The Ferae Naturae doctrine prevents a landowner from being liable for injuries to guests from wildlife.

In Texas, the landowner was not liable for the damages caused by a bite from a Brown Recluse Spider when it bit a tenant on the property.

Hillis v. McCall, 2020 Tex. LEXIS 187, 63 Tex. Sup. J. 577

State: Texas, Supreme Court of Texas

Plaintiff: Henry McCall

Defendant: Homer Hillis

Plaintiff Claims: premises liability

Defendant Defenses: ferae naturae

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Ferae Naturae means naturally wild. Since the guest knew Brown Recluse Spiders were around and had seen them, he could not hold the landowner liable for the damages suffered when he was bitten by one. The Texas Supreme Court held that since the plaintiff knew spiders were around, and they were wild animals; the landowner/defendant was not liable.

Facts

Homer Hillis owns a bed and breakfast (the B&B) and a neighboring cabin in Fredericksburg, Texas. He used the B&B as a second home until 2012, when he began renting it out, mainly on weekends. Hillis hired a housekeeper to prepare and clean the B&B before guests arrived. That process included utilizing “bug bombs” in the event the housekeeper noticed any pest problems. Thus, as Hillis described it, pest control at the B&B was conducted on an “[a]s needed” basis.

In early 2014, Hillis leased the neighboring cabin on the property to Henry McCall. The cabin had no washer or dryer and had only a small refrigerator, so Hillis permitted McCall to use the laundry facilities and larger refrigerator in the B&B. McCall also offered to “open up” the B&B for guests and others needing access, such as electricians and other maintenance workers. According to McCall, Hillis typically called him several days before guests arrived and asked him to perform various tasks.

On December 12, 2014, McCall accessed the B&B at Hillis’s request to check the dishwasher and investigate whether the sink was leaking. While checking under the sink for a leak, McCall was bitten by a brown recluse spider, which is a venomous spider found in several states, including Texas.

Before he was bitten, McCall had observed spiders in both the cabin and the B&B on several occasions and had notified Hillis about the general presence of spiders in the B&B. According to Hillis, when McCall reported issues with insects or spiders, Hillis would pass along the information to the housekeeper who prepared the B&B for guests. Hillis also averred that customer reviews of the B&B had never complained of insects. Neither Hillis nor McCall had any personal knowledge about the presence of brown recluse spiders on Hillis’s property specifically or in the surrounding area. However, Hillis explained that he had read reports on the internet that brown recluse spiders “are habitats [sic] of Texas for a long time, and I assumed they were around my property.” Hillis had heard of people being bitten by brown recluses “elsewhere,” but not on his property.

McCall sued Hillis for negligence under a premises-liability theory, alleging that the presence of brown recluse spiders on Hillis’s property constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition, that Hillis knew or should have known of the condition, that Hillis owed McCall a duty to adequately warn him of the condition or make the property safe, that Hillis breached that duty, and that McCall suffered damages as a result. Hillis filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that, under the longstanding doctrine of ferae naturae, he owed no duty to McCall with respect to indigenous wild animals that Hillis had neither introduced to nor harbored on the property. The trial court granted the motion, and McCall appealed.

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

Premise’s liability is based on the theory that a landowner owes a duty to someone coming upon their land. The duty owed is dependent on the status of the person coming on the land. That status is usually based on the relationship between the landowner and the guest.

A landowner owes the most duty to an invitee.

When the injured person qualifies as an invitee, as McCall did, then as a general rule the landowner owes a “duty to make safe or warn against any concealed, unreasonably dangerous conditions of which the landowner is, or reasonably should be, aware but the invitee is not.”[A] (landowner’s duty to an invitee is to “use ordinary care to reduce or eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a premises condition which the owner . . . knows about or in the exercise of ordinary care should know about” (citation omitted)). In line with that rule, the duty does not extend to warning the invitee of hazards that are open and obvious.

There are exceptions to this rule. One is the open and obvious rule. A landowner does not owe the invitee a duty to warn or protect an invitee from an open and obvious danger on the land. If the risk is concealed, then the landowner must warn the invitee or protect the invitee from the risk.

The doctrine of ferae naturae is another duty that the landowner need not warn about. The doctrine of ferae naturae applies to wild animals and in a broader definition in some states to wind or water.

The reasoning underlying the doctrine is that wild animals “exist throughout nature” and are “generally not predictable or controllable.” In turn, the mere fact that an indigenous wild animal has crossed a landowner’s property line does not make the landowner better able to protect an invitee than the invitee is to protect himself. (“Under ordinary circumstances, Texas landowners do not have a duty to warn their guests about the presence and behavior patterns of every species of indigenous wild animals and plants which pose a potential threat to a person’s safety . . . .”).

There is an exception to the ferae naturae rule, if the wild animals are found in artificial structures or places where they are not normally found, then the landowner does have a duty to warn. The ferae naturae does not apply to zoos or to a keeper of wild animals.

Thus, when a wild animal enters such a structure, and the owner knows or has reason to know about the animal’s presence and the unreasonable risk of harm presented thereby but the invitee does not, it is reasonable to expect the owner to take steps to alleviate the danger or at least warn the invitee of it. (holding that a grocery store owner was not liable to a patron who was bitten by a rattlesnake inside the store where nothing in the record suggested that the owner “knew, or had reason to know from past experience, that there was a likelihood that snakes presented a danger to patrons”).

Because the landowner did not know the Brown Recluse Spiders were inside the building, he did not owe a duty to the plaintiff to warn him of the spiders. Further because the plaintiff did have actual knowledge that spiders were on the property he knew of the possible risks. The court stated there was no duty to warn a guest about something they already know.

The court held the landowner was not liable for the acts of the wild animal.

So Now What?

Since in most states, wild animals are owned by the state and since no one, contrary to whatever you see on TV or believed from Disney in the past, can control a wild animal, landowners are not liable for their actions. Consequently, holding a landowner liable for something he or she does not own and cannot control is difficult and does not create a legal duty.

The facts in this case are convoluted, but what allowed the landowner to succeed was the fact the plaintiff, who was living on the property for free, knew that dangerous spiders were around on the property. Since the landowner did not know there were Brown Recluse Spiders on the property the landowner could not be liable.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hillis v. McCall, 2020 Tex. LEXIS 187, 63 Tex. Sup. J. 577

Hillis v. McCall, 2020 Tex. LEXIS 187, 63 Tex. Sup. J. 577

Homer Hillis, Petitioner,

v.

Henry McCall, Respondent

No. 18-1065

Supreme Court of Texas

March 13, 2020

On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of Texas

OPINION

Debra H. Lehrmann Justice

The ferae naturae doctrine limits a landowner’s liability for harm caused by indigenous wild animals on his property. In this premises-liability case arising out of a brown-recluse spider bite, we are asked how the doctrine affects the scope of the landowner’s duty to his bitten invitee. The landowner argues that he owed no duty to the invitee because he was unaware of the presence of brown recluse spiders on his property and he neither attracted the offending spider to his property nor reduced it to his possession. Further, the invitee had actual knowledge of the presence of spiders on the property. The court of appeals held that the property owner failed to conclusively establish the absence of a duty and thus reversed the trial court’s summary judgment in his favor. We agree with the landowner and reverse the court of appeals’ judgment.

I. Background

Homer Hillis owns a bed and breakfast (the B&B) and a neighboring cabin in Fredericksburg, Texas. He used the B&B as a second home until 2012, when he began renting it out, mainly on weekends. Hillis hired a housekeeper to prepare and clean the B&B before guests arrived. That process included utilizing “bug bombs” in the event the housekeeper noticed any pest problems. Thus, as Hillis described it, pest control at the B&B was conducted on an “[a]s needed” basis.

In early 2014, Hillis leased the neighboring cabin on the property to Henry McCall.[ 1] The cabin had no washer or dryer and had only a small refrigerator, so Hillis permitted McCall to use the laundry facilities and larger refrigerator in the B&B. McCall also offered to “open up” the B&B for guests and others needing access, such as electricians and other maintenance workers. According to McCall, Hillis typically called him several days before guests arrived and asked him to perform various tasks.[ 2]

On December 12, 2014, McCall accessed the B&B at Hillis’s request to check the dishwasher and investigate whether the sink was leaking. While checking under the sink for a leak, McCall was bitten by a brown recluse spider, which is a venomous spider found in several states, including Texas.

Before he was bitten, McCall had observed spiders in both the cabin and the B&B on several occasions and had notified Hillis about the general presence of spiders in the B&B.[ 3]According to Hillis, when McCall reported issues with insects or spiders, Hillis would pass along the information to the housekeeper who prepared the B&B for guests. Hillis also averred that customer reviews of the B&B had never complained of insects. Neither Hillis nor McCall had any personal knowledge about the presence of brown recluse spiders on Hillis’s property specifically or in the surrounding area.[ 4] However, Hillis explained that he had read reports on the internet that brown recluse spiders “are habitats [sic] of Texas for a long time, and I assumed they were around my property.” Hillis had heard of people being bitten by brown recluses “elsewhere,” but not on his property.

McCall sued Hillis for negligence under a premises-liability theory, alleging that the presence of brown recluse spiders on Hillis’s property constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition, that Hillis knew or should have known of the condition, that Hillis owed McCall a duty to adequately warn him of the condition or make the property safe, that Hillis breached that duty, and that McCall suffered damages as a result. Hillis filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that, under the longstanding doctrine of ferae naturae, he owed no duty to McCall with respect to indigenous wild animals that Hillis had neither introduced to nor harbored on the property. The trial court granted the motion, and McCall appealed.

The court of appeals reversed. 562 S.W.3d 98, 106 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2018). Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to McCall, the court concluded that “McCall was bitten by a spider in an artificial structure and Hillis knew or should have known of an unreasonable risk of harm posed by the spiders inside the B&B.” Id. Accordingly, the court held that Hillis had failed to establish as a matter of law the absence of a duty to warn or make safe under the doctrine of ferae naturae. Id.

II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

A trial court’s order granting summary judgment is reviewed de novo. Tarr v. Timberwood Park Owners Ass’n, 556 S.W.3d 274, 278 (Tex. 2018). A party moving for traditional summary judgment has the burden to prove that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. ConocoPhillips Co. v. Koopmann, 547 S.W.3d 858, 865 (Tex. 2018); see also Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c). “When reviewing a summary judgment, we take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant, and we indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant’s favor.” Valence Operating Co. v. Dorsett, 164 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tex. 2005) (citations omitted).

B. Premises Liability and Ferae Naturae

“A claim against a property owner for injury caused by a condition of real property generally sounds in premises liability.” Occidental Chem. Corp. v. Jenkins, 478 S.W.3d 640, 642 (Tex. 2016). When the claim is based on the property owner’s negligence, the threshold question is whether the owner owed a duty to the injured person. See Brookshire Grocery Co. v. Goss, 262 S.W.3d 793, 794 (Tex. 2008). “The existence of a duty is a question of law for the court to decide from the facts surrounding the occurrence” at issue. Walker v. Harris, 924 S.W.2d 375, 377 (Tex. 1996).[ 5] Further, the duties owed by a landowner in a premises-liability case “depend upon the role of the person injured on his premises.” Rosas v. Buddies Food Store, 518 S.W.2d 534, 535 (Tex. 1975). When the injured person qualifies as an invitee, [ 6] as McCall did, [ 7] then as a general rule the landowner owes a “duty to make safe or warn against any concealed, unreasonably dangerous conditions of which the landowner is, or reasonably should be, aware but the invitee is not.” Austin v. Kroger Tex., L.P., 465 S.W.3d 193, 203 (Tex. 2015); see also United Scaffolding, Inc. v. Levine, 537 S.W.3d 463, 471 (Tex. 2017) (landowner’s duty to an invitee is to “use ordinary care to reduce or eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a premises condition which the owner . . . knows about or in the exercise of ordinary care should know about” (citation omitted)). In line with that rule, the duty does not extend to warning the invitee of hazards that are open and obvious. Austin, 465 S.W.3d at 204.

Notwithstanding the general rule regarding the duty a premises owner owes to invitees, we have approached the scope of the duty differently in some circumstances. For example, we have held that a premises owner generally has no duty to protect invitees from the criminal acts of third parties on the owner’s property, but we recognize an exception “when the owner knows or has reason to know of a risk of harm to invitees that is unreasonable and foreseeable.” Del LagoPartners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 767 (Tex. 2010); see also Austin, 465 S.W.3d at 206 (characterizing the duty recognized in Del Lago as an exception to the general rule that a landowner owes no duty to warn an invitee with respect to unreasonably dangerous conditions that are obvious or known to the invitee). Pertinent to this case, we have also recognized that, with certain exceptions, a premises owner generally owes no duty to protect invitees from wild animals on the owner’s property. Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. Nami, 498 S.W.3d 890, 896-97 (Tex. 2016). Under this longstanding doctrine of ferae naturae, such a duty does not exist “unless the landowner actually reduced indigenous wild animals to [his] possession or control,” “introduced nonindigenous animals into the area,” or affirmatively “attract[ed] the animals to the property.” Id. at 897 (citations omitted); see also Nicholson v. Smith, 986 S.W.2d 54, 63 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1999, no pet.).

The reasoning underlying the doctrine is that wild animals “exist throughout nature” and are “generally not predictable or controllable.” Nami, 498 S.W.3d at 897 (quoting 4 Am Jur. 2d, Animals § 62 (2007)).[ 8] In turn, the mere fact that an indigenous wild animal has crossed a landowner’s property line does not make the landowner better able to protect an invitee than the invitee is to protect himself. Id.; see also Nicholson, 986 S.W.2d at 63 (“Under ordinary circumstances, Texas landowners do not have a duty to warn their guests about the presence and behavior patterns of every species of indigenous wild animals and plants which pose a potential threat to a person’s safety . . . .”). The risk and foreseeability of injury do not outweigh the severe burden and potential consequences of imposing a general duty on a landowner with respect to “indigenous wild animals in their natural habitat, in the normal course of their existence.” Nicholson, 986 S.W.2d at 62; see also Brantley v. Oak Grove Power Co., No. 10-12-00135-CV, 2012 WL 5974032, at *3 (Tex. App.-Waco Nov. 29, 2012, no pet.) (mem. op.) (holding that a landowner owed no duty to a construction worker who was bitten by a spider at a construction site, in part because the spider was “in its natural habitat in the normal course of its existence” and the employer had engaged in no affirmative or negligent acts to draw spiders to the area).

However, courts applying the ferae naturae doctrine have long recognized an additional exception to the general no-duty rule, holding that a landowner: could be negligent with regard to wild animals found in artificial structures or places where they are not normally found; that is, stores, hotels, apartment houses, or billboards, if the landowner knows or should know of the unreasonable risk of harm posed by an animal on its premises, and cannot expect patrons to realize the danger or guard against it.

Nami, 498 S.W.3d at 897 (citing various treatises); see also Overstreet v. Gibson Prod. Co., 558 S.W.2d 58, 61 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1977, writ ref’d n.r.e.) (noting that a landowner owes no duty to exercise reasonable care to protect invitees from the acts of wild animals on the property “until he knows or has reason to know that the dangerous acts by wild animals are occurring or about to occur”). Under that exception, a duty akin to the general duty owed to invitees under Texas law-that is, a duty to warn of or make safe from an unreasonably dangerous condition about which the owner knows or reasonably should know but the invitee does not-arises with respect to “wild animals found in artificial structures or places where they are not normally found.” Nami, 498 S.W.3d at 897.

We generally agree with the policies underlying imposing such a duty on landowners with respect to wild animals that pose an unreasonable risk of harm inside artificial structures like homes, stores, hotels, and offices. While landowners cannot be held to account for every animal that finds its way inside, particularly small animals like insects and spiders that may easily enter and escape detection, we also do not expect invitees as a general matter to exercise any particular vigilance with respect to wild animals when inside.[ 9] Thus, when a wild animal enters such a structure, and the owner knows or has reason to know about the animal’s presence and the unreasonable risk of harm presented thereby but the invitee does not, it is reasonable to expect the owner to take steps to alleviate the danger or at least warn the invitee of it. See Overstreet, 558 S.W.2d at 61, 63 (holding that a grocery store owner was not liable to a patron who was bitten by a rattlesnake inside the store where nothing in the record suggested that the owner “knew, or had reason to know from past experience, that there was a likelihood that snakes presented a danger to patrons”).[ 10]

Hillis argues that this exception amounts to a “new duty” that places an untenable burden on landowners. We disagree. First, it comports with the general premises-liability duty imposed on landowners with respect to invitees as well as the consistently recognized caveat to the ferae naturae doctrine. Nami, 498 S.W.3d at 897; see also Nicholson, 986 S.W.2d at 62; Overstreet, 558 S.W.2d at 61. Second, the fact that the duty hinges on the owner’s knowledge or reason to know of an unreasonable risk of harm is significant. Unfortunately, many insects and spiders are commonly found indoors. The ever-present possibility that an insect or spider bite may occur indoors does not amount to an unreasonable risk of harm imposing a duty on property owners to guard against or warn of this fact of life. To that end, knowledge of the presence of a harmless indigenous insect or spider does not in and of itself amount to a reason to know of the presence of the kinds of insects or spiders that present a danger to invitees. On the other hand, a property owner who knows or should know of an unreasonable risk that dangerous indoor pests will bite invitees in his particular building has a duty to alleviate the danger or warn of it if the invitees neither know nor should know of the heightened risk. This strikes an appropriate balance between protecting invitees and ensuring that the burden placed on landowners is not unduly onerous.

Having outlined the parameters of the pertinent duty, we turn to its application to the facts of this case.

C. Analysis Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to McCall, the pertinent facts are as follows: • Hillis’s property is in Fredericksburg, in the Texas Hill Country. • Hillis rented a cabin on the property to McCall and used a residence on the property as a B&B, mainly for weekend rentals. • Hillis conducted pest control in the B&B on an as-needed basis by instructing the housekeeper to set off bug bombs if she saw pests while preparing the B&B for guests. • McCall, an invitee, was bitten by a brown recluse spider inside the B&B while checking under the kitchen sink for a leak. • Brown recluse spiders are indigenous to Texas. • Hillis had read about brown recluse spiders on the internet and knew that they were indigenous to Texas and thus that they could be on his property. • McCall did not know brown recluse spiders were indigenous to Texas. • McCall had seen spiders on several occasions in both the cabin and the B&B. When he saw spiders in the B&B, he would notify Hillis, who passed along the information to the housekeeper who prepared the B&B for guests. • Customer reviews of the B&B had never mentioned insects. • Hillis had no actual knowledge of the presence of brown recluse spiders on his property before McCall was bitten. • McCall had no actual knowledge of the presence of brown recluse spiders on Hillis’s property before McCall was bitten.

On these facts, we hold that Hillis owed McCall no duty as a matter of law, notwithstanding the fact that the injury occurred inside the B&B. McCall’s position is essentially that because Hillis knew spiders had been seen in the B&B, and because he knew brown recluses are found in Texas, he knew or should have known that a dangerous brown recluse spider was in the B&B and thus had a duty to warn McCall.[ 11] We disagree.

First, as noted, knowledge of the general intermittent presence of spiders does not necessarily amount to knowledge of an unreasonable risk of harm, and Hillis had no particular reason to know that brown recluses, or other venomous spiders, were inside the B&B. Although Hillis knew that brown recluses are indigenous to Texas, the record does not show that he had identified or should have identified that the spiders McCall previously reported seeing inside the house presented a danger. Indeed, McCall testified in his deposition that the spiders he had seen in the B&B and reported to Hillis before McCall was bitten were the “[s]ame type of spiders” he had seen in his previous home in Fredericksburg, and nothing in the record indicates that he was referring to brown recluses or to any other type of venomous spider. The record thus conclusively negates a determination that Hillis knew or had reason to know of an unreasonable risk of harm presented by brown recluse spiders inside the B&B.

Further, McCall and Hillis had identical actual knowledge of the presence of spiders on the property: both knew that they had been seen in the B&B periodically, and neither knew of the presence of brown recluses or of other types of venomous spiders.[ 12] According to McCall, Hillis should have warned him that the spiders McCall himself had seen could have been venomous. But it is simply common knowledge that some spiders are venomous and others harmless. We will not impose a duty on a landowner to warn an invitee about something he already knows. See Nami, 498 S.W.3d at 897 (recognizing that imposition of a duty with respect to wild animals inside an artificial structure depends in part on a determination that the invitee cannot reasonably be expected “to realize the danger or guard against it”).

As noted, the existence of a duty is a question of law that depends on the underlying facts. Walker, 924 S.W.2d at 377. Even with respect to wild animals found inside, an owner’s duty to invitees does not extend beyond warning about or making safe from unreasonably dangerous conditions about which the owner knows or has reason to know but the invitee does not. On the record before us, we hold that Hillis negated a duty to McCall as a matter of law.

III. Conclusion

The trial court correctly granted summary judgment for Hillis on McCall’s premises-liability claim. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals’ judgment and render judgment that McCall take nothing.

———

Notes:

[ 1] Karen Oringderff, McCall’s common-law wife, was also a tenant. She is not a party to this lawsuit.

[ 2] Hillis disputed this characterization, stating that he typically did not affirmatively request McCall’s assistance with respect to preparing the B&B for guests. Rather, Hillis merely accepted McCall’s offer to help, was “happy that he was willing to do it, and . . . appreciated it.” For summary judgment purposes, we will accept McCall’s version of events.

[ 3] McCall was responsible for pest control in the cabin while Hillis remained responsible for pest control in the B&B.

[ 4] According to the court of appeals, “Hillis admitted in his deposition that he knew there was a population of brown recluse spiders on the property.” 562 S.W.2d 98, 106 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2018). Neither party references deposition testimony to that effect, and our review of the record revealed no such testimony.

[ 5] We balance several factors in determining whether a duty exists, including the risk, foreseeability, and likelihood of injury weighed against the social utility of the landowner’s conduct, the burden of preventing the injury, and the consequences of placing that burden on the landowner. Greater Hous. Transp. Co. v. Phillips, 801 S.W.2d 523, 525 (Tex. 1990).

[ 6] An invitee is “one who enters on another’s land with the owner’s knowledge and for the mutual benefit of both.” Rosas, 518 S.W.2d at 536.

[ 7] McCall alleged in his petition that he qualified as an invitee when he was bitten, and Hillis conceded as much for purposes of his summary judgment motion. We therefore assume without deciding that McCall was an invitee.

[ 8] We recognized in Nami that insects are treated as wild animals. 498 S.W.3d at 896 (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 506 cmt. a (Am. Law Inst. 1977)). We see no reason to treat arachnids differently.

[ 9] In light of these considerations, the fact that the injury occurs in or near any type of artificial structure does not necessarily give rise to the exception. For example, in Brantley, the plaintiff was bitten by a spider while “standing on a concrete slab [at a construction site] with a partial structure and no roof.” 2012 WL 5974032, at *3. The court of appeals, noting testimony that “there were spiders everywhere in the field” at the site, held that the spider that bit the plaintiff was in its natural habitat and no duty was owed. Id. While we cannot anticipate how the doctrine would apply with respect to every type of artificial structure imaginable, we can say that we do not view barns and billboards in the same way as structures like houses, hotels, offices, and retail stores in evaluating the duty owed with respect to wild animals.

[ 10] We need not address whether an additional exception exists when a landowner has actual knowledge of an unreasonable risk of harm presented by a wild animal on his property (even while outside) and the patron neither knows nor reasonably should know of the risk.

[ 11] McCall does not contend that Hillis engaged in any affirmative or negligent acts to draw venomous spiders to the property.

[ 12] The court of appeals did not consider the effect of McCall’s awareness of the presence of spiders inside the B&B on whether Hillis owed him a duty, holding that “Hillis did not assert McCall’s knowledge as a basis for summary judgment [and instead] relied exclusively on the doctrine of ferae naturae to negate the element of duty.” 562 S.W.3d at 100 n.1. We disagree with that narrow characterization of Hillis’s summary judgment motion. In challenging the existence of a duty in that motion, Hillis focused principally on the absence of evidence that he had attracted brown recluses to the property; however, he explicitly referenced McCall’s knowledge as supporting a finding that no duty was owed. Hillis then elaborated on the significance of that knowledge in his reply in support of the motion. We will not ignore the relevant evidence of McCall’s knowledge that Hillis expressly brought to the trial court’s attention in his summary judgment motion and reply.

———


Cyclists injured on a bike path after running into a downed tree, could not recover because the association that assisted in taking care of the bike path owed no duty to the cyclists.

If there is no duty, there is no liability. Always check to make sure there really is a duty owed to someone before you start to claim or defend negligence actions.

Citation: DeLamar v. Fort Worth Mt. Biker’s Ass’n, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466, 2019 WL 311517

State: Texas; Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

Plaintiff: Norman Delamar

Defendant: Fort Worth Mountain Biker’s Association

Plaintiff Claims: general negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: No Duty

Holding: For the Defendants

Year: 2019

Summary

City parks had an agreement with the local cycling group to assist in keeping the bike pats in good shape. The ultimate responsibility for the bike paths was still held by the city. An injured cyclist who ran into a downed tree could not sue the cycling group because they owed no duty to the cyclists because the association did not have the authority from the city and did not accept a duty with the agreement with the city.

Facts

On July 12, 2014, Norman was riding his mountain bike on a trail in Gateway, a park owned by the City, when he came upon a downed tree resting across the trail at head level. Although known to be a “really good rider,” Norman asserts that because he did not have time to stop or avoid the tree, the tree “clotheslined” his head and neck and knocked him off of his bicycle, causing him injuries.

Norman sued the City, asserting claims of general negligence and gross negligence. In a single pleading, the City filed an answer and identified the Association as a responsible third party because of an “Adopt-A-Park Agreement” (Contract) that made the Association “responsible for constructing and maintaining the bike trail in question.” Norman then amended his petition and added the Association as a defendant in the suit.

The city’s contract with the association outlined things the association was to do to assist the city in keeping the trail available and generally covered trail maintenance. The city did not give up its right to control and manage the park where the trails were located.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, and this appeal ensued.

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

The first issue the court reviewed was this, a negligence claim or a premises liability claim.

Although premises liability is a form of negligence, “[n]egligence and premises liability claims . . . are separate and distinct theories of recovery, requiring plaintiffs to prove different, albeit similar, elements to secure judgment in their favor.”

The differences are subtle, but:

To prevail on a premises-liability claim, a plaintiff must prove (1) actual or constructive knowledge of some condition on the premises by the owner; (2) that the condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) that the owner did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk; and (4) that the owner’s failure to use such care proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries, whereas under the common law doctrine of negligence, a plaintiff must prove (1) a legal duty owed by one person to another; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach.

The difference is, one is based on the actions of the defendant, and the other is based on a condition of the land.

While, theoretically, a litigant may maintain causes of action for both general negligence and premises liability, to be viable, the general negligence theory of recovery must be based not upon an injury resulting from the condition of the property, but upon the defendant’s contemporaneous activity. (analyzing claimant’s negligence and premises liability claims together). If the injury is one caused by a premises defect, rather than a defendant’s contemporaneous activity, a plaintiff cannot circumvent the true nature of the premises defect claim by pleading it as one for general negligence.

As similar as they may appear to be, you cannot recover on the same set of facts for both a negligence action and a premise’s liability action. Even the court stated understanding the differences could be “tricky.”

The trial court and appellate court found the plaintiff’s claims sounded in premise’s liability.

However, the court went on to discuss the plaintiff’s allegations that his claim was a negligence claim. The issue was whether the association had a legal duty to the plaintiff.

The question of legal duty is a “multifaceted issue” requiring courts to balance a number of factors such as the risk and foreseeability of injury, the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the consequences of imposing the burden on the actor, and any other relevant competing individual and social interests implicated by the facts of the case. “Although the formulation and emphasis varies with the facts of each case, three categories of factors have emerged: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured; and (3) public policy considerations.”

Of the three, foreseeability as the dominant consideration, but not the sole consideration the court must review. Foreseeability alone is not sufficient to create a duty. “Foreseeability means that a person who possesses ordinary intelligence should have anticipated the danger that his negligent act would create for others.”

Although the association had some contractual responsibility for the trails, there was nothing the association could do about the trees. Only the city had the use of the chainsaws, and only the city could determine if a tree could be removed and then remove it.

And although it was foreseeable, a tree could fall on the trail; the issue required more analysis than that. The bike path was surrounded by thousands of trees. The plaintiff had ridden that path just two days earlier and admitted that the tree could have fallen two hours before he hit it. Although a tree falling was foreseeable, it was outside of the scope of something that you can do anything about, and on top of that the association had no authority to do anything about trees.

Finally, the agreement between the city and the association said nothing about the association agreeing to assume a legal duty to maintain the safety of the trails.

Based on our de novo review of the record, we hold that Norman failed to establish that the Association owed him a legal duty to protect him from the downed tree across the trail that the Association did not cause to fall, that may have fallen only hours-but no later than a day or two-before Norman struck it, and that the Association was not even authorized to unilaterally remove.

Because there could be no gross negligence if there was no general negligence, the plaintiffs gross and ordinary negligence claims were dismissed.

So Now What?

Foreseeability is a good thing for non-lawyers running a business or program to understand. Are your actions or inactions going to create a danger to someone.

The case does not state whether the city had any liability to the plaintiff, only the issues discussed in this decision were between the plaintiff and the defendant association.

More importantly, the court looked at trees falling as something that no one could really control. It was not liked anyone, the association or the city could come close to identifying trees that may fall in parks.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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DeLamar v. Fort Worth Mt. Biker’s Ass’n, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466

DeLamar v. Fort Worth Mt. Biker’s Ass’n, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466

Norman Delamar, Appellant

v.

Fort Worth Mountain Biker’s Association, Appellee

No. 02-17-00404-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

January 24, 2019

On Appeal from the 348th District Court Tarrant County, Texas Trial Court No. 348-283758-16

Before Sudderth, C.J.; Gabriel and Pittman, JJ.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Bonnie Sudderth, Chief Justice.

I. Introduction

Appellant Norman DeLamar filed the underlying lawsuit against Appellee Fort Worth Mountain Biker’s Association (the Association) to recover for injuries he sustained when he was knocked off of his mountain bike after he struck a downed tree across a mountain bike trail at Gateway Park (Gateway). Norman claimed that the Association was negligent in failing to properly maintain a safe mountain bike trail as purportedly required by its contractual agreement with the City of Fort Worth (City). The trial court granted summary judgment on Norman’s claims against the Association. We will affirm.

II. Background

On July 12, 2014, Norman was riding his mountain bike on a trail in Gateway, a park owned by the City, when he came upon a downed tree resting across the trail at head level. Although known to be a “really good rider,” Norman asserts that because he did not have time to stop or avoid the tree, the tree “clotheslined” his head and neck and knocked him off of his bicycle, causing him injuries.

Norman sued the City, asserting claims of general negligence and gross negligence. In a single pleading, the City filed an answer and identified the Association as a responsible third party because of an “Adopt-A-Park Agreement” (Contract) that made the Association “responsible for constructing and maintaining the bike trail in question.” Norman then amended his petition and added the Association as a defendant in the suit.[1] Norman asserted that through the Contract, the Association agreed to “assume responsibility for maintenance, construction and safety of the trails,” and as such owed “a duty to protect the general public from dangerous conditions such as falling trees.” Norman claimed that the Association had breached this alleged duty by

• failing to make any effort to ensure that the trees alongside of the bicycle trail were not a danger to cyclists;

• failing to implement any sort of safety procedure with respect to the danger of falling trees in high bicycle (and pedestrian) traffic areas;

• failing to maintain the trails to prevent dangerous conditions from occurring despite knowing the dangers associated with cycling;

• failing to provide cyclists with adequate safeguards, or any safeguards at all, to prevent dangerous conditions from occurring; and

• consciously disregarding the heath of the trees and the danger that they pose.

The Contract provides that the Association “shall perform all work and services hereunder as an independent contractor . . . . [and] shall have exclusive control of, and the exclusive right to control the details of the work performed hereunder[.]” The Contract specifically provides that the Association “shall, at its sole cost and expense, construct and maintain the Trails in accordance with [the] Agreement,” and it defines “trail maintenance” as including, but not limited to, “repairing, replacing, and rebuilding trails or sections of trails that are eroding or in disrepair; pruning of trees; [and] removal of brush[.]” However, the Contract prohibits the Association from “trimming and pruning, until written approval is obtained from the Director [of the Parks and Community Services Department],” and from “remov[ing] any tree without prior written permission from the City Forester.” [Emphasis added.] Finally, the Contract expressly reserves the City’s right to control and access all portions of Gateway: “The City does not relinquish the right to control the management of the Parks, or the right to enforce all necessary and proper rules for the management and operation of the same. The City . . . has the right at any time to enter any portion of the Parks[.]”

The Association answered and then filed a no-evidence and traditional motion for summary judgment. In its motion, the Association asserted that there was no evidence that

• the Association was negligent as it owed Norman no duty with respect to the condition of the premises; or

• the Association owed a duty to keep the premises in reasonably safe condition, inspect the premise to discover any defects, or to make safe any defect or give an adequate warning of any dangers.

Although the Association clearly challenged the existence of any legal duty it owed to Norman, the Association’s motion primarily argued that Norman’s claim sounded in premises liability rather than general negligence and that he could not artfully plead a general negligence claim when his injuries were caused by a premises defect. Norman filed a response and attached, inter alia, a short affidavit and an expert report from an arborist, Matthew Clemons. In his response, Norman appeared to adopt the Association’s characterization of his claim as one for premises liability and in doing so focused on his status, arguing that he was an invitee. Indeed, Norman’s “Conclusion” sought denial of the summary judgment motions because there was “more than enough credible evidence to find that the [Association] is liable under a premises liability theory for this incident[.]” [Emphasis added.] The Association filed a reply and objected to the expert report from Clemons as inadmissible hearsay.

Following the hearing on the Association’s no evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment, the trial court requested letter briefs and took the matter under advisement. In his letter brief, Norman altered his prior position and for the first time asserted that the Association’s summary judgment theory was flawed because his suit against the Association was based on a general negligence theory, not a premises liability theory. The trial court signed an order sustaining the Association’s objections to Clemons’s expert report and a separate order granting the Association’s no evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment.

On appeal, Norman contends the trial court erred by construing his claim as one for premises liability rather than general negligence and abused its discretion by sustaining the Association’s hearsay objection to Clemons’s report.

III. Norman’s Negligence Claim

A. Standard of Review

The movant for traditional summary judgment has the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c); Nixon v. Mr. Prop. Mgmt. Co., 690 S.W.2d 546, 548 (Tex. 1985). A defendant who conclusively negates at least one essential element of the nonmovant’s cause of action is entitled to summary judgment as to that cause of action. Randall’s Food Mkts., Inc. v. Johnson, 891 S.W.2d 640, 644 (Tex. 1995). Once the movant has established a right to summary judgment, the nonmovant has the burden to respond to the motion and present to the trial court any issues that would preclude summary judgment. City of Houston v. Clear Creek Basin Auth., 589 S.W.2d 671, 678-79 (Tex. 1979). The only question is whether an issue of material fact is presented. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c).

After an adequate time for discovery, a party without the burden of proof at trial may move for summary judgment on the ground that there is no evidence of one or more essential elements of a claim or defense. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(i). Once a no evidence motion has been filed in accordance with Rule 166a(i), the burden shifts to the nonmovant to bring forth evidence that raises a fact issue on the challenged evidence. See Macias v. Fiesta Mart, Inc., 988 S.W.2d 316, 317 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.). We review a no evidence motion for summary judgment under the same legal sufficiency standards as a directed verdict. King Ranch, Inc. v. Chapman, 118 S.W.3d 742, 750-51 (Tex. 2003). A no evidence motion is properly granted if the nonmovant fails to bring forth more than a scintilla of probative evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to an essential element of the nonmovant’s claim on which the nonmovant would have the burden of proof at trial. See id. at 751. If the evidence supporting a finding rises to a level that would enable reasonable, fair-minded persons to differ in their conclusions, then more than a scintilla of evidence exists. Id. A mere scintilla of evidence exists when the evidence is so weak as to do no more than create a mere surmise or suspicion of a fact, and the legal effect is that there is no evidence. See id.

When reviewing traditional and no evidence summary judgments, we perform a de novo review of the entire record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, indulging every reasonable inference and resolving any doubts against the motion. See Sudan v. Sudan, 199 S.W.3d 291, 292 (Tex. 2006); KPMG Peat Marwick v. Harrison Cty. Hous. Fin. Corp., 988 S.W.2d 746, 748 (Tex. 1999). We are not required to ascertain the credibility of affiants or to determine the weight of evidence in the affidavits, depositions, exhibits and other summary judgment proof. See Gulbenkian v. Penn, 252 S.W.2d 929, 932 (Tex. 1952); Palestine Herald-Press Co. v. Zimmer, 257 S.W.3d 504, 508 (Tex. App.-Tyler 2008, pet. denied).

All grounds in support of or in opposition to a motion for summary judgment must be presented in writing to the trial court. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c). “When a trial court’s order granting summary judgment does not specify the ground or grounds relied on for the ruling, summary judgment will be affirmed on appeal if any of the theories advanced are meritorious.” State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. S.S., 858 S.W.2d 374, 380 (Tex. 1993).

When a party moves for both a traditional and a no evidence summary judgment, we generally first review the trial court’s summary judgment under the no evidence standard of Rule 166a(i). See Ford Motor Co. v. Ridgway, 135 S.W.3d 598, 600 (Tex. 2004). If the no evidence summary judgment was properly granted, we need not reach arguments under the traditional motion for summary judgment. See id.

B. General Negligence vs. Premises Liability Theories of Recovery

Although premises liability is a form of negligence, “[n]egligence and premises liability claims . . . are separate and distinct theories of recovery, requiring plaintiffs to prove different, albeit similar, elements to secure judgment in their favor.” United Scaffolding, Inc. v. Levine, 537 S.W.3d 463, 471 (Tex. 2017); Clayton W. Williams, Jr., Inc. v. Olivo, 952 S.W.2d 523, 529 (Tex. 1997) (stating that “[b]ecause premises defect cases and negligent activity cases are based on independent theories of recovery, a simple negligence [jury] question . . . cannot support a recovery in a premises defect case”); E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. v. Roye, 447 S.W.3d 48, 57-58 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, pet. dism’d) (“Because [claimant] was limited to a premises liability theory of recovery, . . . the trial court erred when it submitted an ordinary negligence cause of action against [appellant] to the jury. . . . Accordingly, the jury’s finding that [appellant] was negligent is immaterial and cannot support a judgment against [appellant].”). As our sister court has explained, premises liability is a “special form of negligence in which the duty owed to the plaintiff depends upon the plaintiff’s status on the premises at the time of the incident.” Wyckoff v. George C. Fuller Contracting Co., 357 S.W.3d 157, 163-64 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2011, no pet.) (citing Scott & White Mem’l Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 412 (Tex. 2010)).[2]

While, theoretically, a litigant may maintain causes of action for both general negligence and premises liability, to be viable, the general negligence theory of recovery must be based not upon an injury resulting from the condition of the property, but upon the defendant’s contemporaneous activity. See Mangham v. YMCA of Austin, Texas-Hays Comtys., 408 S.W.3d 923, 929 (Tex. App.-Austin 2013, no pet.); see also W. Invs., Inc. v. Urena, 162 S.W.3d 547, 550 (Tex. 2005) (analyzing claimant’s negligence and premises liability claims together). If the injury is one caused by a premises defect, rather than a defendant’s contemporaneous activity, a plaintiff cannot circumvent the true nature of the premises defect claim by pleading it as one for general negligence. Sampson v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin, 500 S.W.3d 380, 389 (Tex. 2016).

Because the lines between negligent activity and premises liability are “sometimes unclear,” Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 776 (Tex. 2010), determining whether a claim is one for a premises defect or general negligence “can be tricky.” Austin v. Kroger Tex. L.P., 746 F.3d 191, 196 (5th Cir. 2014), certified question answered, 465 S.W.3d 193 (Tex. 2015). The policy undergirding this distinction is that negligence encompasses a malfeasance theory based on affirmative, contemporaneous conduct that caused the injury, whereas premises liability encompasses a nonfeasance theory based on the owner’s failure to take measures to make the property safe. See Del Lago Partners, 307 S.W.3d at 776; Timberwalk Apartments, Partners, Inc. v. Cain, 972 S.W.2d 749, 753 (Tex. 1998) (explaining negligent activity concerns “simply doing or failing to do what a person of ordinary prudence in the same or similar circumstances would have not done or done” while premises liability concerns the “failure to use ordinary care to reduce or eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a premises condition which the owner or occupier [of land] knows about or in the exercise of ordinary care should know about” and quoting Keetch v. Kroger Co., 845 S.W.2d 262, 266-67 (Tex. 1992)).

C. Discussion

In his first issue, Norman argues that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment on a premises liability theory when his claims sounded in general negligence: “The Association characterized [my] lawsuit against it as one for premises liability. This argument is flawed because the Association was not the possessor of the premises when [I] was injured[.]” Norman argues that his “petition is fairly constructed as advancing an ordinary negligence claim” because he pleaded that the Association is liable for “failing to employ any procedure to ensure safety from falling trees, and for failing to maintain a safe bike path and the trees along it.” The Association responds that regardless of how Norman pleaded his claim, he is limited to a premises liability theory of recovery because Norman was injured by an unsafe or dangerous condition on the premises-not by contemporaneous negligent activity.[3]

1. Summary Judgment was Not Granted on an Unaddressed Claim Because the Association’s Motion for Summary Judgment Challenged the Existence of a Legal Duty

As a preliminary matter, we consider Norman’s contention that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment on his negligence claim when the Association’s motion for summary judgment actually addressed only an unpleaded premises-liability claim. See Chessher v. Sw. Bell Tel. Co., 658 S.W.2d 563, 564 (Tex. 1983) (stating it is reversible error to grant summary judgment on a claim not addressed in the motion). Three of our sister courts have addressed similar instances in which defendants filed summary judgment motions on the theory that the plaintiff had impermissibly pleaded a premises defect claim as a general negligence claim. See Griffin v. Shell Oil Co., 401 S.W.3d 150 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, pet. denied); Somoza v. Rough Hollow Yacht Club, Ltd., No. 03-09-00308-CV, 2010 WL 2867372, at *4 (Tex. App.-Austin July 20, 2010, no pet.) (mem. op.); Kalinchuk v. JP Sanchez Construction Co., No. 04-15-00537-CV, 2016 WL 4376628, at *3 (Tex. App.- San Antonio Aug. 17, 2016, no pet.) (mem. op.).

In Griffin, the First District Court of Appeals considered whether “the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Shell and CH2M on his negligent-activity claims because neither Shell nor CH2M sought summary judgment on these claims.” 401 S.W.3d at 157. After stating that a trial court errs by granting more relief requested by disposing of issues not presented to it in the summary judgment motion, the First court analyzed each defendant’s summary-judgment motion and held that based “upon the plain language,” the defendants sought summary judgment “only on [appellant’s] premises-defect claim” and not his negligent activity claim. Id. at 158-59. Thus, the First court reversed summary judgment on appellant’s negligence claim and remanded the case. Id. The First court did note, however, that “[a] legal duty must be established in order for [appellant] to ultimately recover on his negligent-activity claim[, ]” id. at 163 n.4, thus signaling its concern over the viability of appellant’s negligence claim.

In Somoza, the plaintiff had been injured while operating a jet ski when he allegedly ran into a partially submerged steel cable tethered to a floating dock, near the marina owned and operated by a yacht club. Somoza, 2010 WL 2867372, at *1. He filed suit against the yacht club and alleged negligence and premises liability claims. Id. The yacht club filed a hybrid no evidence and traditional motion for summary judgment, asserting, in part, that the plaintiff “has no claim for general negligence . . . because his negligence claim sounds solely in premises liability,” and that the plaintiff has “produced no evidence of the essential elements of duty, breach, or proximate cause.” Id. The trial court granted the motion.

On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeals considered the plaintiff’s contention that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment on his general negligence claim. Id. at *4. The Third court “assum[ed] without deciding that [the plaintiff] could bring a claim for general negligence despite his failure to allege injury resulting from any contemporaneous activity by the Yacht Club” and nevertheless concluded that “he has still failed to establish the existence of a duty to support a claim in negligence.” Id. at *5.

In Kalinchuk, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against his putative employer for negligence and gross negligence after he was injured at a baseball field renovation site by a section of bleachers that fell on him. 2016 WL 4376628, at *1. The employer moved for traditional and no evidence summary judgment, and alleged, inter alia, that the plaintiff did not have more than a scintilla of evidence to establish the existence of a legal duty. Id. In its motion, the employer relied on cases involving premises liability claims and asserted that the plaintiff purported to state a claim for negligence when his claim was “actually based on the theory of premises liability because he [sought] to recover for an injury allegedly created by a condition on the premises rather than for an injury created as a result of an activity.” Id. at *3. The plaintiff responded that the employer owed him a common law duty to exercise reasonable care and avoid a foreseeable risk of harm. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment. Id.

On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeals reasoned that “[w]hether [plaintiff’s] claim is a claim for negligence as he argues or a premises liability claim as [employer] contends, the question of whether a duty exists remains the same in that it requires a balancing of interrelated factors that make up the risk-utility balancing test.” Id. After applying the risk-utility balancing test to the facts of the case, the Fourth court concluded that the plaintiff had “failed to produce a scintilla of evidence creating a fact issue to support the existence of [a] legal duty owed to him by [the employer.]” Id. at *3-4.

We do not quarrel with the First court’s strict approach in refusing to read into the summary judgment motion a ground that was not clearly articulated. However, we view the approach by the Third and Fourth courts as allowing for a more expedient disposition while maintaining fidelity to Rule 166a(c)’s requirement that summary judgment motions “state the specific grounds therefor.” Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c); Somoza, 2010 WL 2867372, at *5; Kalinchuk, 2016 WL 4376628, at *3-4.

The existence of a legal duty is a threshold issue generally decided as a matter of law. Fort Bend Cty. Drainage Dist. v. Sbrusch, 818 S.W.2d 392, 395 (Tex. 1991). And even assuming under these facts that Norman could bring a claim for general negligence, the Association in its motion for summary judgment challenged the existence of a legal duty owed to him regarding the downed tree and maintenance of trail safety regardless of whether the duty arose under a premises liability theory based on Norman’s status at the time of the injury or a general negligence theory balancing test.[4] See Kalinchuk, 2016 WL 4376628, at *3-4 (explaining whether the plaintiff’s claim is a claim for negligence as he argued or a premises liability claim as the defendant contended, “the question of whether a duty exists remains the same in that it requires a balancing of interrelated factors that make up the risk-utility balancing test”); cf. Del Lago Partners, 307 S.W.3d at 767 (applying risk-utility balancing factors to determine duty in premises liability case); Wyckoff, 357 S.W.3d at 164 (“General negligence principles apply to a contractor who has left [a] premises in an unsafe condition.”). Therefore, because the summary judgment motion fairly challenged the existence of a legal duty, we reject Norman’s contention that the trial court erred by granting the motion on an unchallenged ground, and we now analyze whether the Association owed Norman a legal duty under a general negligence theory.

2. No Legal Duty Under a General Negligence Theory

The question of legal duty is a “multifaceted issue” requiring courts to balance a number of factors such as the risk and foreseeability of injury, the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the consequences of imposing the burden on the actor, and any other relevant competing individual and social interests implicated by the facts of the case. Tex. Home Mgmt., Inc. v. Peavy, 89 S.W.3d 30, 33 (Tex. 2002). “Although the formulation and emphasis varies with the facts of each case, three categories of factors have emerged: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured; and (3) public policy considerations.” Id. at 34. Of these factors, the Supreme Court of Texas has identified “foreseeability as the ‘foremost and dominant consideration’ in the duty analysis.” Id. at 36 (quoting El Chico Corp. v. Poole, 732 S.W.2d 306, 311 (Tex. 1987)). “Foreseeability means that a person who possesses ordinary intelligence should have anticipated the danger that his negligent act would create for others.” Midwest Emp’rs Cas. Co. ex rel. English v. Harpole, 293 S.W.3d 770, 779 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2009, no pet.). However, foreseeability alone is not sufficient to impose a duty. Id.

Here, Norman pleaded that the Association contractually assumed “responsibility for maintenance, construction and safety of the trails,” and as such, owed a duty to “protect the general public from dangerous conditions[.]” The record, which contains the Contract and deposition excerpts, evidences the Association’s agreement to, and exercise of, some limited control over the construction and maintenance of Gateway’s bike trails by having monthly meetings to discuss maintenance issues and by building trails in the months between May and October. The summary judgment evidence also provided that the Association holds an annual work day in June to make sure the trails are in “tiptop shape” for their annual “fat tire festival.” This workday consists of going through the entire trail to look for places that needed to be trimmed or pruned.

Lawrence “Larry” Colvin, the Association’s president at the time of Norman’s crash, testified that during the monthly meetings, the Association’s members discussed safety of the trees in general as well as identified certain problem trees to City employees who “were the only ones that [could] operate the chainsaws.” Larry also testified that the Association had once asked the City to close the trail because of “so many trees down,” but that the City refused. Larry testified that the Association worked with Melinda Adams, an “urban forester” with the City, who “[took] a look at the trees.” Although Larry acknowledged that the Association had no “tree safety plan” and had never consulted an arborist, he concluded that even retaining a certified arborist to walk Gateway once a week would still not prevent falling trees in a park “hundreds of thousands of trees.”

Larry’s testimony concerning the existence of “hundreds of thousands of trees” along the mountain bike trail provided proof that the danger of a falling tree was plausible. And in his deposition, Larry acknowledged that the likelihood of falling trees would increase in “an unprecedented drought like we were in in 2014”-the year of Norman’s injury.

However, Norman testified in his deposition that he had ridden the same trail “no more [than] two days” earlier and that he had not seen the downed tree, so it was possible that the tree had fallen only a day or two before his crash. Indeed, Norman conceded that it was possible that the tree could have actually fallen only a few hours before his crash. Moreover, the Contract expressly prohibits the Association from pruning trees without the Director’s prior written approval and expressly prohibits the Association from removing any tree without prior written permission from the Forester. Norman does not direct us to any part of the Contract showing that the Association had agreed to assume a legal duty to maintain the safety of the trails for the general public.

Based on our de novo review of the record, we hold that Norman failed to establish that the Association owed him a legal duty to protect him from the downed tree across the trail that the Association did not cause to fall, that may have fallen only hours-but no later than a day or two-before Norman struck it, and that the Association was not even authorized to unilaterally remove.[5] See Felts v. Bluebonnet Elec. Coop., Inc., 972 S.W.2d 166, 169 (Tex. App.-Austin 1998, no pet.) (rejecting complainant’s argument that an electrical co-op’s tree-trimming agreement creating a limited right to trim or clear trees for the purpose of protecting its power lines “created a broader duty to maintain the area for the protection of the general public traveling on the nearby county road”); Jacobs-Cathey Co. v. Cockrum, 947 S.W.2d 288, 292 (Tex. App.-Waco 1997, writ denied) (holding that “a defendant’s policy to remedy dangerous conditions he may come across does not impose a legal duty on him to these third parties” and that a defendant bears “no common law duty to remove debris . . . that was left by some other party”); see also J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Tex. Contract Carpet, Inc., 302 S.W.3d 515, 530-32 (Tex. App.-Austin 2009, no pet.) (holding a contractual agreement did not create a legal duty to a third party when the contractual benefit to the third party was not clearly intended by the contract and was merely incidental to the agreement).

Therefore, the trial court did not err by granting summary judgment on Norman’s negligence and gross negligence claims. See Gonzalez v. VATR Constr., LLC, 418 S.W.3d 777, 789 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2013, no pet.) (holding that because summary judgment was proper on negligence claim, it was also proper on gross negligence claim). We overrule Norman’s first issue.

IV. Norman’s Excluded Summary Judgment Evidence

Norman’s second issue challenges the trial court’s decision to sustain the Association’s hearsay objection and strike Matthew Clemons’s report. Norman’s contention is that because he submitted an affidavit from Clemons in which Clemons swore that the attached report was a true and correct copy of the report that he had personally prepared, the report was authenticated, “which overcomes the hearsay problem.” The Association responds that Norman misunderstands its objection, which was that the report was inadmissible hearsay, not that it was not properly authenticated.

A. Standard of Review

A trial court’s rulings on the admissibility of evidence are reviewable under an abuse of discretion standard. Gharda USA, Inc. v. Control Sols., Inc., 464 S.W.3d 338, 347 (Tex. 2015). An appellate court must uphold the trial court’s evidentiary ruling if there is any legitimate basis in the record for the ruling. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. v. Malone, 972 S.W.2d 35, 43 (Tex. 1998). A trial court’s discretion in determining whether an expert is qualified to testify on a matter is broad but not unbounded. In re Commitment of Bohannan, 388 S.W.3d 296, 307 (Tex. 2012). A trial court abuses its discretion by excluding expert testimony if the testimony is relevant to the issues in the case and is based on a reliable foundation. Id.; State v. Cent. Expressway Sign Assocs., 302 S.W.3d 866, 870 (Tex. 2009) (op. on reh’g).

B. Analysis

Norman attached a short affidavit from Matthew Clemons which stated, in relevant part, as follows:

I certify that the ‘Initial Assessment of Tree Conditions; Gateway Park Mountain Bike Trail’ was prepared on March 21, 2017 for Jackson Davis regarding Norman DeLamar’s bicycle incident, which is attached as an Exhibit to Plaintiff’s Response to Fort Worth Biker’s Association Traditional and No Evidence Motions for Summary Judgment, is a true and correct copy of the report which I personally prepared and provided Mr. Davis.

The March 21, 2017 letter was attached to Norman’s summary judgment response as Exhibit D.

The Association asserts that Clemons’s affidavit (which was not objected to), may authenticate the attached report, but it does not remove the report from the ambit of hearsay. We agree. See Tex. R. Evid. 801, 802; cf. Petty v. Children’s WorldLearning Ctrs., Inc., No. 05-94-00998-CV, 1995 WL 379522, at *5 (Tex. App.-Dallas May 31, 1995, writ denied) (explaining that “[a]uthenticity is separate and apart from qualification as an exception under the hearsay rule”). Further, the report does not obviously fall within any of the exclusions from hearsay (Tex. R. Evid. 801(e)) or exceptions to the rule against hearsay (Tex. R. Evid. 803)-indeed, Norman does not assert any exclusion or exception.

Accordingly, we hold that the court did not abuse its discretion by sustaining the Association’s hearsay objection to Clemons’s report, and we overrule Norman’s second issue.

V. Conclusion

Having held that the trial court did not err by granting summary judgment on Norman’s negligence and gross negligence claims and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding Norman’s expert’s report as inadmissible hearsay, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.

—–

Notes:

[1]Norman’s suit against the Association for negligence and gross negligence was eventually severed from his suit against the City.

[2]To prevail on a premises-liability claim, a plaintiff must prove (1) actual or constructive knowledge of some condition on the premises by the owner; (2) that the condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) that the owner did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk; and (4) that the owner’s failure to use such care proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Gonzalez, 968 S.W.2d 934, 936 (Tex. 1998), whereas under the common law doctrine of negligence, a plaintiff must prove (1) a legal duty owed by one person to another; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach. Helbing v. Hunt, 402 S.W.3d 699, 702 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, pet. denied).

[3]The Association asserts it is a “non-possessory interest holder” which is “the legal equivalent of the occupier” of the bike trail portion of Gateway. Put differently, the Association contends it has rights akin to that of an easement holder. See Brookshire Katy Drainage Dist. v. Lily Gardens, LLC, 333 S.W.3d 301, 309 (Tex. App.- Houston [1st Dist.] 2010, pet. denied) (“[A]n easement is a nonpossessory interest in another’s property that authorizes its holder to use that property for a particular purpose.”).

[4]Although we do not reach the issue, we believe that Norman’s claim sounds in premises liability in any event. See United Scaffolding, 537 S.W.3d at 472 (“We have recognized that slip/trip-and-fall cases have consistently been treated as premises defect causes of action. In such cases, the plaintiff alleges injury as a result of a physical condition or defect left on the premises, not as a contemporaneous result of someone’s negligence.” (internal citation and quotation marks omitted)); Sampson, 500 S.W.3d at 389-90 (citing Univ. of Tex. at Austin v. Hayes, 327 S.W.3d 113 (Tex. 2010) (per curiam), a case with injuries caused by a bicycle crash after the cyclist ran over a metal chain stretched across a college campus driveway as illustrating a “quintessential premises defect claim”); Tex. Dept. of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 230 (Tex. 2004) (concluding that the “allegation of an injury caused by a tree limb falling on [plaintiff] constitutes an allegation of a condition or use of real property and is an allegation of a premises defect”).

[5]Norman also does not persuade us that we should create a legal duty regarding the downed tree and trail safety based on public policy considerations. See Kalinchuk, 2016 WL 4376628, at *4. Indeed, public policy considerations weigh heavily against imposing such a legal duty on what is essentially a group of volunteer mountain bike enthusiasts who have been granted such limited oversight over the safety of the bike trails, if any.

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Texas appellate court allows a release to stop a gross negligence claim.

If you have a clause in your release that says, “except gross negligence” or something like that get rid of it. Why teach the plaintiff’s how to beat you, besides, you may win, which is what happened in this case.

Citation: Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

State: Texas: Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

Plaintiff: Graciela Quiroz, individually, A/N/F of XXXX (“JOHN DOE 1”) and XXXX (“JOHN DOE 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually

Defendant: Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Plaintiff injured her back attempting to do a back flip on a trampoline at the defendant’s facility rendering her a paraplegic. She sued for her injuries claiming negligence and gross negligence. The court found the release stopped the plaintiff’s claims for negligence and gross negligence.

Facts

On November 29, 2014, Quiroz and her sixteen-year-old son went to Jumpstreet. Prior to using the facility, Quiroz was given a pre-injury release form that was titled “Jumpstreet, LLC Release and Parent/Guardian Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk.” The Release recited the following statements under the title: “PLEASE READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY. BY SIGNING IT, YOU ARE GIVING UP LEGAL RIGHTS.” After signing the Release, Quiroz and her son jumped on a trampoline. When Quiroz attempted to do a flip, she injured her neck. Quiroz is now paralyzed from the waist down. Quiroz brought suit, individually, against Jumpstreet for negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish. Robert Sullivan (Quiroz’s spouse) joined the suit for loss of consortium and as next friend of a third minor child for loss of parental consortium and a bystander claim for mental anguish.

Jumpstreet filed a “Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment” alleging summary judgment was proper because Quiroz had signed a Release. In the motion, Jumpstreet stated that because Quiroz alleged negligence and gross negligence claims against Jumpstreet arising from her utilizing a Jumpstreet facility, the Release signed by Quiroz expressly released any negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet asserted the Release was valid and enforceable because it specifically named the party to be released, it met the fair notice requirements of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule, and it met the contractual elements of mutual intent and valid consideration.

Quiroz filed a response to Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and a cross-motion for partial summary judgment that alleged summary judgment for Jumpstreet was improper because there was an issue of material fact regarding the Release. Quiroz alleged she was entitled to a partial summary judgment because the Release was “void, voidable and unenforceable” because the named entity did not exist at the time of her injury, the Release was ambiguous, a parent could not waive claims of minors, and the Release could not waive gross negligence claims because it would be against public policy to do so. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s traditional motion for summary judgment and denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz timely filed this appeal.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the release and denied the plaintiff’s cross motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed.

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

The issue for the appellate court was whether or not the motion for summary judgment granted for the defendant, and the cross motion for the plaintiff that was denied were done so correctly. Should a release bar a claim for negligence and gross negligence under Texas law.

Release law in Texas appears to be quite specific.

The Release signed by Quiroz was a prospective release of future claims, including claims based on Jumpstreet’s own negligence. A release is an absolute bar to the released matter and extinguishes a claim or cause of action.

To win Jumpstreet only had to show the fair notice requirement of the law was met.

Jumpstreet had to show that the Release’s language met the fair notice requirement of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. See id. “Conspicuous” means the terms must be presented in a manner that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have notice.

The fair notice requirement under Texas law requires the release language to be clear, unambiguous and within the four corners of the contract.

The express negligence rule is not an affirmative defense, but it is a rule of contract interpretation. This rule states that if a party intends to be released from its own future negligence, it must express that intent in clear, unambiguous terms within the four corners of the contract.

The issue the court focused on was the claim the plaintiff originally made that the defendant identified in the release was not the defendant who owned and operated the facility where she was injured. The original defendant was an LLC and had been dissolved, and a new LLC had taken its’ place. The release was not updated to show these changes.

In many states, this would have been a fatal flaw for the defendant.

The court found the defendants were owned and run by the same brothers and were the same for the purposes of this lawsuit. The new LLC replaced the old LLC and was covered by the release.

The court then looked at the release and pointed out the reasons why the release was going to be supported.

As noted above, the waiver and release language is in capital lettering immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. Further, on page one in the assumption of risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries, including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Furthermore, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.

The plaintiff then argued the release was void because a release under Texas law cannot waive the claims of a minor when signed by a parent. The court agreed. However, since the child was not the injured plaintiff, it did not matter.

The court did look at the issue of whether or not a parent could sign away a minor’s right to sue. The court held the minor could still sue; however, a release signed by the parent would bar all the derivative claims based on the claims of the minor child. That means all claims by the parents, loss of consortium, etc., would be barred by the release. Only the claims of the minor child would survive.

The court then looked at whether a release could stop a claim for gross negligence. The court found that the decision had not been reviewed by the Texas Supreme Court and there was a mix of decisions in Texas regarding that issue.

The Texas courts that have allowed a release to top a gross negligence claim have held there is no difference between negligence and gross negligence under Texas law. The court went on to read the release and found the release in question had language that prevented claims for negligence and gross negligence. Therefore, the gross negligence claim was waived.

The Release met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. It was, thus, enforceable. As a result, Jumpstreet met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

The release said it stopped claims for Gross Negligence and the Court agreed.

The defendant one because they had a well-written release that was easy to see and understand and said you can’t sue the defendant for negligence or gross negligence.

So Now What?

This is a first. A release was used to stop a gross negligence claim that was not based on a failure of the plaintiff to allege facts that were gross negligence. The release said it was effective against claims for negligence and gross negligence, and the court agreed.

Unless your state has specific statements were putting gross negligence in a release may void your release, or your supreme Court has specifically said a release cannot protect against gross negligence claims, you may want to add that phrase to your release.

No matter what, GET RID of clauses in your release that state the release is valid against all claims EXCEPT gross negligence. It is just stupid to put that in a release unless you have a legal system that requires it.

Putting that information into your release just tells the plaintiff and/or their attorney how to beat you. Don’t help the person trying to sue you!

Second, you never know; it may work. It did in this case in Texas.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

Graciela Quiroz, individually, A/N/F OF XXXX (“JOHN DOE 1”) AND XXXX (“JOHN DOE 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually, A/N/F OF XXXX (“JOHN DOE 3”), Appellants v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc., Appellees

No. 05-17-00948-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

July 9, 2018

On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 15-02671

Before Myers, Boatright, and O’Neill Justices. [1]

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MICHAEL J. O’NEILL JUSTICE, ASSIGNED

Appellant Graciela Quiroz brought a negligence suit against appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc., and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. (collectively Jumpstreet) for injuries she sustained while jumping on a trampoline at a Jumpstreet facility. Jumpstreet moved for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by Quiroz. Quiroz responded and filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment, denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment, and dismissed all of Quiroz’s claims. In one issue, Quiroz contends the trial court erred in granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her motion for partial summary judgment. We affirm the trial court’s order.

Background

On November 29, 2014, Quiroz and her sixteen-year-old son went to Jumpstreet. Prior to using the facility, Quiroz was given a pre-injury release form that was titled “Jumpstreet, LLC Release and Parent/Guardian Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk.” The Release recited the following statements under the title: “PLEASE READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY. BY SIGNING IT, YOU ARE GIVING UP LEGAL RIGHTS.” After signing the Release, Quiroz and her son jumped on a trampoline. When Quiroz attempted to do a flip, she injured her neck. Quiroz is now paralyzed from the waist down. Quiroz brought suit, individually, against Jumpstreet for negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish. Robert Sullivan (Quiroz’s spouse) joined the suit for loss of consortium and as next friend of a third minor child for loss of parental consortium and a bystander claim for mental anguish.

Jumpstreet filed a “Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment” alleging summary judgment was proper because Quiroz had signed a Release. In the motion, Jumpstreet stated that because Quiroz alleged negligence and gross negligence claims against Jumpstreet arising from her utilizing a Jumpstreet facility, the Release signed by Quiroz expressly released any negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet asserted the Release was valid and enforceable because it specifically named the party to be released, it met the fair notice requirements of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule, and it met the contractual elements of mutual intent and valid consideration.

Quiroz filed a response to Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and a cross-motion for partial summary judgment that alleged summary judgment for Jumpstreet was improper because there was an issue of material fact regarding the Release. Quiroz alleged she was entitled to a partial summary judgment because the Release was “void, voidable and unenforceable” because the named entity did not exist at the time of her injury, the Release was ambiguous, a parent could not waive claims of minors, and the Release could not waive gross negligence claims because it would be against public policy to do so. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s traditional motion for summary judgment and denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz timely filed this appeal.

Issue Presented

In her sole issue on appeal, Quiroz contends the trial court erred by granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, no contract existed between her and Jumpstreet, LLC, the entity named in the Release. Quiroz argues there was no “meeting of the minds on the contract’s essential terms” between her and Jumpstreet, LLC because Jumpstreet, LLC had been dissolved in June 2011 and did not exist at the time of her injury in November 2014. Quiroz contends that because a nonexistent entity cannot form or enter into a contract, the Release is void and unenforceable as a matter of law.

Quiroz further contends the Release did not meet the “fair notice requirement” because none of the Jumpstreet defendants are named in the Release; only the nonexistent entity “Jumpstreet, LLC” is specifically named in the Release. Quiroz argues the Release also never specifically identified or released a claim for an injury due to paralysis. Further, Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, a parent cannot waive a minor’s claims, and a Release cannot waive any claims for gross negligence because that is against public policy.

Jumpstreet responds that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor because Quiroz signed a valid, enforceable Release before using its facility. The Release satisfied both the fair notice requirement and the express negligence rule as to both negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet also argues the Release meets the general requirements of a valid contract because it shows a “meeting of the minds” and valid consideration. Jumpstreet further responds that because the consortium and bystander claims are derivative claims, they are barred as a matter of law.

Applicable Law

We review a trial court’s summary judgment order de novo. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Joachim, 315 S.W.3d 860, 862 (Tex. 2010). A party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact existed and that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Dallas v. Dallas Morning News, LP, 281 S.W.3d 708, 712 (Tex. App.- Dallas 2009, no pet.); see also Tex. R. Civ. P. 166A(c). When reviewing a summary judgment, we take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant, and we indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant’s favor. Valence Operating Co. v. Dorsett, 164 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tex. 2005). When both sides move for summary judgment, however, each party bears the burden of establishing it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Garland v. Dallas Morning News, 22 S.W.3d 351, 356 (Tex. 2000). When the trial court grants one motion and denies the other, we review the summary judgment evidence presented by both parties and determine all the questions presented. S. Crushed Concrete, LLC v. City of Houston, 398 S.W.3d 676, 678 (Tex. 2013).

The Release signed by Quiroz was a prospective release of future claims, including claims based on Jumpstreet’s own negligence. A release is an absolute bar to the released matter and extinguishes a claim or cause of action. Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 509 (Tex. 1993). Jumpstreet had to show that the Release’s language met the fair notice requirement of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. See id. “Conspicuous” means the terms must be presented in a manner that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have notice. Quintana v. CrossFit Dallas, L.L.C., 347 S.W.3d 445, 450 (Tex. App.- Dallas 2011, no pet, ).

The express negligence rule is not an affirmative defense, but it is a rule of contract interpretation. See Fisk Elec. Co. v. Constructors & Assocs., Inc., 888 S.W.2d 813, 814 (Tex. 1994). This rule states that if a party intends to be released from its own future negligence, it must express that intent in clear, unambiguous terms within the four corners of the contract. Atl. Richfield Co. v. Petroleum Pers., Inc., 768 S.W.2d 724, 726 (Tex. 1989); Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.

Discussion

Parties have the right to contract as they see fit as long as their agreement does not violate the law or public policy. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 129 & n.11 (Tex. 2004). Texas law recognizes and protects a broad freedom of contract. Fairfield Ins. Co. v. Stephens Martin Paving, LP, 246 S.W.3d 653, 671 (Tex. 2008). Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. Williams v. Glash, 789 S.W.2d 261, 264 (Tex. 1990). When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written expression of the parties’ intent. Forbau v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 876 S.W.2d 132, 133 (Tex. 1994). Public policy dictates that courts are not to interfere lightly with this freedom of contract. See, e.g., Gym-N-I Playgrounds, Inc. v. Snider, 220 S.W.3d 905, 912 (Tex. 2007) (commercial lease expressly waiving warranties); In re Prudential, 148 S.W.3d at 129 & n.11 (contractual jury waiver); BMG Direct Mktg., Inc. v. Peake, 178 S.W.3d 763, 767 (Tex. 2005) (liquidated damages clause); Mo., Kan. & Tex. Ry. Co. of Tex. v. Carter, 68 S.W. 159, 164 (Tex. 1902) (contract waiving responsibility for fires caused by railroad engines).

A tortfeasor can claim the protection of a release only if the release refers to him by name or with such descriptive particularity that his identity or his connection with the tortious event is not in doubt. Duncan v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 665 S.W.2d 414, 420 (Tex. 1984); see also Frazer v. Tex. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 4 S.W.3d 819, 823-24 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.) (with use of “and its affiliated companies,” release sufficiently identified Texas Farm Bureau Underwriters such that its identity is not in doubt.). Here, the Release clearly and unambiguously stated it applied to all Jumpstreet entities that are engaged in the trampoline business. Although the Release specifically named “Jumpstreet, LLC,” it also stated the Release equally applied to “its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates, other related entities, successors, owners, members, directors, officers, shareholders, agents, employees, servants, assigns, investors, legal representatives and all individuals and entities involved in the operation of Jumpstreet.”

The record shows the entity named “Jumpstreet, LLC” was dissolved in June, 2011. The record also contains a deposition transcript from Martin L. Brooks who testified he and Tim Crawford were cousins and the sole owners of all the Jumpstreet entities, all the Jumpstreet entities were engaged in the trampoline business, and the entity named “Jumpstreet, Inc.” was the parent company. The record shows that in her original petition, Quiroz named seventeen different Jumpstreet entities, including “Jumpstreet, Inc.,” the parent company. In her “fourth amended petition” that was in effect at the time of the summary judgment hearing, however, she named only three of the Jumpstreet entities, including the parent company. The Jumpstreet appellees in this case are all engaged in the trampoline business and described with such particularity that their identity was never in doubt. Duncan, 665 S.W.2d at 420; Frazer, 4 S.W.3d at 823-24.

Although the Release in this case contains two pages, it conspicuously contains several paragraphs with bolded headings and capitalized font. On page one, an “assumption of risk” section is separate from a “release of liability” section. The Release warns prospective patrons to “please read this document carefully” and “by signing it, you are giving up legal rights.” This warning appears directly under the title of the Release and is written in all capital letters. On page two, the Release has an “assumption of the risk” paragraph in all capital letters and surrounded by a box, calling specific attention to it. On both pages, there are several references to the risks and dangers of participating in Jumpstreet services throughout the Release. The “waiver and release” language is repeated a final time, in capital lettering, immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452 (concluding a two-page contract titled “Health Assessment Waiver and Goals Work Sheet” that included word “release” in larger and bold print near top of second page and initialed by party was “sufficiently conspicuous to provide fair notice”).

The Release also does not run afoul of the express negligence rule. As noted above, the waiver and release language is in capital lettering immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. Further, on page one in the assumption of risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Also, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.” Id.

Quiroz next argues that a parent cannot waive a minor child’s claims. Quiroz asserts Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1993), is the leading Texas case. In Munoz, the parents sued an amusement park for damages after their child was injured on a ride. The trial court granted the park’s motion for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by the parents. The appellate court reversed, holding that the Family Code did not give parents the power to waive a child’s cause of action for personal injuries. Munoz is distinguishable from Quiroz’s claims in that Quiroz sustained the injury and not her children. Moreover, the cause of action for loss of parental consortium, like the cause of action for loss of spousal consortium, is a derivative cause of action. As such, the defenses that bar all or part of the injured parent’s recovery have the same effect on the child’s recovery. Reagan v. Vaughn, 804 S.W.2d 463, 468 (Tex. 1990), on reh’g in part (Mar. 6, 1991). And although bystander claims are considered independent and not derivative, it is also true that the bystander plaintiff cannot recover unless the injured person can recover. Estate of Barrera v. Rosamond Vill. Ltd. P’ship, 983 S.W.2d 795, 799- 800 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, no pet.).

Quiroz lastly argues a pre-injury release cannot apply to gross negligence claims because that is against public policy. Generally, a contract provision “exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195(1 (1981). Quiroz cites our case in Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, 402 S.W.3d 915 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2013, no pet.), for this proposition. There is disagreement among the courts of appeals as to whether a party may validly release claims for gross negligence. The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a pre-injury release as to gross negligence is against public policy when there is no assertion that intentional, deliberate, or reckless acts cause injury.[2] Some appellate courts have held that negligence and gross negligence are not separable claims and that therefore a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence. See Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling U.S., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied); Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1994, writ denied).

In contrast, we recently held that a plaintiff’s execution of a contract specifically releasing a defendant from liability for negligence did not release the defendant from liability for gross negligence. Van Voris, 402 S.W.3d at 926. We reasoned that the public policy requiring an express release from negligence also requires an express release from gross negligence. See id. We specifically pointed out that “our conclusion is limited to the context presented by this case.” See id. Other courts have held that pre-accident waivers of gross negligence are invalid as against public policy. See Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no pet.); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App.-Beaumont 1986, no writ).

Van Voris is distinguishable from the case here in that Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the claims being waived. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.

Conclusion

The Release met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. It was, thus, enforceable. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. As a result, Jumpstreet met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. See City of Garland, 22 S.W.3d at 356. We conclude the trial court properly granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment. See Travelers Ins. Co., 315 S.W.3d at 862.

We affirm the trial court’s order granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment.

On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court, Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 15-02671. Opinion delivered by Justice O’Neill. Justices Myers and Boatright participating.

In accordance with this Court’s opinion of this date, the judgment of the trial court is AFFIRMED.

It is ORDERED that appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. recover their costs of this appeal from appellants Graciela Quiroz and Robert Sullivan.

—–

Notes:

[1] The Hon. Michael J. O’Neill, Justice, Assigned

[2] We note that Quiroz cited Zachry Construction Corp. v. Port of Houston Authority Of Harris County., 449 S.W.3d 98 (Tex. 2014), in her “First Supplemental Brief,” for the proposition that “a pre-injury release of future liability for gross negligence is void as against public policy.” In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court had to decide, in a breach of contract case, whether a no-damages-for-delay provision shielded the owner from liability for deliberately and wrongfully interfering with the contractor’s work. In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court held the no-damages-for-delay provision at issue was unenforceable as against public policy. Zachry, however, is distinguishable because that case concerned how a no-delay-for-damages provision could be enforced if the Port’s intentional misconduct caused the delay. Here, Quiroz has not asserted that Jumpstreet’s alleged negligence was intentional, deliberate, or reckless.

gross negligence, entities, public policy, waive, summary judgment motion, summary judgment, partial summary judgment, trial court, cause of action, matter of law, fair notice, pet, negligence rule, conspicuousness, cross-motion, consortium, pre-injury, assumption of risk, trampoline, bystander, lettering, argues


Texas appellate court upholds release for claims of gross negligence in trampoline accident that left plaintiff a paraplegic.

However, the decision is not reasoned and supported in Texas by other decisions or the Texas Supreme Court.

Quiroz et. al. v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

State: Texas, Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

Plaintiff: Graciela Quiroz, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 1”) and Xxxx (“John Doe 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 3”)

Defendant: Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish.

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Adult paralyzed in a trampoline facility sues for her injuries. The release she signed before entering stopped all of her claims, including her claim for gross negligence.

However, the reasoning behind the support for the release to stop the gross negligence claim was not in the decision, so this is a tenuous decision at best.

Facts

The plaintiff and her sixteen-year-old son went to the defendant’s business. Before entering she signed a release. While on a trampoline, the plaintiff attempted to do a back flip, landed on her head and was rendered a paraplegic from the waist down.

The plaintiff sued on her behalf and on behalf of her minor. Her claim was a simple tort claim for negligence. Her children’s claims were based on the loss of parental consortium and under Texas law bystander claims for seeing the accident or seeing their mother suffer. The plaintiff’s husband also joined in the lawsuit later for his loss of consortium claims.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The original entity named on the release was a corporation that was no longer in existence. Several successor entities now owned and controlled the defendant. The plaintiff argued the release did not protect them because the release only spoke to the one defendant.

The court did not agree, finding language in the release that stated the release applied to all “jumpstreet entities that engaged in the trampoline business.”

…it also stated the Release equally applied to “its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates, other related entities, successors, owners, members, directors, officers, shareholders, agents, employees, servants, assigns, investors, legal representatives and all individuals and entities involved in the operation of Jumpstreet.”

The next argument was whether the release met the requirements on Texas law for a release. The court pointed out bold and capital letters were used to point out important parts of the release. An assumption of the risk section was separate and distance from the release of liability section, and the release warned people to read the document carefully before signing.

Texas also has an express negligence rule, the requirements of which were also met by the way the release was written.

Further, on page one in the assumption of risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Also, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.

Next the plaintiff argued that the release covered her and her sixteen-year-old minor son. As such the release should be void because it attempted to cover a minor and releases in Texas do not work for minors.

The court ignored this argument stating it was not the minor who was hurt and suing; it was the plaintiff who was an adult. The court then also added that the other plaintiffs were also covered under the release because all of their claims, loss of parental consortium and loss of consortium are derivative claims. Meaning they only succeed if the plaintiff s claim succeeds.

The final argument was the plaintiff plead negligence and gross negligence in her complaint. A release in Texas, like most other states, was argued by the plaintiff to not be valid.

The appellate court did not see that argument as clearly. First, the Texas Supreme Court had not reviewed that issue. Other appellate courts have held that there is no difference in Texas between a claim for negligence and a claim for gross negligence.

The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a pre-injury release as to gross negligence is against public policy when there is no assertion that intentional, deliberate, or reckless acts cause injury. Some appellate courts have held that negligence, and gross negligence are not separable claims and a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence.

(For other arguments like this see In Nebraska a release can defeat claims for gross negligence for health club injury.)

The court looked at the release which identified negligence and gross negligence as claims that the release would stop.

Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the claims being waived.

Although not specifically writing in the opinion why the release stopped the gross negligence claims, the court upheld the release for all the plaintiff claims.

…Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the claims being waived.

The court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

So Now What?

First this case is a great example of believing that once you have a release you don’t have to do anything else. If the defendant’s release would have been checked every year, someone should have noticed that the named entity to be protected no longer existed.

In this case that fact did not become a major issue, however, in other states the language might not have been broad enough to protect everyone.

Second, this case is also proof that being specific with possible risks of the activities and have an assumption of risk section pays off.

Finally, would I go out and pronounce that Texas allows a release to stop claims for gross negligence. No. Finger’s crossed until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the issue or another appellate court in Texas provides reasoning for its argument, this is thin support for that statement.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

Graciela Quiroz, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 1”) and Xxxx (“John Doe 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 3”), Appellants v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc., Appellees

No. 05-17-00948-CV

COURT OF APPEALS OF TEXAS, FIFTH DISTRICT, DALLAS

2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

July 9, 2018, Opinion Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court, Dallas County, Texas. Trial Court Cause No. 15-02671.

In re Quiroz, 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 7423 (Tex. App. Dallas, Aug. 7, 2017)

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-The trampoline facility owner met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law because the release was enforceable when it met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule.

OUTCOME: Order affirmed.

CORE TERMS: summary judgment, entity, gross negligence, public policy, negligence claims, partial, matter of law, cause of action, pre-injury, consortium, waive, cross-motion, notice requirements, trampoline, bystander, specifically named, unenforceable, signing, mental anguish, signature line, conspicuousness, distinguishable, enforceable, derivative, lettering, parental, waiving, notice, void, issue of material fact

COUNSEL: For Graciela Quiroz, et al, Appellant: John T. Kirtley, Lead counsel, Ferrer, Poirot and Wansbrough, Dallas, TX.

For Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc., Appellee: Cassie Dallas, Shelby G. Hall, Wade C. Crosnoe, Lead Counsel, Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, L.L.P., Dallas, TX; Michael A. Yanof, Lenahan Law, P.L.L.C., Dallas, TX; Randy Alan Nelson, Thompson Coe, Dallas, TX.

JUDGES: Before Justices Myers, Boatright, and O’Neill.1 Opinion by Justice O’Neill.

1 The Hon. Michael J. O’Neill, Justice, Assigned

OPINION BY: MICHAEL J. O’NEILL

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Opinion by Justice O’Neill

Appellant Graciela Quiroz brought a negligence suit against appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc., and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. (collectively Jumpstreet) for injuries she sustained while jumping on a trampoline at a Jumpstreet facility. Jumpstreet moved for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by Quiroz. Quiroz responded and filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment, denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment, and dismissed all of Quiroz’s claims. In one issue, Quiroz contends the trial court erred in granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her motion for partial summary judgment. We affirm the trial court’s order.

Background

On November 29, 2014, Quiroz and her sixteen-year-old son went to Jumpstreet. Prior to using the facility, Quiroz was given a pre-injury release form that was titled “Jumpstreet, LLC Release [*2] and Parent/Guardian Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk.” The Release recited the following statements under the title: “PLEASE READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY. BY SIGNING IT, YOU ARE GIVING UP LEGAL RIGHTS.” After signing the Release, Quiroz and her son jumped on a trampoline. When Quiroz attempted to do a flip, she injured her neck. Quiroz is now paralyzed from the waist down. Quiroz brought suit, individually, against Jumpstreet for negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish. Robert Sullivan (Quiroz’s spouse) joined the suit for loss of consortium and as next friend of a third minor child for loss of parental consortium and a bystander claim for mental anguish.

Jumpstreet filed a “Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment” alleging summary judgment was proper because Quiroz had signed a Release. In the motion, Jumpstreet stated that because Quiroz alleged negligence and gross negligence claims against Jumpstreet arising from her utilizing a Jumpstreet facility, the Release signed by Quiroz expressly released any negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet asserted [*3] the Release was valid and enforceable because it specifically named the party to be released, it met the fair notice requirements of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule, and it met the contractual elements of mutual intent and valid consideration.

Quiroz filed a response to Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and a cross-motion for partial summary judgment that alleged summary judgment for Jumpstreet was improper because there was an issue of material fact regarding the Release. Quiroz alleged she was entitled to a partial summary judgment because the Release was “void, voidable and unenforceable” because the named entity did not exist at the time of her injury, the Release was ambiguous, a parent could not waive claims of minors, and the Release could not waive gross negligence claims because it would be against public policy to do so. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s traditional motion for summary judgment and denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz timely filed this appeal.

Issue Presented

In her sole issue on appeal, Quiroz contends the trial court erred by granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her cross-motion [*4] for partial summary judgment. Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, no contract existed between her and Jumpstreet, LLC, the entity named in the Release. Quiroz argues there was no “meeting of the minds on the contract’s essential terms” between her and Jumpstreet, LLC because Jumpstreet, LLC had been dissolved in June 2011 and did not exist at the time of her injury in November 2014. Quiroz contends that because a nonexistent entity cannot form or enter into a contract, the Release is void and unenforceable as a matter of law.

Quiroz further contends the Release did not meet the “fair notice requirement” because none of the Jumpstreet defendants are named in the Release; only the nonexistent entity “Jumpstreet, LLC” is specifically named in the Release. Quiroz argues the Release also never specifically identified or released a claim for an injury due to paralysis. Further, Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, a parent cannot waive a minor’s claims, and a Release cannot waive any claims for gross negligence because that is against public policy.

Jumpstreet responds that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor because Quiroz signed a valid, enforceable Release [*5] before using its facility. The Release satisfied both the fair notice requirement and the express negligence rule as to both negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet also argues the Release meets the general requirements of a valid contract because it shows a “meeting of the minds” and valid consideration. Jumpstreet further responds that because the consortium and bystander claims are derivative claims, they are barred as a matter of law.

Applicable Law

[HN1] We review a trial court’s summary judgment order de novo. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Joachim, 315 S.W.3d 860, 862 (Tex. 2010). A party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact existed and that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Dallas v. Dallas Morning News, LP, 281 S.W.3d 708, 712 (Tex. App.–Dallas 2009, no pet.); see also Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c). When reviewing a summary judgment, we take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant, and we indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant’s favor. Valence Operating Co. v. Dorsett, 164 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tex. 2005). When both sides move for summary judgment, however, each party bears the burden of establishing it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Garland v. Dallas Morning News, 22 S.W.3d 351, 356 (Tex. 2000). When the trial court grants one motion and denies the other, we review the summary judgment evidence presented by both parties and determine all the questions presented. [*6] S. Crushed Concrete, LLC v. City of Houston, 398 S.W.3d 676, 678 (Tex. 2013).

The Release signed by Quiroz was a prospective release of future claims, including claims based on Jumpstreet’s own negligence. [HN2] A release is an absolute bar to the released matter and extinguishes a claim or cause of action. Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 509 (Tex. 1993). Jumpstreet had to show that the Release’s language met the fair notice requirement of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. See id. “Conspicuous” means the terms must be presented in a manner that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have notice. Quintana v. CrossFit Dallas, L.L.C., 347 S.W.3d 445, 450 (Tex. App.–Dallas 2011, no pet,).

The express negligence rule is not an affirmative defense, but it is a rule of contract interpretation. See Fisk Elec. Co. v. Constructors & Assocs., Inc., 888 S.W.2d 813, 814 (Tex. 1994). This rule states that if a party intends to be released from its own future negligence, it must express that intent in clear, unambiguous terms within the four corners of the contract. Atl. Richfield Co. v. Petroleum Pers., Inc., 768 S.W.2d 724, 726 (Tex. 1989); Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.

Discussion

[HN3] Parties have the right to contract as they see fit as long as their agreement does not violate the law or public policy. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 129 & n.11 (Tex. 2004). Texas law recognizes and protects a broad freedom of contract. Fairfield Ins. Co. v. Stephens Martin Paving, LP, 246 S.W.3d 653, 671 (Tex. 2008). Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. Williams v. Glash, 789 S.W.2d 261, 264 (Tex. 1990). When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written [*7] expression of the parties’ intent. Forbau v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 876 S.W.2d 132, 133 (Tex. 1994). Public policy dictates that courts are not to interfere lightly with this freedom of contract. See, e.g., Gym-N-I Playgrounds, Inc. v. Snider, 220 S.W.3d 905, 912 (Tex. 2007) (commercial lease expressly waiving warranties); In re Prudential, 148 S.W.3d at 129 & n.11 (contractual jury waiver); BMG Direct Mktg., Inc. v. Peake, 178 S.W.3d 763, 767 (Tex. 2005) (liquidated damages clause); Missouri, K. & T. R. Co. v. Carter, 95 Tex. 461, 68 S.W. 159, 164 (Tex. 1902) (contract waiving responsibility for fires caused by railroad engines).

[HN4] A tortfeasor can claim the protection of a release only if the release refers to him by name or with such descriptive particularity that his identity or his connection with the tortious event is not in doubt. Duncan v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 665 S.W.2d 414, 420 (Tex. 1984); see also Frazer v. Tex. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 4 S.W.3d 819, 823-24 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.) (with use of “and its affiliated companies,” release sufficiently identified Texas Farm Bureau Underwriters such that its identity is not in doubt.). Here, the Release clearly and unambiguously stated it applied to all Jumpstreet entities that are engaged in the trampoline business. Although the Release specifically named “Jumpstreet, LLC,” it also stated the Release equally applied to “its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates, other related entities, successors, owners, members, directors, officers, shareholders, agents, employees, servants, assigns, investors, legal representatives and all individuals and entities involved in the operation of [*8] Jumpstreet.”

The record shows the entity named “Jumpstreet, LLC” was dissolved in June, 2011. The record also contains a deposition transcript from Martin L. Brooks who testified he and Tim Crawford were cousins and the sole owners of all the Jumpstreet entities, all the Jumpstreet entities were engaged in the trampoline business, and the entity named “Jumpstreet, Inc.” was the parent company. The record shows that in her original petition, Quiroz named seventeen different Jumpstreet entities, including “Jumpstreet, Inc.,” the parent company. In her “fourth amended petition” that was in effect at the time of the summary judgment hearing, however, she named only three of the Jumpstreet entities, including the parent company. The Jumpstreet appellees in this case are all engaged in the trampoline business and described with such particularity that their identity was never in doubt. Duncan, 665 S.W.2d at 420; Frazer, 4 S.W.3d at 823-24.

Although the Release in this case contains two pages, it conspicuously contains several paragraphs with bolded headings and capitalized font. On page one, an “assumption of risk” section is separate from a “release of liability” section. The Release warns prospective patrons to “please read this document [*9] carefully” and “by signing it, you are giving up legal rights.” This warning appears directly under the title of the Release and is written in all capital letters. On page two, the Release has an “assumption of the risk” paragraph in all capital letters and surrounded by a box, calling specific attention to it. On both pages, there are several references to the risks and dangers of participating in Jumpstreet services throughout the Release. The “waiver and release” language is repeated a final time, in capital lettering, immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452 (concluding a two-page contract titled “Health Assessment Waiver and Goals Work Sheet” that included word “release” in larger and bold print near top of second page and initialed by party was “sufficiently conspicuous to provide fair notice”).

The Release also does not run afoul of the express negligence rule. As noted above, the waiver and release language is in capital lettering immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. Further, on page one in the assumption of [*10] risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Also, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.” Id.

Quiroz next argues that a parent cannot waive a minor child’s claims. Quiroz asserts Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 1993), is the leading Texas case. In Munoz, the parents sued an amusement park for damages after their child was injured on a ride. The trial court granted the park’s motion for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by the parents. The appellate court reversed, holding that the Family Code did not give parents the power to waive a child’s cause of action for personal injuries. Munoz is distinguishable from Quiroz’s claims in that Quiroz sustained the injury and not her children. [*11] Moreover, [HN5] the cause of action for loss of parental consortium, like the cause of action for loss of spousal consortium, is a derivative cause of action. As such, the defenses that bar all or part of the injured parent’s recovery have the same effect on the child’s recovery. Reagan v. Vaughn, 804 S.W.2d 463, 468 (Tex. 1990), on reh’g in part (Mar. 6, 1991). And although bystander claims are considered independent and not derivative, it is also true that the bystander plaintiff cannot recover unless the injured person can recover. Estate of Barrera v. Rosamond Vill. Ltd. P’ship, 983 S.W.2d 795, 799-800 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, no pet.).

Quiroz lastly argues a pre-injury release cannot apply to gross negligence claims because that is against public policy. Generally, a contract provision “exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195(1 (1981). Quiroz cites our case in Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, 402 S.W.3d 915 (Tex. App.–Dallas 2013, no pet.), for this proposition. There is disagreement among the courts of appeals as to whether a party may validly release claims for gross negligence. The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a pre-injury release as to gross negligence is against public policy when there is no assertion that intentional, deliberate, or reckless acts cause injury.2 Some appellate courts have held that negligence [*12] and gross negligence are not separable claims and that therefore a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence. See Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling U.S., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied); Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App.–San Antonio 1994, writ denied).

2 We note that Quiroz cited Zachry Construction Corp. v. Port of Houston Authority Of Harris County., 449 S.W.3d 98 (Tex. 2014), in her “First Supplemental Brief,” for the proposition that “a pre-injury release of future liability for gross negligence is void as against public policy.” In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court had to decide, in a breach of contract case, whether a no-damages-for-delay provision shielded the owner from liability for deliberately and wrongfully interfering with the contractor’s work. In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court held the no-damages-for-delay provision at issue was unenforceable as against public policy. Zachry, however, is distinguishable because that case concerned how a no-delay-for-damages provision could be enforced if the Port’s intentional misconduct caused the delay. Here, Quiroz has not asserted that Jumpstreet’s alleged negligence was intentional, deliberate, or reckless.

In contrast, we recently held that a plaintiff’s execution of a contract specifically releasing a defendant from liability for negligence did not release the defendant from liability for gross negligence. Van Voris, 402 S.W.3d at 926. We reasoned that the public policy requiring an express release from negligence also requires an express release from gross negligence. See id. We specifically pointed out that “our conclusion is limited to the context presented by this case.” See id. Other courts have held that pre-accident waivers of gross negligence are invalid as against public policy. See Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no pet.); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App.–Beaumont 1986, no writ).

Van Voris is distinguishable from the case here in that Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the [*13] claims being waived. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.

Conclusion

The Release met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. It was, thus, enforceable. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. As a result, Jumpstreet met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. See City of Garland, 22 S.W.3d at 356. We conclude the trial court properly granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment. See Travelers Ins. Co., 315 S.W.3d at 862.

We affirm the trial court’s order granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment.

/s/ Michael J. O’Neill

MICHAEL J. O’NEILL

JUSTICE, ASSIGNED

In accordance with this Court’s opinion of this date, the judgment of the trial court is AFFIRMED.

It is ORDERED that appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. recover their costs of this appeal from appellants Graciela Quiroz and Robert Sullivan.

Judgment entered this 9th day of July, 2018.


Texas Campground not liable for wind, rain and rising rivers.

Campground on river sued when river rose, flooding the campground and washing plaintiff’s downstream.

Walker v. UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 5934

State: Texas, Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

Plaintiff: Cynthia Walker, Individually and on Behalf of the Estate of Norman Walker; Stephen Walker; Stephanie Walker Hatton; Jordan Walker; and Caren Ann Johnson

Defendant: UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs; WWGAF, Inc. d/b/a Rockin ‘R’ River Rides; William George Rivers; and Richard Duane Rivers

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, premises liability, and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: No Duty and Texas Recreational Use Statute

Holding: For the defendants

Year: 2016

Facts

Two couples took their RV’s to the defendant’s campground for the weekend. The first day the plaintiff’s took a canoe trip past the campground and took some cave tours. It was not raining when they went to bed. Around 6:00 AM, the surviving plaintiff woke up to a rainstorm and their RV’s floating.

The RV’s floated down the river. One plaintiff did not survive. The surviving plaintiffs sued the campground, campgrounds alleged owner and several employees. The plaintiff’s claims were based on alleging negligence, premise’s liability, and gross negligence. Overall, their claims were based on numerous claims that the campground had a duty to warn them of the flood.

Appellants asserted that appellees knew that the campground was prone to flooding and failed: to warn appellants of that fact; to warn of the approaching storm; to prepare a plan for flood awareness, communication, and evacuation; to have and use speakers or sirens to warn of flooding; to employ someone to monitor the weather and warn and evacuate guests; to have an employee on site during severe weather; and to make reasonable modifications, have emergency communications, or educate guests about severe-weather risks.

The defendants filed numerous motions for summary judgment arguing they were protected by the Texas Recreational Use Statute, and they owed no duty to the plaintiffs. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims without comment. The appeal followed.

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

The appellate court started its analysis by stating the trial court was right and there was no duty owed to the plaintiffs.

Even if we assume that the recreational use statute does not apply, we hold, as a matter of law, that appellees did not owe the Walkers and Johnsons a duty to warn of or ensure against rising river waters.

Texas Premises Liability Act requires landowners with liability for actual or constructive notice of a condition that poses an unreasonable risk of harm and did nothing to reduce or eliminate the risk.

When an injured invitee asserts a premises-liability claim, she must show that the owner or occupier had actual or constructive knowledge about a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm and did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk and that such failure proximately caused her injury.

Rain swollen rivers were described by the court as a condition that came to the land, rather than a condition on the land. Even so, in Texas, rain, mud and ice are natural conditions that do not create an unreasonable risk of harm.

Regardless of that fact, Texas courts have consistently held as a matter of law that naturally occurring or accumulating conditions such as rain, mud, and ice do not create conditions posing an unreasonable risk of harm.

The basis for those rulings is that rain, dirt, and mud are naturally occurring conditions beyond a landowner’s control. (“rain is beyond the control of landowners” and “accidents involving naturally accumulating mud and dirt are bound to happen, regardless of the precautions taken by landowners”). Requiring a landowner to protect an invitee from precipitation or other acts of nature would place an enormous burden on the landowner.

Additionally, the court held the plaintiffs were aware of the issues because they could see the river from their campground and had canoed past the campground earlier in the day.

Further, an invitee is or should be “at least as aware” as the landowner of visible conditions that have “accumulated naturally outdoors” and thus “will often be in a better position to take immediate pre-cautions against injury.

Landowners in Texas cannot be insurers of people on the land for those acts which the landowner has no control, those things we used to call “acts of God.”

Texas courts have repeatedly observed that a landowner “‘is not an insurer'” of an invitee’s safety and generally “has no duty to warn of hazards that are open and obvious or known to the invitee.” Texas courts have held in various contexts that flooding due to heavy rains is an open and obvious hazard. “[T]he owner may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river, or even a concealed rattlesnake.

A landowner can be guilty of gross negligence by creating a condition that a recreational user would not reasonably expect to encounter. However, there was no gross negligence nor negligence because the harm was not created by the landowner.

We see no useful distinction to be drawn between ice and mud, which are natural conditions caused by rain and freezing temperatures, and rising river waters, caused by a natural weather event over which appellees could exercise no control. The June 2010 flood was not a condition inherent in or on the land in question. Instead, the flooding was a condition that came to the campground as the adjacent river, the same river that made the land an attractive place to camp, rose due to heavy rains.

The court then summed up its ruling.

We hold that as a matter of law appellees had no duty to warn the Walkers and Johnsons of the possibility that the river, they were camping beside might rise in the event of heavy rain, posing a risk to the campground.

Because appellees did not owe a duty to warn of or attempt to make the campground safe against flooding of the adjacent river due to torrential rain, the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor. We affirm the trial court’s orders.

So Now What?

This is a good ruling. Acts of God have always been outside the control, by their definition and act, of man. Consequently, you should not be able to hold someone liable for such an act.

This may not be true for all situations, or in all states, but for Texas campground owners and landowners don’t need to worry about the rain.

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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Walker v. UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 5934

Walker v. UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 5934

Cynthia Walker, Individually and on Behalf of the Estate of Norman Walker; Stephen Walker; Stephanie Walker Hatton; Jordan Walker; and Caren Ann Johnson, Appellants v. UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs; WWGAF, Inc. d/b/a Rockin ‘R’ River Rides; William George Rivers; and Richard Duane Rivers, Appellees

  1. 03-15-00271-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 5934

June 3, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF COMAL COUNTY, 433RD JUDICIAL DISTRICT. NO. C2012-0796D, HONORABLE DIB WALDRIP, JUDGE PRESIDING.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

JUDGES: Before Justices Puryear, Goodwin, and Field.

OPINION BY: David Puryear

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Appellants Cynthia Walker, Individually and on Behalf of the Estate of Norman Walker; Stephen Walker; Stephanie Walker Hatton; Jordan Walker; and Caren Ann Johnson1 filed suit against appellees UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs; WWGAF, Inc. d/b/a Rockin ‘R’ River Rides; William George Rivers; and Richard Duane Rivers for injuries sustained when the Guadalupe River overran its banks during a flash flood in June 2010.2 The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of appellees. We affirm the trial court’s orders granting summary judgment.

1 Cynthia Walker was married to Norman Walker, and Stephen Walker, Stephanie Walker Hatton, and Jordan Walker are their children. Caren Johnson is married to Terry Johnson, Cynthia’s brother. Cynthia, Norman, Caren, and Terry were camping together at Camp Huaco Springs when they were caught in the flood. Norman died, while Cynthia, Terry, and Caren were injured. Caren and Cynthia sued for their own injuries. Cynthia also sued as a representative of [*2]  Norman’s estate and, along with her children, as a wrongful death beneficiary.
2 UME, Inc. operates Camp Huaco Springs, WWGAF operates Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, a river-tubing and recreation outfitter, and William and Richard Rivers own the two businesses.

Factual Summary

In June 2010, Cynthia and Norman Walker and Terry and Caren Johnson went to Camp Huaco Springs in their RV campers for a weekend of camping and river rafting. When they arrived at the campground, they were assigned two parking spaces. The Walkers and the Johnsons parked their campers as directed. On Saturday, the Walkers and the Johnsons took a canoe trip on the river and went to tour nearby caverns. When they returned to the campsite and went to bed, it was not raining. They had not heard any weather reports and did not know heavy rain was forecast for that night. Cynthia woke at about 6:00 a.m. to thunder and lightning. She looked out the window and saw Terry was screaming that they had to leave. Cynthia looked down and noticed that the river had risen to surround the two campers, causing them to begin floating. The Walkers and Johnsons were all swept downstream in the flood. Norman died in the flood. Cynthia, Terry, and [*3]  Caren were rescued miles downstream from the campsite and all required medical attention.

Appellants filed suit alleging negligence, premises liability, and gross negligence. They asserted that WWGAF was liable because it was a joint enterprise with UME and that the Rivers brothers were liable under a theory of alter ego. Appellants asserted that appellees knew that the campground was prone to flooding and failed: to warn appellants of that fact; to warn of the approaching storm; to prepare a plan for flood awareness, communication, and evacuation; to have and use speakers or sirens to warn of flooding; to employ someone to monitor the weather and warn and evacuate guests; to have an employee on site during severe weather; and to make reasonable modifications, have emergency communications, or educate guests about severe-weather risks.

UME and the Rivers brothers filed a traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment, asserting that the Texas Recreational Use Statute3 limited appellants to asserting a gross-negligence claim and that appellants could not show various elements of gross negligence; that there was no evidence that they had a duty to warn that the campground was in [*4]  a flood zone, to warn that severe weather was approaching, or to plan and prepare for flooding; that there was no evidence they had a duty to have and use speakers or sirens to warn guests; and that there was no evidence that appellants’ injuries were caused by any negligence on the part of UME or the Rivers brothers. UME and the Rivers brothers filed a separate motion for traditional and no-evidence summary judgment addressing appellants’ theories of alter ego and joint enterprise. WWGAF filed its own motion for summary judgment, asserting that it did not own or operate Camp Huaco, that it did not owe a duty to the Walkers and the Johnsons, and that it was a separate entity from Camp Huaco and could not be held liable under theories of joint enterprise or vicarious liability. The trial court signed several orders granting appellees’ motions for summary judgment without specifying the grounds.

3 See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 75.002 (owner, lessee, or occupant of agricultural land who invites another onto premises for recreation owes invitee same duty that would be owed to trespasser and only owes duty not to injure invitee wilfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence); see generally id. §§ 75.001-.007 (chapter 75, titled [*5]  “Limitation of Landowners’ Liability”).

Discussion

The first question to be addressed, the answer to which is dispositive of this appeal, is whether appellees owed any duty to the Walkers and the Johnsons. Even if we assume that the recreational use statute does not apply, we hold, as a matter of law, that appellees did not owe the Walkers and Johnsons a duty to warn of or ensure against rising river waters. Without such a duty, appellants’ premises-liability claims must fail.4

4 Although appellants alleged both negligence and premises-defect claims, “negligent activity encompasses a malfeasance theory based on affirmative, contemporaneous conduct bythe owner that caused the injury, while premises liability encompasses a nonfeasance theory based on the owner’s failure to take measures to make the property safe.” Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 776 (Tex. 2010); see Scurlock v. Pennell, 177 S.W.3d 222, 224-25 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2005, no pet.) (citing Timberwalk Apartments, Partners, Inc. v. Cain, 972 S.W.2d 749, 753 (Tex. 1998)) (“Recovery for a negligent activity requires that a person have been injured by the activity itself, rather than by a condition created by the activity; in contrast, recovery for premises liability depends upon a failure to use ordinary care to reduce or to eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a premises condition about which the owner or occupier [of [*6]  land] knows or, in the exercise of ordinary care, should know.”). The claims raised by appellants clearly alleged that appellees had failed to take various measures that would have made the campsite safe; they did not allege “contemporaneous conduct . . . that caused the injur[ies].” See Smith, 307 S.W.3d at 776. We therefore consider appellants’ claims under a theory of premises liability. Regardless of the theory under which they are analyzed, appellants’ claims would fail because, as we explain below, appellees did not owe the duty that appellants claim was breached. See General Elec. Co. v. Moritz, 257 S.W.3d 211, 217 (Tex. 2008) (“Like any other negligence action, a defendant in a premises case is liable only to the extent it owes the plaintiff a legal duty.”).

When an injured invitee asserts a premises-liability claim, she must show that the owner or occupier had actual or constructive knowledge of a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm and did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk and that such failure proximately caused her injury. CMH Homes, Inc. v. Daenen, 15 S.W.3d 97, 99 (Tex. 2000). We initially note that appellants do not assert that a condition on the premises caused the tragedy and thus was the basis for liability. Instead, the injuries suffered by appellants were caused by a rain-swollen [*7]  river that inundated the campground, a condition that came to the premises.

Regardless of that fact, Texas courts have consistently held as a matter of law that naturally occurring or accumulating conditions such as rain, mud, and ice do not create conditions posing an unreasonable risk of harm. M.O. Dental Lab v. Rape, 139 S.W.3d 671, 675-76 (Tex. 2004); see Scott & White Mem. Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 412-14 (Tex. 2010) (“Because we find no reason to distinguish between the mud in M.O. Dental and the ice in this case, we hold that naturally occurring ice that accumulates without the assistance or involvement of unnatural contact is not an unreasonably dangerous condition sufficient to support a premises liability claim.”); Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Surratt, 102 S.W.3d 437, 445 (Tex. App.–Eastland 2003, pet. denied) (landowner “does not have a duty to protect its invitees from conditions caused by a natural accumulation of frozen precipitation on its parking lot because such an accumulation does not constitute an unreasonably dangerous condition”).5 The basis for those rulings is that rain, dirt, and mud are naturally occurring conditions beyond a landowner’s control. See, e.g., M.O. Dental Lab, 139 S.W.3d at 676 (“rain is beyond the control of landowners” and “accidents involving naturally accumulating mud and dirt are bound to happen, regardless of the precautions taken by landowners”). Requiring a landowner to protect an invitee [*8]  from precipitation or other acts of nature would place an enormous burden on the landowner. See id.; see also Fair, 310 S.W.3d at 414 (requiring landowners “to guard against wintery conditions would inflict a heavy burden because of the limited resources landowners likely have on hand to combat occasional ice accumulations”).

5 See also State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp. v. Kitchen, 867 S.W.2d 784, 786 (Tex. 1993) (per curiam) (in premises defect case under Texas Tort Claims Act, supreme court held that “[w]hen there is precipitation accompanied by near-freezing temperatures, . . . an icy bridge is neither unexpected nor unusual, but rather, entirely predictable [and] is something motorists can and should anticipate when the weather is conducive to such a condition”); Brownsville Navigation Dist. v. Izaguirre, 829 S.W.2d 159, 160 (Tex. 1992) (“Plain dirt which ordinarily becomes soft and muddy when wet is not a dangerous condition of property for which a landlord may be liable.”); Lee v. K&N Mgmt., Inc., No. 03-15-00243-CV, 2015 WL 8594163, at *3-4 (Tex. App.–Austin Dec. 11, 2015, no pet.) (mem. op.) (plant that extended over edge of flowerbed was not unreasonably dangerous condition; “The Texas Supreme Court has held that certain naturally occurring substances generally do not pose an unreasonable risk of harm. . . . Under the facts of this case, the plant, like mud and dirt, may have formed a condition that posed a risk of harm, [*9]  but on this record, we cannot conclude that it was an unreasonable risk of harm.”); City of Houston v. Cogburn, No. 01-11-00318-CV, 2014 WL 1778279, at *4 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] May 1, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.) (“as a matter of law, naturally occurring conditions that are open and obvious do not create an unreasonable risk of harm for purposes of premises liability”; tree roots over which plaintiff tripped were “open and obvious and were a naturally occurring condition”).

Further, an invitee is or should be “at least as aware” as the landowner of visible conditions that have “accumulated naturally outdoors” and thus “will often be in a better position to take immediate precautions against injury.” M.O. Dental Lab, 139 S.W.3d at 676. In other words, as the supreme court has explained:

When the condition is open and obvious or known to the invitee, however, the landowner is not in a better position to discover it. When invitees are aware of dangerous premises conditions–whether because the danger is obvious or because the landowner provided an adequate warning–the condition will, in most cases, no longer pose an unreasonable risk because the law presumes that invitees will take reasonable measures to protect themselves against known risks, which may include a decision not to accept the invitation to enter onto the landowner’s premises. [*10]  This is why the Court has typically characterized the landowner’s duty as a duty to make safe or warn of unreasonably dangerous conditions that are not open and obvious or otherwise known to the invitee

Austin v. Kroger Tex., L.P., 465 S.W.3d 193, 203 (Tex. 2015) (citations omitted). Texas courts have repeatedly observed that a landowner “‘is not an insurer'” of an invitee’s safety and generally “has no duty to warn of hazards that are open and obvious or known to the invitee.” Id. at 203-04 (quoting Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 769 (Tex. 2010)). Texas courts have held in various contexts that flooding due to heavy rains is an open and obvious hazard. See, e.g., State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 288 (Tex. 2006) (“[T]he owner may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river, or even a concealed rattlesnake. But a landowner can be liable for gross negligence in creating a condition that a recreational user would not reasonably expect to encounter on the property in the course of the permitted use.”); City of Austin v. Leggett, 257 S.W.3d 456, 475 (Tex. App.–Austin 2008, pet. denied) (flooded intersection was readily apparent and presented obstacle that would be open and obvious to ordinary motorists).

We see no useful distinction to be drawn between ice and mud, which are natural conditions caused by rain and freezing temperatures, and rising [*11]  river waters, caused by a natural weather event over which appellees could exercise no control. See Fair, 310 S.W.3d at 414. The June 2010 flood was not a condition inherent in or on the land in question. Instead, the flooding was a condition that came to the campground as the adjacent river, the same river that made the land an attractive place to camp, rose due to heavy rains. The Walkers and the Johnsons had gone canoeing on the river the day before the flooding occurred, and thus they were obviously aware of the river’s proximity to their campsite. This situation is indeed a tragic one, but it is not one for which appellees can be held to bear legal responsibility. We hold that as a matter of law appellees had no duty to warn the Walkers and Johnsons of the possibility that the river they were camping beside might rise in the event of heavy rain, posing a risk to the campground.6

6 We further note that, even if the campground had posted warnings or issued flood cautions when the Walkers and Johnsons checked into the campsite, there is nothing in this record to indicate that events would have turned out any differently. The Walkers and Johnsons went to bed not having heard that heavy rains would approach [*12]  and slept heavily enough that none of them woke up during the storm or to warnings by the local sheriff’s officers, who drove through the campsite at about 4:00 a.m., blowing an airhorn and flashing their car’s lights as they announced over their PA system that the river was rising.

Conclusion

Because appellees did not owe a duty to warn of or attempt to make the campground safe against flooding of the adjacent river due to torrential rain, the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor. We affirm the trial court’s orders.

David Puryear, Justice

Before Justices Puryear, Goodwin, and Field

Affirmed

Filed: June 3, 2016

 


Federal Court in Texas upholds clause in release requiring plaintiff to pay defendants costs of defending against plaintiff’s claims.

Fitness contract included a release which included a clause stating the signor would pay the fitness companies defense costs. Court awarded those costs for defending against claims, which were dismissed by the court; Even though the plaintiff was successful in retaining two claims against the defendant.

McClure, et al., v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

State: Texas

Plaintiff: Chase McClure, Misha McClure

Defendant: Life Time Fitness, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, common law and statutory premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation claims

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff and the Defendant

Year: 2014

This is an interesting case, obviously because it is outside the normal outdoor recreation arena and involves a fitness center with a day care. The plaintiff signed up for the defendant fitness center. She arrived one time with her two-year-old son and informed the defendant fitness center employee that it was his first there. She informed the plaintiff that she would place her son in with the younger children.

Later, the plaintiff was told that her son had been injured and that 911 had been called. The facts surrounding the injury are vague, other than the plaintiff arrived to see a defendant day care worker holding ice on the child’s ear. The child later received five stitches in his ear.

There were several issues concerning the service of process on the defendant and eventually a removal to the Federal Court who resolved the issues finding ineffective service against the defendant in the state court claims.

The defendant then moved for summary judgment based on release and its counterclaims against the plaintiff for breach of the Member Usage Agreement.

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

The court first tackled the release and how whether it was effective against the claims of the plaintiff. Under Texas law, a release must satisfy the Fair Notice requirement.

Fair notice requires (1) that a party seeking to enforce a release provision comply with the express negligence doctrine and (2) that the provision be conspicuous. The express negligence doctrine requires a party releasing potential claims against another party for its negligence to express that intent in conspicuous and unambiguous terms in the four corners of the agreement. Conspicuousness requires the releasing language to be written and formatted so that a reasonable person in the position of the person against whom the release is to operate would notice it.

The plaintiff admitted the release met the fair notice requirements but under Texas law, the release could not stop her gross negligence claims. The court agreed.

Texas cases holding that waivers of negligence claims do not give fair notice of an intent to waive gross negligence claims, and the cases holding that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims are contrary to public policy, this court holds that the Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed did not release Life Time Fitness from liability for her gross negligence claims, including the premise’s liability claim based on the Recreational Use Statute, which requires proof of gross negligence.

The court also found that the release failed to release the defendant from the plaintiff’s premises liability claims based on the Texas Recreational Use statute. Premise’s liability claims are based on ownership of the land; although the release in question seemed to cover the issue? No reasoning was given by the court for this decision.

The release did bar the plaintiff’s claims for “for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premise’s liability.”

The court next went over the issues surrounding whether a release under Texas law would stop claims of minors. The court found Texas law does not allow a release signed by a parent to stop those claims. “A preinjury release executed by a minor child’s parent is not enforceable to release claims against a commercial enterprise for the minor child’s injuries.”

The next issue was whether there was enough evidence to support any claims of the plaintiff. Here was a case where the plaintiff was never able to determine how the child was injured. Consequently, the plaintiff could not prove or provide any evidence of any negligence claims.

The McClures have not identified any evidence of a misrepresentation Life Time Fitness made to the child on which he did or could have reasonably relied. Summary judgment is granted on the child’s negligent misrepresentation claim.

The defendant then asked for the remaining claims of the child to be dismissed because there was no evidence to support any allegations made by the child to support his claims.

Life Time Fitness also seeks summary judgment on the child’s remaining claims, contending that it breached no duty owed to him and that no condition at the childcare facility posed an un-reasonable risk of harm.

The only evidence to support this claim was the plaintiff stated that any employee of the defendant had told the plaintiff here son had been injured in the play area designated for older children. This was sufficient to support this claim at this time. “Although the record is scant, it is sufficient to withstand summary judgment as to the child’s claims other than for negligent misrepresentation.”

The court then ruled on the counterclaim of the defendant. It seems like the motion was not answered by the plaintiff. The defendant then argued was a failure to deny, and they should be granted a default judgment. However, the court did not come to that same conclusion. The court then looked at the clause in the contract.

The clause in the release was entitled “Life Time’s Fees and Costs.”

This clause stated that if Ms. McClure asserted a negligence claim against Life Time Fitness, she would pay “all reasonable fees (including attorney’s fees), costs, and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).” Ms. McClure argues that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement because she asserted claims for gross negligence.

Although the plaintiff was successful in two of her five claims, the court felt that she had breached the release and sued, therefore, the claims that were dismissed were enough to trigger fees and costs clause.

Life Time Fitness is entitled to the damages provided for in the Member Usage Agreement: the fees it reasonably incurred in defending solely against Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common-law premises liability.

The court was specific in its ruling that the fees and costs to be paid by the plaintiff and awarded to the defendant were only the costs the defendant incurred in defending the three claims that were dismissed by the court.

Summary judgment is granted to Life Time Fitness on Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees. Summary judgment is denied on Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute. Summary judgment is granted on the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denied. Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim is granted only for reasonable fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability claims, and is otherwise denied.

So the plaintiff was left with a gross negligence claim and a premises liability claim. Her son’s claim for negligent misrepresentation also survived, but barely.

So Now What?

Do Not Rely on this decision to believe that you can recover attorney fees when defending yourself in court when a release has been signed by the plaintiff. This is only the third time I have seen a case like this and there are 25 times more decisions denying these claims.

Most of these claims are struck down because the language is poor, and the case is similar to this forcing a parent to decide whether they should risk suing on behalf of their injured child. Other than this case, courts have uniformly denied those claims.

The two other cases I have found dealt with a skydiving where the plaintiff’s allegations were at a minimum quite wild and the other the plaintiff was an attorney. In both cases, it seemed the court found enough to hit the plaintiff with fees because the court did not like them.

You do not see any of the rancor or scorn in this case. It is a factual review of the facts, the release and a simple decision. You signed the agreement promising to pay if this happened, therefore, you must pay.

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Mcclure, et al., v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

Mcclure, et al., v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

C. Mcclure, et al., Plaintiffs, vs. Life Time Fitness, Inc., Defendant.

CIVIL ACTION NO. H-13-1794

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS, HOUSTON DIVISION

2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

December 3, 2014, Decided

December 3, 2014, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: McClure v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25810 (S.D. Tex., Feb. 28, 2014)

COUNSEL: [*1] For Chase McClure, Misha McClure, Individually and as Guardian of Chase McClure, Plaintiffs: Brennen Dunn, LEAD ATTORNEY, Citizen Legal, PLLC, Houston, TX.

For Life Time Fitness, Inc., Defendant: John G Browning, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, Dallas, TX.

JUDGES: Lee H. Rosenthal, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Lee H. Rosenthal

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND OPINION

This is a personal injury suit filed by Misha McClure for herself and on behalf of her minor son, who was injured in July 2012 in the childcare area at a Life Time Fitness center in Humble, Texas. Ms. McClure asserted negligence, gross negligence, common law and statutory premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation claims. Life Time Fitness moved for summary judgment, arguing that the claims are barred by a release Ms. McClure signed when she joined the center. (Docket Entry No. 28).

Based on the pleadings, the motion and response, the parties’ submissions, and the applicable law, this court grants the motion in part and denies it in part. Specifically, the court grants Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, common-law premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation, and denies [*2] the motion as to her gross negligence and statutory premises liability claims. The court grants Life Time Fitness’s summary judgment motion as to the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denies the motion. Finally, the court grants Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim for fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s claims other than for gross negligence and for statutory premises liability, and otherwise denies the motion. The reasons for these rulings are explained below.

I. Background

Ms. McClure went to the Life Time Fitness center in Humble on July 28, 2012 for a personal-training session. She left her two-year-old son at the childcare area in the center, telling a childcare employee her son’s age and explaining that it was his first time there. The employee told Ms. McClure that her son would be in an area for younger children. Thirty minutes later, a Life Time Fitness manager interrupted Ms. McClure’s training session to tell her that her son had been in an accident in the older children’s play area and that 911 had been called. Ms. McClure found her son with a Life Time Fitness childcare manager who was holding an ice [*3] pack on the child’s ear. When the ice pack was removed, Ms. McClure saw that the child was missing a piece of his ear. He received five stitches.

When Ms. McClure joined Life Time Fitness, she signed a Member Usage Agreement. The Member Usage Agreement contained sections headed “ASSUMPTION OF RISK” and “WAIVER OF LIABILITY.” The relevant parts read as follows:

ASSUMPTION OF RISK. I understand that there are inherent dangers, hazards, and risks of injury or damage in the use of Life Time’s premises, facilities, equipment, services, activities or products, whether available through membership dues or a separate fee.

I understand that the Risk and Injuries in the Use of Life Time Premises and Services (collectively, “Risks of Injury”) may be caused, in whole or in part, by the NEGLIGENCE OF LIFE TIME, me, Minor Member(s), Other Member(s), Guest(s) and/or other persons. [I] FULLY UNDERSTAND, AND VOLUNTARILY AND WILLINGLY ASSUME, THE RISKS OF INJURY.

WAIVER OF LIABILITY. On behalf of myself and my spouse/partner, children/Minor Members, Other Members, Guests, parents, guardians, heirs, next of kin, personal representatives, heirs and assigns, I hereby voluntarily and forever release and discharge [*4] Life Time from, covenant and agree not to sue Life Time for, and waive, any claims, demands, actions, causes of action, debts, damages, losses, costs, fees, expenses or any other alleged liabilities or obligations of any kind or nature, whether known or unknown (collectively, “Claims”) for any Injuries to me, Minor Member(s), Other Member(s), or Guest(s) in the Use of Life Time Premises and Services which arise out of, result from, or are caused by any NEGLIGENCE OF LIFE TIME, me, any Minor Member(s), any Other Member(s), any Guest(s), and/or any other person . . . (collectively, “Negligence Claims”).

A. Negligence Claims. I understand that Negligence Claims include but are not limited to Life Time’s (1) negligent design, construction (including renovation and alteration), repair maintenance, operation, supervision, monitoring, or provision of Life Time Premises and Services; (2) negligent failure to warn of or remove a hazardous, unsafe, dangerous or defective condition; (3) negligent failure to provide or keep premises in a reasonably safe condition; (4) negligent provision or failure to provide emergency care; (5) negligent provision of services; and (6) negligent hiring, selection, [*5] training, instruction, certification, supervision or retention of employees, independent contractors or volunteers; or (7) other negligent act(s) or omission(s).

B. Life Time’s Fees and Costs. I specifically agree that, if I (on my own behalf or on behalf of another, including an estate) assert a Negligence Claim against Life Time and/or breach my agreement not to sue Life Time, I will pay all reasonable fees (including attorneys’ fees), costs and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).

The agreement also contained a section headed “PARENT OR GUARDIAN AGREEMENT.” This section stated:

If I am the parent or legal guardian of a Minor Member, I acknowledge and represent to Life Time that I have the right and authority to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of each Minor Member, including but not limited to the right and authority to execute this MUA on the Minor Member’s behalf. By signing this MUA, I am binding each of my Minor Member(s) to its terms, including but not limited to the ASSUMPTION OF RISK [and] WAIVER OF LIABILITY . . . [*6] provisions.

The following text appeared directly above the signature line:

I HAVE READ, UNDERSTOOD, RECEIVED A COPY OF, AND AGREE TO ALL TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF THIS MUA, INCLUDING SPECIFICALLY THE ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND DEFENSE AND INDEMNIFICATION PROVISIONS UNDER WHICH I AM RELINQUISHING LEGAL RIGHTS.

Ms. McClure’s state-court petition alleged that Life Time Fitness negligently allowed her son to play in an area designated for older children. The petition alleged that in addition to the ear injury, which was treated with five stitches, the incident left him unable or unwilling to participate in certain activities and afraid to be in a new childcare facility. (Docket Entry No. 1, Ex. 2 at 2). Life Time Fitness did not file an answer within the period set by the Texas rules.

In April 2013, the state-court judge granted the McClures’ motion for a no-answer default judgment against Life Time Fitness. Life Time Fitness removed the lawsuit to federal court in June 2013 and challenged the service of process and the no-answer default judgment. This court vacated the state-court default judgment in February 2014, finding that the service was defective and that entry of the [*7] no-answer default judgment was therefore void. Life Time Fitness then filed an answer and counterclaimed against Ms. McClure for breach of the Member Usage Agreement. (Docket Entry No. 21).

Life Time Fitness has moved for summary judgment, contending that the McClures’ claims are barred by the release contained in the Member Usage Agreement and are unsupported by the evidence. Life Time Fitness also moved for summary judgment on its breach-of-contract counterclaim against Ms. McClure. Ms. McClure contends that the release does not bar her claims, that the summary-judgment evidence supports recovery for both her and her son, and that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement. Each argument and response is analyzed below.

II. The Applicable Legal Standards

A. Summary Judgment

[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). [HN2] “The movant bears the burden of identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Triple Tee Golf, Inc. v. Nike, Inc., 485 F.3d 253, 261 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-25, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986)).

[HN3] If the burden of proof at trial lies with the nonmoving party, the movant may satisfy its initial burden by “‘showing’ [*8] — that is, pointing out to the district court — that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.” See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. While the party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, it does not need to negate the elements of the nonmovant’s case. Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). “A fact is ‘material’ if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law.” Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Tex., 560 F.3d 316, 326 (5th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). “If the moving party fails to meet [its] initial burden, the motion [for summary judgment] must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant’s response.” United States v. $92,203.00 in U.S. Currency, 537 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc)).

[HN4] When the moving party has met its Rule 56(c) burden, the nonmoving party cannot survive a summary judgment motion by resting on the mere allegations of its pleadings. The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate how that evidence supports that party’s claim. Baranowski v. Hart, 486 F.3d 112, 119 (5th Cir. 2007). “This burden will not be satisfied by ‘some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.'” Boudreaux, 402 F.3d at 540 (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court draws all reasonable inferences [*9] in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Connors v. Graves, 538 F.3d 373, 376 (5th Cir. 2008).

III. Analysis

A. The Timeliness of the McClures’ Response to Life Time Fitness’s Summary Judgment Motion

Life Time Fitness argues that the court should disregard the McClures’ response to the summary judgment motion because it was filed after the deadline to respond and without leave of court. (Docket Entry No. 30 at 2). The summary judgment motion was filed on September 12, 2014. (Docket Entry No. 28). The response was filed on October 13, 2014, ten days after it was due. (Docket Entry No. 29). Because the delay was not extensive, there is no prejudice to Life Time Fitness. Because [HN5] a decision on the basis of default is disfavored, the court considers the McClures’ response on the merits.

B. The Waiver and Release

The waiver and release contained in the Member Usage Agreement stated that the signer waived any claims for injuries to herself or to her minor children resulting from Life Time Fitness’s negligence. (Docket Entry No. 28). [HN6] Texas imposes a fair notice requirement on preinjury releases. See Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 508-09 (Tex. 1993). A release that fails to satisfy the fair notice requirement is unenforceable as a matter of law. Storage & Processors, Inc. v. Reyes, 134 S.W.3d 190, 192 (Tex. 2004). Fair notice requires (1) that a party [*10] seeking to enforce a release provision comply with the express negligence doctrine and (2) that the provision be conspicuous. Id. The express negligence doctrine requires a party releasing potential claims against another party for its negligence to express that intent in conspicuous and unambiguous terms in the four corners of the agreement. Id. Conspicuousness requires the releasing language to be written and formatted so that a reasonable person in the position of the person against whom the release is to operate would notice it. Id.; Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 508.

Ms. McClure agrees that the waiver and release provisions of the Member Usage Agreement meet the Texas fair notice requirements, but argues that the provisions do not cover her gross negligence claims. (Docket Entry No. 29 at 2). [HN7] Several Texas appellate courts have held that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims violate public policy. See Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, LLC, 402 S.W.3d 915, 924-25 (Tex. App. — Dallas 2013, no pet.); Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no writ); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App. — Beaumont 1986, no writ); accord Memorial Med. Ctr. of East Texas v. Keszler, M.D., 943 S.W.2d 433 (Tex. 1997) (citing Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d at 576). Other Texas appellate courts have held that when a preinjury waiver releases claims for “negligence,” claims for gross negligence are not waived. See Del Carmen Canas v. Centerpoint Energy Res. Corp., 418 S.W.3d 312, 326-27 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.); [*11] Akin v. Bally Total Fitness Corp., No. 10-05-00280-CV, 2007 Tex. App. LEXIS 1218, 2007 WL 475406, at *3 (Tex. App. — Waco Feb. 14, 2007, pet. denied); Rosen v. Nat’l Hot Rod Ass’n, No. 14-94-00775-CV, 1995 Tex. App. LEXIS 3225, 1995 WL 755712, at *7 n. 1 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] Dec. 21, 1995, writ denied). In Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., the Texas Court of Appeals for San Antonio held to the contrary, finding that the plaintiff’s preinjury waiver of negligence claims also barred its gross negligence claims. Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App. — San Antonio 1994, writ denied); see also Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling USA, Inc., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied) (finding Newman persuasive). The court noted that the plaintiff had not raised the express negligence rule in its pleadings, and the court emphasized that its opinion did not address or take a position on whether a preinjury waiver of gross negligence claims violated public policy. Id.

The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue. The guidance the Texas appellate court case law provides, however, gives a reliable basis for making an Erie prediction about how the Supreme Court would rule if faced with the question. [HN8] “When making an Erie-guess in the absence of explicit guidance from the state courts, [this court] must attempt to predict state law, not to create or modify it.” Assoc. Inter. Ins. Co. v. Blythe, 286 F.3d 780, 783 (5th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). Based on the [HN9] Texas cases holding that waivers [*12] of negligence claims do not give fair notice of an intent to waive gross negligence claims, and the cases holding that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims are contrary to public policy, this court holds that the Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed did not release Life Time Fitness from liability for her gross negligence claims, including [HN10] the premises liability claim based on the Recreational Use Statute, which requires proof of gross negligence. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 75.002(c)-(d), 101.058; State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 289 (Tex. 2006).

By contrast, Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees fall within the scope of the waiver and release. Summary judgment is granted on these claims but denied as to Ms. McClure’s gross negligence and statutory premises liability claims.

Life Time Fitness also argued that the child’s claims were barred by the waiver and release Ms. McClure signed. [HN11] A preinjury release executed by a minor child’s parent is not enforceable to release claims against a commercial enterprise for the minor child’s injuries. See Paz v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 757 F. Supp. 2d 658 (S.D. Tex. 2010) (making an Erie prediction); Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 1993, no writ). The child’s claims are not barred on this [*13] basis.

B. The Sufficiency of the Evidence

Life Time Fitness also moves for summary judgment on the basis that there is no evidence to support either Ms. McClure’s or her child’s claims.

Life Time Fitness contends that the child, who was two years old at the time, was too young to rely on any statement made by Life Time Fitness and therefore cannot prevail on a negligent misrepresentation claim. (Docket Entry No. 23). In response, Ms. McClure argues that her own reliance should be imputed to her son. (Docket Entry No. 29 at 4-5). [HN12] Although one party’s knowledge of a misrepresentation may be imputed to another under certain circumstances, none of which are present here, Texas courts do not recognize a theory of imputed or vicarious reliance. Grant Thornton LLP v. Prospect High Income Fund, 314 S.W.3d 913, 924 (Tex. 2010) (in the context of an agency relationship). The McClures have not identified any evidence of a misrepresentation Life Time Fitness made to the child on which he did or could have reasonably relied. Summary judgment is granted on the child’s negligent misrepresentation claim.

Life Time Fitness also seeks summary judgment on the child’s remaining claims, contending that it breached no duty owed to him and that no condition at the childcare facility posed [*14] an unreasonable risk of harm. The McClures did not specifically respond to the motion for summary judgment on these claims. (Docket Entry No. 29). In their pleadings, the McClures alleged that Life Time Fitness failed to provide a safe childcare area. (Docket Entry No. 23). The summary judgment evidence in the record is Ms. McClure’s affidavit and the Member Usage Agreement she signed. In her affidavit, Ms. McClure states that there was an injury involving her son and she was told by an unnamed employee that he was injured in a play area designated for children above his age. (Docket Entry No. 29, Ex. 2). Although the record is scant, it is sufficient to withstand summary judgment as to the child’s claims other than for negligent misrepresentation.

C. Life Time Fitness’s Counterclaims

Life Time Fitness moves for summary judgment on its breach-of-contract counterclaim against Ms. McClure. Life Time Fitness first argues that because Ms. McClure answered with only a general denial, the counterclaim allegations should be deemed admitted. (Docket Entry No. 28 at 8). [HN13] “General denials are uncommon in federal court because ‘situations in which the complaint can be completely controverted are [*15] quite rare.'” Mary Kay, Inc. v. Dunlap, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86499, 2012 WL 2358082, at *7 (N.D. Tex. June 21, 2012) (quoting 5 Wright & Miller § 1265, at 549). Life Time Fitness argues that by filing a general denial, Ms. McClure was “admitting the operative facts” of the counterclaim. Life Time Fitness seeks summary judgment on this basis.

[HN14] “As directed by Rule 8 [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure], the answer should contain only two things: (1) a response (admitting, denying, or claiming insufficient knowledge) to the averments in the complaint; and (2) a statement of all affirmative defenses.” Software Publishers Ass’n v. Scott & Scott, LLP, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59814, 2007 WL 2325585, at *2 n. 4 (N.D. Tex. Aug.15, 2007) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)-(c)). “A party that intends in good faith to deny all the allegations of a pleadings — including the jurisdictional grounds — may do so by a general denial.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(3). “A party that does not intend to deny all the allegations must either specifically deny designated allegations or generally deny all except those specifically admitted.” Id.

[HN15] “Granting summary judgment when a party fails to respond to the opposing party’s summary judgment motion is comparable to granting a default judgment.” Tolliver v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., No. 2:06-0904, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18839, 2008 WL 545018, at *1 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 25, 2008). “‘A party is not entitled to a default judgment as a matter of right, even where the defendant is technically [*16] in default.'” McCarty v. Zapata County, 243 F. App’x 792, 794 (5th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (quoting Lewis v. Lynn, 236 F.3d 766, 767 (5th Cir. 2001)). Default judgment is a drastic remedy that should be granted only in extreme situations. Warren v. Johnson, 244 F. App’x 570, 571 (5th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (citing Lewis, 236 F.3d at 767). Life Time Fitness has not shown such an extreme situation. Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim will be considered on the merits.

The Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed when she joined Life Time Fitness contained a clause headed “Life Time’s Fees and Costs.” This clause stated that if Ms. McClure asserted a negligence claim against Life Time Fitness, she would pay “all reasonable fees (including attorney’s fees), costs, and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).” Ms. McClure argues that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement because she asserted claims for gross negligence.

As discussed above, although Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute are not barred by the waiver and release, her remaining claims are barred. Ms. McClure asserted claims against Life Time Fitness for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, [*17] and common law premises liability to invitees, despite agreeing that she would not do so. Life Time Fitness is entitled to the damages provided for in the Member Usage Agreement: the fees it reasonably incurred in defending solely against Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common-law premises liability. Life Time Fitness is not entitled to any fees incurred in defending against the child’s claims, which were not waived by the Member Use Agreement. Nor is Life Time Fitness entitled to any fees incurred to defend against Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for statutory premises liability. The only fees at issue are those that Life Time Fitness would have incurred had Ms. McClure asserted only the claims waived by the release.

IV. Conclusion

Summary judgment is granted to Life Time Fitness on Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees. Summary judgment is denied on Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute. Summary judgment is granted on the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denied. Life [*18] Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim is granted only for reasonable fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability claims, and is otherwise denied.

SIGNED on December 3, 2014, at Houston, Texas.

/s/ Lee H. Rosenthal

Lee H. Rosenthal

United States District Judge


University climbing wall release along with Texas Recreational Use Act and Texas Tort Claims Act defeat injured climber’s lawsuit

Court looks at whether a release will defeat a claim for gross negligence but does not decide the case on that issue. Case is confusing, because court discussed defenses that were not applicable. Plaintiff waived all but the gross negligence claims.

Benavidez v. The University of Texas — Pan American, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 11940

State: Texas, Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Rolando Benavidez

Defendant: The University of Texas — Pan American

Plaintiff Claims: failure to properly use the climbing equipment and properly supervise [Benavidez] during the climb, Under the theory of respondeat superior, Benavidez claimed that his injuries were caused by the negligence and gross negligence of UTPA (University of Texas– Pan American), negligent use of tangible personal property in that UTPA breached its “legal duty to [Benavidez] to provide supervision of [Benavidez], use safe equipment with [Benavidez], and to properly secure [Benavidez’s] harness prior to climbing.” negligent use or condition of real property in that UTPA breached its duty to provide a safe climbing wall for Benavidez and failed to use ordinary care to protect Benavidez from an unreasonably dangerous condition. UTPA had subjective awareness of a high degree of risk and acted with “conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of [Benavidez] or others similarly situated.

Defendant Defenses: Release, Recreational Use Statute and the Texas Tort Claims Act

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2014

The plaintiff was climbing at the university’s climbing wall. He signed a release to climb. On the back of the release was a set of rules about climbing that the plaintiff also had to sign. i.e. Two legal documents on one sheet of paper.

The plaintiff argued the rules on the backside of the agreement were part of the contract. Because the climbing wall had not followed the rules, the release was no longer valid and the defendant had acted negligently and gross negligently.

While climbing the plaintiff reached the top of the wall and was told to lean back while he was lowered. The plaintiff fell 33’ suffering injuries. Based on witness statements of other employees of the wall, it appeared the figure 8 (knot) used to tie the plaintiff’s harness to the rope had been tied incorrectly.

The trial court dismissed the case, awarded costs against the plaintiff based on the Texas Tort Claims Act, and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The court first looked at the Texas Tort Claim Act and its application to the case.

As a governmental unit, UTPA is immune from both suit and liability unless the Tort Claims Act has waived that immunity. Section 101.021 of the Tort Claims Act has been interpreted as waiving sovereign immunity in three general areas: “use of publicly owned automobiles, premises defects, and injuries arising out of conditions or use of property.”

The court then brought in the Texas Recreational Use Statute. Under the Texas Recreational Use Statute, a state landowner (governmental entity) can only be liable for gross negligence.

When injury or death results on state-owned, recreational land, the recreational use statute limits the state’s duty even further to that owed by a landowner to a trespasser, which means that the State only waives immunity for conduct that rises to the level of gross negligence.

The university is state land, and the climbing wall is on the land. It was used for recreation and probably as a student for free, although this was not discussed in the case. Consequently, the Texas Recreational Use Act protected the university from negligence claims.

With the ordinary negligence claims gone, the court turned to the gross negligence claims and looked at the release. Under Texas law to be valid, a release must:

(1) provide fair notice by being conspicuous, and (2) comply with the express negligence doctrine. To be conspicuous, a release must be written, displayed, or presented such that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have noticed it. A release satisfies the express negligence doctrine if it expresses the intent of the parties to exculpate a party for its own negligence.

The burden is on the defendant, the person relying on the defense of release, to prove the validity of the release and the requirements set forth by the court.

The court then looked at whether the release then barred the claim for gross negligence. The court reviewed several Texas cases; however, the court did not decide whether a release in this situation barred a claim for gross negligence. The court found the gross negligence claim was not raised on the appeal.

For a legal argument to be argued in the court, there are two basic components that must be met before any argument can be made. The argument must be made in the trial court and in many cases an objection to the court’s ruling made. Second the issue must be argued in the statements (pleadings) at the appellate court also. Here, although argued in the trial court the issue was not argued or probably raised at the appellate court.

The court then went back to the release to see if the release was still valid. The plaintiff claimed the defendant violated the release because it failed to follow the rules on the reverse side of the release. Because the rules were on the document called the release the plaintiff argued they were part of the release. Those rules set forth how the climbers and allegedly the gym was supposed to act. One of the rules required all knots to be checked by specific persons at the gym, which was not done in this case, and allegedly not done at all until after the plaintiff’s injury.

Arguing the rules and release were one document, the plaintiff stated the failure to follow the rules was a material breach of the contract. A material breach or avoidance of the contract voids it.

Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written expression of the parties’ intent. This court is bound to read all parts of a contract together to ascertain the agreement of the parties. The contract must be considered as a whole. Moreover, each part of the contract should be given full effect.

A prior material breach one that occurs before the execution of the contract discharges the parties from the contractual obligations. “Under the theory of prior material breach, a party is discharged from its contractual obligations based on the other party’s material breach of the contract.”

Execution of the contract means the contract by its terms has not been completed. Meaning there is part so the contract that have not been complied with by one or more parties. Here the failure of the gym to check the plaintiff’s knot was prior to the climbing of the plaintiff. “Under the theory of prior material breach, a party is discharged from its contractual obligations based on the other party’s material breach of the contract.”

Under Texas law for a court to determine if a prior material breach to occur the court must determine the following:

(1) the extent to which the injured party will be deprived of the benefit which he reasonably expected;

(2) the extent to which the injured party can be adequately compensated for the part of that benefit of which he will be deprived;

(3) the extent to which the party failing to perform or to offer performance will suffer forfeiture;

(4) the likelihood that the party failing to perform or to offer to perform will cure his failure, taking account of all the circumstances including any reasonable assurances; and

(5) the extent to which the behavior of the party failing to perform or to offer to perform comports with standards of good faith and fair dealing.

This court also examined whether or not checking the knot was a condition precedent. A condition precedent requires one thing to occur before the rest of the contract must be done.

Alternatively, a condition precedent is an event that must occur or act that must be per-formed before rights can accrue to enforce an obligation. Ordinarily, terms such as “if,” “provided that,” “on condition that,” or similar conditional language indicate the intent to create a condition precedent. Conditions precedent, which can cause forfeiture of a contractual right, are not favored under the law, and we will not construe a contract provision as a condition precedent unless we are compelled to do so by language that may be construed in no other way.

However, the court found that the language of the safety rules did not relate to the language of the release. The safety rules, overall, were simply rules the plaintiff was to follow and was not part of the contract. “…the safety policy’s side of the document, by its clear language, does not indicate that UTPA promised to comply with the policies or that compliance with the policies by UTPA…

However, reading the safety policies document as a whole, we find that the language of the agreement placed the sole responsibility on the climber to ensure that the procedures in the safety polices were followed.

Because we find that, by its clear language, the waiver and release form did not express the intent of either party to condition the release from liability on any performance by UTPA and did not include a promise by UTPA to follow the safety policies as consideration for the contract, we conclude that UTPA did not breach or fail to satisfy a condition of the release contract.

The remaining issues before the court were dismissed because without a negligence claim, they were also decided. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims and the award of costs under the Texas rules of civil procedure.

Costs are not attorney fees. Costs are the cost of going to trial, the filing fee, witness fees, possibly deposition costs, etc. Most states allow the winning side to recover costs of a trial.

So Now What?

This was close. It was obvious by the amount of time the court spend discussing the issue of a material breach that the language on the back of the release was an issue for the court. Always remember a release is a contract. You don’t buy a house with a laundry list on the back. You don’t rent an apartment with state driving laws on the back. Releases are contracts, and you need to make sure there is no issue that the document you are having your guests sign. A Release must be a contract and nothing else.

The university, because it was a state college was subject to broader and more protective statutes that provided defenses, than a private commercial gym or a private college. A state’s tort claims act provides a broad range for protection.

Whether or not a state’s recreational use statute provides protection for governmental agencies is different in each state. If you are in this position, you should check with counsel to see what protection any state statutes may provide.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Texas Recreational Use Statute

Civil Practice and Remedies Code

Title 4.  Liability in Tort

Chapter 75.  Limitation of Landowners’ Liability

Go to Texas Code Archive Directory

Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 75.001  (2014)

§ 75.001.  Definitions

In this chapter:

(1) “Agricultural land” means land that is located in this state and that is suitable for:

(A) use in production of plants and fruits grown for human or animal consumption, or plants grown for the production of fibers, floriculture, viticulture, horticulture, or planting seed;

(B) forestry and the growing of trees for the purpose of rendering those trees into lumber, fiber, or other items used for industrial, commercial, or personal consumption; or

(C) domestic or native farm or ranch animals kept for use or profit.

(2) “Premises” includes land, roads, water, watercourse, private ways, and buildings, structures, machinery, and equipment attached to or located on the land, road, water, watercourse, or private way.

(3) “Recreation” means an activity such as:

(A) hunting;

(B) fishing;

(C) swimming;

(D) boating;

(E) camping;

(F) picnicking;

(G) hiking;

(H) pleasure driving, including off-road motorcycling and off-road automobile driving and the use of all-terrain vehicles;

(I) nature study, including bird-watching;

(J) cave exploration;

(K) waterskiing and other water sports;

(L) any other activity associated with enjoying nature or the outdoors;

(M) bicycling and mountain biking;

(N) disc golf;

(O) on-leash and off-leash walking of dogs; or

(P) radio control flying and related activities.

(4) “Governmental unit” has the meaning assigned by Section 101.001.

§ 75.002.  Liability Limited

(a) An owner, lessee, or occupant of agricultural land:

(1) does not owe a duty of care to a trespasser on the land; and

(2) is not liable for any injury to a trespasser on the land, except for wilful or wanton acts or gross negligence by the owner, lessee, or other occupant of agricultural land.

(b) If an owner, lessee, or occupant of agricultural land gives permission to another or invites another to enter the premises for recreation, the owner, lessee, or occupant, by giving the permission, does not:

(1) assure that the premises are safe for that purpose;

(2) owe to the person to whom permission is granted or to whom the invitation is extended a greater degree of care than is owed to a trespasser on the premises; or

(3) assume responsibility or incur liability for any injury to any individual or property caused by any act of the person to whom permission is granted or to whom the invitation is extended.

(c) If an owner, lessee, or occupant of real property other than agricultural land gives permission to another to enter the premises for recreation, the owner, lessee, or occupant, by giving the permission, does not:

(1) assure that the premises are safe for that purpose;

(2) owe to the person to whom permission is granted a greater degree of care than is owed to a trespasser on the premises; or

(3) assume responsibility or incur liability for any injury to any individual or property caused by any act of the person to whom permission is granted.

(d) Subsections (a), (b), and (c) shall not limit the liability of an owner, lessee, or occupant of real property who has been grossly negligent or has acted with malicious intent or in bad faith.

(e) In this section, “recreation” means, in addition to its meaning under Section 75.001, the following activities only if the activities take place on premises owned, operated, or maintained by a governmental unit for the purposes of those activities:

(1) hockey and in-line hockey;

(2) skating, in-line skating, roller-skating, skateboarding, and roller-blading;

(3) soap box derby use; and

(4) paintball use.

(f) Notwithstanding Subsections (b) and (c), if a person enters premises owned, operated, or maintained by a governmental unit and engages in recreation on those premises, the governmental unit does not owe to the person a greater degree of care than is owed to a trespasser on the premises.

(g) Any premises a governmental unit owns, operates, or maintains and on which the recreational activities described in Subsections (e)(1)–(4) are conducted shall post and maintain a clearly readable sign in a clearly visible location on or near the premises. The sign shall contain the following warning language:

WARNING

TEXAS LAW (CHAPTER 75, CIVIL PRACTICE AND REMEDIES CODE) LIMITS THE LIABILITY OF A GOVERNMENTAL UNIT FOR DAMAGES ARISING DIRECTLY FROM HOCKEY, IN-LINE HOCKEY, SKATING, IN-LINE SKATING, ROLLER-SKATING, SKATEBOARDING, ROLLER-BLADING, PAINTBALL USE, OR SOAP BOX DERBY USE ON PREMISES THAT THE GOVERNMENTAL UNIT OWNS, OPERATES, OR MAINTAINS FOR THAT PURPOSE.

(h) An owner, lessee, or occupant of real property in this state is liable for trespass as a result of migration or transport of any air contaminant, as defined in Section 382.003(2), Health and Safety Code, other than odor, only upon a showing of actual and substantial damages by a plaintiff in a civil action.

(i) Subsections (b) and (c) do not affect any liability of an owner, lessee, or occupant of real property for an injury occurring outside the boundaries of the real property caused by an activity described by Section 75.001(3)(P) that originates within the boundaries of the real property.

§ 75.003.  Application and Effect of Chapter

(a) This chapter does not relieve any owner, lessee, or occupant of real property of any liability that would otherwise exist for deliberate, wilful, or malicious injury to a person or to property.

(b) This chapter does not affect the doctrine of attractive nuisance, except:

(1) as provided by Section 75.0022(g); and

(2) the doctrine of attractive nuisance may not be the basis for liability of an owner, lessee, or occupant of agricultural land for any injury to a trespasser over the age of 16 years.

(c) Except for a governmental unit, this chapter applies only to an owner, lessee, or occupant of real property who:

(1) does not charge for entry to the premises;

(2) charges for entry to the premises, but whose total charges collected in the previous calendar year for all recreational use of the entire premises of the owner, lessee, or occupant are not more than 20 times the total amount of ad valorem taxes imposed on the premises for the previous calendar year; or

(3) has liability insurance coverage in effect on an act or omission described by Section 75.004(a) and in the amounts equal to or greater than those provided by that section.

(d) This chapter does not create any liability.

(e) Except as otherwise provided, this chapter applies to a governmental unit.

(f) This chapter does not waive sovereign immunity.

(g) To the extent that this chapter limits the liability of a governmental unit under circumstances in which the governmental unit would be liable under Chapter 101, this chapter controls.

(h) In the case of agricultural land, an owner, lessee, or occupant of real property who does not charge for entry to the premises because the individuals entering the premises for recreation are invited social guests satisfies the requirement of Subsection (c)(1).

§ 75.004.  Limitation on Monetary Damages for Private Landowners

(a) Subject to Subsection (b), the liability of an owner, lessee, or occupant of agricultural land used for recreational purposes for an act or omission by the owner, lessee, or occupant relating to the premises that results in damages to a person who has entered the premises is limited to a maximum amount of $ 500,000 for each person and $ 1 million for each single occurrence of bodily injury or death and $ 100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property. In the case of agricultural land, the total liability of an owner, lessee, or occupant for a single occurrence is limited to $ 1 million, and the liability also is subject to the limits for each single occurrence of bodily injury or death and each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property stated in this subsection.

(b) This section applies only to an owner, lessee, or occupant of agricultural land used for recreational purposes who has liability insurance coverage in effect on an act or omission described by Subsection (a) and in the amounts equal to or greater than those provided by Subsection (a). The coverage may be provided under a contract of insurance or other plan of insurance authorized by statute. The limit of liability insurance coverage applicable with respect to agricultural land may be a combined single limit in the amount of $ 1 million for each single occurrence.

(c) This section does not affect the liability of an insurer or insurance plan in an action under Chapter 541, Insurance Code, or an action for bad faith conduct, breach of fiduciary duty, or negligent failure to settle a claim.

(d) This section does not apply to a governmental unit.

§ 75.007.  Trespassers

(a) In this section, “trespasser” means a person who enters the land of another without any legal right, express or implied.

(b) An owner, lessee, or occupant of land does not owe a duty of care to a trespasser on the land and is not liable for any injury to a trespasser on the land, except that an owner, lessee, or occupant owes a duty to refrain from injuring a trespasser wilfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence.

(c) Notwithstanding Subsection (b), an owner, lessee, or occupant of land may be liable for injury to a child caused by a highly dangerous artificial condition on the land if:

(1) the place where the artificial condition exists is one upon which the owner, lessee, or occupant knew or reasonably should have known that children were likely to trespass;

(2) the artificial condition is one that the owner, lessee, or occupant knew or reasonably should have known existed, and that the owner, lessee, or occupant realized or should have realized involved an unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm to such children;

(3) the injured child, because of the child’s youth, did not discover the condition or realize the risk involved in intermeddling with the condition or coming within the area made dangerous by the condition;

(4) the utility to the owner, lessee, or occupant of maintaining the artificial condition and the burden of eliminating the danger were slight as compared with the risk to the child involved; and

(5) the owner, lessee, or occupant failed to exercise reasonable care to eliminate the danger or otherwise protect the child.

(d) An owner, lessee, or occupant of land whose actions are justified under Subchapter C or D, Chapter 9, Penal Code, is not liable to a trespasser for damages arising from those actions.

(e) This section does not affect Section 75.001, 75.002, 75.0021, 75.003, or 75.004 or create or increase the liability of any person.

 


Benavidez v. The University of Texas — Pan American, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 11940

Benavidez v. The University of Texas — Pan American, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 11940

Rolando Benavidez, Appellant, v. The University of Texas — Pan American, Appellee.

NUMBER 13-13-00006-CV

COURT OF APPEALS OF TEXAS, THIRTEENTH DISTRICT, CORPUS CHRISTI – EDINBURG

2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 11940

October 30, 2014, Delivered

October 30, 2014, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] On appeal from the 92nd District Court of Hidalgo County, Texas.

COUNSEL: FOR APPELLANT: Hon. Russell Jackson, Law Office of Thomas J. Henry, Corpus Christi, TX.

FOR APPELLEE: Hon. Elsa Giron Nava, Tort Litigation Division, Austin, TX.

JUDGES: Before Chief Justice Valdez and Justices Rodriguez and Garza. Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Valdez.

OPINION BY: ROGELIO VALDEZ

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Valdez

By three issues, which we construe as four, appellant Rolando Benavidez, challenges the trial court’s order granting appellee The University of Texas-Pan American’s (UTPA) plea to the jurisdiction. Benavidez argues that: (1) the release form he signed did not preclude his lawsuit because UTPA did not abide by the safety policies listed on the back of the form; (2) the Texas Recreational Use Statute did not preclude the lawsuit because Benavidez’s pleadings at least raised a fact issue regarding gross negligence; (3) the trial court erred by granting UTPA’s objections to his evidence; and (4) the trial court erred by ordering Benavidez to pay UTPA’s court costs. We affirm.

I. Background

This suit arises out of injuries sustained by Benavidez after falling from a climbing wall on the campus of UTPA. Prior to climbing the wall, the belayer, an employee of UTPA, tied a rope to a harness attached to Benavidez. While Benavidez climbed the wall, the belayer [*2] held on to the opposite end of the rope. After reaching the top of the wall, the belayer instructed Benavidez to “let go.” Subsequently, Benavidez fell thirty-three feet from the top of the wall, breaking his ankle in multiple places and suffering a lumbar spine compression fracture. Another employee of UTPA witnessed Benavidez fall and immediately came to his aid. She provided deposition testimony in which she explained that the figure eight-knot which is used to tie the rope to the harness was “either not tied properly, or not tied at all.”

Before he climbed the wall, Benavidez signed a waiver/release from liability. On the front of the page, the form stated:

By signing this agreement you give up your right to bring a court action to recover compensation or obtain any other remedy for any injury to yourself or your property or for your death however caused arising out of your use of the University of Texas Pan-American Climbing Wall now or any time in the future.

Also on the front of the page, under the heading, “Release/Indemnification and Covenant Not to Sue”, the form stated:

In consideration of my use of the Climbing Wall, I the undersigned user, . . . HEREBY DO RELEASE University [*3] of Texas Pan American . . . from any cause of action, claims, or demands of any nature whatsoever, including but not limited to a claim of negligence . . . against the University on account for personal injury, property damage, death or accident of any kind arising out of or in any way related to my use of the Climbing Wall, whether that use is SUPERVISED OR UNSUPERVISED, howsoever the injury or damages is caused, including, but not limited to the negligence of the University.

Benavidez initialed under this clause in the blank provided. Benavidez then initialed in the spaces provided under paragraphs stating that he: (1) would indemnify and hold harmless UTPA from all causes of action; (2) had full knowledge of the risks associated with climbing the wall; (3) was in good health and had no physical limitations precluding his safe use of the climbing wall; and (4) was of lawful age and was competent to enter into a legally binding agreement. Appellee signed and dated the bottom of the front page of the document in the space provided.

On the backside of the Waiver and Release from Liability, under the title “SAFETY POLICIES AND RULES”, it stated, inter alia:

I Rolando Benavidez [name written [*4] by Benavidez in space provided] accept full responsibility for my own safety while in the UTPA climbing Wall area. I agree to abide by, and help enforce the following safety policies and rules:

o To enter the climbing area, you must have signed a waiver of liability/assumption of the risk and turn into the climbing wall Supervisor.

o Climbers must check in/out at the Climbing Wall desk during operation hours.

o Before each climbing the entrance instructor and belayer must check each climber to ensure that the knot and harness buckle are correctly fastened and that the belay system and belayers harness buckles are safe.

o The belayer must keep their brake hand on the rope and eyes on the climber at all times.

o Belayers must belay while standing up: NO belaying from benches, seated, or in a reclined position.

. . . .

o No food or open drink containers allowed in the climbing wall area.

o No loose chalk.

o No obscene language.

. . . .

o No Jewelry

. . . .

o Any infraction of these rules will result in loss of climbing privileges. Repeated infractions will result in loss of future privileges for inappropriate or unsafe behavior.

These rules were included in a list of twenty-four safety policies and [*5] rules, all listed as bullet points. At the bottom of the document in bold letters, the document stated, “I acknowledge that I have read and agree to abide by the Wellness and recreational Sports Complex safety polices and Rules.” Underneath this statement, Benavidez printed and signed his name.

At the hearing on the plea to the jurisdiction, deposition testimony was admitted in which the belayer explained that although he believed at the time that he tied the knot securing the rope to the harness properly, he must not have appropriately tied a double figure-eight knot as he was instructed to do. The belayer also testified that an entrance examiner did not check the knot before Benavidez began his climb and that UTPA never followed that policy until after Benavidez’s accident occurred.

Benavidez filed suit under section 101.021 of the Texas Tort Claims Act. In his pleadings, Benavidez alleged that his injuries resulted from the belayer’s “failure to properly use the climbing equipment and properly supervise [Benavidez] during the climb.” Under the theory of respondeat superior, Benavidez claimed that his injuries were caused by the negligence and gross negligence of UTPA. Benavidez alleged a cause of [*6] action for negligent use of tangible personal property in that UTPA breached its “legal duty to [Benavidez] to provide supervision of [Benavidez], use safe equipment with [Benavidez], and to properly secure [Benavidez’s] harness prior to climbing.” Benavidez also alleged a cause of action for negligent use or condition of real property in that UTPA breached its duty to provide a safe climbing wall for Benavidez and failed to use ordinary care to protect Benavidez from an unreasonably dangerous condition. In addition, Benavidez alleged that UTPA had subjective awareness of a high degree of risk and acted with “conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of [Benavidez] or others similarly situated.”

UTPA filed a plea to the jurisdiction alleging that it did not waive immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act because (1) Benavidez signed a waiver of liability prior to climbing the wall releasing UTPA from liability “for all damages complained of” by Benavidez, and (2) pursuant to the Texas Recreational Use Statute, which further limits a State entity’s waiver of immunity to circumstances in which the State entity fails to exercise a duty of care owed by a landowner to trespasser, [*7] Benavidez was required to demonstrate gross negligence in his pleadings and failed to do so. Benavidez responded by conceding that the Texas Recreational Use Statute applied to his claim and required him to prove gross negligence. Benavidez however contended that, (1) by his pleadings, he raised a fact issue on gross negligence; and (2) he could avoid enforcement of the release from liability as to all of his claims because UTPA committed a prior material breach or failed to satisfy a precondition of the contract by failing to comply with the safety polices.

After holding a hearing, the trial court entered an order granting UTPA’s plea to the jurisdiction and ordered Benavidez to pay UTPA’s court costs. This appeal followed.

II. Standard of Review

[HN1] We review a plea to the jurisdiction under a de novo standard of review. Westbrook v. Penley, 231 S.W. 3d 389, 394 (Tex. 2007). A plea to the jurisdiction seeks to dismiss a case for want of jurisdiction. Tex. Dep’t of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226-27 (Tex. 2004). When reviewing whether a plea was properly granted, we first look to the pleadings to determine if jurisdiction is proper, construing them liberally in favor of the plaintiff and looking to the pleader’s intent. Id. at 226. “If a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, [*8] we consider relevant evidence submitted by the parties when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issues raised,” even where those facts may implicate the merits of the cause of action. Id. at 227. If that evidence creates a fact issue as to the jurisdictional issue, then it is for the fact-finder to decide. Id. at 227-28. “However, if the relevant evidence is undisputed or fails to raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issue, the trial court rules on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of law.” Id. at 228. In considering this evidence, we “take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant” and “indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant’s favor.” City of Waco v. Kirwan, 298 S.W.3d 618, 621-22 (Tex. 2009).

III. Texas Torts Claim Act

[HN2] As a governmental unit, UTPA is immune from both suit and liability unless the Tort Claims Act has waived that immunity. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.001(3)(A) (West, Westlaw through 2013 3d C.S.). Section 101.021 of the Tort Claims Act has been interpreted as waiving sovereign immunity in three general areas: “use of publicly owned automobiles, premises defects, and injuries arising out of conditions or use of property.” Tex. Dep’t of Transp. v. Able, 35 S.W.3d 608, 611 (Tex. 2000). Pursuant to section 101.021, a governmental unit in the state is liable for:

[HN3] (1) property damage, personal [*9] injury, and death proximately caused by the wrongful act or omission or the negligence of an employee acting within his scope of employment if:

(A) the property damage, personal injury, or death arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment; and

(B) the employee would be personally liable to the claimant according to Texas law; and

(2) personal injury and death so caused by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property if the governmental unit would, were it a private person, be liable to the claimant according to Texas law.

Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.021 (West, Westlaw through 2013 3d C.S.).

In addition, the parties do not dispute that the Texas Recreational Use Statute applies to this case. [HN4] When injury or death results on state-owned, recreational land, the recreational use statute limits the state’s duty even further to that owed by a landowner to a trespasser, which means that the State only waives immunity for conduct that rises to the level of gross negligence. Id. § 75.002 (West, Westlaw through 2013 3d C.S.); see also id. [HN5] §§ 75.003(g) (“To the extent that this chapter limits the liability of a governmental unit under circumstances in which the governmental [*10] unit would be liable under [the Tort Claims Act], this chapter controls.”), 101.058 (same); State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 283 (Tex. 2006).

IV. Release/Waiver of Liability

a. Applicable Law

[HN6] A release operates to extinguish a claim or cause of action and is an absolute bar to the released matter. See Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 509 (Tex. 1993). The Texas Supreme Court has held that in order to be valid, a release must (1) provide fair notice by being conspicuous, and (2) comply with the express negligence doctrine. Id. To be conspicuous, a release must be written, displayed, or presented such that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have noticed it. See id. 510 (adopting the definition from Tex. Bus. & Com. Code Ann. § 1.201(b)(1) (West, Westlaw through 2013 3d C.S.)). A release satisfies the express negligence doctrine if it expresses the intent of the parties to exculpate a party for its own negligence. Atl. Richfield Co. v. Petroleum Pers., Inc., 768 S.W.2d 724, 726 (Tex. 1989).

The party seeking the protections of a release asserts an affirmative defense. Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 509. It is therefore the defendant’s burden to establish all elements of the affirmative defense. Id. UTPA argues that it did not waive immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act because it would not be liable as a private party as it established an affirmative defense as a matter of law. See [*11] Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.021. Accordingly, we apply a traditional summary judgment evidentiary burden to the UTPA’s contention as we would to a private party’s reliance on a release from liability prior to trial. See Tex. Dep’t of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004); Galveston Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clear Lake Rehab. Hosp., L.L.C., 324 S.W.3d 802, 807 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2010, no pet.) (reasoning that [HN7] a governmental entity’s challenge to jurisdictional facts implicating the merits of the plaintiff’s lawsuit “mirrors traditional summary-judgment practice”). The burden was therefore on UTPA to provide evidence establishing that Benavidez had released it from liability on the claims before the court. Clear Lake Rehab. Hosp., L.L.C., 324 S.W.3d at 811.

b. Discussion

In its plea to the jurisdiction, UTPA argued that it did not waive immunity from Benavidez’s Texas Tort Claims Act suit because Benavidez executed the release contract, which “released [UTPA] of all liability for the damage complained of in [Benavidez’s] cause of action.”1 Specifically, UTPA asserted that because the release was executed, Benavidez’s “suit is barred in its entirety and [UTPA] moves for dismissal as a matter of law.” Moreover, both in its plea to the jurisdiction and on appeal UTPA described the release from liability as the “real issue before the court,” and UTPA framed its Texas Recreational Use Statute defense as an alternative [*12] argument, asking the trial court to address the issue if it found that the release was not enforceable. In his appellate brief, Benavidez concedes that UTPA’s plea to the jurisdiction was based on two alternative defenses: “(1) [Benavidez] waived all personal injury claims in a waiver/release from liability form . . . ; and (2) [Benavidez’s] claims are barred by the recreational use statute.”

1 This Court has never held that a state entity’s affirmative defense is a proper basis for granting a plea to the jurisdiction. In its plea to the jurisdiction, UTPA relied on Texas Engineering Extension Service v. Gifford, in which the Waco Court of appeals reversed a denial of a plea to the jurisdiction because it found that the plaintiff had executed a release from liability. No. 10-11-00242-CV, 2012 Tex. App. LEXIS 2030, 2012 WL 851742, at *4 (Tex. App.–Waco Mar. 14, 2012, no pet.) (mem. op.). The Gifford court reasoned that under the Texas Tort Claims Act:

A governmental unit is liable for personal injury if the government would be liable, were it a private person, according to Texas law. [The plaintiff’s] execution of the release and indemnity agreement extinguished any liability owed by [the defendant]. Because a private person would not be liable for [the [*13] plaintiff’s] personal injuries, [the defendant] has not waived its sovereign immunity.

Id. (citing Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.021 (West, Westlaw through 2013 3d C.S.)). In this appeal, we need not determine whether we agree with this analysis. Benavidez does not argue that UTPA’s affirmative defense of release is an improper basis for an order granting a plea to the jurisdiction; therefore, we cannot reverse the trial court’s judgment on this basis and we decline to consider this issue. Tex. R. App. P. 47.1. Accordingly, for purposes of this appeal only, we assume without deciding that the affirmative defense of release, if established as a matter of law, may be a valid basis upon which to grant a plea to the jurisdiction.

Notably, while Benavidez did not specifically plead separable causes of action for negligence and gross negligence, he did claim that the injuries alleged were caused by the negligence and gross negligence of UTPA and that UTPA exhibited “conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of [Benavidez] or others similarly situated.” Moreover, in his motion for summary judgment, response to the plea to the jurisdiction, and appellate brief and at the hearing on [*14] the plea and at oral arguments on appeal, Benavidez conceded that the Texas Recreational Use Statue applied to his lawsuit, which required him to show gross negligence. He thereby effectively abandoned any separate claim of ordinary negligence, to the extent that it was originally pleaded, and proceeded only with a suit for gross negligence.

By granting the plea to the jurisdiction, which alleged that Benavidez released all claims against UTPA, the trial court therefore held that Benavidez released UTPA from liability for gross negligence. There is some disagreement among the courts of appeals as to whether a party may validly release claims of gross negligence. Some courts have held that negligence and gross negligence are not separable claims and that therefore a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence. Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling U.S., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied); Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App.–San Antonio 1994, writ denied). In contrast, the Dallas Court of Appeals recently held that a plaintiff’s execution of a contract specifically releasing a defendant from liability for negligence did not release the defendant from liability for gross negligence. Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, LLC, 402 S.W.3d 915, 926 (Tex. App.–Dallas 2013, no pet.). The Dallas Court reasoned that the public policy requiring an express release from negligence [*15] also requires an express release from gross negligence. See id. Other courts have held that pre-accident waivers of gross negligence are invalid as against public policy. Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no pet.); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App.–Beaumont 1986, no writ).

This Court has never addressed the issue of whether a release from liability for gross negligence is separable from a release of liability from negligence, or whether a release of liability for gross negligence violates public policy. See Blankenship v. Spectra Energy Corp., 13-12-00546-CV, 2013 Tex. App. LEXIS 10169, 2013 WL 4334306, at *5 n.6 (Tex. App.–Corpus Christi Aug. 15, 2013, no pet.) (declining to decide whether a party may release claims of gross negligence because the release was unenforceable for failure to satisfy fair notice requirements and because summary judgment evidence conclusively negated the gross negligence claim). Here, we cannot decide this issue because it has not been raised. Tex. R. App. P. 47.1. On appeal, Benavidez effectively concedes that the release form purports to release UTPA from liability for all personal injury claims, but relies solely on contract defenses as an attempt to avoid enforcement of the release. He does not challenge enforcement of the release on the ground that it was inapplicable to his gross negligence claims; similarly [*16] he does not argue that the release of his gross negligence claims was invalid because it did not comply with fair notice requirements or because it violated public policy. See id. Moreover, Benavidez did not present any of these arguments to the trial court. See. id. R. 33.1.

Accordingly, we now address Benavidez’s first issue, in which he contends that he can avoid enforcement of the release contract because the belayer failed to properly tie the knot, and because UTPA failed to follow its own policy that required an entrance instructor to check the knot after it was tied. Benavidez argues that these actions constituted either a prior material breach of the release contract or a failure to satisfy a precondition of the contract. We disagree.

[HN8] Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. Williams v. Glash, 789 S.W.2d 261, 264 (Tex. 1990). When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written expression of the parties’ intent. Forbau v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 876 S.W.2d 132, 133 (Tex. 1994). This court is bound to read all parts of a contract together to ascertain the agreement of the parties. See Royal Indem. Co. v. Marshall, 388 S.W.2d 176, 180 (Tex.1965). The contract must be considered as a whole. Reilly v. Rangers Management, Inc., 727 S.W.2d 527, 529 (Tex.1987); Coker v. Coker, 650 S.W.2d 391, 393 (Tex.1983). Moreover, each part of the contract should be given full effect. [*17] See Barnett v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 723 S.W.2d 663, 666 (Tex.1987).

[HN9] Under the theory of prior material breach, a party is discharged from its contractual obligations based on the other party’s material breach of the contract. See Mustang Pipeline Co. v. Driver Pipeline Co., 134 S.W.3d 195, 198 (Tex. 2004) (determining that a party was released from further contractual obligations when the other party materially breached). In order for a material breach of contract to occur, the party seeking avoidance must be deprived of part of its consideration or an expected benefit of the contract.2 See id. at 199.

2 [HN10] Texas courts have adopted the factors set forth in the Restatement (Second) of Contracts for determining the materiality of a breach:

(1) the extent to which the injured party will be deprived of the benefit which he reasonably expected;

(2) the extent to which the injured party can be adequately compensated for the part of that benefit of which he will be deprived;

(3) the extent to which the party failing to perform or to offer performance will suffer forfeiture;

(4) the likelihood that the party failing to perform or to offer to perform will cure his failure, taking account of all the circumstances including any reasonable assurances; and

(5) the extent to which the behavior of the party failing to perform or to offer to perform comports [*18] with standards of good faith and fair dealing.

Mustang Pipeline Co., v. Driver Pipeline Co., 134 S.W.3d 195, 199 (Tex. 2004); Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 241(a) (1981).

Alternatively, [HN11] a condition precedent is an event that must occur or act that must be performed before rights can accrue to enforce an obligation. See Centex Corp. v. Dalton, 840 S.W.2d 952, 956 (Tex. 1992). Ordinarily, terms such as “if,” “provided that,” “on condition that,” or similar conditional language indicate the intent to create a condition precedent. Criswell v. European Crossroads Shopping Ctr., 792 S.W.2d 945, 948 (Tex.1990). Conditions precedent, which can cause forfeiture of a contractual right, are not favored under the law, and we will not construe a contract provision as a condition precedent unless we are compelled to do so by language that may be construed in no other way. See Reilly, 727 S.W.2d at 530.

As an initial matter, we cannot conclude that under the plain language of the contract, the safety policies listed on the back of the waiver are part of Benavidez’s agreement to release UTPA from liability on the front of the document; therefore, UTPA could not breach or fail to satisfy a condition of the release contract by failing to follow the safety policies. See Mustang Pipeline Co., 134 S.W.3d at 198; Criswell, 792 S.W.2d at 948. Here, the separate sides of the document constitute separate agreements that were each signed separately by Benavidez; moreover, they contain separate promises to perform [*19] distinct duties. In the agreement on the front of the page, Benavidez agreed to release UTPA from liability for its own negligence resulting from any injury. In the agreement on the back of the page, Benavidez again agreed to accept full responsibility for any accident and agreed to comply with the safety policies listed on the form. In addition, the language of the document reveals that the safety policies referred to the release clause only by requiring the prospective climber to complete the release form before climbing the wall. This in no way indicates that the safety policies are part of the consideration or a condition of the waiver/release from liability.3

3 Benavidez also refers us to deposition testimony from the coordinator of campus activities in which he agreed that both the back and front of the document are part of one agreement. This testimony however does not indicate that the safety policies were consideration for or a precondition of the release from liability. Moreover, the coordinator’s testimony did not indicate that he was giving a legal opinion on whether both sides of the agreement constitute one contract.

In fact, the language of the release clause explicitly states [*20] that the consideration for the release is the climber’s opportunity to climb the wall. Further, the clause stipulates, in capital letters, that the release applies whether climbing is “SUPERVISED OR UNSUPERVISED,” which indicates that UTPA was not promising to undertake any duty or conditioning the release on any action other than providing the climber with access to the climbing wall.

Moreover, even if we were to consider the two sides of the document as one agreement, the safety policies side of the document, by its clear language, does not indicate that UTPA promised to comply with the policies or that compliance with the policies by UTPA was consideration for or a condition precedent of Benavidez’s agreement to release UTPA from liability. See Forbau, 876 S.W.2d at 133. Benavidez argues that the bullet point stating, “Before each climbing the entrance instructor and belayer must check each climber to ensure that the knot and harness buckle are correctly fastened” indicates that UTPA undertook an affirmative contractual duty to follow this policy as part of Benavidez’s agreement to waive liability.4 However, reading the safety policies document as a whole, we find that the language of the agreement placed [*21] the sole responsibility on the climber to ensure that the procedures in the safety polices were followed. See Reilly, 727 S.W.2d at 529. At the top of the safety policy side of the document, it specifically states, “I Rolando Benavidez [name written by Benavidez in the space provided] accept full responsibility for my own safety while in the UTPA climbing Wall area. I agree to abide by, and help enforce the following safety policies and rules.” The safety policies are listed as bullet points beneath this agreement. The language Benavidez refers to is listed among multiple bullet points mostly relating to Benavidez’s conduct, such as “no jewelry” and “no obscene language.” As is clear from the plain language of the agreement, these are policies that Benavidez agreed to abide by and help enforce; no language indicates that UTPA agreed to comply with the policies or that the policies were consideration for or a condition precedent of the release from liability.

4 On appeal, Benavidez claims that the word “before”, used as part of the safety polices, indicates that the bullet point was a condition precedent of the contract. Criswell v. European Crossroads Shopping Ctr., 792 S.W.2d 945, 948 (Tex. 1990). However, the term indicates that the safety policies were to be complied with before Benavidez [*22] climbed the wall not before he released UTPA from liability or before the contract could be enforceable. See id.

Further, the final bullet point of the safety policies stated that, “Any infraction of these rules will result in loss of climbing privileges. Repeated infractions will result in loss of future privileges and possibly additionally sanctions . . . .” The fact that the climber was subject to punishment for failure to follow the policies further indicates that the document was intended to require the climber to comply with and ensure compliance with the safety polices, and was not a promise to comply with the policies by UTPA.

Finally, at the bottom of the safety policies, directly before Benavidez’s signature, it explicitly states: “I acknowledge that I have read and agree to abide by the Wellness and recreational Sports Complex safety polices and Rules.” Neither this language nor any other language on either side of the document indicates that Benavidez premised his acceptance of responsibility on or expected the benefit of the performance of any duty on the part of UTPA. See Mustang Pipeline Co., 134 S.W.3d at 198; Criswell, 792 S.W.2d at 948.

Because we find that, by its clear language, the waiver and release form did not express the intent [*23] of either party to condition the release from liability on any performance by UTPA and did not include a promise by UTPA to follow the safety policies as consideration for the contract, we conclude that UTPA did not breach or fail to satisfy a condition of the release contract. See Forbau, 876 S.W.2d at 133. Therefore, Benavidez could not avoid enforcement of the release. See Mustang Pipeline Co., 134 S.W.3d at 198; Criswell, 792 S.W.2d at 948. We overrule Benavidez’s first issue.

V. Remaining Issues

Because we are affirming the order granting the plea to the jurisdiction based on the trial court’s finding that Benavidez released UTPA from liability on all of his claims, we need not address Benavidez’s second issue in which he argues that the Texas Recreational Use Statute does not bar his suit because he pleaded facts sufficient to raise a fact issue on gross negligence. Tex. R. App. P. 47.1. Moreover, we assume without deciding that all of the evidence presented by Benavidez was admissible; therefore, we need not address Benavidez’s third issue in which he argues that the trial court erred by sustaining UTPA’s objections to his evidence. Id.

Finally, Benavidez argues that the trial court erred by awarding UTPA court costs. [HN12] Under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 131, the “successful party to a suit shall recover [*24] court costs incurred therein, except where otherwise provided.” Tex. R. Civ. P. 131. A successful party, under the rule, has been defined as “one that obtains a judgment vindicating a civil right.” Bayer Corp. v. DX Terminals, Ltd., 214 S.W.3d 586, 612 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, pet. denied). Benavidez argues that the trial court could not award court costs because to this date, no judgment has been issued by the trial court. However, Benavidez cites no law, and we find none, indicating that the trial court may not award court costs pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 131 in an order granting a plea to the jurisdiction. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 131. Accordingly, we overrule Benavidez’s fourth issue.

VI. Conclusion

We affirm the trial court’s order granting UTPA’s plea to the jurisdiction

/s/ Rogelio Valdez

ROGELIO VALDEZ

Chief Justice

Delivered and filed the 30th day of October, 2014.


Suit against a city for construction retaining wall in City Park identifies defenses to be employed to protect park patrons.

Remember each state (and sometimes city) has different state immunity acts. This analysis only applies to Dallas Texas. What is interesting is city could be held liable for gross negligence.

Mitchell v. City of Dallas, 855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714

State: Texas

Plaintiff: Saundra Harris Mitchell and Jan P. Mitchell, Individually and as Next Friends of Ashley J. Harris

Defendant: City of Dallas

Plaintiff Claims: City failed to warn park users of the steep drop-off and failed to construct a fence or other barrier around this dangerous area

Defendant Defenses: Texas Tort Claims Act

Holding: Reversed and remanded for trial

Year: 1993

State tort claims acts very greatly from state to state. In many states, it is impossible to sue the state and in others, it is quite easy. Some states limit the amount of recovery and the type of claims, in others not so much. If you work for a city, county or state as part of the parks, recreation or open space program, it will be beneficial to learn your state’s tort claim act and your requirements under it.

In this case, the City of Dallas, Texas, the defendant constructed a 15’ to 25’ retaining wall to stop erosion next to a creek. The top of the wall was next to a sidewalk and a restroom. The plaintiff minor was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk when he fell off and over the wall.

The plaintiff through his mother and father sued the city for his injuries. At the trial court level the city filed a motion for summary judgment and won. The plaintiff’s appealed.

Several issues in the decision dealing with the intricacies of the Texas Tort Claims Act will be skipped in this review because it applies solely to Texas.

Summary of the case

The first interesting issue was whether the claims of the plaintiff were governed by common law or statute. Meaning did the Texas law on land owners apply or did the law that existed prior to the statute concerning landowners apply. Said another way, did the ability to establish and create city parks occur because it was a proprietary function of a city. State statutes state that “operation of parks and zoos is a governmental function.”

The difference between a proprietary function and a governmental function will define the different claims and possible recoveries that are available. In this case, the appellate court held that the park was covered by the statute and the creation, care; maintenance of the park was governmental. As such, claims had to come under the Texas Tort Claims Act.

The next issue was the standard of care owed by the city to park users. The plaintiff claimed they were invitees, and as such, owed a higher standard of care than a trespasser. An invitee is a person the landowner invites to the land and receives a benefit from the invites’ presence on the land. The plaintiff argued that because they paid taxes, they were invitees.

There are three definitions of people coming upon the land; Trespassers, Licensees and Invitees. A landowner owes little duty to a trespasser, only owes a licensee a duty to refrain from wilful, wanton or gross negligence, and owes an invite the highest degree of care.

However, the payment of taxes argument did not fly with the court. Under the statute, the standard of care owed by a city to park users was that of a licensee.

The duty owed by the City to park users under the Texas Tort Claims Act is the duty that a private person owes to a licensee. An owner or occupier of land must refrain from injuring a licensee by willful, wanton, or gross negligence. An owner or occupant must also warn a licensee of any dangerous condition, or make the condition reasonably safe, if the land owner has actual knowledge of the dangerous condition, and the licensee does not.   

Under the law of Texas the city, to be liable, must be grossly negligent.

Gross negligence is defined as “such an entire want of care as to establish that the act or omission was the result of actual conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of the person affected.

In a motion for summary judgment, the party opposing the motion must only create a question about how the law applies to the facts to have the motion denied rather than prove any issues. The city to win on a motion for summary judgment must conclusively negate at least one of the essential elements of the plaintiff’s case to win. Here, the plaintiff’s created a question as to whether the construction of the wall was done in a wilful, wanton or grossly negligent manner.

The next issue was whether the city had notice of the defective condition. The city presented three affidavits from officials saying they had never heard of problems with the wall. However, the court found that knowledge was more than affirmatively not knowing about problems.

The City relies on affidavits from three park officials to show that it lacked actual knowledge of any dangerous condition. The affidavits state that the City had no prior notice of a defect, dangerous condition, or similar accident. However, lack of notice from third parties does not conclusively negate actual knowledge. The fact that the owner or occupier of premises  created a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm may support an inference of knowledge.

Knowledge can be anyone in the employee of the city.

In conclusion, the court stated:

The establishment and maintenance of municipal parks are governmental functions under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The City is immune from liability for any claims involving the design of the gabion wall at Hamilton Park. However, the City is not immune from liability for claims based on the construction or maintenance of the wall. The duty owed by the City to park users is the same duty owed by a private person to a licensee.

We hold that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. There are genuine fact issues concerning (1) gross negligence 5 in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall, and (2) the failure to warn of or correct a dangerous condition. 6 We sustain the Mitchell’s second and third points of error.

5  The duty owed to a licensees being a duty to refrain from injuring by willful, wanton, or gross negligence.

6  The licensor must also warn of a dangerous condition, or make it reasonably safe, if the licensor has actual knowledge of the condition and the licensee does not have such knowledge.

So Now What?

The most important thing to take away from this decision is the vast differences between state tort claims act. In some states, this same fact situation would not create liability and in some states very few of the state tort claims defenses would work.

Of interest was the issue that the city to be found liable had to be found wilful, wanton or grossly negligent. The decision does not state whether if a jury finds the city was wilful, wanton or grossly negligent if increased damages are available to the plaintiff. Most state tort claims acts specifically deny additional damages.

Also not discussed whether the Texas Recreational Use Statute applied to parks. Since parks are free, many states include state, county and city land in the definition of land protected by recreational use statutes. In most states, this is the first and best defense to claims arising from parks and open space.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Mitchell v. City of Dallas, 855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714

Mitchell v. City of Dallas, 855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714

Saundra Harris Mitchell and Jan P. Mitchell, Individually and as Next Friends of Ashley J. Harris, Appellants v. City of Dallas, Appellee

No. 05-91-01416-CV

COURT OF APPEALS OF TEXAS, FIFTH DISTRICT, DALLAS

855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714

March 31, 1993, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] On Appeal from the 68th District Court. Dallas County, Texas. Trial Court Cause No. 89-13400-C

COUNSEL: For Appellants: KRISTINA BLINE DIAL.

For Appellee: PATRCIA MEDRANO.

JUDGES: Before Justices Lagarde, Kinkeade, and Barber 1

1 Justice Will Barber succeeds Justice Jeff Kaplan, a member of the original panel. Justice Barber has reviewed the briefs and record in this case.

OPINION BY: WILL BARBER

OPINION

[*743] OPINION

Opinion By Justice Barber

This is a premises liability case. Saundra Harris Mitchell and Jan P. Mitchell sued the City of Dallas for damages sustained by their minor son when he fell from his bicycle at a municipal park. The City moved for summary judgment. The trial court rendered judgment in favor of the City. We reverse and remand.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Ashley Harris suffered serious injuries when he fell from his bicycle into a creek bed at Hamilton Park. The park is owned [*744] and maintained by the City of Dallas. The accident occurred at a part of the creek where there is a fifteen to twenty-five foot drop-off. This condition was created by a gabion wall constructed by the City for erosion control. [**2] The wall consists of rocks wired together. Ashley fell over the edge of the drop-off onto the rocks below.

The Mitchells allege that the City was negligent and grossly negligent in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall. They also allege that the City failed to warn park users of the steep drop-off and failed to construct a fence or other barrier around this dangerous area.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

The Mitchells attack the trial court’s summary judgment on two broad grounds. First, they contend that this case is governed by common-law principles because the establishment and maintenance of public parks are proprietary functions. Alternatively, the Mitchells argue that their claims against the City are within the waiver provisions of governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. They assert that fact issues exist concerning gross negligence in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall and the City’s negligent failure to warn of or correct this dangerous condition.

LIABILITY UNDER COMMON LAW

In their fourth point of error, the Mitchells contend that the Texas Tort Claims Act does not apply to this case. Rather, the Mitchells argue that the City [**3] is liable under common-law principles because the establishment and maintenance of public parks are proprietary functions.

Under common law, the establishment and maintenance of public parks were deemed proprietary functions. See Dancer v. City of Houston, 384 S.W.2d 340, 342 (Tex. 1964); City of Waco v. Branch, 117 Tex. 394, 5 S.W.2d 498, 499 (1928). These common-law classifications have been redefined under the Texas Tort Claims Act. [HN1] Section 101.0215 of the Act now provides that the operation of parks and zoos is a governmental function. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.0215(a)(13) (Vernon Supp. 1993).

The Mitchells argue that section 101.0215(a) does not reclassify all actions taken by a city regarding public parks. We refuse to adopt such a restrictive interpretation of the statute. To the contrary, the legislature specifically provided that [HN2] the proprietary functions of a municipality do not include those governmental activities listed in section 101.0215(a). See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.0215(c) (Vernon Supp. 1993).

We conclude that the claims against the City made the basis of this suit involve governmental functions. [**4] The Mitchells do not have any common-law cause of action against the City. We overrule the fourth point of error.

LIABILITY UNDER THE TEXAS TORT CLAIMS ACT

The Mitchells next contend that the trial court erred in granting summary Judgment because they stated a cause of action within the waiver provisions of governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. They allege that the City is not immune from liability for negligent construction and maintenance of the gabion wall along the creek bank. See, e.g., City of Watauga v. Taylor, 752 S.W.2d 199, 202 (Tex. App.–Fort Worth 1988, no writ); Stanford v. State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp., 635 S.W.2d 581, 582 (Tex. App.–Dallas 1982, writ ref’d n.r.e.).

The City argues that these allegations involve the design, upgrading, and placement of an erosion control deuce. The City contends that it is immune from liability because these activities involve discretionary functions. See, e.g., City of El Paso v. Ayoub, 787 S.W.2d 553, 554 (Tex. App.–El Paso 1990, writ denied); Tarrant County Water Control & Improvement Dist. No. 1 v. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d 427, 433 (Tex. App.–Fort Worth 1989, writ denied). [**5]

1. Governmental Immunity

[HN3] A municipality performing a governmental function is afforded sovereign immunity [*745] unless immunity has been waived under the Texas Tort Claims Act. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. §§ 101.001-.109 (Vernon 1986 & Supp. 1993). A governmental unit is liable for personal injuries proximately caused “by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property if the governmental unit would, were it a private person, be liable to the claimant according to Texas law.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.021 (Vernon 1986).

2. Discretionary Functions

The Texas Tort Claims Act creates certain exceptions to the waiver of governmental immunity. [HN4] Section 101.056 provides that the waiver provisions of the Act do not apply to claims based on:

(1) the failure of a governmental unit to perform an act that the unit is not required by law to perform; or

(2) a governmental unit’s decision not to perform an act or on its failure to make a decision on the performance or nonperformance of an act if the law leaves the performance or nonperformance of the act to the discretion of the governmental unit.

TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE [**6] ANN. § 101.056 (Vernon 1986); see generally Lee M. Larkin, Comment, The “Policy Decision” Exemption of the Texas Tort Claims Act: State v. Terrell, 32 BAYLOR L. REV. 403 (1980) [hereinafter Larkin]. 2

2 The Larkin comment and several cases cited in this opinion involve the interpretation of the original Tort Claims Act contained in the Revised Civil Statutes. See TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 6252-19 (Vernon 1970) (repealed 1985). The codification of the prior statute in the Civil Practice and Remedies Code did not effect any substantive change, and the language of the current version of the Texas Tort Claims Act is virtually identical to the prior statute. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 1.001 (Vernon Supp. 1993).

[HN5] The discretionary function exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity is designed to avoid judicial review of governmental policy decisions. State v. Terrell, 588 S.W.2d 784, 787 (Tex. 1979); McKinney v. City of Gainesville, 814 S.W.2d 862, 866 (Tex. [**7] App.–Fort Worth 1991, no writ). Thus, a governmental entity is immune from liability if an injury results from the formulation of policy. However, a governmental unit is not immune if an injury is caused by the negligent implementation of that policy. See Terrell, 588 S.W.2d at 787-88; Christilles v. Southwest Tex. State Univ., 639 S.W.2d 38, 42 (Tex. App.–Austin 1982, writ ref’d n.r.e.); Larkin at 409. This distinction is often stated in terms of actions taken at the planning or policy-making level, which are immune, and actions taken at the subordinate or operational level, which are not immune. See McKinney, 814 S.W.2d at 866; Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433; Larkin at 410.

Design decisions made by the City are discretionary and therefore immune from liability. See Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433; Taylor, 752 S.W.2d at 202; Stanford, 635 S.W.2d at 582. Maintenance activities undertaken at the operational level are not discretionary functions and are not immune from liability. See City of Round Rock v. Smith, 687 S.W.2d 300, 303 (Tex. 1985); Taylor, 752 S.W.2d at 202; Hamric v. Kansas City S. Ry., 718 S.W.2d 916, 919 (Tex. App.–Beaumont [**8] 1986, writ ref’d n.r.e.). There is some conflict in the case law regarding the characterization of construction activities. Compare Smith, 687 S.W.2d at 303, and Ayoub, 787 S.W.2d at 554 (indicating that city is not immune from liability for construction and maintenance activities), with Taylor, 752 S.W.2d at 202 (indicating that planning and construction are immune activities).

We hold that construction activities are not discretionary functions. These activities involve the implementation of planning or policy-making decisions at the operational level. Therefore, the City is not immune from liability for claims based on the negligent construction and maintenance of the gabion wall.

STANDARD OF CARE

We next determine the standard of care owed by the City to park users. The City argues that it only owes the duty owed to a trespasser. The Mitchells contend that the City owes the same duty as [*746] owed to an invitee because they paid for use of the premises through the payment of taxes and because of the nature of the premises defect.

1. Statutes

[HN6] Section 101.022 of the Texas Tort Claims Act provides:

(a) If a claim arises from a premises [**9] defect, the governmental unit owes to the claimant only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property, unless the claimant pays for the use of the premises.

(b) The limitation of duty in this section does not apply to the duty to warn of special defects such as excavations or obstructions on highways, roads, or streets.

TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.022 (Vernon 1986) (emphasis added).

Section 75.002 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code provides:

If an owner, lessee, or occupant of real property other than agricultural land gives permission to another to enter the premises for recreation, the owner, lessee, or occupant, by giving the permission, does not:

. . . .

(2) owe to the person to whom permission is granted a greater degree of care than is owed to a trespasser on the premises.

TEX. CIV PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 75.002 (Vernon 1986) (emphasis added).

These two statutes are in apparent conflict in cases where the owner or occupier of the premises is a governmental unit that gives implied permission to persons to enter the property for recreational purposes. We must resolve this conflict by examining the [**10] case law and implementing well-settled rules of statutory construction.

2. Case Law

One court has held that the statutory predecessor to section 75.002, article 1b of the Revised Civil Statutes, should apply only if the injured party was a trespasser. It held the statute did not apply in a governmental tort liability context by simply stating that the persons who used the premises were not trespassers. Trinity River Auth. v. Williams, 659 S.W.2d 714, 720 (Tex. App.–Beaumont 1983), aff’d in part a rev’d in part on other grounds, 689 S.W.2d 883 (Tex. 1985); see TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 1b, § l (Vernon 1969). It should be noted that the statute did not declare that recreational users are trespassers but merely provided that the duty owed to such users is the same as that owed to trespassers. Another court has held that section 75.002 did apply to governmental units. Noting that section 101.022(a) provides that the governmental entity owes “only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property,” the court held that the section 75.002 duty standard applied to the State. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 547. Although the Crossland court [**11] purported to rely on section 101.022(a) in reaching its result, it ignored the fact that such provision states the governmental unit owes the duty that a private person owes to a licensee.

3. Statutory Analysis

We are not persuaded by the reasoning of either Williams or Crossland. Instead, we look to the legislative history of sections 75.002 and 101.022(a).

Article 1b of the Texas Revised Civil Statutes preceded section 75.002. See Act of May 29, 1965, 59th Leg., R.S., ch. 677, 1965 Tex. Gen. Laws 1551, 1551-52. Until this statute was codified in the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, it was contained in the “General Provisions” of Title 1. See TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 1b, § 1 (Vernon 1969). The statutory predecessor to section 101.022(a) of the Texas Tort Claims Act was article 6252-19, section 18(b) of the Texas Revised Civil Statutes. Article 6252-19 was first enacted in 1969, four years after the enactment of article 1b. See Texas Tort Claims Act, 61st Leg., R.S., ch. 292, 1969 Tex. Gen. Laws 874, 878-79; TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 6252-19, § 18(b) (Vernon 1970).

We conclude that section 75.002 and its predecessor, article [**12] 1b, were intended [*747] to be laws of general application. Section 101.022(a) and its predecessor, section 18(b) of article 6252-19, were specific laws applicable to governmental owners and occupiers of real property. [HN7] When two statutes conflict, the specific controls over the general. Sam Bassett Lumber Co. v. City of Houston, 145 Tex. 492, 496, 198 S.W.2d 879, 881 (1947); see also TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 311.026(b) (Vernon 1988); Carr v. Hunt, 651 S.W.2d 875, 882 (Tex. App.–Dallas 1983, writ ref’d n.r.e). Further, a more recent statutory enactment prevails over an earlier one. TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 311.025(a) (Vernon 1988); State v. McKinney, 803 S.W.2d 374, 376 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 1990, no pet.); Commercial Standard Fire & Marine Co. v. Commissioner of Ins., 429 S.W.2d 930, 933 (Tex. Civ. App.–Austin 1968, no writ).

4. Conclusion

We hold that section 101.022(a) controls over section 75.002. The duty owed by the City to park users under the Texas Tort Claims Act is the duty that a private person owes to a licensee. [HN8] An owner or occupier of land must refrain from injuring a licensee by willful, wanton, or gross negligence. An [**13] owner or occupant must also warn a licensee of any dangerous condition, or make the condition reasonably safe, if the land owner has actual knowledge of the dangerous condition and the licensee does not. State v. Tennison, 509 S.W.2d 560, 562 (Tex. 1974).

EXCEPTIONS TO THE STANDARD OF CARE UNDER THE TORT CLAIMS ACT

The Mitchells argue that the duty owed by the City in this case is the same duty owed to an invitee. The Mitchells contend that the Texas Tort Claims Act creates a higher standard of care because: (1) they paid for use of the park through the payment of taxes; and (2) the steep drop-off created by the gabion wall constituted a special defect.

1. Taxpayer Status

The Mitchells first contend that their son was an invitee because they paid for use of the park through the payment of city taxes.

A similar argument was recently rejected by the San Antonio Court of Appeals in Garcia v. State, 817 S.W.2d 741 (Tex. App.–San Antonio 1991, writ denied). The plaintiff in Garcia sued the State of Texas under the Texas Tort Claims Act for damages sustained in a highway accident. He claimed invitee status because he paid for use of the highway through [**14] driver’s license fees and fuel taxes. The court held that the payment of fees and taxes does not confer invitee status for several reasons: (1) invitee status requires payment of a specific fee for entry onto and use of public premises; (2) the plaintiff’s contention would result in a lesser duty owed to nonresident users who did not pay taxes; and (3) the legislature did not intend such a broad grant of invitee status under section 101.022(a) of the Tort Claims Act. See Garcia, 817 S.W.2d at 743.

We adopt the reasoning of Garcia. We hold that [HN9] section 101.022(a) of the Tort Claims Act does not confer invitee status on park users based on the payment of taxes alone.

2. Special Defect

The Mitchells next contend that the City owed a higher standard of care because the steep drop-off created by the gabion wall constituted a special defect.

[HN10] A governmental unit has a duty to warn of or protect against special defects. TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.022(b) (Vernon 1986); see City of Houston v. Jean, 517 S.W.2d 596, 599 (Tex. Civ. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 1974, writ ref’d n.r.e.). The duty to warn of a special defect is the same duty owed to an invitee. [**15] County of Harris v. Eaton, 573 S.W.2d 177, 180 (Tex. 1978). A special defect must be distinguished by some unusual quality outside the ordinary course of events. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433; Sutton v. State Highway Dep’t, 549 S.W.2d 59, 61 (Tex. Civ. App.–Waco 1977, writ ref’d [*748] n.r.e.). A condition is a special defect only if it presents an unexpected and unusual danger to ordinary users of a roadway. State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp. v. Kitchen, 1993 Tex. LEXIS 26, 36 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 678, 679 (March 24, 1993); State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp. v. Payne, 838 S.W.2d 235, 238-39 n.3 (Tex. 1992) (op. on mot. for reh’g). A longstanding, routine, or permanent condition is not a special defect. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433.

The Mitchells do not argue that the condition created by the gabion wall was unusual or outside the ordinary course of events. The summary judgment evidence establishes that the drop-off near the creek bank was longstanding and permanent. We hold that the premises defect made the basis of this claim was not a special defect.

MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

We now consider the summary judgment rendered in favor [**16] of the City in light of our holding that (1) construction and maintenance activities are not discretionary functions, and (2) the duty owed to park users is the same duty owed to a licensee.

1. Standard of Review

[HN11] Summary judgment may be rendered only if the record shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. TEX. R. Civ. P 166a(c); Rodriguez v. Naylor Indus., Inc., 763 S.W.2d 411, 413 (Tex. 1989). A summary judgment seeks to eliminate patently unmeritorious claims and defenses, not to deny a party its right to a full hearing on the merits of any real fact issue. Gulbenkian v. Penn, 151 Tex. 412, 416, 252 S.W.2d 929, 931 (1952).

[HN12] A defendant who moves for summary judgment must show that the plaintiff has no cause of action. Citizens First Nat’l Bank v. Cinco Exploration Co., 540 S.W.2d 292, 294 (Tex. 1976). A defendant may meet this burden by either (1) disproving at least one essential element of each theory of recovery, Anderson v. Snider, 808 S.W.2d 54, 55 (Tex. 1991), or (2) conclusively proving all elements of an affirmative defense. Swilley v. Hughes, 488 S.W.2d 64, 67 (Tex. [**17] 1972).

[HN13] In reviewing a summary judgment, we must take all evidence favorable to the nonmovant as true in deciding whether a fact issue exists. Nixon v. Mr. Property Management Co., 690 S.W.2d 546, 548-49 (Tex. 1985). We must indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubt in favor of the nonmovant. Id.

2. Application of Law to the Facts

a. Negligent Construction and Maintenance

The Mitchells allege that the City was negligent and grossly negligent in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall. They specifically pleaded that the City was negligent in constructing the wall for erosion control “in such a manner so as to result in a dangerous condition by creating a 15 to 25 foot steep cliff drop-off . . . when the City should have built the creek bank in a non-cliff manner.” The Mitchells also alleged that “construction and maintenance of a 15 to 25 foot drop-off behind a public restroom in a public park without a fence and Warning signs demonstrates a lack of due care and conscious indifference to the health, safety, and welfare of those affected by it.” 3

3 Gross negligence is defined as “such an entire want of care as to establish that the act or omission was the result of actual conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of the person affected.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 41.001(5) (Vernon Supp. 1993). Absent a special exception, the allegation of “lack of due care and conscious indifference” contained in the Mitchell’s petition is sufficient to plead the duty owed by the City to park users.

[**18] The City characterizes these allegations as defective design claims. It correctly notes that design claims are discretionary functions for which governmental entities are immune from liability. However, the City has failed to conclusively demonstrate that design defect is the sole basis for the Mitchells’ claim.

[*749] The City argues it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there is no specific pleading or proof that the premises were unreasonably dangerous or that it breached any duty owed to park users. The City misconstrues the burden of proof in a summary judgment proceeding. It is incumbent upon a defendant as movant to conclusively negate at least one essential element of the plaintiff’s case. Citizens First Nat’l Bank, 540 S.W.2d at 294. [HN14] A plaintiff as nonmovant is not required to establish his right to prevail. Ramirez v. Bagley Produce Co., 614 S.W.2d 582, 584 (Tex. Civ. App.–Corpus Christi 1981, no writ). A nonmovant has no duty or burden whatsoever in a summary judgment case until the movant establishes its right to a judgment as a matter of law. Bankers Commercial Life Ins. Co. v. Scott, 631 S.W.2d 228, 232 (Tex. App.–Tyler 1982, [**19] writ ref’d n.r.e.).

The City presented no evidence of the original design of the gabion wall. The City did not show that the gabion wall was constructed and maintained pursuant to its original design and that the design of the wall was not otherwise modified. The City, therefore, failed to show that the Mitchells’ allegations were defective design claims and, thereby, failed to meet its burden of negating an essential element of the Mitchells’ case.

The Mitchells alleged that Ashley was injured when he fell from his bicycle down a steep cliff drop-off. The area was unfenced and located adjacent to the sidewalk. The Mitchells contend that this constitutes a dangerous condition. Ashley’s deposition testimony reflects that there was erosion of the ground underneath the sidewalk where he fell. 4 The City did not conclusively negate these allegations. The pleadings and deposition testimony are sufficient to create a fact issue regarding negligent and grossly negligent maintenance and construction.

4 Ashley’s testimony on this point is not very clear, but it is susceptible to the interpretation advanced by the Mitchells. In a summary judgment case, all inferences and doubts must he resolved in favor of the nonmovant. See Nixon, 690 S.W.2d at 548-49.

[**20] b. Failure to Warn or Make Safe

The Mitchells alleged that the City failed to warn of a dangerous condition in the area of the restrooms and sidewalk adjacent to the creek. They also claimed that the City failed to construct a fence or other barrier in the area or otherwise correct the dangerous condition.

The City relies on affidavits from three park officials to show that it lacked actual knowledge of any dangerous condition. The affidavits state that the City had no prior notice of a defect, dangerous condition, or similar accident. However, lack of notice from third parties does not conclusively negate actual knowledge. The fact that the owner or occupier of a premises created a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm may support an inference of knowledge. The question of knowledge is a fact issue. See Keetch v. Kroger Co., 845 S.W.2d 262, 36 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 273, 275 (December 2, 1992). An affidavit from a civil engineer states the drop-off should have been fenced off from the public area of the park. The engineer’s affidavit concludes that in failing to fence off or otherwise obstruct public movement into the area, “the City has failed to protect the [**21] public or give adequate warning to the public of a defect which created a dangerous condition.”

The City argues that Ashley must be charged with knowledge of any dangerous condition because the alleged premises defect was open and obvious. [HN15] The duty to warn or make safe applies when the licensee lacks actual knowledge. Payne v. State, 838 S.W.2d at 237; Tennison, 509 S.W.2d at 562. The City contends that the Mitchells have conceded that Ashley had actual knowledge of the condition of the premises. The response to the summary judgment motion recites that Ashley was aware of the existence of the creek. The response recites that Ashley, “being unaware . . . that the ground had eroded under the sidewalk next to this drop-off . . . fell over the edge and onto the rocks below.” [*750] The Mitchells never stated that Ashley was aware of the drop-off next to the sidewalk. The record does not conclusively establish that Ashley had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition. The lack of knowledge is an element of appellant’s claim that when disputed should be submitted to the fact finder. See Payne, 838 S.W.2d at 241.

SUMMARY

The establishment and maintenance [**22] of municipal parks are governmental functions under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The City is immune from liability for any claims involving the design of the gabion wall at Hamilton Park. However, the City is not immune from liability for claims based on the construction or maintenance of the wall. The duty owed by the City to park users is the same duty owed by a private person to a licensee.

We hold that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. There are genuine fact issues concerning (1) gross negligence 5 in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall, and (2) the failure to warn of or correct a dangerous condition. 6 We sustain the Mitchell’s second and third points of error.

5 The duty owed to a licensees being a duty to refrain from injuring by willful, wanton, or gross negligence.

6 The licensor must also warn of a dangerous condition, or make it reasonably safe, if the licensor has actual knowledge of the condition and the licensee does not have such knowledge.

We reverse [**23] the trial court’s judgment and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

WILL BARBER

JUSTICE


Galvan, et al., v. The Salvation Army, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47257

Galvan, et al., v. The Salvation Army, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47257

Bruce Galvan, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The Salvation Army, Defendant.

CIVIL ACTION NO. H-10-3365

United States District Court For The Southern District Of Texas, Houston Division

2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47257

May 3, 2011, Decided

May 3, 2011, Filed

CORE TERMS: Charitable Immunity Act, summary judgment, Charitable, amount of damages, conspicuousness, premature, matter of law, own negligence, settlement, affirmative defense, font, charitable organization, liability insurance coverage, per person, per occurrence, notice requirements, bodily injury, jury verdict, conscious indifference, reckless disregard, self-insurance, conspicuous, discovery, retention, qualify, cap, insurance coverage, enforceable, undisputed, attended

COUNSEL: [*1] For Bruce Galvan, Individually and as Next Friend, Cynthia Perez, Individually And as Next Friend, Plaintiffs: John Paul Venzke, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Venzke Law Firm LLP, Houston, TX; Michael Andrew Fisher, Dyment & Fisher, Houston, TX.

For Salvation Army, Defendant: Teresa Jones Del Valle, LEAD ATTORNEY, Del Valle Law Firm, P.C., Houston, TX.

JUDGES: Nancy F. Atlas, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Nancy F. Atlas

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This personal injury case is before the Court on the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding Defendant’s Affirmative Defense of Release (“Release Motion”) [Doc. # 23] filed by Plaintiffs Bruce Galvan and Cynthia Perez. Defendant filed an Opposition [Doc. # 27], and Plaintiffs filed a Reply [Doc. # 28]. Also pending is Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding Defendant’s Defense of The Charitable Immunity and Liability Act of 1987 (“Charitable Immunity Motion”), to which Defendant filed an Opposition [Doc. # 29], and Plaintiffs filed a Reply [Doc. # 34]. Having reviewed the full record and having considered relevant legal authorities, the Court grants the Release Motion and denies without prejudice the Charitable Immunity Motion.

I.FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs [*2] Bruce Galvan and Cynthia Perez are parents of Plaintiff Christopher Galvan. Christopher was eleven years old when he attended Camp Hoblitzelle, a facility owned and operated by Defendant The Salvation Army. In June 2010, while at Camp Hoblitzelle, Christopher Galvan fell 40-50 feet from a zip-line and was seriously injured. Before Christopher attended Camp Hoblitzelle, Cynthia Perez signed a “Permission/Waiver Form for Residential Camps.” See Exh. A to Release Motion.

Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit seeking to recover from The Salvation Army for the injury to Christopher Galvan. Defendant has asserted the existence of the Release as an affirmative defense. Defendant has asserted also that The Charitable Immunity and Liability Act of 1987 (“Charitable Immunity Act”) limits its liability in this case to $500,000.00 per person and $1,000,000.00 per occurrence. Plaintiffs have moved for summary judgment on each of these arguments. The motions have been fully briefed.

II.STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a sufficient showing [*3] of the existence of an element essential to the party’s case for which that party will bear the burden at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc); see also Baton Rouge Oil and Chem. Workers Union v. ExxonMobil Corp., 289 F.3d 373, 375 (5th Cir. 2002). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must determine whether the “pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23; Weaver v. CCA Indus., Inc., 529 F.3d 335, 339 (5th Cir. 2008). Summary judgment is an appropriate mechanism for resolving issues of law arising from a materially complete factual record. See Trevino v. Yamaha Motor Corp., 882 F.2d 182, 184 (5th Cir. 1989).

III.RELEASE MOTION

Defendant has asserted the existence of the Release signed by Cynthia Perez as an affirmative defense. Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on the release defense because the Release in this case fails to satisfy the [*4] requirements for it to be enforceable.

Under Texas law, there are two fair notice requirements for release agreements: (1) the express negligence doctrine and (2) the conspicuousness requirement. See Storage & Processors, Inc. v. Reyes, 134 S.W.3d 190, 192 (Tex. 2004); Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 509 (Tex. 1993). The express negligence doctrine requires that a party’s intent to be released from the consequences of that party’s own negligence must be expressed in specific terms within the four corners of the release document. See Fisk Elec. Co. v. Constructors & Assocs., Inc., 888 S.W.2d 813, 814 (Tex. 1994); Ethyl Corp. v. Daniel Constr. Co., 725 S.W.2d 705, 708 (Tex. 1987). The conspicuousness requirement provides that the releasing language must be conspicuously written, such that a reasonable person would have noticed it. See Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 511. Examples of conspicuous language include language that appears in contrasting type or color, in all capital letters, or otherwise calls attention to itself. See Reyes, 134 S.W.3d at 192 (citing Littlefield v. Schaefer, 955 S.W.2d 272, 274-75 (Tex. 1997)); Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 511.

Compliance with [*5] the fair notice requirements is a question of law for the Court. Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 509. A release that fails to satisfy both of the two requirements is unenforceable as a matter of law. Storage & Processors, 134 S.W.3d at 192. In this case, the Court concludes that the Release asserted by Defendant does not satisfy either requirement.

The Release provides that the signer “hereby voluntarily releases The Salvation Army from any and all liability resulting from or arising in any manner whatsoever out of any participation in any Activity.” See Release, Exh. 1 to Release Motion. As an initial matter, the Release purports to release Defendant from liability for injury suffered while participating in any “Activity.” The “Activity” is to be identified by filling in a blank line on the Release form. On the Release at issue in this case, the “Activity” line contains no identified activity but, instead, has “Cynthia Perez” written in as the “Activity.”

More importantly, the Release language does not specifically state that Defendant is being released from liability for its own future negligence. Indeed, there is no express mention of negligence at all. Although there is no requirement that [*6] the release contain the specific word “negligence,” the intent to release a party from liability for its own negligence must be clearly expressed. See Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Petroleum Personnel, Inc., 768 S.W.2d 724, 726 (Tex. 1989); Silsbee Hosp., Inc. v. George, 163 S.W.3d 284, 290 (Tex. App. — Beaumont 2005, review denied). In the Release at issue in this case, there is no clear expression of an intent to release Defendant from its own negligence in connection with Christopher Galvan’s participation in zip-lining.

The Release fails also to satisfy the conspicuousness requirement. The release language is in the same font and font size as the remainder of the document. There is no bolding, underlining, or other mechanism to make the release language conspicuous. Instead, the release language is buried in a full page of single-spaced, small font size text.

The Court concludes that the Release in this case does not satisfy the express negligence or conspicuousness requirements and, as a result, the Release is not enforceable as a matter of law.

IV.CHARITABLE IMMUNITY MOTION

The Charitable Immunity Act limits liability of a qualified charitable organization to $500,000.00 per person and [*7] $1,000,000.00 per occurrence. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 84.006. To qualify for the limitation, the charitable organization must have liability insurance coverage “in the amount of at least $500,000 for each person and $1,000,000 for each single occurrence for death or bodily injury . . ..” See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 84.007(g). The Charitable Immunity Act provides that the liability insurance coverage “may be provided under a contract of insurance or other plan of insurance authorized by statute and may be satisfied by the purchase of a $1,000,000 bodily injury and property damage combined single limit policy.” See id.

Defendant asserts that it is entitled to the damages limitation of the Charitable Immunity Act. It is undisputed that Defendant has over $35,000,000.00 of insurance coverage. It is also undisputed, however, that the first $500,000.00 is in the form of a self-insurance retention and the next $4,500,000.00 is in the form of The Salvation Army’s Risk Trust. Plaintiffs argue that Defendant is not entitled to the damages limitation because Defendant is self-insured and self insurance does not meet the statutory requirement of the Charitable Immunity Act. 1

1 Plaintiffs [*8] also argue that Defendant is judicially estopped to assert the Charitable Immunity Act’s limitation because a different Salvation Army entity in Maine asserted in a lawsuit in 1997 that the Salvation Army entity in Maine did not have insurance coverage. The Court concludes on this limited record that Plaintiffs have not established an adequate factual basis for judicial estoppel to apply.

Plaintiffs in this case have not alleged an amount of damages. They allege that the amount in controversy is in excess of $75,000.00. See Amended Complaint [Doc. # 16], ¶ 1. Plaintiffs allege also that Christopher Galvan’s medical bills exceed $200,000.00. See id., ¶ 5. Thus, on this record, the specific amounts alleged by Plaintiffs do not exceed the Charitable Immunity Act’s limitation. Moreover, the amount of damages has not been established by either settlement or a jury award to be in excess of the Charitable Immunity Act’s limitation. As a result, the Court concludes that a decision on whether the limitation applies to a fully-funded self insurance retention is premature at this stage of the proceedings. See, e.g., Morgan v. Fellini’s Pizza, Inc., 64 F. Supp. 2d 1304, 1316, n.6 (N.D. Ga. 1999) [*9] (noting that a request for summary judgment as to whether a damages cap applies was premature); Rafferty v. Howard, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98423, 2010 WL 3768142, *1 (S.D. Miss. Sept. 20, 2010) (holding that preliminary ruling on whether statutory cap applies was premature). If there is a settlement or jury verdict for more than $1,000,000.00 in this case, the Court will at that time decide whether Defendant qualifies for the Charitable Immunity Act’s limitation.

Additionally, the Charitable Immunity Act provides that its limitations do not apply “to an act or omission that is intentional, wilfully negligent, or done with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others.” See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 84.007(a). Plaintiffs specifically allege that Defendant’s actions in this case were “intentional, willfully negligent, or done with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of Christopher Galvan and others.” See Amended Complaint [Doc. # 16], ¶ 12. Should the jury find that Defendant’s actions were as alleged by Plaintiffs in paragraph 12 of the Amended Complaint, the issue regarding whether self-insurance satisfies the insurance requirement of the Charitable Immunity Act [*10] would become moot.

V.CONCLUSION AND ORDER

The release relied upon by Defendant satisfies neither the express negligence doctrine nor the conspicuousness requirement. As a result, there has been no effective release of Defendant for its alleged negligence in this case. Plaintiffs have not alleged an amount of damages and no amount of damages has been determined either through settlement or by jury verdict. As a result, it is premature to decide whether the Act limits the amount of damages recoverable in this case. It is, therefore,

ORDERED that Plaintiffs’ Release Motion [Doc. # 23] is GRANTED and Plaintiffs’ Charitable Immunity Motion [Doc. # 26] is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE as premature.

SIGNED at Houston, Texas this 3rd day of May, 2011.

/s/ Nancy F. Atlas

Nancy F. Atlas

United States District Judge


Texas makes it easier to write a release because the law is clear.

Galvan, et al., v. The Salvation Army, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47257

Too bad no one read the law to the Salvation Army in this case.

This case was filed in the Federal District Court of the Southern District of Texas. The decision was based on a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the plaintiff to throw out the defendant’s defense of release. Normally, these types of motions are filed by the defendants to end the litigation not by the plaintiff. There was also an issue of whether the charitable immunity statute applied to limit the damages in the case.

The facts which gave rise to the case are the defendants were parents of an eleven year-old boy who attended Camp Hoblitzelle which was owned and operated by the Salvation Army of Texas. While attending the camp the minor was riding a zip line when he fell 40-50’ suffering unnamed injuries.

There was a blank in the release where the activity the parties were releasing was to be filled in. The blank line in this case was filled in with the plaintiff’s name Cynthia Perez written in as the activity. The court took delight in pointing this out.

Summary of the case

The plaintiff filed their motion for summary judgment to eliminate the defense of release. The minor’s mother signed the Permission/Waiver Form for Residential Camps prior to the minor attending camp.

Under Texas law, there are two tests to determine if a release is valid; (1) the express negligence doctrine and (2) the conspicuousness requirement test.

“A release that fails to satisfy both of the two requirements is unenforceable as a matter of law.”

The Express Negligence Doctrine is:

The express negligence doctrine requires that a party’s intent to be released from the consequences of that party’s own negligence must be expressed in specific terms within the four corners of the release document.

The release in this case used the language “…hereby voluntarily releases The Salvation Army from any and all liability resulting from or arising in any manner whatsoever out of any participation in any Activity.” This language was not strict enough to place the signor on notice that they were giving up their legal rights according to the court.

The release was not clear. It did not state that the defendant was being released for its future negligence. Although there is no requirement that the word negligence be in the release and referenced, it is clear the release would be difficult to write without the word negligence. The court held the release at issue had no clear expression or language showing intent to release the defendant from its own negligence.

Consequently, the release failed the Express Negligence Doctrine.

The Conspicuousness requirement test requires.

… the releasing language must be conspicuously written, such that a reasonable person would have noticed it. Examples of conspicuous language include language that appears in contrasting type or color, in all capital letters, or otherwise calls attention to itself.

With regard to the conspicuousness, requirement test the court stated.

The release language is in the same font and font size as the remainder of the document. There is no bolding, underlining, or other mechanism to make the release language conspicuous. Instead, the release language is buried in a full page of single-spaced, small font size text.

Here is a great example that your release cannot hide the important legal language from anyone signing it.

The court also looked into the Charitable Immunity Act and held the issue was not ripe because whether or not the defendant was subject to the limitation of damages would not be an issue unless the plaintiff was able to recover an amount greater than the limitation of $500,000 per person and $1,000,000 per occurrence.

The court also stated the Charitable Immunity Act did not apply to defendants whose “act or omission that is intentional, wilfully negligent, or done with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others.” The plaintiff had plead actions of the defendant in almost identical language which was another issue making the issue not ripe for decision.

So Now What?

This decision is a road map on what not to do with a release in Texas.

1.       Make sure your release states that it is a release and the person signing it is giving up their legal rights.

2.      Make sure the language in the release is clear. The plaintiff is releasing you from liability for your negligence in advance of any injury. You are going to have to use the word negligence in your release.

3.      The release language cannot be hidden. It must be set out in such a way that it is identifiable as something important that the signor needs to know about.

4.      All blanks in the document need to be located in one place so it only takes a quick scan to make sure everything is completed properly.

5.       Anything that can be completed by the defendant or filled in must be completed by the defendant.

6.      Have an attorney that knows and understands your operation and the law affecting your business write your release.

Writing a release is not like cooking. When you cook you have to really screw up to make something that is not edible. (I’ve been single my entire life so my definition of edible may be different from yours……) Writing a release is a much more precise endeavor.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Galvan, et al., v. The Salvation Army, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47257

Galvan, et al., v. The Salvation Army, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47257

To read the analysis of this case see: Texas makes it easier to write a release because the law is clear.

 

Bruce Galvan, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The Salvation Army, Defendant.

 

CIVIL ACTION NO. H-10-3365

 

United States District Court For The Southern District Of Texas, Houston Division

 

2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47257

 

 

May 3, 2011, Decided

May 3, 2011, Filed

 

CORE TERMS: Charitable Immunity Act, summary judgment, Charitable, amount of damages, conspicuousness, premature, matter of law, own negligence, settlement, affirmative defense, font, charitable organization, liability insurance coverage, per person, per occurrence, notice requirements, bodily injury, jury verdict, conscious indifference, reckless disregard, self-insurance, conspicuous, discovery, retention, qualify, cap, insurance coverage, enforceable, undisputed, attended

 

 

COUNSEL:  [*1] For Bruce Galvan, Individually and as Next Friend, Cynthia Perez, Individually And as Next Friend, Plaintiffs: John Paul Venzke, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Venzke Law Firm LLP, Houston, TX; Michael Andrew Fisher, Dyment & Fisher, Houston, TX.

 

For Salvation Army, Defendant: Teresa Jones Del Valle, LEAD ATTORNEY, Del Valle Law Firm, P.C., Houston, TX.

 

JUDGES: Nancy F. Atlas, United States District Judge.

 

OPINION BY: Nancy F. Atlas

 

 OPINION

 

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This personal injury case is before the Court on the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding Defendant’s Affirmative Defense of Release (“Release Motion”) [Doc. # 23] filed by Plaintiffs Bruce Galvan and Cynthia Perez. Defendant filed an Opposition [Doc. # 27], and Plaintiffs filed a Reply [Doc. # 28]. Also pending is Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding Defendant’s Defense of The Charitable Immunity and Liability Act of 1987 (“Charitable Immunity Motion”), to which Defendant filed an Opposition [Doc. # 29], and Plaintiffs filed a Reply [Doc. # 34]. Having reviewed the full record and having considered relevant legal authorities, the Court grants the Release Motion and denies without prejudice the Charitable Immunity Motion.

 

I.FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs  [*2] Bruce Galvan and Cynthia Perez are parents of Plaintiff Christopher Galvan. Christopher was eleven years old when he attended Camp Hoblitzelle, a facility owned and operated by Defendant The Salvation Army. In June 2010, while at Camp Hoblitzelle, Christopher Galvan fell 40-50 feet from a zip-line and was seriously injured. Before Christopher attended Camp Hoblitzelle, Cynthia Perez signed a “Permission/Waiver Form for Residential Camps.” See Exh. A to Release Motion.

Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit seeking to recover from The Salvation Army for the injury to Christopher Galvan. Defendant has asserted the existence of the Release as an affirmative defense. Defendant has asserted also that The Charitable Immunity and Liability Act of 1987 (“Charitable Immunity Act”) limits its liability in this case to $500,000.00 per person and $1,000,000.00 per occurrence. Plaintiffs have moved for summary judgment on each of these arguments. The motions have been fully briefed.

 

II.STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a sufficient showing  [*3] of the existence of an element essential to the party’s case for which that party will bear the burden at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc); see also Baton Rouge Oil and Chem. Workers Union v. ExxonMobil Corp., 289 F.3d 373, 375 (5th Cir. 2002). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must determine whether the “pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23; Weaver v. CCA Indus., Inc., 529 F.3d 335, 339 (5th Cir. 2008). Summary judgment is an appropriate mechanism for resolving issues of law arising from a materially complete factual record. See Trevino v. Yamaha Motor Corp., 882 F.2d 182, 184 (5th Cir. 1989).

 

III.RELEASE MOTION

Defendant has asserted the existence of the Release signed by Cynthia Perez as an affirmative defense. Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on the release defense because the Release in this case fails to satisfy the  [*4] requirements for it to be enforceable.

Under Texas law, there are two fair notice requirements for release agreements: (1) the express negligence doctrine and (2) the conspicuousness requirement. See Storage & Processors, Inc. v. Reyes, 134 S.W.3d 190, 192 (Tex. 2004); Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 509 (Tex. 1993). The express negligence doctrine requires that a party’s intent to be released from the consequences of that party’s own negligence must be expressed in specific terms within the four corners of the release document. See Fisk Elec. Co. v. Constructors & Assocs., Inc., 888 S.W.2d 813, 814 (Tex. 1994); Ethyl Corp. v. Daniel Constr. Co., 725 S.W.2d 705, 708 (Tex. 1987). The conspicuousness requirement provides that the releasing language must be conspicuously written, such that a reasonable person would have noticed it. See Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 511. Examples of conspicuous language include language that appears in contrasting type or color, in all capital letters, or otherwise calls attention to itself. See Reyes, 134 S.W.3d at 192 (citing Littlefield v. Schaefer, 955 S.W.2d 272, 274-75 (Tex. 1997)); Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 511.

Compliance with  [*5] the fair notice requirements is a question of law for the Court. Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 509. A release that fails to satisfy both of the two requirements is unenforceable as a matter of law. Storage & Processors, 134 S.W.3d at 192. In this case, the Court concludes that the Release asserted by Defendant does not satisfy either requirement.

The Release provides that the signer “hereby voluntarily releases The Salvation Army from any and all liability resulting from or arising in any manner whatsoever out of any participation in any Activity.” See Release, Exh. 1 to Release Motion. As an initial matter, the Release purports to release Defendant from liability for injury suffered while participating in any “Activity.” The “Activity” is to be identified by filling in a blank line on the Release form. On the Release at issue in this case, the “Activity” line contains no identified activity but, instead, has “Cynthia Perez” written in as the “Activity.”

More importantly, the Release language does not specifically state that Defendant is being released from liability for its own future negligence. Indeed, there is no express mention of negligence at all. Although there is no requirement that  [*6] the release contain the specific word “negligence,” the intent to release a party from liability for its own negligence must be clearly expressed. See Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Petroleum Personnel, Inc., 768 S.W.2d 724, 726 (Tex. 1989); Silsbee Hosp., Inc. v. George, 163 S.W.3d 284, 290 (Tex. App. — Beaumont 2005, review denied). In the Release at issue in this case, there is no clear expression of an intent to release Defendant from its own negligence in connection with Christopher Galvan’s participation in zip-lining.

The Release fails also to satisfy the conspicuousness requirement. The release language is in the same font and font size as the remainder of the document. There is no bolding, underlining, or other mechanism to make the release language conspicuous. Instead, the release language is buried in a full page of single-spaced, small font size text.

The Court concludes that the Release in this case does not satisfy the express negligence or conspicuousness requirements and, as a result, the Release is not enforceable as a matter of law.

 

IV.CHARITABLE IMMUNITY MOTION

The Charitable Immunity Act limits liability of a qualified charitable organization to $500,000.00 per person and  [*7] $1,000,000.00 per occurrence. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 84.006. To qualify for the limitation, the charitable organization must have liability insurance coverage “in the amount of at least $500,000 for each person and $1,000,000 for each single occurrence for death or bodily injury . . ..” See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 84.007(g). The Charitable Immunity Act provides that the liability insurance coverage “may be provided under a contract of insurance or other plan of insurance authorized by statute and may be satisfied by the purchase of a $1,000,000 bodily injury and property damage combined single limit policy.” See id.

Defendant asserts that it is entitled to the damages limitation of the Charitable Immunity Act. It is undisputed that Defendant has over $35,000,000.00 of insurance coverage. It is also undisputed, however, that the first $500,000.00 is in the form of a self-insurance retention and the next $4,500,000.00 is in the form of The Salvation Army’s Risk Trust. Plaintiffs argue that Defendant is not entitled to the damages limitation because Defendant is self-insured and self insurance does not meet the statutory requirement of the Charitable Immunity Act. 1

 

1 Plaintiffs  [*8] also argue that Defendant is judicially estopped to assert the Charitable Immunity Act’s limitation because a different Salvation Army entity in Maine asserted in a lawsuit in 1997 that the Salvation Army entity in Maine did not have insurance coverage. The Court concludes on this limited record that Plaintiffs have not established an adequate factual basis for judicial estoppel to apply.

 

Plaintiffs in this case have not alleged an amount of damages. They allege that the amount in controversy is in excess of $75,000.00. See Amended Complaint [Doc. # 16], ¶ 1. Plaintiffs allege also that Christopher Galvan’s medical bills exceed $200,000.00. See id., ¶ 5. Thus, on this record, the specific amounts alleged by Plaintiffs do not exceed the Charitable Immunity Act’s limitation. Moreover, the amount of damages has not been established by either settlement or a jury award to be in excess of the Charitable Immunity Act’s limitation. As a result, the Court concludes that a decision on whether the limitation applies to a fully-funded self insurance retention is premature at this stage of the proceedings. See, e.g., Morgan v. Fellini’s Pizza, Inc., 64 F. Supp. 2d 1304, 1316, n.6 (N.D. Ga. 1999)  [*9] (noting that a request for summary judgment as to whether a damages cap applies was premature); Rafferty v. Howard, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98423, 2010 WL 3768142, *1 (S.D. Miss. Sept. 20, 2010) (holding that preliminary ruling on whether statutory cap applies was premature). If there is a settlement or jury verdict for more than $1,000,000.00 in this case, the Court will at that time decide whether Defendant qualifies for the Charitable Immunity Act’s limitation.

Additionally, the Charitable Immunity Act provides that its limitations do not apply “to an act or omission that is intentional, wilfully negligent, or done with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others.” See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 84.007(a). Plaintiffs specifically allege that Defendant’s actions in this case were “intentional, willfully negligent, or done with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of Christopher Galvan and others.” See Amended Complaint [Doc. # 16], ¶ 12. Should the jury find that Defendant’s actions were as alleged by Plaintiffs in paragraph 12 of the Amended Complaint, the issue regarding whether self-insurance satisfies the insurance requirement of the Charitable Immunity Act  [*10] would become moot.

 

V.CONCLUSION AND ORDER

The release relied upon by Defendant satisfies neither the express negligence doctrine nor the conspicuousness requirement. As a result, there has been no effective release of Defendant for its alleged negligence in this case. Plaintiffs have not alleged an amount of damages and no amount of damages has been determined either through settlement or by jury verdict. As a result, it is premature to decide whether the Act limits the amount of damages recoverable in this case. It is, therefore,

ORDERED that Plaintiffs’ Release Motion [Doc. # 23] is GRANTED and Plaintiffs’ Charitable Immunity Motion [Doc. # 26] is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE as premature.

SIGNED at Houston, Texas this 3rd day of May, 2011.

/s/ Nancy F. Atlas

Nancy F. Atlas

United States District Judge