the sum of $25,000, agreeing to release from liability any and all persons, known or unknown. Id. Subsequently, Buttermore and his wife instituted suit against Aliquippa Hospital and the treating physicians alleging that the treatment he received aggravated the injuries he sustained in the accident, worsening his condition. Id. at 734-735. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of Buttermore’s release. Id. at 735.

After first holding that the release applied to all tortfeasors, including the defendants, [*48]  whether specifically named or not, the court in Buttermore turned to the matter of Buttermore’s wife’s loss of consortium claim: “That is not to say, however, that parties may bargain away the rights of others not a party to their agreement. That question rises here because a spouse not a party to the agreement seeks to sue in her own right for loss of consortium.” Id. at 735. The Buttermore court held that the wife had an independent cause of action for loss of consortium regardless of her husband’s release and settlement agreement: “The question is, does the wife, not a signatory to the agreement, have an independent right to sue for the injury done her. We answer that she does.” Id. at 736. See also Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 2013 PA Super 232, 77 A.3d 651, 658 (Pa.Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014), cert. denied, 134 S.Ct. 2890,     U.S.    , 189 L. Ed. 2d 838 (2014), citing Pennsylvania Railroad Co. v. Henderson, 51 Pa. 315, 317, 23 Legal Int. 284, 13 Pitts. Leg. J. 561 (1866) (“This suit is brought by the widow, and her right of action cannot be affected by any discharge or release of [husband] in his lifetime.”).

Similarly, in Brown v. Moore, the plaintiff, the widow and executrix of George Brown, brought a cause of action under the Wrongful Death Act for the benefit of herself and her three minor children, as well as a Survival Act claim. Id. at 714. Brown, a neurotic, was admitted to a sanitarium for treatment including electrical shock therapy, [*49]  following which he fell down a flight of stairs. Id. at 715. After the fall, Brown was picked up by his extremities, with his head hanging down, resulting in paralysis. Id. Brown had signed a release agreeing to release the sanitarium and its employees from liability for any injury resulting from his treatment as a neurotic while at the sanitarium, including electro-shock therapy or treatment of a similar nature. Id. at 722. After concluding that Brown’s treatment following his fall down the stairs was unrelated to his treatment as a neurotic by electro-shock therapy or other similar therapeutic means, the Brown court stated,

[S]ince this case may well come before the reviewing Court we point out that even if the release were deemed sufficient to relieve the defendants of liability under the Pennsylvania Survival Act is [sic] could scarcely relieve them of liability under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act for that Act provides benefits not only for the widow of a deceased person but also for his children. Even assuming that the release was effective as to the plaintiff, who executed it as did Brown, nonetheless Brown’s children would be entitled to a recovery.

Id. (emphasis added).1

1 Brown was disapproved of by [*50]  Grbac v. Reading Fair Co., 688 F.2d 215 (3rd Cir. 1982). However, Grbac was criticized by this court in Pisano:

In Grbac, the court of appeals held that a liability release executed by decedent was binding on the widow’s wrongful death claim. Id. at 217-218. Erroneously following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s holding in [Hill v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 178 Pa. 223, 35 A. 997, 39 Week. Notes Cas. 221 (Pa. 1896)], the court of appeals misinterpreted Pennsylvania law in holding that a “wrongful death action is purely derivative” in Pennsylvania. Id. at 217. The Grbac Court cites no further cases in support of its holding, and no binding Pennsylvania authority exists with a similar holding. In fact, the limited authority on this subject indicates the opposite conclusion of Grbac.

Pisano, 77 A.3d at 658.

Relying on California law, including Madison v. Superior Court, 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 250 Cal. Rptr. 299 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 1988), the Majority concludes that even if appellant can bring the wrongful death action, appellee had no duty to the decedent because of his complete waiver. According to the Majority, the decedent agreed to waive liability and assume all risks inherent to the dangerous activity of sprint triathlon; therefore, appellee owed the decedent no duty to protect him from injury. Therefore, even assuming appellant can sue for wrongful death, she cannot possibly recover where appellee has a complete defense based on the decedent’s assumption of the risk. [*51]

I view the Madison line of cases as creating a distinction without a difference, i.e., a wrongful death claimant can bring suit but will inevitably lose on summary judgment because of the decedent’s waiver of liability, to which the wrongful death claimant was not a party. Such a holding would effectively eviscerate the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute which creates an independent and distinct cause of action, not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death.2 I believe the better approach is outlined by the New Jersey Superior Court in Gershon v. Regency Diving Center, Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720 (N.J.Super. 2004), which explicitly rejected Madison and its progeny, aptly describing Madison’s holding as “paradoxical” and “internally inconsistent.” Id. at 725.3

2 The Pisano court explained that a wrongful death action is “derivative” of the original tort in the same way that a loss of consortium claim is derivative, in that both arise from an injury to another person. Pisano, 77 A.3d at 659. However, unlike, e.g., a stockholder’s derivative lawsuit or a subrogation action, loss of consortium and wrongful death claims are separate and distinct causes of action. Id. at 660.

3 “Although we acknowledge that the pronouncements of sister states are not binding authority on our courts, such decisions may be [*52]  considered as persuasive authority.” Shedden v. Anadarko E&P Co., L.P., 2014 PA Super 53, 88 A.3d 228, 233 n.3 (Pa.Super. 2014), affirmed, 136 A.3d 485 (Pa. 2016).

In Gershon, the decedent was a scuba diver and signed up for advanced diving training. Id. at 723. As a condition of his participation, he executed a release agreement. Id. The decedent expressly waived liability, including for wrongful death, and assumed all risk. Id. The lower court held that while the exculpatory release signed by the decedent barred any survivorship claim which could have been asserted by his estate, it did not preclude an independent wrongful death action where the decedent’s heirs had not signed the agreement. Id. at 724. Relying on Madison, supra, the defendant, Regency Diving Center, argued that the release operated as a complete bar to all claims. Id.

On appeal, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, affirmed, holding that the decedent did not have the legal authority to bargain away his heirs’ statutory right to bring a wrongful death action:

The release agreement here was signed by decedent and defendants. It can therefore only bind these parties. On its face the release only manifests decedent’s intention to waive defendants’ duty of care pertaining to his personal safety. In order for such a waiver to also apply to decedent’s [*53]  heirs, the agreement must manifest the unequivocal intention of such heirs to be so bound. The public policy underpinning the Wrongful Death Act requires that we narrowly construe any attempt to contractually limit or, as in this case, outright preclude recovery. Decedent’s unilateral decision to contractually waive his right of recovery does not preclude his heirs, who were not parties to the agreement and received no benefit in exchange for such a waiver, from instituting and prosecuting a wrongful death action.

Id. at 727.

The Gershon court also rejected the Madison line of cases as against the public interest4 intended to be protected by the Wrongful Death Act:

[T]he intended beneficiaries of the Act are deprived of their statutorily authorized remedy merely to provide defendants with an environment from which to operate their business, apparently free from the risk of litigation. Such a prospect would directly undermine the remedial purpose of the Act. Stated differently, even if decedent had the legal authority to bargain away the statutory right of his potential heirs, society’s interest in assuring that a decedent’s dependents may seek economic compensation in a wrongful death action outweighs [*54]  decedent’s freedom to contract.

Id. at 728.5

4 As in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, exculpatory agreements are not favored by the law and must not contravene public policy. Id. at 726-727; Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190 (Pa. 2012).

5 As in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, the purpose of the wrongful death statute is to create a right of recovery for economic loss caused by the death of a family member, including children who were dependent upon the decedent for economic support. See Pisano, 77 A.3d at 658-659 (“In contrast [to a survival action], wrongful death is not the deceased’s cause of action. An action for wrongful death may be brought only by specified relatives of the decedent to recover damages in their own behalf, and not as beneficiaries of the estate. . . . This action is designed only to deal with the economic effect of the decedent’s death upon the specified family members.”) (citations omitted); see also Amato v. Bell & Gossett, 2015 PA Super 83, 116 A.3d 607, 625 (Pa.Super. 2015), appeal granted in part on other grounds, 130 A.3d 1283 (Pa. 2016) (“The purpose of the Wrongful Death Statute . . . is to compensate the decedent’s survivors for the pecuniary losses they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death. This includes the value of the services the victim would have rendered to his family if he had lived. A wrongful death action does not compensate the decedent; [*55]  it compensates the survivors for damages which they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death.” (citations omitted)).

The Majority contends that allowing third-party claims including wrongful death where the decedent expressly assumed the risk of injury would expose insurers to increased liability, and that it is impractical to expect defendants to obtain releases from all potential plaintiffs. The court in Gershon addressed those concerns as follows:

We recognize that our decision today may prevent insurance carriers from obtaining complete releases from all possible wrongful death claims, except perhaps by the inclusion in any such agreement of all persons who subsequently are determined to be wrongful death beneficiaries under N.J.S.A. 2A:31-4. The policy favoring settlement and finality of claims, cannot defeat statutory rights created for the protection of survivors of one wrongfully killed.

Id. at 728-729, quoting Alfone v. Sarno, 87 N.J. 99, 432 A.2d 857 (N.J. 1981) (citations omitted).6

6 Presumably, there are still triathlons, road races, and similar events held in the State of New Jersey, despite the decision in Gershon. A wrongful death claimant would still have to prove negligence. I would also note that these liability waivers are contracts of adhesion, [*56]  and a participant cannot compete without executing the waiver and agreeing to assume all risk.

Following Pisano, I conclude that Derek Valentino’s release agreement did not bind appellant and did not preclude her from bringing a wrongful death action. Pisano is clear that a wrongful death action is an independent cause of action, created by statute, and is not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death. Furthermore, I reject the Majority’s position that the decedent’s waiver of liability and assumption of the risk can be used as a complete defense to appellant’s claims. The release agreement was only between the decedent and appellee and has no effect on the decedent’s non-signatory heirs including appellant.

For these reasons, I would remand the matter for further proceedings, including for the trial court to consider the issue of Mr. Mico’s expert report. As such, I am compelled to respectfully dissent.

Panella and Lazarus, JJ. join this Concurring and Dissenting Opinion.

 


“Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case, the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels

Cornell and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment used in a gym at Cornell were being sued by an injured student who used the equipment. The court definitely was leaning towards the student; however, the student had come to court prepared, (and backed by a lot of money I’m guessing.)

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau

Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak

Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability, Failure to Warn, requesting punitive damages

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: No duty, Failure to state a claim, Assumption of Risk & Release?

Year: 2012

This case spent four years getting to this point, and it is obvious the court is a little tired of the litigation. Consequently, the facts are difficult to determine.

It seems the plaintiff was a beginning gymnast and injured himself on a piece of equipment at the Cornell University gym called the Tumbletrak. The extents of his injuries are never clear, but based on the number of experts the plaintiff hired and the lengthy fight; I guess his injuries were extensive.

This case was being heard in a Pennsylvania Federal Court with a Michigan and a New York Defendant. That fact alone is confusing.

The decision is based on motions for summary judgment filed by both Cornell and the manufacturer Tumbletrak.

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

The court first examines the manufacture’s motion for summary judgment. The first issue the manufacturer claimed the plaintiff failed to establish the minimum facts necessary to go to trial; the plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages, and the plaintiff assumed the risk. The court first looked at what was required to establish a failure to warn case. Meaning a manufacturer has a duty to warn users of the product of the risks and failed to do so.

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage.

The burden is on the plaintiff to prove the failure to warn of the risk by the manufacturer was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded a warning had one been given. Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.”

Failure to warn can be denied both by proving the plaintiff read and heeded the risk or knew of the risk prior to using the equipment. The manufacturer argued the risk was open and obvious, which does not require proof because the plaintiff should have seen the risk.

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding

In a footnote at this point, the court states the plaintiff signed a release stating he understood the risks; however, nothing else is mentioned about the release in the rest of the decision.

One way to defend against a motion for summary judgment is to argue there are enough facts or issues that make the facts relied upon by the defendant an issue.  Meaning if enough facts are in dispute, the motion for summary judgement cannot be granted. This is what the plaintiff did through his experts.

Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. [Emphasize added]

Here the manufacturer shot his defense down before the product left the assembly plant by confusing risk management and marketing. Teddy bears doing the activities unspotted that the warning allegedly warns against eliminated the warning in the court’s eyes. (And rightfully so!) If the manufacturer shows cartoons doing the act without regard for safety, then the act must be safe, no matter what the warning says. If the warning can be located.

In a scary statement, the court held that failure to read the warnings on the product is not an issue in a failure to warn case.

However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.”

The court based this analysis on the many different statements by witnesses who seemed to go in every direction, but all stated they never saw the warning.

Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter.

A warning does not exist unless the consumer can’t miss it. Meaning the warning must be in the consumer’s face every time they go to use a product. On top of that the warning must be in the manual, in some states on the packaging and maybe on a hangtag with the product.

The failure to warn claim was sustained and would be decided at trial.

The court then looked at the assumption of the risk defense brought by the defendant manufacturer. The court started this analysis looking at the requirements to prove a negligence claim in a product case.

To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff.

However, assumption of the risk in a product’s case is a little more stringent then in a recreation case. “Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events.” In sporting or recreation cases, the risk is clear and understood by all involved and to be effective the risk was not altered or enhanced by the defendant. In a product’s case the requirements are slightly different.

Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. To establish assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk.

Again, the case goes back to did the plaintiff know of the risks. Where the risks open and obvious or can you prove under the law the plaintiff knew of the risk. Because no one ever saw the warning, the warning had no value. That left it up to a jury to decide if the plaintiff knew the risk of the sport or activity.

The next argument was a motion to eliminate a punitive damages claim by the manufacturer arguing the case should be tried under Michigan’s law because the manufacturer was based in Michigan. Michigan does not allow punitive damages, unless they are expressly authorized by statute.

There has been a prior argument about the jurisdiction and venue of the case decided by a prior judge. (Which is alone confusing since none of the defendants are located in Pennsylvania where the court sits, however, the court is applying New York law?) Because of the prior decision, this court followed it and ruled that New York law would be applied to the facts of the case, and punitive damages were going to be at issue.

Cornell University was then giving a shot at its motions starting with the punitive damages issue. Cornell claimed the plaintiff had not presented any evidence that could support a punitive damages claim. The plaintiff responded arguing facts that could prove a punitive damages claim against the university.

(1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.”

The court defined the requirements to prove a punitive damages claim.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.”

The court found there was sufficient evidence to support a possible punitive damages claim.

There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

Cornell next argued that the plaintiff assumed the risk and there was no evidence proving causation. Cornell was arguing a breach of a duty was not related to the injury. There was no causation between the two which is required to prove negligence.

The court found that Cornell’s case law did not apply correctly to the facts of this case. That means the case law facts were sufficiently different from the facts of this case, that the law could not be interpreted the same way. “Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here.”

On the causation issues the judge found the plaintiff had presented enough evidence that there could be an issue leading to punitive damages against the college.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

Both defendants failed in their motion for summary judgment, and the decision was to allow the case to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

I have not been able to find the outcome of this case. Meaning it probably settled. The entire issue was the warning on the product; it was not clear; it was not visible, and it could not be seen in normal use.

If you manufacture products and your product poses a risk to the user, then you need to notify the consumer as often and as many were possible that you can. User manuals, hangtags, the container or bag the product is shipped in and on the product itself. It is also not enough that you can say the label or warning is there; the user must be able to see the warning……every time.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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