Defendants awarded attorney fees in California cycling race. One unique argument was raised; the plaintiff signed the release on the wrong line

Plaintiff sued for her injuries she occurred when she crashed with male rider in the race. The release she signed was upheld including the provision that the plaintiff pay the defendant’s costs and fees if they won the case.

Kendall v. USA Cycling, Inc. et al., 2005 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5025

State: California; Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Eight

Plaintiff: Judith Kendall

Defendant: for USA Cycling, Inc. and Huntsman World Senior Games

Plaintiff Claims: Release not valid

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendants

Year: 2005

The legal issues in this case are not ground breaking, except for where the plaintiff signed the release. The court did a good job of explaining the reasoning for opposing the plaintiff’s arguments on why the release should be thrown out. However, the court did award attorney fees to the defendant for having to defend this case as per the release.

The plaintiff was cycling in the defendant Huntsman World Senior Games. The race was in Utah, and the plaintiff lived in California. To enter the race, the plaintiff signed a release for USA Cycling, and one for the Huntsman race.

The race was started at different starting times for the different categories and sexes of racers. Senior female racers started first with senior male racers starting five minutes later. During the race, a male racer overtook the plaintiff, and they tangled with the plaintiff falling and receiving injuries.

The plaintiff sued for her injuries and the two defendants, USA Cycling and the Huntsman filed motions for summary judgment based on the releases the plaintiff had signed. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion. One of the releases, the USA Cycling release included a provision that said the plaintiff if she sued would pay the defendant’s attorney fees and costs. The judge awarded $32,000 in fees against the plaintiff also.

The plaintiff appealed the dismissal and the award of attorney fees.

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

The first issue the plaintiff argued was the court should have applied Utah’s law to the case because that is where the accident occurred. (Remember the plaintiff started the lawsuit in California.) In order to determine what law that is to be applied to a case, the court must first look at whether or not there is a difference between the laws of the two states, California and Utah.

The plaintiff argued that Utah’s law was different because it prohibited cycling road races. However, the court investigated this claim and found that bicycle races were not prohibited; they only had to have the requisite permits. The permit process did not affect the facts in this case according to the judge, only traffic control so this issue had no effect on the outcome of the case.

Outside of traffic effects, and the concomitant general safety concerns whenever bicycles and motor vehicles are in close proximity, nothing within the permitting scheme suggests Utah authorities concerned themselves with a race’s details beyond its being “reasonably safe” for all concerned. Nothing hints that the approval of Utah authorities depended on the number of riders, their gender, or their starting times

The plaintiff also brought up that Utah treats releases differently. However, the court found although that may be true, the release in question would pass muster both in Utah and California so this issue was also not going to affect the outcome of the case.

But even if suspicion of preinjury releases existed in Utah law, the releases here would pass muster. Hawkins noted that Utah permits preinjury releases except when the activity affects the public interest. The Hawkins court explained, “It is generally held that those who are not engaged in public service may properly bargain against liability for harm caused by their ordinary negligence in performance of contractual duty . . . . Thus, most courts allow release of liability for prospective negligence, except where there is a strong public interest in the services provided.”

The court then looked into the requirements for a release to be valid.

The elements of a valid release are well established. First, it must be clear and unambiguous. Second, it must not violate public policy-an element we can quickly pass over here because a release covering recreational sports is not against public policy or the public interest. [bicycle racing does not involve public interest].) And third, the injury at issue must be reasonably related to the release’s object and purpose.

The plaintiff then argued the USA Cycling release was ambiguous because it had two signature lines. One line was for racers, and one line was for the parents of racers if the racer was a minor. The plaintiff signed the wrong line, signing as a parent for a racer.

Kendall’s assertion that the USA Cycling release was ambiguous turns on its placement of two signature lines: a signature line for the entrant, and, if the entrant were a minor, a signature line for the minor’s parent or guardian. Kendall signed on the parent’s line, not, as one might suppose, the entrant’s line. She argues her signature’s placement makes the release ambiguous.

This is a unique and new argument I’ve never seen before in arguing the validity of a release. It may be something to look for in the future, as some states may not rule the same as this court.

This argument did not matter also because the plaintiff could not argue that signing at the wrong place on a contract invalidated the release. Nor could she argue that she intended to sign the release to enter the event.

She offers no explanation to challenge the obvious inference that she simply misplaced her signature. She does not deny that she wanted to enter the race, and does not dispute that she needed to sign the form to be allowed in. Never does she claim she was signing on a minor’s behalf. In short, she offers no interpretation of her signature’s placement on the parental consent line other than her innocent mistake. As such, her signature is not susceptible to more than one interpretation.

The plaintiff then argued that the release should be viewed based on her intent, not the subjective intent. Again, the court rejected this argument finding that her intent was to sign the release to enter the race which required her to sign the release to do so.

Kendall notes that we must interpret the release by objective manifestations of her intent, not her subjective intent. Hence, according to her, it does not matter what she subjectively intended when she signed the release; what matters is the objective manifestation of her signature on the parental release line, which she argues compels us to find the release did not bind her (or at best was ambiguous) because she did not sign it as an entrant.

This argument rarely, if ever, works because the intent of a contract that is signed is evidenced by the contract. No other intent or even testimony on the intent can be taken except for what is found “within the four corners of the document.”

We conclude that the objective manifestation of Kendall’s intent cuts the other way. Although the face of the release shows she signed as a parent, she offers no explanation for her signature being there other than her desire to join the race. The objective manifestation of her intent, therefore, is she signed as an entrant-albeit on the wrong line.

In another interesting argument, actually a more interesting response the plaintiff argued the Huntsman release should be thrown out because it was ambiguous. (And possibly was.) However, the court said it did not matter because the USA Cycling release was enough.

We need not address possible drafting errors in the Huntsman release because the USA Cycling release covered all organizations involved in the race. The USA Cycling release stated it covered the “organizations . . . and their respective agents, officials, and employees through or by which the events will be held . . . .” Such language encompassed Huntsman, making Huntsman’s own release superfluous as to this point.

The plaintiff then argued she thought she would be in a women’s only race and by allowing men into the race the organizers substantially increased the risk. The court found this argument to miss the mark because the foreseeability issue was not whether it was foreseeable men would be in the race but whether or not it was foreseeable that she could crash.

Kendall contends the releases did not apply to her because she did not know or reasonably foresee she would be sharing the road with male racers in what she believed was a women-only race. She argues respondents thus wrongfully increased the risk she had assumed in entering an all-female race. Kendall’s focus on whether she could have foreseen colliding with a male racer misses the mark because foreseeability is irrelevant when a tortfeasor relies on an express, written release.

The court found this argument to miss the mark because the foreseeability issue was not whether it was foreseeable men would be in the race but whether or not it was foreseeable that she could crash.

For a written release, the focus instead is whether Kendall’s injuries related to the release’s object and purpose. When a risk is expressly assumed, the assumption is a complete defense against a negligence claim. Here, the release covered anyone participating in the Huntsman World Senior Games and included collisions with “other racers,” not just female racers. The release’s language thus covered Kendall’s accident.

On top of this, the plaintiff knew she would be on the same course as male racers. Additionally, being hit by another racer is inherent in bicycle racing.

Kendall received a race map and brochure when she submitted her race application. Those documents showed men and women would be using the same road course, and would be segregated by age, but not sex. That Kendall apparently chose not to read the documents (an inference we draw from her professed ignorance that men would be on the same course) does not make male racers unforeseeable or the scope of the release narrower. Moreover, the court here found the risk of being hit by another racer is inherent to bicycle racing.

The final issue was the award of attorney fees to the defendants as based on the language in the release.

The plaintiff argued that the award of attorney fees should be denied because only the USA Cycling release that the attorney fee award language in it, therefore, the issue should be thrown out. “Kendall notes that only the USA Cycling release had an attorney’s fee provision. She contends that even if USA Cycling is entitled to its fees, the motion should have been denied as to Huntsman.”

The plaintiff also argued the attorney fees should be thrown out because the award was for two releases and only one awarded attorney fees. The amount should be reduced for the work down for the release that did not have the language in the release.

Neither argument prevailed. The same law firm defended both motions and the work to defend both motions was indistinguishable from one motion to the other. The legal and factual issues in defending both releases overlapped legally and factually. It would be impossible to separate out the work, and the law does not require it.

Kendall filed one complaint against respondents, to which they replied with a shared answer and defeated with a shared motion for summary judgment. The evidence and legal arguments in support of respondents’ motion for summary judgment overlapped substantively and procedurally. The record does not show that respondents’ counsel would have spent any less time or that its arguments would have been any different if only USA Cycling had been a defendant. Because it is not fatal to a fee award if apportionment between issues and arguments is difficult, or even impossible, the court did not abuse its discretion in awarding fees for counsel’s work representing USA Cycling and Huntsman.

The dismissal of the complaint based on a release, the USA Cycling release, and the award of attorney fees and costs was upheld by the California Appellate Court.

So Now What?

There were some interesting issues in this case. Two releases are always a possible way to lose a case, as well as win one in this case. (See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both releases void.) In fact, the race organizer should be happy his race was a USA Cycling release, or he may have been writing a check.

The award of attorney fees is rare, and arises occasionally. (Federal Court in Texas upholds clause in release requiring the plaintiff to pay defendants costs of defending against plaintiff’s claims.) Only California does not quibble about the specific language in the release. Most courts discourage the award of legal fees in release cases and examine the language in the document to find anyway not to award the fees.

At the same time, but for the USA Cycling release, this case would have gone the other direction.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kendall v. USA Cycling, Inc. et al., 2005 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5025

Kendall v. USA Cycling, Inc. et al., 2005 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5025

Judith Kendall, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. USA Cycling, Inc. et al., Defendants and Respondents.

B168004

COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, SECOND APPELLATE DISTRICT, DIVISION EIGHT

2005 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5025

June 8, 2005, Filed

NOTICE: [*1] NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 977(a), PROHIBIT COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 977(B). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 977.

PRIOR HISTORY: APPEAL from judgments of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. BC 259296. Jon M. Mayeda, Judge.

COUNSEL: Gelfand and Gelfand, Robert E. Fisher, Gary B. Gelfand, and Raymond J. Feinberg for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Anthony J. Ellrod and Sylvia Havens for Defendants and Respondents.

JUDGES: RUBIN, J.; COOPER, P.J., FLIER, J. concurred.

OPINION BY: RUBIN

OPINION

Judith Kendall appeals from the summary judgment and attorney’s fee award entered for USA Cycling, Inc. and Huntsman World Senior Games in her negligence lawsuit against them. We affirm.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In October 2000, Judith Kendall was 59 years old and living in California when she entered a bicycle road race in Utah. The race was part of the Huntsman World Senior Games (Huntsman), organized and sponsored by Huntsman and USA [*2] Cycling, Inc. To participate in the race, Kendall, who had in the previous ten years ridden in about 30 bicycle races, tours, and endurance events, signed two release and waiver forms. The Huntsman release stated:

Recitals [P] I, the undersigned, acknowledge and fully understand that by participating in the World Senior Games, Inc. I will be engaging in activities or competition that may involve serious risks including bodily injury, permanent disability and death . . . which might result not only from my own actions, inactions or negligence, but the actions, inactions or negligence of others . . .; and that there may be other risks not known or not reasonably foreseeable. [P] . . . [P] Assumption of Risks. Except as otherwise specifically agreed herein, I assume all of the risks described in the Recitals section above and accept personal responsibility for any and all damages of any kind resulting from any injury, permanent disability and/or death. [P] Release of Liability. I hereby release, waive all claims of liability against, discharge and hold harmless the World Senior Games, Inc., its affiliated organizations, [and] its sponsors, including [*3] but not limited to Huntsman Corporation . . . from any and all liability of the undersigned, my heirs and next of kin, for any claims, demands, causes of action, losses or damages, on account of bodily injury [or] death . . . caused or alleged to be caused in whole or in part by the negligence of the persons or entities hereby released, and/or by the negligence of other participants . . . in connection with my participation in the World Senior Games events or activities.”

The USA Cycling release stated:

“I acknowledge that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport and fully realize the dangers of participating in a bicycle race and FULLY ASSUME THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH SUCH PARTICIPATION INCLUDING, by way of example, and not limitation, the following: the dangers of collision with . . . other racers . . .; THE RELEASEES’ OWN NEGLIGENCE; . . . and the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury associated with athletic cycling competition. [P] . . . I HEREBY WAIVE, RELEASE, DISCHARGE, HOLD HARMLESS, AND PROMISE TO INDEMNIFY AND NOT SUE organizations . . . and their respective agents, officials, and employees through or by which the events will be [*4] held, (the foregoing are also collectively deemed to be Releasees), FROM ANY and all rights and CLAIMS INCLUDING CLAIMS ARISING FROM THE RELEASEES’ OWN NEGLIGENCE, which I have or which may hereafter accrue to me and from any and all damages which may be sustained by me directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, my participation in or association with the event . . . .”

The race began at the appointed time, with Kendall and her female competitors starting first, followed five minutes later by the senior male racers. During the race, a male racer overtook Kendall and, in passing her, their bike wheels tangled. Kendall vainly struggled to keep her balance, but fell and suffered severe injuries.

Kendall sued USA Cycling Inc. and Huntsman for negligence in starting the men’s race on the same road five minutes after the women’s race began. Huntsman and USA Cycling moved for summary judgment, arguing that even if they had been negligent, the waiver and releases were a complete defense barring Kendall’s complaint. The court agreed, and entered judgment for respondents.

Respondents moved under the attorney’s fee clause of the USA Cycling release to recover more [*5] than $ 32,000 in attorney’s fees. 1 Kendall opposed the motion, claiming respondents had not supported it with sufficient admissible evidence. She also opposed any fee award for Huntsman in particular because the Huntsman release did not have an attorney’s fee clause. In response, the court ordered respondents to support their motion with detailed billing statements. After respondents filed their billing statements, the court overruled Kendall’s evidentiary objections and awarded respondents slightly less than $ 32,000 in fees. Kendall appeals from the judgment and the fee award.

1 Respondents also sought and recovered their costs, but those costs are not at issue in this appeal.

DISCUSSION

Kendall contends the court erred when it enforced the releases. She attacks the releases on several grounds. None is persuasive.

1. Utah Law Did Not Apply

Kendall contends the court erred by not applying Utah law to reject the releases. Her contention raises the question of which state’s laws apply: [*6] Utah-where the injury occurred-or California-where Kendall lives and filed suit. Under governing choice of law principles which weigh Utah’s and California’s governmental interests in seeing their laws enforced, we first consider whether a material difference exists between the two states’ laws. If their laws do not differ, we need not address whether Utah law applies, and may instead look solely to California law. (Washington Mutual Bank v. Superior Court (2001) 24 Cal.4th 906, 919-920; Reich v. Purcell (1967) 67 Cal.2d 551, 555, 63 Cal. Rptr. 31; Tucci v. Club Mediterranee (2001) 89 Cal.App.4th 180, 189.)

Kendall asserts two material differences exist between Utah and California law that are important to her lawsuit against respondents. The central difference, according to her, is Utah prohibits bicycle road races. It follows, she argues, that Utah would not enforce the releases because they violate public policy by waiving liability for an unlawful activity. Kendall’s contention fails, however, because she mischaracterizes Utah law. Utah does not ban bicycle road races outright; instead, it merely requires that organizers of a [*7] road race get permission from state or local highway officials for the race. The pertinent Utah statute states, “(1) Bicycle racing on highways is prohibited . . . except as authorized in this section. [P] (2) Bicycle racing on a highway is permitted when a racing event is approved by state or local authorities on any highway under their respective jurisdictions. . . .” (Utah Code Annotated (1953) 41-6-87.9.) Kendall cites no evidence that respondents did not get permission for the race, and indeed all the evidence in the record which touches on the subject points the other way.

But, even if the absence of a permit in the record means the race was unpermitted, the result would not change. The permit’s purpose is traffic control, not micromanaging the particulars of how the race is conducted. In its entirety, the statute states,

“(1) Bicycle racing on highways is prohibited under Section 41-6-51, except as authorized in this section. [P] (2) Bicycle racing on a highway is permitted when a racing event is approved by state or local authorities on any highway under their respective jurisdictions. Approval of bicycle highway racing events may be granted only under conditions which [*8] assure reasonable safety for all race participants, spectators, and other highway users, and which prevent unreasonable interference with traffic flow which would seriously inconvenience other highway users. [P] (3) By agreement with the approving authority, participants in an approved bicycle highway racing event may be exempted from compliance with any traffic laws otherwise applicable, if traffic control is adequate to assure the safety of all highway users.”

Emphasizing the focus on traffic, the statute cross-references only one section in the Utah Administrative Code. That regulation, entitled “Permit Required for Special Road Use or Event: Special Road Use,” states in its entirety that the Utah Department of Transportation:

“. . . shall promote safe utilization of highways for parades, marathons, and bicycle races. Special Road Use permits shall be required for any use of state routes other than normal traffic movement. Permits may be obtained by fulfilling requirements of DOT [Department of Transportation] form ‘Special Road Use Permit’. Policy applies to all routes under jurisdiction of DOT. Permittee shall hold DOT harmless in event of litigation. A traffic control plan, [*9] in accordance with latest edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and Barricading and Construction Standard Drawings, shall be provided to, and approved by Dept. District Traffic Engineer or Permittee shall restore the particular road segment to its original condition, free from litter, etc. All applications for permits shall be made a minimum of 15 days prior to the specified activity.” (UT ADC R920-4-1)

Outside of traffic effects, and the concomitant general safety concerns whenever bicycles and motor vehicles are in close proximity, nothing within the permitting scheme suggests Utah authorities concerned themselves with a race’s details beyond its being “reasonably safe” for all concerned. Nothing hints that the approval of Utah authorities depended on the number of riders, their gender, or their starting times. Thus, Kendall’s injuries were not within the scope of the permitting statute’s purpose. Consequently, there was no legal nexus between the statutory violation of an unpermitted race (assuming that occurred) and Kendall’s damages.

A second difference, according to Kendall, between Utah and California law is Utah views preinjury liability releases more [*10] skeptically than does California. In support, she cites Hawkins ex rel. Hawkins v. Peart (Utah 2001) 2001 UT 94, 37 P.3d 1062 (Hawkins). That decision refused to enforce a preinjury release signed by a parent for her child because Utah expressly prohibits parents from signing away their children’s rights. (Id. at pp. 1065-1066.) In its discussion, Hawkins noted courts must scrutinize preinjury releases to make sure they are fairly bargained. (Id. at p. 1066.) Hawkins does not, however, as Kendall states, prohibit preinjury releases.

But even if suspicion of preinjury releases existed in Utah law, the releases here would pass muster. Hawkins noted that Utah permits preinjury releases except when the activity affects the public interest. The Hawkins court explained, “It is generally held that those who are not engaged in public service may properly bargain against liability for harm caused by their ordinary negligence in performance of contractual duty . . . . Thus, most courts allow release of liability for prospective negligence, except where there is a strong public interest in the services provided.” (Hawkins, supra, 37 P.3d at p. 1065, [*11] fn. omitted; see also Russ v. Woodside Homes, Inc. (Utah App. 1995) 905 P.2d 901, 905 [preinjury releases lawful in Utah].) Kendall cites no authority, and we know of none, that a voluntary recreational activity such as a bike race implicates the public interest.

In sum, Kendall’s two examples of differences between Utah and California law are unavailing. Accordingly, the trial court did not err when it applied California law below. (Washington Mutual Bank v. Superior Court (2001) 24 Cal.4th 906, 919-920; Reich v. Purcell, supra, 67 Cal.2d at p. 555; Tucci v. Club Mediterranee, supra, 89 Cal.App.4th at p. 189.)

2. The Releases Are Enforceable

The elements of a valid release are well established. First, it must be clear and unambiguous. Second, it must not violate public policy-an element we can quickly pass over here because a release covering recreational sports is not against public policy or the public interest. (Lund v. Bally’s Aerobic Plus, Inc. (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 733, 739 (Lund); Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1373 (Allan); Buchan v. United States Cycling Federation, Inc. (1991) 227 Cal. App. 3d 134, 277 Cal. Rptr. 887 [*12] [bicycle racing does not involve public interest].) And third, the injury at issue must be reasonably related to the release’s object and purpose. (Lund, at pp. 738-739; Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 757.) Kendall contends the USA Cycling and Huntsman releases are unenforceable because (1) they are ambiguous, and (2) did not cover the risk of her sharing the road with male racers.

a. Not Ambiguous

Kendall’s assertion that the USA Cycling release was ambiguous turns on its placement of two signature lines: a signature line for the entrant, and, if the entrant were a minor, a signature line for the minor’s parent or guardian. Kendall signed on the parent’s line, not, as one might suppose, the entrant’s line. She argues her signature’s placement makes the release ambiguous.

The test for ambiguity is whether Kendall’s placement of her signature is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. (Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 360.) She offers no explanation to challenge the obvious inference that she simply misplaced her signature. She does not deny that she wanted to enter [*13] the race, and does not dispute that she needed to sign the form to be allowed in. Never does she claim she was signing on a minor’s behalf. In short, she offers no interpretation of her signature’s placement on the parental consent line other than her innocent mistake. As such, her signature is not susceptible to more than one interpretation.

Kendall notes that we must interpret the release by objective manifestations of her intent, not her subjective intent. Hence, according to her, it does not matter what she subjectively intended when she signed the release; what matters is the objective manifestation of her signature on the parental release line, which she argues compels us to find the release did not bind her (or at best was ambiguous) because she did not sign it as an entrant.

We conclude that the objective manifestation of Kendall’s intent cuts the other way. Although the face of the release shows she signed as a parent, she offers no explanation for her signature being there other than her desire to join the race. The objective manifestation of her intent, therefore, is she signed as an entrant-albeit on the wrong line. (Lopez v. Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 1224, 1233-1234 [*14] [“The test is ‘what the outward manifestations of consent would lead a reasonable person to believe.’ [Citation.]”].)

Kendall’s reliance on Roth v. Malson (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 552 (Roth), does not change the result because the facts are distinguishable. Roth involved a real estate sale agreement with two signature lines: one to accept the agreement and one to make a counteroffer. The real estate buyer signed on the counteroffer line and returned the agreement to the seller. The seller rejected the ostensible “counteroffer” and sold the property to someone else. The buyer sued to enforce the agreement, claiming he had signed on the counteroffer line by mistake, and had intended to sign on the acceptance line. He argued his signature was subject to no reasonable interpretation other than an acceptance because he did not add any new conditions to the counteroffer, meaning the counteroffer was not truly a counter. The Roth court rejected that argument, noting that divining the buyer’s intent as an acceptance with no new conditions would have required a time consuming comparison of the offers and counteroffers exchanged between the parties, a comparison [*15] no one was obligated to make. The court therefore refused to enforce the agreement because it was plausible the buyer intended to counter, instead of accept, the seller’s offer. (Id. at pp. 558-559.) Here, in contrast, Kendall offers no plausible explanation for her signature on the parental release line-in a senior’s race no less-than that she intended her signature to show her acceptance of the release’s terms.

Kendall contends the Huntsman release is also ambiguous, and therefore cannot be enforced against her. In support, she notes language in the release suggests she was releasing herself as the release’s “undersigned” from any liability: “I hereby release, waive all claims of liability against, discharge and hold harmless the World Senior Games, Inc. [and others], . . . from any and all liability of the undersigned, my heirs and next of kin, for any claims, demands, causes of action, losses or damages . . . .” (Italics added.) We need not address possible drafting errors in the Huntsman release because the USA Cycling release covered all organizations involved in the race. The USA Cycling release stated it covered the “organizations . . . and their [*16] respective agents, officials, and employees through or by which the events will be held . . . .” Such language encompassed Huntsman, making Huntsman’s own release superfluous as to this point.

b. Injury Within Scope of Release

Kendall contends the releases did not apply to her because she did not know or reasonably foresee she would be sharing the road with male racers in what she believed was a women-only race. She argues respondents thus wrongfully increased the risk she had assumed in entering an all-female race. Kendall’s focus on whether she could have foreseen colliding with a male racer misses the mark because foreseeability is irrelevant when a tortfeasor relies on an express, written release. (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1372.) For a written release, the focus instead is whether Kendall’s injuries related to the release’s object and purpose. (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357.) When a risk is expressly assumed, the assumption is a complete defense to a negligence claim. (Allan, at p. 1372.) Here, the release covered anyone participating in the Huntsman World Senior Games and included collisions [*17] with “other racers,” not just female racers. The release’s language thus covered Kendall’s accident.

In support of limiting an express waiver to foreseeable risks, Kendall cites Bennett v. United States Cycling Federation (1987) 193 Cal. App. 3d 1485, 239 Cal. Rptr. 55 (Bennett), a case involving a release in a bicycle race on closed roads where a car struck the plaintiff. Finding that the release applied only to obvious or foreseeable hazards, the Bennett court held it was a triable issue whether an automobile on the race course was a reasonably foreseeable risk within the scope of the release. (Id. at pp. 1490-1491.) Likening her collision with a male racer in what she thought was a female only race to a collision with a car on closed roads, Kendall argues she could not have reasonably foreseen respondents would permit male racers on the same course only five minutes after she started. We conclude that even if one accepts Bennett’s injection of foreseeability into an express written release (but see Madison v. Superior Court (1988) 203 Cal. App. 3d 589, 601, fn. 9, 250 Cal. Rptr. 299 [criticizing Bennett for confusing [*18] foreseeability with scope of release]), the result would not change here. Kendall received a race map and brochure when she submitted her race application. Those documents showed men and women would be using the same road course, and would be segregated by age, but not sex. That Kendall apparently chose not to read the documents (an inference we draw from her professed ignorance that men would be on the same course) does not make male racers unforeseeable or the scope of the release narrower. Moreover, the court here found the risk of being hit by another racer is inherent to bicycle racing. The Bennett court itself notes the foreseeability of such collisions. It stated: “There is little doubt that a subscriber of the bicycle release at issue here must be held to have waived any hazards relating to bicycle racing that are obvious or that might reasonably have been foreseen. . . . these hazards include ‘collisions with other riders . . . .’ ” (Bennett, supra, 193 Cal. App. 3d at 1490; see also Buchan v. United States Cycling Federation, Inc., supra, 227 Cal. App. 3d at pp. 148, 151-152 [collisions and falls are foreseeable risk in bike racing]. [*19] ) The trial court thus did not err in concluding Kendall’s accident was legally foreseeable.

3. Attorney’s Fees

The trial court awarded respondents $ 31,978.50 in attorney’s fees. We review the award for abuse of discretion. (PLCM Group, Inc. v. Drexler (2000) 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1095; Avikian v. WTC Financial Corp. (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 1108, 1119.)

Respondents supported their motion for fees with billing statements and a declaration by a partner in their counsel’s firm. The billing statements showed the hours worked, the rates charged, and the work done (with privileged information redacted). The partner stated he was familiar with how his firm generated its bills and that the fees stated on the bills had been incurred. Kendall contends the bills and declaration were inadmissible hearsay. Courts have held otherwise. The trial court is best placed to assess the appropriateness of the work done and the fees incurred. A verified bill on which the items appear proper is sufficient to support a fee award. (Melnyk v. Robledo (1976) 64 Cal. App. 3d 618, 624, 134 Cal. Rptr. 602.) Indeed, given a trial court’s first-hand familiarity [*20] with the work done by counsel, billing statements themselves can be superfluous. (Steiny & Co. v. California Electric Supply Co. (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 285, 293 [“there is no legal requirement that [billing ] statements be offered in evidence. An attorney’s testimony as to the number of hours worked is sufficient evidence to support an award of attorney fees, even in the absence of detailed time records.”].)

Kendall notes that only the USA Cycling release had an attorney’s fee provision. She contends that even if USA Cycling is entitled to its fees, the motion should have been denied as to Huntsman. In support, she cites Super 7 Motel Associates v. Wang (1993) 16 Cal.App.4th 541 (Super 7 Motel), for the proposition that a party in a multiple contract transaction involving several parties cannot recover its attorney’s fees unless its particular contract has a fee provision. (Id. at pp. 545-547.) Super 7 Motel is distinguishable, however, because its facts permitted allocation of the legal work and fees to the various parties. Super 7 Motel did not address fee awards when the legal work and fees cannot be allocated. Here, [*21] allocation appears difficult, if not impossible. Kendall filed one complaint against respondents, to which they replied with a shared answer and defeated with a shared motion for summary judgment. The evidence and legal arguments in support of respondents’ motion for summary judgment overlapped substantively and procedurally. The record does not show that respondents’ counsel would have spent any less time or that its arguments would have been any different if only USA Cycling had been a defendant. Because it is not fatal to a fee award if apportionment between issues and arguments is difficult, or even impossible, the court did not abuse its discretion in awarding fees for counsel’s work representing USA Cycling and Huntsman. (Liton Gen. Engineering Contractor, Inc. v. United Pacific Insurance (1993) 16 Cal.App.4th 577, 588 [no allocation of two parties’ liability required]; accord Reynolds Metals Co. v. Alperson (1979) 25 Cal.3d 124, 129-130, 158 Cal. Rptr. 1 [“Attorney’s fees need not be apportioned when incurred for representation on an issue common to both a cause of action in which fees are proper and one in which they are not allowed.”); [*22] Abdallah v. United Savings Bank (1996) 43 Cal.App.4th 1101, 1111 [multiple causes of action may be so intertwined that it would be “impracticable, if not impossible, to separate the multitude of conjoined activities into compensable or noncompensable time units.”].)

DISPOSITION

The judgment and fee award are affirmed. Each side to bear its own costs on appeal.

RUBIN, J.

We concur:

COOPER, P.J.

FLIER, J.


Skiing collision in Utah where the collision was caused by one skier falling down in front of the other skier

Is that a collision, an obstacle, a reason for a lawsuit? Skiers fall all the time.

Ricci v. Schoultz, M.D., 963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745

State: Utah, Court of Appeals of Utah

Plaintiff: Gary Ricci

Defendant: Charles Schoultz, M.D.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: no negligence

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 1998

Sometimes you stumble across a case that catches your eye from the way the facts are described by the court. This is one of them.

The two skiers were advanced skiers skiing on an easy run. Both were skiing under control. The defendant was part of a ski school class. The defendant was taking small easy turns as part of his class. Just as he was being passed by the plaintiff, he reached the top of a crest and slowed down, lost control and fell into the path of the plaintiff.

The two collided and slid into a tree at a high rate of speed. The plaintiff hit the tree suffering injuries. The defendant was able to ski away on his own.

At trial, the plaintiff argued that the defendant was negligent because he fell on an easy run.

At trial, Ricci argued that since Schoultz’s fall took place on one of the easiest runs at Snowbird under near perfect conditions, there was no possible reason for Schoultz to have fallen except for his own negligence.

The jury found the defendant was negligent and returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The trial judge then granted the defendant’s j.n.o.v. (judgment notwithstanding the verdict). This was based on the court’s opinion that there was no negligence on the part of the defendant. “There was a duty not to be negligent. However, there was no negligence on the part of the defendant in this case.” Thus, the trial judge granted Schoultz’s j.n.o.v. motion, or alternatively granted a new trial.”

A JNOV is a fantasy. They never occur because as long as there is some evidence of negligence and a decision by the jury a trial judge is not going to overturn a jury verdict. To overturn a judgment by a jury the trial judge:

…[is] justified in granting a j.n.o.v. only if, after looking at the evidence and all of its reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to [the nonmoving party], the trial court concludes that there [is] no competent evidence to support a verdict in [the nonmoving party’s] favor.

Consequently, the burden to grant a JNOV and overturn the jury’s verdict is very high and never done.

The appellate court has the same standard in reviewing a JNOV granted by the trial court.

“On appeal, we apply the same standard. In determining whether competent evidence supports the verdict, we accept as true all testimony and reasonable inferences flowing therefrom that tend to prove [the nonmoving party’s] case, and we disregard all conflicts  and evidence that tend to disprove its case. Thus, if we determine that there was competent evidence supporting the jury’s verdict, we must reverse the trial court’s grant of the j.n.o.v.

The plaintiff appealed the JNOV which granted a judgment for the defendant.

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

The appellate court looked at other collision cases were the cases rested on whether or not the defendant was negligent. Something was required to support the idea that the plaintiff was negligent in those cases that had found negligence, such as the defendant drinking a large quantity of alcohol.

The court found several cases where collisions on the slopes had occurred, but the defendant was found not to be liable because there was no evidence of negligence on the part of the defendant.

…the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the plaintiff could not recover from defendant for injuries sustained in a mid-mountain ski collision. Similar to the case at bar, the defendant was skiing behind the plaintiff and failed to alert plaintiff of his presence before they collided. The LaVine court specifically rejected the appellant’s claim of negligence: “Appellant contends that the collision itself conclusively establishes the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s right to recover. We disagree.”

In another decision the court reviewed, there was the same statement that care was owed by the defendant. The defendant is not the insurer of the plaintiff and not responsible for everything that happens to a skier on the slopes.

The Dillworth court stated some collisions between skiers may be as a result of the obvious and necessary risks inherent in skiing, and accidents might occur despite the exercise of ordinary and reasonable care and without negligence by either skier. . . . Like all others, skiers owe that degree of care an ordinary prudent person would exercise under like or similar circumstances. One skier is not the insurer of another skier’s safety nor, absent negligence, is one skier liable to another for inadvertent or accidental contact. . . . Thus . . . skiers who lose control even while exercising due care–that is, have breached no duty owed to other skiers–may pose a danger which is inherent, obvious and necessary to participate in the sport of skiing.

The court found that falling down on the slope is not proof of negligence. Without something to indicate that the defendant was negligent, a plaintiff cannot recover.

In sum, a skier does have a duty to other skiers to ski reasonably and within control. However, an inadvertent fall on a ski slope, alone, does not constitute a breach of this duty. We conclude, after a careful review of the trial record, that Ricci failed to introduce any competent evidence that Schoultz was skiing negligently before his sudden and unexpected fall in front of Ricci. Ricci himself testified about the conditions and events just before the accident, noting that up to one second before the collision, Schoultz was skiing in control.

Ricci’s evidence, including all reasonable inferences drawn from it, is simply insufficient for a jury to have concluded that Schoultz skied negligently.

The appellate court upheld the trial court’s granting of the JNOV and did not look at the other issues raised by the plaintiff on appeal.

There was a dissent in the opinion that argued there was enough evidence based on his analysis of the facts to support the jury finding. However, the facts presented were circumstantial based on the dissenting judge’s review of the evidence.

So Now What?

This was a rare case. There seems to be an assumption in all ski collision cases that if two people are on a slope together, and they collide with one person must have been negligent. This decision and the two other decisions the court pointed out show that is not the case. Not every collision on a ski slope is a negligent act.

At the same time, this is fairly easy to see and understand the issues because the party causing the collision, even though the “downhill” skier was the party that probably generated the issues to start the collision.

However, falling down is not negligence on a ski slope, at least in Utah.

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Ricci v. Schoultz, M.D., 963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745

Ricci v. Schoultz, M.D., 963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745

Gary Ricci, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Charles Schoultz, M.D., Defendant and Appellee.

Case No. 971189-CA

COURT OF APPEALS OF UTAH

963 P.2d 784; 348 Utah Adv. Rep. 24; 1998 Utah App. LEXIS 57; 75 A.L.R.5th 745

July 23, 1998, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Third District, Salt Lake Department. The Honorable Homer F. Wilkinson.

COUNSEL: Jeffrey D. Eisenberg, Alan W. Mortensen, and Paul M. Simmons, Salt Lake City, for Appellant.

Paul M. Belnap, Robert L. Janicki, and Darren K. Nelson, Salt Lake City, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Before Judith M. Billings, Judge. I CONCUR: Russell W. Bench, Judge. Gregory K. Orme, Judge, Dissenting.

OPINION BY: JUDITH M. BILLINGS

OPINION

[*785] OPINION

BILLINGS, Judge:

Appellant Gary Ricci appeals the trial court’s grant of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (j.n.o.v.) to Dr. Charles Schoultz, dismissing Ricci’s negligence claims. We affirm.

FACTS

The parties had completely different versions of how the accident occurred. [HN1] “We must review the record and determine whether there is any basis in the evidence, including reasonable inferences which could be drawn therefrom, to support the jury’s determination that [Schoultz] was negligent.” Braithwaite v. West Valley City Corp., 921 P.2d 997, 999 (Utah 1996). Thus, we recite the facts in a light most favorable to Ricci.

On April 12, 1994, Ricci and Schoultz were skiing [**2] at Snowbird Ski Resort (Snowbird) in Salt Lake County, Utah. Both parties were advanced skiers. On the sunny morning of the accident they were skiing an “easy run” that was groomed and had only a few skiers on it. Schoultz was skiing down Anderson Hill when Ricci reached the top of the run. Ricci began to ski towards the bottom and in the direction of Schoultz. Schoultz was taking a ski lesson and was making a number of small controlled turns as he descended. Schoultz and Ricci were both skiing at the same speed and in control throughout their descent. However, Schoultz slowed as he approached a small crest on the ski run and Ricci closed to within a few feet behind Schoultz. Schoultz unexpectedly lost control of his skis, and within a few seconds he fell to the left, and into Ricci, who was unable to avoid Schoultz. The two skiers slid into a tree well, with Ricci striking the tree with some force. Ricci suffered significant injuries and was eventually life-flighted to a local hospital. Schoultz was merely bruised and skied down the mountain on his own.

At trial, Ricci argued that since Schoultz’s fall took place on one of the easiest runs at Snowbird under near perfect conditions, [**3] there was no possible reason for Schoultz to have fallen except for his own negligence. The jury found that Schoultz was negligent, and that his failure to ski in control was the cause of the accident. Schoultz moved for a j.n.o.v. on the grounds that Ricci failed to demonstrate that Schoultz, by falling unexpectedly in front of him, had breached any duty he owed to Ricci. The trial judge agreed: “There was a duty not to be negligent. But there was no negligence on the part of defendant in this case.” Thus, the trial judge granted Schoultz’s j.n.o.v. motion, or alternatively granted a new trial. Ricci now appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Our standard for reviewing a trial court’s grant of a j.n.o.v. is strict: [HN2] “‘In passing on a motion for a j.n.o.v., . . . a trial court has no latitude and must be correct.'” Braithwaite, 921 P.2d at 999 (quoting Crookston v. Fire Ins. Exch., 817 P.2d 789, 799 (Utah 1991)). Further,

“The trial court [is] justified in granting a j.n.o.v. only if, after looking at the evidence and all of its reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to [the nonmoving party], the trial court concludes that there [is] no competent evidence to support [**4] a verdict in [the nonmoving party’s] favor.”

Id. (quoting Gold Standard, Inc. v. Getty Oil Co., 915 P.2d 1060, 1066 (Utah 1996)). “On appeal, we apply the same standard. In determining whether competent evidence supports the verdict, we accept as true all testimony and reasonable inferences flowing therefrom that tend to prove [the nonmoving party’s] case, and we disregard all conflicts [*786] and evidence that tend to disprove its case.” Gold Standard, 915 P.2d at 1066 (citing Koer v. Mayfair Mkts., 19 Utah 2d 339, 340, 431 P.2d 566, 568-69 (1967) (additional citation omitted). Thus, if we determine that there was competent evidence supporting the jury’s verdict, we must reverse the trial court’s grant of the j.n.o.v.

ANALYSIS

Although there is no helpful Utah authority, other state and federal courts have dealt with similar ski collision cases.

In LaVine v. Clear Creek Skiing Corp., 557 F.2d 730, 735 (10th Cir. 1977), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the plaintiff could not recover from defendant for injuries sustained in a mid-mountain ski collision. Similar to the case at bar, the defendant was skiing behind [**5] the plaintiff and failed to alert plaintiff of his presence before they collided. See id. at 735. The LaVine court specifically rejected the appellant’s claim of negligence: “Appellant contends that the collision itself conclusively establishes the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s right to recover. We disagree.” Id.

More recently, in Dillworth v. Gambardella, 970 F.2d 1113, 1114 (2d Cir. 1992), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with a similar issue: “Whether collisions between skiers require as a matter of law . . . a finding of negligence on the part of at least one skier.” In Dillworth, the parties had significantly different versions of the facts leading up to the mid-mountain collision, but the result was the same as this case–significant injuries to the party bringing the cause of action. See id. at 1114-15. The Dillworth court stated [HN3] some collisions between skiers may be as a result of the obvious and necessary risks inherent in skiing, and accidents might occur despite the exercise of ordinary and reasonable care and without negligence by either skier. . . . Like all others, skiers owe that degree of care an ordinary prudent person [**6] would exercise under like or similar circumstances. One skier is not the insurer of another skier’s safety nor, absent negligence, is one skier liable to another for inadvertent or accidental contact. . . . Thus . . . skiers who lose control even while exercising due care–that is, have breached no duty owed to other skiers–may pose a danger which is inherent, obvious and necessary to participate in the sport of skiing.

Id. at 1122 (citing LaVine, 557 F.2d 734-35) (additional citations omitted).

Cases that have supported a finding of negligence in a ski collision have required proof of some negligent conduct before the collision. For example, in Freeman v. Hale, 30 Cal. App. 4th 1388, 36 Cal. Rptr. 2d 418, 420 (Cal. Ct. App. 1994), two skiers collided while descending a ski slope and the plaintiff suffered severe injuries as a result of the accident. In Freeman, however, the defendant had consumed a large quantity of alcohol, and was inebriated when the collision occurred. See 36 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 420. The California Court of Appeals succinctly summarized its conclusion that a negligence regime was the proper way to analyze liability: “While Hale did not have a duty [**7] to avoid an inadvertent collision with Freeman, he did have a duty to avoid increasing the risk of such a collision.” Id. at 423-24 (citing Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 834 P.2d 696, 710-11 (Cal. 1992)). The Freeman court concluded that alcohol consumption was not an integral aspect of skiing, and that by consuming alcohol prior to and during his skiing, defendant breached his duty to plaintiff “‘not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport.'” 36 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 421 (quoting Knight, 834 P.2d at 710).

In sum, [HN4] a skier does have a duty to other skiers to ski reasonably and within control. However, an inadvertent fall on a ski slope, alone, does not constitute a breach of this duty. We conclude, after a careful review of the trial record, that Ricci failed to introduce any competent evidence that Schoultz was skiing negligently before his sudden and unexpected fall in front of Ricci. Ricci himself testified about the conditions and events just before the accident, noting that up to one second before the collision, Schoultz was skiing in control. Schoultz’s [*787] loss of control and fall, by itself, does not establish his negligence.

Ricci’s [**8] evidence, including all reasonable inferences drawn from it, is simply insufficient for a jury to have concluded that Schoultz skied negligently. We conclude the trial court was correct in determining that Schoultz did not breach his duty of reasonable care to Ricci by accidentally falling into Ricci when there was no evidence that Schoultz was skiing negligently at the time of his fall. Because we agree with the trial court’s ruling, we do not reach the questions of whether a new trial should have been granted or whether the trial court’s decisions to exclude Schoultz’s expert witness testimony were proper.

CONCLUSION

Some collisions between skiers are an inherent risk of skiing and may occur absent negligence, as in this case. Thus, we affirm the trial court’s grant of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

Judith M. Billings, Judge

I CONCUR:

Russell W. Bench, Judge

DISSENT BY: GREGORY K. ORME

DISSENT

ORME, Judge (dissenting):

By focusing on the evidence plaintiff presented, rather than all evidence in the record and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, my colleagues take a too narrow view of our role in reviewing a trial court’s reversal of a [**9] jury’s verdict. Simply stated, the question is not whether the evidence plaintiff presented supports the jury’s verdict; rather, it is whether any evidence from whatever source will support it. See Gold Standard, Inc. v. Getty Oil Co., 915 P.2d 1060, 1066 (Utah 1996) (“In determining whether competent evidence supports the verdict, we accept as true all testimony and reasonable inferences flowing therefrom that tend to prove [the nonmoving party’s] case, and we disregard all conflicts and evidence that tend to disprove its case.”). As the Fifth Circuit has noted,

on motions for directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict the Court should consider all of the evidence– not just that evidence which supports the non-mover’s case–but in the light and with all reasonable inferences most favorable to the party opposed to the motion.Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374 (5th Cir. 1969) (en banc), overruled on other grounds, Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331, 336, 339 (5th Cir. 1997). Accord Guilbeau v. W. W. Henry Co., 85 F.3d 1149, 1161 (5th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 136 L. Ed. 2d 713, 117 S. Ct. 766 (1997); Lamb [**10] ex rel. Shepard v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 1 F.3d 1184, 1187 (11th Cir. 1993); Epoch Producing Corp. v. Killiam Shows Inc., 522 F.2d 737, 743 (2d Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 424 U.S. 955, 47 L. Ed. 2d 360, 96 S. Ct. 1429 (1976); Anderson v. Lykes Pasco Packing Co., 503 So. 2d 1269, 1271-72 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1986); Millet v. Cormier, 671 So. 2d 1101, 1107-08 (La. Ct. App.), cert. denied, 673 So. 2d 1036 (La. 1996).

In this case, the jury might well have believed defendant’s testimony that he was skiing in complete control until immediately before the accident, that his skis did not come apart, and that he did not fall. Rejecting defendant’s testimony that he was hit from behind by plaintiff, which was essentially impossible given where the two ended up after the collision, the jury was also free to disbelieve plaintiff’s recollection that defendant’s skis separated and defendant merely fell into plaintiff’s path. The jury could nonetheless have believed plaintiff’s testimony that, immediately prior to the collision, he was skiing in control and a safe distance from defendant and defendant’s apparently intended route. Mindful that plaintiff and defendant ended up [**11] in a heap well off the ski run, in a position consistent with defendant hitting into plaintiff at high speed, the jury might well have inferred that the only way the accident could have occurred was if defendant, fully in control, carelessly and precipitously turned sharply to the left, hitting the unsuspecting plaintiff, who had every reason to assume defendant was going to continue with his pattern of tight turns as plaintiff passed uneventfully on the left.

To be sure, this is not exactly the theory plaintiff developed at trial, but it is a scenario that emerges quite readily if one reviews all the evidence and all reasonable inferences that could be drawn therefrom in the light [*788] most favorable to the jury’s verdict. If that is what the jury concluded, then the accident was caused by defendant’s negligence, not an inadvertent fall. Accordingly, the trial court should not have disturbed the jury’s verdict, and we should reinstate it.

Gregory K. Orme, Judge


Retailers in a minority of states may have a defense to product liability claims when they have nothing to do with the manufacture of the product.

The Passive-Retailer doctrine provides a defense for companies in the supply chain who have no hand, influence or part of the manufacturing process. The key word in the defense is the word passive.

Mcquivey v. Fulmer Helmets, Inc., 2014 UT App 177; 335 P.3d 361; 766 Utah Adv. Rep. 32; 2014 Utah App. LEXIS 184; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P19,438

State: Utah, Court of Appeals of Utah

Plaintiff: Jamie Mcquivey

Defendant: Kim Yong Lung Industrial (KYL), which manufactured the helmet in Taiwan; Fulmer Helmets, which distributed the helmet throughout the American market; and White Knuckle Motor Sports, which sold the helmet

Plaintiff Claims: strict liability for defective design as well as negligence and failure to warn, Utah Product Liability Act

Defendant Defenses: Passive retailer defense

Holding: For the plaintiff

Year: 2014

The facts in this case are a little outside of the normal facts written about here. However, the defense in the case is rare and the opportunity to write about the case is important.

This case involves a helmet that failed during an ATV accident. The eight-year-old son of the plaintiff was riding an ATV when he crashed. His helmet cracked, and the helmet cut his face. The mother sued the Manufacturer, the importer distributor and the retailer.

The manufacturer and retailer were dismissed from the case leaving only the importer, Fulmer. The retailer was dismissed because “White Knuckle [retailer] had neither knowledge of potential defects nor influence over the helmet’s design, safety, or manufacturing.” The manufacturer was dismissed because it moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The importer/defendant then moved to dismiss based on the theory that Fulmer was a passive retailer and could not be held liable for the defects in the helmet. The district court agreed and dismissed Fulmer. The plaintiff appealed that decision leading to this appeal.

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

The court first went through Utah Product liability law.

Under general principles of tort law, “as between an injured buyer of a product, and the seller of the product, the seller must bear the liability.”

Under Utah’s Product Liability Act, a “manufacturer or other initial seller” who sells an “unreasonably dangerous product” may be liable for resulting “personal injury, death, or property damage.”

Under Utah’s law, strict liability does not require proof of fault, only that the manufacturer sold a defective helmet.

The court then defined the Passive-Retailer Doctrine.

The passive-retailer doctrine creates an exception to strict liability under the Product Liability Act for “passive retailers”–sellers who do not “participate in the design, manufacture, engineering, testing, or assembly” of a product. Under this doctrine, “a passive retailer is not subject to a strict liability claim . . . where the manufacturer is a named party to the action.” The passive-retailer doctrine thus allows the trial court to dismiss a strict-liability claim against a codefendant when undisputed facts establish that no fact finder could, under principles of comparative fault, apportion fault to that codefendant. In this circumstance, “as long as [the actual manufacturer] is present in the suit, there remains no reason to require [a passive retailer] to incur the time and expense of defending” the action.

This is a defense for retailers, that has been adopted by a minority of states. It makes sense in today’s world of prepackaged products that are too complicated for the normal retailer to understand.

This decision found legislatures in Nebraska, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee and Washington had adopted a variation of the doctrine. Courts in Texas, New York, and Oklahoma adopted  the doctrine.

In Utah, the doctrine only was used twice. However, in this case this court found the doctrine did not apply. The defendant Fulmer did more than merely import and sell the helmets.

The defendant’s name was on the helmets, and they were marketed as Fulmer’s helmets. Fulmer reviewed the design of the helmets, tested samples and made changes to the samples. Fulmer performed on-site visits to the manufacturing facility twice annually. Fulmer required the helmets to be manufactured to US DOT standards.

Finally, we note that Fulmer holds itself out to the public as the manufacturer of the helmets that bear its name. Under Second Restatement of Torts, “[o]ne who puts out as his own product a chattel manufactured by another is subject to the same liability, as though he were its manufacturer.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 400 (1965). “[O]ne puts out a chattel as his own product when he puts it out under his name or affixes to it his trade name or trademark.”

This level of participation was found by the court to be more than passive. The court based on this review found the defendant importer did not qualify for the defense of the Passive Retailer doctrine and sent the case back for trial.

So Now What?

The product liability laws in the US were developed to protect people. That worked when everyone in the supply chain from the manufacturer to the retailer could identify a defect and stop the sale of a defective product. That time ended when we moved from a “general store” to the current marketing system we use today.

If you are a retailer, you should investigate if the Passive-Retailer Doctrine applies to you in your state. Find out what you need to do to make sure you understand the doctrine and how you must work to be afforded its protection.

If you are a manufacturer, you need to understand who in your supply chain may be subject to this defense and keep that in mind when dealing with everyone in your supply chain to keep the defense viable.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Mcquivey v. Fulmer Helmets, Inc., 2014 UT App 177; 335 P.3d 361; 766 Utah Adv. Rep. 32; 2014 Utah App. LEXIS 184; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P19,438

Mcquivey v. Fulmer Helmets, Inc., 2014 UT App 177; 335 P.3d 361; 766 Utah Adv. Rep. 32; 2014 Utah App. LEXIS 184; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P19,438

Jamie Mcquivey, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Fulmer Helmets, Inc., Defendant and Appellee.

No. 20121056-CA

COURT OF APPEALS OF UTAH

2014 UT App 177; 335 P.3d 361; 766 Utah Adv. Rep. 32; 2014 Utah App. LEXIS 184; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P19,438

July 31, 2014, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Fourth District Court, Provo Department. The Honorable Claudia Laycock. No. 090403384.

COUNSEL: Mark R. Taylor, Henry N. Didier Jr., and P. Alexander Gillen, Attorneys for Appellant.

Julianne P. Blanch and Tsutomu L. Johnson, Attorneys for Appellee.

JUDGES: JUDGE J. FREDERIC VOROS JR. authored this Opinion, in which JUDGE JOHN A. PEARCE concurred. JUDGE JAMES Z. DAVIS concurred in the result.

OPINION BY: J. FREDERIC VOROS JR.

OPINION

VOROS, Judge:

[*P1] Eight-year-old Conway Cook crashed an all-terrain vehicle while wearing a protective helmet. Instead of protecting him, the helmet cracked and injured his face. Conway’s mother sued various defendants on his behalf. The district court dismissed the claim against Fulmer Helmets, Inc. under the passive-retailer doctrine. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND 1

1 [HN1] When reviewing a district court’s rulings on a summary judgment motion, we recite all facts and fair inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Poteet v. White, 2006 UT 63, ¶ 7, 147 P.3d 439.

[*P2] In 2008, Conway Cook drove his ATV down a dirt path, trailing his grandfather’s truck. Conway wore a Fulmer Blade AF-C1, a helmet designed for children. While driving along the path, Conway hit a shallow ditch. The impact ejected Conway and flipped [**2] the ATV. The helmet’s chinguard snapped on impact, and the sharp edge of the now-serrated plastic guard cut deeply into Conway’s face. His injuries were serious and will require lifelong care and future surgeries.

[*P3] On Conway’s behalf, his mother, Jamie McQuivey, sued three parties: Kim Yong Lung Industrial (KYL), which manufactured the helmet in Taiwan; Fulmer Helmets, which distributed the helmet throughout the American market; and White Knuckle Motor Sports, which sold the helmet to Conway’s father. Against Fulmer, McQuivey alleged strict liability for defective design as well as negligence and failure to warn.

[*P4] The district court dismissed McQuivey’s claims against both KYL and White Knuckle. McQuivey stipulated to White Knuckle’s dismissal because the evidence showed that White Knuckle had neither knowledge of potential defects nor influence over the helmet’s design, safety, or manufacturing. KYL moved to dismiss the claims against it for lack of personal jurisdiction. Fulmer and McQuivey did not oppose the motion, and the district court granted it, leaving Fulmer as the lone defendant.

[*P5] Fulmer moved for summary judgment. Fulmer argued that, as a passive retailer, it could not be [**3] held liable for defects in the helmet. The district court agreed and dismissed all claims against Fulmer, terminating the litigation.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

[*P6] McQuivey contends that the district court erred in granting summary judgment for Fulmer on the ground that it qualifies as a passive retailer. [HN2] We review a district court’s “legal conclusions and ultimate grant or denial of summary judgment for correctness . . . and view[] the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Orvis v. Johnson, 2008 UT 2, ¶ 6, 177 P.3d 600 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Furthermore, “[t]he determination of whether a passive seller of a product can be held strictly liable under the Utah Liability Reform Act . . . is based on the trial court’s interpretation of a statute, which we review for correctness without deference to the trial court’s conclusions.” Yirak v. Dan’s Super Mkts., Inc., 2008 UT App 210, ¶ 3, 188 P.3d 487 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

ANALYSIS

[*P7] McQuivey contends that the district court improperly applied the passive-retailer doctrine to Fulmer and thus erred in dismissing Fulmer from the case. She argues that Fulmer does not qualify as a passive retailer because “[Fulmer] is not passive in the design, manufacturing, [**4] and testing of the helmets bearing its name.” Fulmer responds that it qualifies as a passive retailer because it “does not design or manufacture helmets.”

[*P8] [HN3] Under general principles of tort law, “as between an injured buyer of a product, and the seller of the product, the seller must bear the liability.” Sanns v. Butterfield Ford, 2004 UT App 203, ¶ 15, 94 P.3d 301. Utah has long recognized a cause of action against the seller of defective products. Hahn v. Armco Steel Co., 601 P.2d 152, 158 (Utah 1979). Under Utah’s Product Liability Act, a “manufacturer or other initial seller” who sells an “unreasonably dangerous product” may be liable for resulting “personal injury, death, or property damage.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-703(1) (LexisNexis 2008). And under the Second Restatement of Torts, section 402A, the commercial seller of a defective product may be held strictly liable–liable without proof of fault–for harm caused by the product:

One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property, if (a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and (b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A (1965) expressly [**5] adopted in Hahn, 601 P.2d at 158. Thus, because “strict liability does not require an examination of a party’s fault,” a manufacturer or other initial seller can be held liable for a defective product regardless of its degree of fault. Sanns, 2004 UT App 203, ¶ 14 n.5, 94 P.3d 301. However, these rules exist in tension with another feature of Utah tort law: comparative fault.

[*P9] Comparative fault became the law of Utah in 1986. Before that time, Utah applied the common-law rule of joint-and-several liability. Under joint-and-several liability, “a tortfeasor was potentially liable for the entire amount of a plaintiff’s damages, irrespective of what proportion of fault was actually attributable to that individual tortfeasor as opposed to another joint tortfeasor.” National Serv. Indus. v. B.W. Norton Mfg. Co., 937 P.2d 551, 554 (Utah Ct. App. 1997). In 1986, the Utah Legislature enacted the Liability Reform Act. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-5-820(1) (LexisNexis 2008). [HN4] The Act replaced the rule of joint-and-several tort liability with a rule of comparative fault. A plaintiff’s “recovery of damages under the Product Liability Act is proportionate to the percentage of fault attributable to each defendant.” Yirak, 2008 UT App 210, ¶ 4, 188 P.3d 487. The Act defines “fault” to include strict liability. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-5-817(2) (LexisNexis 2008). Consequently, a plaintiff in a products-liability case may recover from each defendant only [**6] in proportion to that defendant’s fault (including strict liability).2

2 We previously noted that the legislature’s “inclusion of ‘strict liability’ in defining ‘fault’ is confusing and somewhat problematic because unlike negligence, strict liability does not require an examination of a party’s fault.” Sanns v. Butterfield Ford, 2004 UT App 203, ¶ 14 n.5, 94 P.3d 301. “The use of strict liability in this statutory definition should be viewed only as a cause of action subject to the [Liability Reform Act], rather than changing the traditional use of the term fault to somehow include strict liability, a liability concept that is unconcerned with fault in the usual sense of culpability.” Id.

[*P10] Tension inheres between the principles of Utah’s comparative-fault statute and Utah’s products-liability statute because together they require a finder of fact to apportion relative fault to a codefendant whose liability does not depend on fault as commonly understood in tort law. In response to this tension, this court devised the passive-retailer doctrine.

[*P11] [HN5] The passive-retailer doctrine creates an exception to strict liability under the Product Liability Act for “passive retailers”–sellers who do not “participate in the design, manufacture, engineering, testing, or [**7] assembly” of a product. Sanns, 2004 UT App 203, ¶ 21, 94 P.3d 301. Under this doctrine, “a passive retailer is not subject to a strict liability claim . . . where the manufacturer is a named party to the action.” Yirak v. Dan’s Super Mkts. Inc., 2008 UT App 210, ¶ 5, 188 P.3d 487. The passive-retailer doctrine thus allows the trial court to dismiss a strict-liability claim against a codefendant when undisputed facts establish that no fact finder could, under principles of comparative fault, apportion fault to that codefendant. In this circumstance, “as long as [the actual manufacturer] is present in the suit, there remains no reason to require [a passive retailer] to incur the time and expense of defending” the action. Sanns, 2004 UT App 203, ¶ 21, 94 P.3d 301.3

3 Other jurisdictions have sought to protect passive sellers from the effects of section 402A in other ways or left them unprotected. Some jurisdictions that adopted section 402A sought to protect passive sellers with legislation prohibiting a strict-liability suit against a seller unless the seller either manufactures the product or participates in the manufacture of the product. See, e.g., Ga. Code Ann. § 51-1-11.1 (2000); Ind. Code § 34-20-2-3 (2008); Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-21,181 (2008). Other jurisdictions have enacted legislation prohibiting strict-liability suits against passive sellers unless no remedy exists against the manufacturer. See, e.g., Del. Code Ann. tit. 18, § 7001 (1999); Idaho Code Ann. § 6-1407(4) (2010); [**8] Iowa Code § 613.18 (West 1999); Kan. Stat. Ann. § 60-3306 (Supp. 2012); Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 411.340 (LexisNexis 2005); Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-405 (LexisNexis 2013); Minn. Stat. Ann. § 544.41 (West 2010); Mo. Ann. Stat. § 537.762 (West 2008); N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 99B-2 (2013); N.D. Cent. Code § 28-01.3-04 (2006); Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-106 (Supp. 2013); Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 7-72.040(2) (West 2007). And a significant number of jurisdictions that adopted section 402A have not enacted any legislation to protect passive sellers and continue to subject passive sellers to strict liability. See, e.g., Clark v. Williamson, 129 F. Supp. 2d 956, 959 (S.D. Miss. 2000) (applying Mississippi law and holding that a passive retailer could be strictly liable in products-liability suit); Oser v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 951 F. Supp. 115, 119 (S.D. Tex. 1996) (holding that a plaintiff injured by a defective shopping bag can sue the passive retailer); Nichols v. Agway, Inc., 280 A.D.2d 889, 720 N.Y.S.2d 691, 692 (N.Y. App. Div. 1994) (confirming that retailers are subject to strict-liability suits but dismissing on other grounds); Honeywell v. GADA Builders, Inc., 2012 OK CIV APP 11, 271 P.3d 88, 95 (Okla. Civ. App. 2011) (“The rationale for imposing strict liability on retailers and distributors is founded upon the public interests in human safety. . . .”).

[*P12] This court has applied the passive-retailer doctrine only twice.4 In Sanns, a van in which Sanns was a passenger rolled several times. Id. ¶ 2. Sanns sued both the manufacturer–Ford Motor Company–and the retailer– Butterfield Ford. Id. ¶ 3. We held that Butterfield Ford qualified as a passive retailer because it “did not participate in the design, manufacture, engineering, testing, or assembly of the van.” Id. ¶ 21. [**9] As a result, we concluded, “The strict liability ‘fault’ in this case, if any, lies with the manufacturer, not with Butterfield Ford, the passive retailer.” Id. Consequently, we held that “the trial court was correct to dismiss Butterfield Ford.” Id.

4 The Utah Supreme Court has yet to address or apply the passive-retailer doctrine.

[*P13] This court again applied the passive-retailer doctrine in Yirak, 2008 UT App 210, 188 P.3d 487. After discovering a piece of glass in her prepackaged salad, Yirak sued both the seller–Dan’s Super Markets–and the manufacturer–Dole. Id. ¶¶ 2, 5 n.3. However, Dan’s submitted undisputed evidence that it did not “manufacture, design, repackage, label, or inspect the prepackaged salads supplied by Dole.” Id. ¶ 7. Consequently, we held that Dan’s qualified as a passive retailer. Id. ¶ 8.

[*P14] Notably, the passive retailers in Sanns and Yirak did not Participate in the creation of the defective or unreasonably dangerous products at issue in those cases–they did not participate in the products’ design, manufacture, or testing. See Sanns v. Butterfield Ford, 2004 UT App 203, ¶ 21, 94 P.3d 301; Yirak, 2008 UT App 210, ¶ 7, 188 P.3d 487. They were thus not “in a position to eliminate the unsafe character of the product and prevent the loss,” one of the rationales for imposing strict liability. See Hebel v. Sherman Equip., 92 Ill. 2d 368, 442 N.E.2d 199, 205, 65 Ill. Dec. 888 (Ill. 1982).

[*P15] In contrast, [**10] McQuivey presented evidence demonstrating that Fulmer did participate in the manufacture, design, and testing of the helmets that bear its name. First, Fulmer participates in helmet design. Fulmer receives sample helmets from KYL to ensure that they fit properly. One of Fulmer’s representatives stated, “[W]e might have to tell [KYL] this is tight here or loose here and they change something about the comfort padding perhaps to–to adjust the way it fits. But we work through that.” Fulmer also designs the helmets’ graphics and tags.5 Though relatively slight, this degree of involvement in helmet design distinguishes Fulmer from Dan’s and Butterfield Ford, who had no role in the design of the products they sold.

5 Fulmer’s tags contain explicit warnings, instructions for sizing, and a directive stating, “If helmet experiences a severe blow, return it to the manufacturer for competent inspection or destroy and replace it.” Below this direction, in all capital letters, the tag reads, “FULMER HELMETS, INC.”

[*P16] Fulmer also participates in the helmets’ manufacture. Fulmer performs on-site visits to KYL’s helmet factory twice annually. Fulmer examines KYL’s quality-control procedures. Furthermore, Fulmer [**11] requires that KYL manufacture its helmets in compliance with United States Department of Transportation standards, “100 percent, every helmet, all the time.” This level of involvement constitutes “participation” in the manufacturing process. See Sanns, 2004 UT App 203, ¶ 21, 94 P.3d 301.

[*P17] Fulmer also participates in the helmets’ testing. Fulmer requires that KYL test all Fulmer helmets, and Fulmer itself has the helmets tested “from time to time.” As mentioned above, Fulmer test-fits helmets and then instructs KYL to make changes accordingly. Furthermore, Fulmer has had helmets tested “both in KYL as well as in labs in the United States” to ensure that all helmets comply with U.S. standards.

[*P18] Finally, we note that Fulmer holds itself out to the public as the manufacturer of the helmets that bear its name. Under Second Restatement of Torts, “[o]ne who puts out as his own product a chattel manufactured by another is subject to the same liability as though he were its manufacturer.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 400 (1965). “[O]ne puts out a chattel as his own product when he puts it out under his name or affixes to it his trade name or trademark.” Id., § 400 cmt. d. Courts typically refer to this as the “apparent-manufacturer doctrine.” Long v. United States Brass Corp., 333 F. Supp. 2d 999, 1002 (D. Colo. 2004) (citing Yoder v. Honeywell Inc., 104 F.3d 1215, 1223 (10th Cir. 1997)). “The primary rationale for imposing [**12] liability on the apparent manufacturer of a defective product is that it induced the purchasing public to believe that it is the actual manufacturer, and . . . [thus] to purchase the product in reliance on the apparent manufacturer’s reputation and skill in making it.” Hebel, 442 N.E.2d at 203 (emphasis omitted). Although Utah has not yet addressed the question, most jurisdictions to consider the apparent-manufacturer doctrine have adopted it.6

6 See, e.g., Carney v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 309 F.2d 300, 304 (4th Cir. 1962) (citing Highland Pharmacy, Inc. v. White, 144 Va. 106, 131 S.E. 198 (Va. 1926)); Davis v. United States Gauge, 844 F. Supp. 1443, 1446 (D. Kan. 1994); Moody v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 324 F. Supp. 844, 846 (S.D. Ga. 1971) superseded by statute as stated in Freeman v. United Cities Propane Gas, Inc., 807 F. Supp. 1533, 1539-40 (M.D. Ga. 1992); Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Morris, 273 Ala. 218, 136 So. 2d 883, 885 (Ala. 1961); Cravens, Dargan & Co. v. Pacific Indem. Co., 29 Cal. App. 3d 594, 105 Cal. Rptr. 607, 611 (Ct. App. 1972); King v. Douglas Aircraft Co., 159 So.2d 108, 110 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App.1963); Dudley Sports Co. v. Schmitt, 151 Ind. App. 217, 279 N.E.2d 266, 273 (Ind. Ct. App. 1972); Tice v. Wilmington Chem. Corp., 259 Iowa 27, 141 N.W.2d 616, 628 (Iowa 1966); Penn v. Inferno Mfg. Corp., 199 So.2d 210, 215 (La. Ct. App. 1967); Coca Cola Bottling Co. v. Reeves, 486 So.2d 374, 378 (Miss. 1986) superseded by statute as stated in Turnage v. Ford Motor Co., 260 F. Supp. 2d 722, 727 (S.D. Ind. 2003)); Slavin v. Francis H. Leggett & Co., 114 N.J.L. 421, 177 A. 120, 121 (N.J. 1935) aff’d, 117 N.J.L. 101, 186 A. 832 (N.J. 1936)); Andujar v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 193 A.D.2d 415, 597 N.Y.S.2d 78, 78 (App. Div. 1993) (citing Commissioners of State Ins. Fund v. City Chem. Corp., 290 N.Y. 64, 48 N.E.2d 262, 265 (N.Y. 1943)); Warzynski v. Empire Comfort Sys., Inc., 102 N.C. App. 222, 401 S.E.2d 801, 803-04 (N.C. Ct. App. 1991); Forry v. Gulf Oil Corp., 428 Pa. 334, 237 A.2d 593, 599 (Pa. 1968); Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Black, 708 S.W.2d 925, 928 (Tex. App. 1986); Wojciuk v. United States Rubber Co., 13 Wis. 2d 173, 108 N.W.2d 149, 152-53 (Wis. 1961).

[*P19] As McQuivey has not urged us to adopt the apparent manufacturer doctrine here, we reserve that question for another day. We note, however, that Fulmer distributed the Blade AF-C1 helmet under its own name; typically describes itself as the “manufacturer” of Fulmer helmets on equipment safety reports filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and puts its name on tags inside its helmets, certifying that they meet the applicable safety standards.

[*P20] Even without resort to the apparent-manufacturer doctrine, we conclude that the district court erred in granting summary judgment for Fulmer as a passive retailer. See [**13] Sanns, 2004 UT App 203, ¶ 21, 94 P.3d 301. Although KYL principally conducted the manufacturing, design, and testing of the helmets, [HN6] the passive-retailer doctrine does not ask whose role in manufacturing a defective product was the greatest; rather it asks whether a party “participate[d] in the design, manufacture, engineering, testing, or assembly of” the product. Id. This follows from the passive-retailer doctrine’s rationale, which is to dismiss codefendants to whom the finder of fact will, should the matter go to trial, inevitably apportion no fault.7

7 McQuivey also argues that the court erred in granting summary judgment in Fulmer’s favor on two other grounds: first, that “the passive-retailer doctrine is inappropriate” here because “the alleged manufacturer was never a proper party to this case,” and second, that “even if the doctrine otherwise applied, only the strict-liability claims against Fulmer should be dismissed.” Because we determine that the court erred in ruling that Fulmer qualifies as a passive retailer, we do not address these arguments.

CONCLUSION

[*P21] We reverse the district court’s judgment of dismissal and remand the case for further proceedings.


Utah courts like giving money to injured kids. This decision does clarify somewhat murky prior decisions about the defenses provided to a ski area in Utah: there are none.

A minor was hurt during ski racing practice by hitting a mound of machine-made snow. The Utah Skier Safety Act is weak and Utah Supreme Court interpretations of the act do nothing but weaken it more. This act clarified those weaknesses and what a Utah ski area can do to protect itself from lawsuits, which is not much really. This court, not finding the act weak enough, agreed with the Utah Supreme Court and eliminated releases as a defense for ski areas in the state of Utah.

Rutherford v. Talisker Canyons Finance Co., LLC, 2014 UT App 190; 767 Utah Adv. Rep. 41; 2014 Utah App. LEXIS 201

State: Utah

Plaintiff: Philip Rutherford and Wendy Rutherford, on Behalf of Their Minor Child, Levi Rutherford

Defendant: Talisker Canyons Finance Co., LLC and ASC UTAH, LLC (The Canyons Ski Area) and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association

Plaintiff Claims: the machine that produced the snow mound was not functioning properly, that the Ski Resort could have warned patrons of the hazard by marking the mound or closing the trail, and that the Ski Resort did not adequately monitor the snowmaking taking place on the Retreat run that day

Defendant Defenses: release, Utah Ski Act,

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2014

Utah famously does not award money for adults who are injured; however, if a minor is injured, as a defendant, be prepared to write a big check. For such a conservative state, the judgments for a minor’s injuries can be massive. In this case, the trial court bent over backwards to allow a case by a minor to proceed even with numerous valid defenses. In all but one case, the appellate court agreed with the plaintiffs.

The minor was going to a race practice. He skied down the hill without changing his position and not turning. He hit a mound of man-made snow and was hurt. His parents sued.

The plaintiff’s sued the resort, Canyons which was identified in the case citation by two different names. The plaintiff also sued the US Ski and Snowboard Association, which were not part of the appeal, but mentioned frequently.

The defendants filed an interlocutory appeal after all of their motions of summary judgment were denied. An Interlocutory appeal is one that is made to a higher court before the lower court has issued a final ruling. The appeal is based on intermediary rulings of the trial court. The appeal can only be heard upon a limited set of rules, which are set out by each of the courts. Interlocutory appeals are rare, normally, when the decision of the lower court will force a new trial because of the rulings if the case goes to trial.

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

The first issue is the application of the Utah’s Inherent Risks of Skiing Act to the case. The trial court ruled the plaintiff was not a competitor as defined by the act. Like many state ski acts the act; a competitor assumes greater risks, and the ski area owes fewer duties to competitors. The trial court based this decision on its review of the facts and determined:

…skiing on an open run that any member of the public could ski on” and that his accident indisputably did not occur during a ski race, while skiing through gates, or while otherwise “negotiating for training purposes something that had been specifically designated as a race course

However, the plaintiffs in their motions and pleadings as well as the plaintiff’s expert witness report stated the minor plaintiff was engaged in race training and practice. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision on this. However, instead of holding the plaintiff was a competitor and assumed more risk; the appellate court required the trial court to determine if plaintiff’s “engagement in race training at the time of his injury is truly undisputed by the parties.”

The next issue was whether the phrase machine-made snow in the act was an inherent risk or an exemption from the risks assumed. The plaintiff’s argued the snow machine was malfunctioning and because of that the resort was negligent. The statute states:

§ 78B-4-402.  Definitions

    (b) snow or ice conditions as they exist or may change, such as hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, or machine-made snow;

The appellate court agreed with the trial court because the supreme court of Utah had found the Utah act:

…does not purport to grant ski area operators complete immunity from all negligence claims initiated by skiers” but protects ski-area operators “from suits to recover for injuries caused by one or more of the dangers listed [in the Act] only to the extent those dangers, under the facts of each case, are integral aspects of the sport of skiing.

This interpretation of the act is the exact opposite of how statutes are normally interpreted and how all other courts have interpreted other state skier safety acts. Instead of providing protection, the act simply lists items the act may protect from litigation. The act is to be interpreted every time by the trial court to determine if the risk encountered by the skier in Utah was something the act my say the skier assumed.

This means most injuries will receive some money from the ski area. The injured skier can sue and the resort and its insurance company will settle for a nominal amount rather than pay the cost of going to trial to prove the injury was something that was an inherent risk as defined by the Utah’s Inherent Risks of Skiing Act.

The court as part of this analysis then looked at the phrase “inherent risk.”

The term ‘inherent risk of skiing,’ using the ordinary and accepted meaning of the term ‘inherent,’ refers to those risks that are essential characteristics of skiing–risks that are so integrally related to skiing that the sport cannot be undertaken without confronting these risks.

This is a normal definition applied to inherent risk. However, the court then went on and quoted the Utah Supreme court as stating.

The court divided these risks into two categories, the first of which represents “those risks, such as steep grades, powder, and mogul runs, which skiers wish to confront as an essential characteristic of skiing.” Under the Act, “a ski area operator is under no duty to make all of its runs as safe as possible by eliminating the type of dangers that skiers wish to confront as an integral part of skiing.”

The second category of risks consists of those hazards which no one wishes to confront but cannot be alleviated by the use of reasonable care on the part of a ski resort,” such as weather and snow conditions that may “suddenly change and, without warning, create new hazards where no hazard previously existed. For this category of risks, “[t]he only duty ski area operators have . . . is the requirement set out in [the Act] that they warn their patrons, in the manner prescribed in the statute, of the general dangers patrons must confront when participating in the sport of skiing.

Then the interpretation of the Supreme Court decision goes off the chart.

However, this does not exonerate a ski-area operator from any “duty to use ordinary care to protect its patrons”; “if an injury was caused by an unnecessary hazard that could have been eliminated by the use of ordinary care, such a hazard is not, in the ordinary sense of the term, an inherent risk of skiing and would fall outside of [the Act].”

Instead of the act providing protection from a list of risks that are part and parcel of skiing, the act in Utah only provides of hazards that if not eliminated will still allow litigation. That is any injury is worth filing suit over because the cost of defending the case will exceed the cost of settling.

How does this apply in this case? The act refers to machine made snow. The complaint states the plaintiff was injured because the snow making machine was not functioning properly. There was no allegation that the snow was at issue, which is protected by the act, just the machine that makes the snow. However, this was enough for the trial court and the appellate court to say the act did not provide immunity for the ski area.

That is the defense of the tree on the side of the road scared me, so I opened the passenger-side door and knocked down the pedestrian. If the snow making machine was malfunctioning, unless it is making “bad” snow that has nothing to do with hitting a mound of snow.

The next issue is the defense of release. This part of the decision actually makes sense.

The US Ski and Snowboard Association has members sign releases. The majority of racing members of the USSA are minors, hoping to become major racers for the US. The USSA is based in Park City, Utah. Utah has always held that a parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue. So the USSA made its choice of law provision Colorado in an attempt to take advantage of Colorado’s laws on releases and minors and releases. (See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.)

However, courts won’t and this court did not, let you get away with such a stretch. The venue and jurisdiction clause in a release must have a basis with where the defendant is located, where the activity (and as such accident) happens or where the plaintiff lives. Here the USSA is based in Park City Utah, the plaintiff lives in Utah and the accident happened in Utah; the Utah trial court and Appellate court properly held the jurisdiction and venue clause in the release was not valid.

On top of that, you need to justify why you are using a foreign state for venue and jurisdiction, in the jurisdiction and venue clause in the release. You need to state with a reasonable degree of plausibility why you are putting the venue in a certain place if it is not the location where the parties are located or the accident occurred. State in the release that in order to control litigation, the jurisdiction and venue of any action will be in the state where the defendant is located.

The release was thrown out before getting to whether a parent can sign away a minor’s right to sue, which the Utah Supreme Court has never upheld. (See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.) However, the appellate court reviewed this issue and also threw the release out because Utah does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. (The Utah Equine and Livestock Activities Act has been amended to allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue for Equine injuries.)

The court then looked at what releases are viable in the ski industry in Utah. In 90 days, the Utah Supreme Court voided a release in a ski case and then upheld a release in a ski case. (See Utah Supreme Court Reverses long position on releases in a very short period of time.) This court stated the differences where a release is void under Utah’s law for recreational skiers. “Our supreme court has interpreted this public policy statement as prohibiting pre-injury releases of liability for negligence obtained by ski-area operators from recreational skiers.”

The public policy statement is the preamble of the Utah’s Inherent Risks of Skiing Act.

The Legislature finds that the sport of skiing is practiced by a large number of residents of Utah and attracts a large number of nonresidents, significantly contributing to the economy of this state. It further finds that few insurance carriers are willing to provide liability insurance protection to ski area operators and that the premiums charged by those carriers have risen sharply in recent years due to confusion as to whether a skier assumes the risks inherent in the sport of skiing. It is the purpose of this act; therefore, to clarify the law in relation to skiing injuries and the risks inherent in that sport, to establish as a matter of law that certain risks are inherent in that sport, and to provide that, as a matter of public policy, no person engaged in that sport shall recover from a ski operator for injuries resulting from those inherent risks.

Simply put this is an analysis of the action of the legislature, by the court, to say, the legislature gave you this, so we, the court, are going to take away releases.

In other words, the Act prohibits pre-injury releases of liability for negligence entirely, regardless of the age of the skier who signed the release or whether the release was signed by a parent on behalf of a child.

The court explained that the Act was designed to strike a “bargain” with ski-area operators by freeing them “from liability for inherent risks of skiing so that they could continue to shoulder responsibility for noninherent risks by purchasing insurance.

The court then looked at whether this release could be applied if the plaintiff was a competitive skier? (Yeah, confusing to me also.)

Following that confusing analysis this court then determined the release by a competitive skier was also invalid, contrary to what the Supreme Court had decided in Berry v. Greater Park City Co., 2007 UT 87, ¶ 17, 171 P.3d 442. However, the court rationalized the analysis by saying the amendment to the ski act, which occurred before the Berry decision, but after the accident giving rise to Berry, made a competitive skier the same as a recreational skier for the purposes of the act therefore no releases were valid in Utah for skiing.

Here is the conclusion of the case.

The trial court’s determination that Levi was not engaged in race training at the time of his injury, especially in the face of the fact, apparently undisputed by the parties, that he was injured during racing practice, was improper in the context of the Ski Resort’s motions for summary judgment. The trial court correctly denied the Ski Resort’s joinder in the Ski Team’s motion for summary judgment based on the Act and correctly granted the Rutherfords’ related partial motion for summary judgment, based on the court’s determination that there were disputed issues of material fact regarding the applicability of the machine-made snow exemption. We affirm the trial court’s denial of the Ski Resort’s motion for summary judgment based on the USSA release and the court’s determination that the Colorado choice-of-law provision in the USSA release is inapplicable here. We agree with the trial court that the release, as it pertains to the Ski Resort, is unenforceable under Utah law, but base this conclusion on different grounds than the trial court.

It almost reads like it is a normal case. The court sent the issue back to the lower court, basically handing the plaintiff the decision. The only thing left to do is determine the amount.

So Now What?

It’s a kid thing in Utah. Kids get hurt the courts’ hand out money. Even the ski industry is not big enough, or organized enough, to do anything about it.

I don’t know of any other reason why this decision would come out this way.

This decision which eliminates releases as a defense for the ski area may trickle down to other recreational activities. Let’s hope not.

So we know the following about Utah and ski areas.

1.       Releases are not a valid defense unless you are racing, actually on the course for a race or practice.

2.      A competitor under the Utah’s Inherent Risks of Skiing Act is only a competitor when racing or running gates.

3.      The Utah’s Inherent Risks of Skiing Act only sets out the defenses available to a ski area if they ski area was not negligent and could not have prevented the accident or risk which caused the accident.

4.      Minor’s in Utah always win.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss               #Authorrank

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