Interesting decision only real defense was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act, which provides little if any real defense.

Defendants are the company that booked the trip (Vail through Grand Teton Lodge Company) and the travel agent who booked the trip.

Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

State: Wyoming

Plaintiff: Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Per-sonal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs

Defendant: Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act

Holding: Mixed, mostly for the plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

Decision looks at the liability of the travel agency and the hotel that booked a rafting float trip where three people died. The only defenses of available were the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act which helped keep the lawsuit in Wyoming applying Wyoming law, but was ineffective in assisting in the defense of the lawsuit.

The rafting company is not part of this decision so probably the raft company settled with the defendants before the case was filed or this motion was heard.

Facts

Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.”

On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria Urrutia. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years.

During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result.

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

The first issue was a choice of laws (jurisdiction and venue) provision in the agreement with the travel agency Tauck, which stated venue was to be in Connecticut. The plaintiff was arguing that the case should be moved to Connecticut, which is odd, because the plaintiff’s filed the case to start in Wyoming. However, since they sued in Wyoming, the plaintiff is still arguing that Connecticut law should apply.

Tauck argued the choice of law provisions was for its benefit, and it had the right to waive that provision in the agreement. The court found that Tauck had the right to waive a provision in the agreement that was there for its benefit.

In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.”

The court held that the provision was for Tauck’s benefit because the living plaintiffs were residents of Georgia and Louisiana.

The court also stated, even it had not found for Tauck on this issue this way; it would have still used Wyoming law because of Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity.

Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of. The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.

Choice of law provisions are usually upheld by the courts; however, there are ways to get around them as this court explained.

The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.

The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation providers in Wyoming:

Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.

The court then reviewed the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act. The plaintiff’s argued the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply for three reasons.

First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants.

Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act.

Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act.

The court found the first argument was already resolved in its analysis of jurisdiction above.

The second argument was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply to the defendant Tauck, because it was a travel agent in Connecticut and not a “provider” as defined under the act. The court found that Tauck was a provider under the act because as part of its package. Provider is defined as “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.”

The final issue was the argument that the state law was pre-empted by federal law. The argument was based on the concessionaire agreement the defendant had with the NPS. Although the concession agreement with the NPS provided for visitor safety, there was nothing in the agreement showing intent to pre-empt the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act.

The court then looked to see if the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act provided a defense in this case. The court first defined Inherent Risk under Wyoming law.

‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.”

[As you can see, the definition of inherent risk is not a broad definition it narrowly defines the risks to those intrinsic or integral to the activity. That leaves out thousands of risks created by man such as steering the raft, water releases, choosing the run, etc. which are probably not protected by the act.]

Outside of the inherent risks, to thwart the act, the plaintiff only needs to argue the risk was not inherent and the case would proceed to trial because the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act does not provide a defense to any risk not inherent in the sport. Because the court could not determine what risks were inherent what were not, it held the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply in this case.

In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park, and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. Complex braiding obscures the main channel, and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.

The court moved on to Tauck’s motion for summary judgment because as a tour agency is was not liable for the negligent acts of third parties, it dealt with. The law supports that argument. “As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control.”

However, that general rules does not apply if a contract with the travel agency or marketing state the travel agency will undertake a duty. (Always remember Marketing makes Promises Risk Management has to Pay for.)

Here the court found the promotional materials were marketing and did not rise to the level to be promises to be kept.

The plaintiff also argued Tauck took on a greater duty to the guests when it undertook the duty to have the guests sign the defendant GTLC’s acknowledgment of risk forms. That duty included duty to inform the guests of the risk associated with river rafting. However, the court could find nothing in Tauck’s action indicating it was accepting a greater duty when it handed out the assumption of the risk forms.

The plaintiff’s created a fraud argument. Under Montana’s law:

To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation

The plaintiff’s argued that the defendants made all sorts of statements and advertising that the float trip was a leisurely scenic trip. The channel the raft guide took was not leisurely but was a dangerous channel by some authorities. However, the issue was, did the defendants intentionally made the statements about the river to induce the plaintiffs to the trip.

The defendants wanted the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages dismissed. In Wyoming, punitive damages appear to be a claim much like negligence. The punitive damages claim was based on the same allegations that the fraud claim was made, that the defendants misrepresented the nature of the float trip.

Punitive damages in Wyoming are:

We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intention-al torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.”

Failing to advise the plaintiffs that the river was running higher than normal because of the spring run off did not rise to a level to be reckless and willful misconduct. The one channel of several the one guide went down was a negligent decision, not a willful one.

So Now What?

Fairly simple, use a release. It would have stopped this lawsuit sooner. If the outfitter would have used a release, it could have protected the lodge and the travel agent. I’m sure the lodge is going to use one now, which will probably just muddy the water because of multiple releases and defendants.

There are very few statutes that provide any real protection in the outdoor recreation industry. Most, in fact, make it easier for the plaintiffs to win. The exception to the rule is a few of the Ski Area Safety Statutes.

Be prepared and do more than rely on a week statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs, vs. Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc., Defendants.

Case No. 08-CV-139-J

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF WYOMING

2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

October 1, 2009, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Alexis R Rizas, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of John J Rizas, John Friel, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Elizabeth A Rizas, Ronald J Miciotto, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Linda Lewis Clark, James Clark, individually, Lawrence Wilson, individually, Joyce Wilson, individually, Plaintiffs: Mel C Orchard, III, Roy A Jacobson, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, SPENCE LAW FIRM Jackson, WY USA.

For Grand Teton Lodge Company, a Wyoming corporation, Defendant: Joe M Teig, LEAD ATTORNEY, Susan Combs, HOLLAND & HART, Jackson, WY USA; Maryjo C Falcone, Peter W Rietz, LEAD ATTORNEY, RIETZ LAW FIRM, Dillon, CO USA.

For Tauck Inc, a New Jersey corporation doing business in the state of Connecticut, also known as Tauck Tours Inc, also known as Tauck World Discovery Inc, Defendant: William M McKellar, LEAD ATTORNEY, McKELLAR TIEDEKEN & SCOGGIN, Cheyenne, WY USA.

JUDGES: ALAN B. JOHNSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: ALAN B. JOHNSON

OPINION

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants’ [*2] motions for summary judgment. Tauck, Inc. filed five motions and Grand Teton Lodge Company (“GTLC”) filed one, all on July 22, 2009. After careful consideration of the arguments and evidence supplied by both Plaintiffs and Defendants, for the reasons discussed in detail below, the Court finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the inherent risk of the river float activity. In all other respects, the Court will grant the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

FACTS

The Court relates the following facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, who are opposing Defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108, ¶ 9. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” Id. ¶ 24. This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming [*3] and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Id. ¶¶ 7, 8. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.” Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Fraud, Ex. 5.

On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. Stipulated Facts ¶ 27. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. Id. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Id. ¶ 28. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria [*4] Urrutia. Id. ¶ 29. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years. Id. ¶ 30.

During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. Id. ¶ 32. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result. Further facts will be discussed as necessary to resolve each legal issue.

DISCUSSION

This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 because there is complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiffs and defendants. Vail Resorts was dismissed from this case for lack of jurisdiction on June 16, 2009. Plaintiffs are citizens of Maryland, Arizona, Louisiana, and Georgia. GTLC is incorporated in Wyoming, which is also its principal place of business. Tauk is incorporated in New Jersey, and its principal place of business is Connecticut.

Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” [*5] Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); e.g., Kerber v. Qwest Pension Plan, 572 F.3d 1135, 1144 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court must view all facts and make inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. E.g., Utah Animal Rights Coalition v. Salt Lake County, 566 F.3d 1236, 1242 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court may consider only admissible evidence. Wright-Simmons v. City of Oklahoma City, 155 F.3d 1264, 1268 (10th Cir. 1998). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(1).

Choice of Law

Because the Court is sitting in diversity, it would normally apply Wyoming law. See Butt v. Bank of America, N.A., 477 F.3d 1171, 1179 (10th Cir. 2007). In this case, however, Plaintiffs have raised a choice-of-law issue by urging this Court to apply Connecticut law. A federal court sitting in diversity applies the choice-of-law principles of the state in which it sits. Morrison Knudson Corp. v. Ground Improvement Techniques, Inc., 532 F.3d 1063, 1077 n.12 (10th Cir. 2008). Accordingly, this Court will apply Wyoming choice-of-law principles.

Plaintiffs first contend that Connecticut law applies because Tauck and its clients signed a contract to that effect. Specifically, the contract states the following:

It is agreed by Tauck World Discovery and the Tour Member that all legal claims, actions and proceedings against Tauck World Discovery under, in connection with, resulting from or incident to a tour may be instituted, if at all, only in a state or federal court within the State of Connecticut, USA, to the exclusion of the courts of or in any other state or jurisdiction. It is further agreed that all such claims, actions and proceedings shall [*6] be governed by and decided in accordance with the laws of the State of Connecticut.

Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims for Fraud, Ex. 2. Tauck counters by claiming that the choice-of-law provision was intended for its benefit, and therefore it can waive that provision. Furthermore, it points out that, if the contract is to be enforced, there are a number of other provisions that would benefit Tauck, such as the choice-of-forum provision in the excerpt above.

In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. J.W. Denio Milling Co. v. Malin, 25 Wyo. 143, 165 P. 1113, 1116 (Wyo. 1917). There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.” E.g., Lanna v. Greene, 399 A.2d 837, 841 (Conn. 1978). See Takahashi v. Pepper Tank & Contracting Co., 58 Wyo. 330, 131 P.2d 339, 354 (Wyo. 1942). The question in this case is whether the choice-of-law provision was included for Tauck’s benefit.

The Court finds that it was. As far as the evidence indicates, none of the tour members or their survivors who are involved in this action are residents of Connecticut. [*7] The three plaintiffs who were also tour members, Mr. Clark and the Wilsons, are residents of Louisiana and Georgia, respectively. The residence of the three deceased tour members is not clear from the evidence submitted to the Court. Even if one of the three decedents were residents of Connecticut, that does not necessarily mean that the provision existed for that person’s benefit. Tauck drafted the provision at issue. The provision benefits Tauck by ensuring that any claims will be litigated in the forum most convenient to it, and under the law with which it is most familiar. Meanwhile, there is little or no benefit to any tour member who is not a resident of Connecticut. Even then, the choice-of-law provision would benefit the tour member by happenstance rather than by intention. Accordingly, Tauck may waive the choice of law provision, and has affirmatively stated that it has done so. Its waiver is further supported by the fact that it has never contended that suit is improper in this Court as a result of the choice-of-forum provision in the same contract.

Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due [*8] to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of Wyoming’s Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through -123 (LexisNexis 2009). The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(iii). Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.

It is this very policy of protecting these providers that renders the contractual choice-of-law provision invalid. The Wyoming Supreme Court has not answered the question of whether the Act represents so strong a Wyoming policy as to render invalid a contractual choice-of-law provision that would eliminate the Act’s application. This Court believes that Wyoming, like other states, would look to general contract principles to resolve this question. The Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 187 (1971) states:

(1) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern [*9] their contractual rights and duties will be applied if the particular issue is one which the parties could have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue.

(2) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern their contractual rights and duties will be applied, even if the particular issue is one which the parties could not have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue, unless either

(a) the chosen state has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction and there is no other reasonable basis for the parties choice, or

(b) application of the law of the chosen state would be contrary to a fundamental policy of a state which has a materially greater interest than the chosen state in the determination of the particular issue and which, under the rule of § 188, would be the state of the applicable law in the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties.

(3) In the absence of a contrary indication of intention, the reference is to the local law of the state of the chosen law.

The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract [*10] because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.

The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i) (LexisNexis 1989). In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” 1996 Wyo. Sess. Laws ch. 78, § 1. Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation [*11] providers in Wyoming:

The Court recognizes that its reading of the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act provides enormous protection to those in the business of providing recreational activities. . . . Consumers in Wyoming are now faced with an entire industry whose economic and consequent legislative power enables them to conduct business with only a passing thought to the safety of those who utilize their services. Despite this frightening prospect, the Court recognizes its place in our nation’s federal system of government. A court should not decimate the purpose of a legislative act, no matter how distasteful, when that purpose is clearly incorporated in the language of the act.

Cooperman v. David, 23 F. Supp. 2d 1315, 1321 (D. Wyo. 1998). Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.

The Court’s decision is consistent with precedent set by the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. In Electrical Distributers, Inc. v. SFR, Inc., one issue considered by the court was whether the trial court properly applied Colorado law where a covenant not to compete named Colorado as the applicable law, [*12] but was to be performed exclusively in Utah. 166 F.3d 1074, 1083-84 (10th Cir. 1999). Using the analysis that this Court has adopted above, the Court of Appeals determined that Utah’s strong interest in careful scrutiny of covenants not to compete controlled over any interest Colorado had in enforcement of a contract made within its boundaries, but to be performed outside them. Id.

Recreation Safety Act

Defendants rely on Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act and claim that, pursuant to the Act, they owed no duty of care to any of the tour members. In response, Plaintiffs provide three reasons that the Act does not apply. First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants. Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act. Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act. The Court will now address Plaintiffs second and third arguments in turn.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(ii) defines “provider” as follows: “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.” Plaintiffs claim that Tauck is not a provider because of its position that it did not conduct the activity itself, but rather was a travel agent [*13] that procured the raft trip on behalf of its tour members. In doing so, however, Plaintiffs overlook the undisputed fact that Tauck offered the float trip as part of its tour package. Given that the Act includes offering a recreational opportunity in its definition of “provider,” it is obvious that Tauck is, in fact, a provider.

Plaintiffs’ preemption argument requires significantly more discussion. State law may be preempted by federal law in three ways. First, Congress may expressly preempt state law. Barnett Bank of Marion County, N.A. v. Nelson, 517 U.S. 25, 31, 116 S. Ct. 1103, 134 L. Ed. 2d 237 (1996). Second, Congress may preempt an entire field by regulating that field so comprehensively that there is no room for state regulation. Id. at 31. Third, federal and state law may be in irreconcilable conflict, preempting state law even though Congress has not explicitly stated its intent to do so. Id. None of these three types of preemption occurred in this case.

The specific federal “law” that Plaintiffs believe preempt the Act is the concession contract between GTLC and the National Park Service. In particular, Plaintiffs point to the following language in the concession contract:

The Concessioner is responsible for providing a safe and healthful environment for its employees and clients as outlined [*14] in the Contract. The Concessioner will develop a Risk Management Program that will be approved by the Service in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and Service Guidelines. The Risk Management Program will be reviewed annually by the Service.

Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion For Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 3. Plaintiffs claim that the concession contract “change[s] the character of the state law provisions encompassed by” the Act, and therefore results in an actual conflict between state and federal law. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, at 12. Plaintiffs also point to the National Park Service Management Policies 2006, which provides for visitor safety emergency response and emergency preparedness. That document refers several times to the safety of visitors to the park. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 4.

Plaintiffs make an argument similar to that raised by the plaintiff in Carden v. Kelly, 175 F. Supp. 2d 1318 (D. Wyo. 2001). In Carden, this Court summarized the plaintiffs’ arguments as follows:

1) Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, the Bridger-Teton National Forest; 2) Defendants, in order to operate [*15] their business in the Bridger-Teton National Forest had to obtain a special-use permit from the Forest Service; 3) because Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, federal law, namely Forest Service regulations and the Defendants’ special-use permit apply; 4) the special-use permit contains provisions concerning negligence and injury to patrons of Forest Service permit holders, which Plaintiff claims requires the permit holders to inform their guests of the risks and have them sign a risk acknowledgment form; and 5) provisions in the Forest Service regulations requiring patrons of the Forest Service concessionaires to assume “usual” risks of activities within the National Forest conflicts with, and thus preempts, the Wyoming Recreation Statute.

Carden, 175 F. Supp. 2d at 1322. The Court determined that, although Congress had the authority to pre-empt the Recreation Safety Act on federal lands, it did not do so. Id. at 1322-26.

In the current case, the Court will follow Carden‘s sound reasoning. The Management Policies and the concession contract cited by Plaintiffs do broadly emphasize the Park Service’s interest in public safety, but does not indicate any intent to preempt Wyoming tort law. “Courts do not ‘lightly attribute [*16] to Congress or to a federal agency the intent to preempt state or local laws.'” Ramsey Winch Inc. v. Henry, 555 F.3d 1199, 1204 (10th Cir. 2009) quoting Nat’l Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass’n v. Killian, 918 F.2d 671, 676 (7th Cir. 1990).

Plaintiffs in the case at bar attempt to distinguish Carden by noting that the requirements in Carden were imposed by the Forest Service, while this case involves the Park Service. Plaintiffs do not point out how this fact is relevant, and the Court does not discern any. The Park Service was created to

promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

16 U.S.C. § 1. Its mission is therefore one of conservation, and the Court does not perceive any intent to impact state tort law. The Court finds that federal law has not preempted the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act.

It is now incumbent upon the Court to determine if the Act applies to the circumstances of this case and insulates the defendants from liability. The Act states, in relevant part,

(a) Any person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in that sport [*17] or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for any and all damage, injury or death to himself or other persons or property that results from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.

(b) A provider of any sport or recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity.

(c) Actions based upon negligence of the provider wherein the damage, injury or death is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity shall be preserved pursuant to W.S. 1-1-109.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123.

Past disputes regarding the Act’s application involve, as does this case, questions about what constitutes an “inherent risk.” “‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.” Id. § 1-1-122(a)(i). The Wyoming Supreme Court has had few occasions to address the determination of what is an inherent risk of a particular activity. One of the more recent cases arose as a certified question from this Court. Jackson Hole Mount. Resort Corp. v. Rohrman, 2006 WY 156, 150 P.3d 167 (Wyo. 2006). The [*18] question certified was: “When faced with motions for summary judgment in which there are no genuine issues of material fact, how should a court differentiate, as a matter of law, between ‘inherent risks’ . . . and non-inherent risks . . . ?” Id. at 168.

[The] general answer is that if such a motion is filed, the trial court must scrutinized the facts brought forward by the parties with great care. If the court can say that, given the evidence, this is an “inherent risk” and reasonable minds cannot differ about that, then summary judgment is appropriate. If the risk is an inherent one, then the provider has no duty to eliminate, alter, or control it. On the other hand, if reasonable minds could differ as to whether or not the risk was one inherent to the recreational activity, then summary judgment is not appropriate and the answer to the question must be assigned to the jury (or other fact finder).

Id. This formulation, of course, depends on properly characterizing the activity and risk. For example, in the current case, the activity may be characterized as a “scenic float trip”–as Plaintiffs do throughout their memorandum in opposition to summary judgment–or as “river rafting.” The particular [*19] risk may be described generically as falling out of the boat or, more specifically, as colliding with a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft.

Governing precedent demands that the activity and risk be described as particularly as possible. In Cooperman v. David, for example, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit stated that, “[w]hen attempting to determine whether a risk is inherent to a sport, we can not look at the risk in a vacuum, apart from the factual setting to which the [injured person] was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record.” 214 F.3d 1162, 1167 (10th Cir. 2000). In this case, the activity is best described as river floating under the water conditions that were apparent when the tour members embarked. The risk is best described as the risk that the raft would encounter a log jam, ejecting one or more tour members into the river.

Applying the law from this point forward is somewhat more problematic because the precedent in this area is not entirely clear. In Cooperman, the court affirmed this Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant because a loose saddle cinch was an inherent risk of the activity of horseback [*20] riding. Id. at 1169. The trial court received expert testimony that a slipping saddle was a risk inherent to horseback riding. Id. at 1168. There was also testimony that the particular saddle at issue was cinched too loosely, and an inference that the loose cinching caused the saddle to slip. Id. The Cooperman court said that, even with this evidence, the risk was inherent because a person cinching a saddle had to balance between doing so too tightly and too loosely. “This imprecision in the cinching of the saddle is ‘characteristic’ or ‘typical’ of and therefore ‘inherent in’ the sport of horseback riding.” Id. Critically, the court stated,

As part of the Coopermans’ burden of showing that [the provider] owed Dr. Cooperman a duty of care, the Coopermans must provide some evidence to explain why the saddle fell, which explanation is not inherent to the sport. . . . Thus, stating only that the cinch was not tight enough does not show that the risk was no longer inherent to the sport. The Coopermans have the burden of presenting some evidence on summary judgment that would raise a question of fact that the loosely cinched saddle was caused, not by an inherent risk, but rather by a risk that was atypical, uncharacteristic, [*21] not intrinsic to, and thus not inherent in, the recreational activity of horseback riding. The Coopermans have not met this burden.

Id. at 1168-69.

The current case presents certain parallels. It is undisputed based on the evidence before the Court that being ejected or otherwise falling out of a raft is generally an inherent risk of river floating. For example, Sheri Griffith, an outfitter and river guide, testified that it is an inherent risk that a person might “become a swimmer” during a float trip. Griffith Depo. 152. There is no testimony that contradicts her opinion. It is also undisputed that the rafting guide instructed the tour members that, if they were to end up in the river, the proper procedure was to float on their back until they could be recovered. L. Wilson Depo. 318; Hobbs Depo. 136. This is similar to the expert testimony in Cooperman that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding: it describes the risk in general terms without looking at the specific cause. Also like Cooperman, Plaintiffs in this case have not submitted admissible evidence that describes a specific cause of the injury, and shown that the particular cause falls outside of the realm of being an inherent [*22] risk. Following the Cooperman analysis, then, the Court would conclude that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether encountering a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft is an inherent risk of river floating.

But the Court must also consider Sapone v. Grand Targhee, Inc., 308 F.3d 1096 (10th Cir. 2002). In that case, a six-year-old girl was injured when her horse bolted. Sapone, 308 F.3d at 1098. The plaintiffs presented evidence from an expert that “(1) the instructions were inadequate, (2) the horse was too large, (3) headgear should have been provided, (4) the trail ride may have been too dangerous, and (5) her parents were not notified of the accident.” Id. at 1104. It is not entirely clear why these facts would affect the nature of the risk. The court concluded “that a reasonable jury might conclude that [the girl’s] injuries were the result of negligence that is not characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part [of] horseback riding.” Id. at 1105. Two possible interpretations of this passage are that negligence is never an integral part of horseback riding, or that some negligence is an integral part, but not the negligent acts complained of in that case. The former interpretation would render the statute futile [*23] as a way to safeguard recreation providers against liability, so it is unlikely that the Court of Appeals intended that meaning. The latter interpretation is more plausible, but raises the difficult question of what types of negligence are inherent to a particular activity and which are not. In either case, a trial court or fact finder is confronted with the difficult task of determining whether negligence occurred in order to determine whether the defendant owed a duty.

In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Rutter Depo. Ex. 1. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. [*24] Complex braiding obscures the main channel and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.

Negligence

Tauck moved for summary judgment in its favor on Plaintiffs’ negligence claim. Tauck’s argument boils down to an assertion that it is essentially a travel agency, and therefore is not liable for any negligence committed by GTLC. Plaintiffs contend that Tauck is a common carrier, and therefore subject to a heightened duty of care. They also assert that Tauck assumed a duty to warn of dangerous conditions when it distributed a form entitled “Acknowledgment of Risk” on the way to the river.

As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control. E.g., Sova v. Apple Vacations, 984 F. Supp. 1136, 1140 (S.D. Ohio 1997).1 The general rule may not apply, however, in the face of contractual language to the [*25] contrary. In this case, Plaintiffs contend that Tauck’s promotional materials contained promises that Tauck would assume a certain duty. For example, they point to language in which Tauck states tour members will “enjoy VIP attention from our experienced Tauck Directors who are dedicated to making your trip the best it can be” and that “[o]nce you arrive at your Tauck Bridges destination, leave the day-to-day details to us–all you need to do is have fun with your family.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5-6. They compare this language to that relied upon by the court in Stevenson v. Four Winds Travel, Inc. to find that the plaintiff had a right to expect a warning of a slippery condition while on a tour. 462 F.2d 899, 906-07 (5th Cir. 1972).

1 The Wyoming Supreme Court has not yet addressed this question, but it would likely follow this general rule.

Stevenson, however, is distinguishable from the current case. First, the language in the promotional materials in Stevenson is considerably stronger than those distributed by Tauck. For example, the materials stated that guests would be “cared for by a carefully selected Four Winds Tour escort” and that the tour directors “know precisely what you will be seeing and doing every day.” Id. In contrast, Tauck’s materials state that trips “are enhanced by [*26] our experienced directors,” and that Tauck will “take care of all [arrangements] for you, so you can indulge in the joys of travel without any of the day-to-day hassles.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5. To the extent that these vague statements mean anything at all, it falls far short of a promise to assume a duty. In addition, there is no indication in Stevenson that there was a separate contract. In this case, however, Tauck’s “Conditions of Tour”–relied upon by Plaintiffs in its argument that Connecticut law is applicable–contains a provision in which Tauck disclaims liability for “any Damages, or any problems concerning any . . . supplier providing tour services [or] programs, . . . including but not limited to . . . negligence by any . . . other supplier providing tour services [or] programs.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 1. Courts have relied on similar disclaimers to bar liability for acts of third parties that are beyond the control of the tour operator because the disclaimers are evidence that the operator did not intend to assume a guarantee of safety, even if the disclaimer is not itself [*27] contractually binding. E.g., Sova, 984 F. Supp. at 1139-40 (collecting illustrative cases). Accordingly, this Court finds that, as a matter of law, Tauck had no duty, either by virtue of its position as a tour operator or assumed through its promotional materials.

Plaintiffs next contend that Tauck is a common carrier pursuant to the common law and Article 10, Section 7 of the Wyoming Constitution. That provision states: “All corporations engaged in the transportation of persons, property, mineral oils, and minerals products, news or intelligence, including railroads, telegraphs, express companies, pipe lines and telephones, are declared to be common carriers.” Plaintiffs then rely upon section 314A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states that a common carrier has a duty to its passengers to take reasonable action “to protect them against unreasonable risk of physical harm,” and to render aid if they are harmed. Tauck contends that it is not a common carrier because it does not actually transport tour members during the river floating trip.

Tauck’s position has merit, and there is authority for the proposition that a tour operator is not a common carrier. E.g., Stafford v. Intrav, Inc., 841 F. Supp. 284, 287 (E.D. Mo. 1993). The Court need not resolve the question of whether Tauck is a common carrier, however, because even if it is in general, it was not transporting [*28] tour members at the time of the raft collision. The undisputed evidence is that the tour members, during the rafting trip, were being transported by GTLC, not Tauck. In short, the tour members were no longer subject to Tauck’s custody or control, and therefore Tauck owed no duty. See Id. (tour operator had no duty to warn of dangerous condition on premises not under its control).

This leaves the question of whether distribution of “Acknowledgment of Risk” forms resulted in an imposition of a duty on Tauck. Plaintiffs cite section 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or

(c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

The Wyoming Supreme Court adopted this provision as reflected in subsection (a) in Ellsworth Bros., Inc. v. Crook, 406 P.2d 520, 524 (Wyo. 1965). Relying [*29] on the Restatement, Plaintiffs claim that “by requiring its Tour Directors to get guests to sign GTLC’s Acknowledgment of Risk form well in advance of arriving at the Lodge, Tauck undertook the duty to inform guests about risks associated with the raft trip.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 7.

This statement, however, assumes that by undertaking to distribute the “Acknowledgment of Risk” form, Tauck was undertaking the broader task of informing guests about risks associated with the raft trip. There is no evidence before the Court to support this assumption. The only evidence that Tauck undertook to do anything for GTLC is testimony that GTLC asked Tauck to present the form to those tour members who were to participate in the rafting trip. Rice Depo. 47.2 There is no testimony that suggests Tauck was asked, or agreed, to inform guests of all risks involved in the rafting trip.

2 There is some conflict in the record regarding precisely when the tour members were given the form, but that is not material for resolution of this issue.

The Court finds as a matter of law that Tauck did not owe a duty to the tour members to warn them of the conditions of the river or otherwise act to prevent their injuries. Tauck may not be found negligent on a theory of direct liability.

Joint Venture

The Court must next address Tauck’s [*30] contention that it may not be held vicariously liable for GTLC’s negligence because the two companies did not form a joint venture. Tauck argues that GTLC was simply a supplier, and that the two businesses did not jointly embark on a business venture. In Wyoming, a person alleging the existence of a joint venture has the burden to prove four elements:

(1) an agreement, express or implied, among the members of the group; (2) a common purpose to be carried out by the group; (3) a community of pecuniary interest in that purpose, among the members; and (4) an equal right to a voice in the direction of the enterprise, which gives an equal right of control.

Popejoy v. Steinle, 820 P.2d 545, 549 (Wyo. 1991) quoting Holliday v. Bannister, 741 P.2d 89, 93 n.1 (Wyo. 1987).

Considering the first element, that of an agreement, the Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Tauck and GTLC agreed to provide services. Plaintiffs have submitted a document entitled “Tour Operator Contract,” which governs the terms of the sale of room blocks and river float trips to Tauck. Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Joint Venture, Ex. 5. Several witnesses, officials of Tauck, testified that they viewed GTLC as a supplier, not as a partner. Nevertheless, viewing [*31] the contract in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, it is not unreasonable to characterize it as an agreement for the purposes of this joint venture analysis.

The Court also finds that a reasonable jury could find that Tauck and GTLC had a common purpose. This purpose was to sell tour members lodging and river float trips. Tauck’s purpose was somewhat broader, generally, because it sold lager tours of which the interaction with GTLC was a small part, but this does not remove the fact that GTLC and Tauck were united in purpose during this portion of the tour. Similarly, they both had a pecuniary interest in the enterprise. Tauck points out that GTLC received the same amount for its float tours whether its guests were members of a Tauck tour or individuals. But the arrangement nonetheless furthered GTLC’s financial goals by bringing significant numbers of guests to GTLC. Similarly, Tauck benefitted financially by featuring GTLC lodging and the float trip as part of its tour.

The Court does not find, however, that Tauck and GTLC had an equal right of control. Plaintiffs rely heavily on the fact that both business had the capability to cancel the float trip at their discretion, but that [*32] does not suggest an equal voice in the activity in question. For example, the evidence submitted to the Court indicates that the Tauck tour director brought the residents to the lodge and interacted with GTLC staff, but there is no indication that any Tauck official had the authority to direct any day-to-day activities. It had no input into the decision to hire Mr. Hobbs, the guide of Raft No. 2, or to direct the manner in which he conducted the rafting trip. Tauck could not have directed that the river guide take the group down a different part of the river, or terminated the guide’s employment. If GTLC had decided to terminate its river floating operations, Tauck would have been powerless to prevent it, aside from the scope of any service contract that was currently in place. Tauck and GTLC were two separate operations, and there is no evidence submitted to the Court that suggests otherwise. The Court finds, as a matter of law, that Tauck and GTLC did not have a joint venture.

The Court notes that, with no direct liability and no joint venture resulting in vicarious liability, Tauck is not liable for any claims of negligence.

Fraud

Plaintiffs have alleged that GTLC and Tauck committed [*33] fraud by enacting a scheme whereby the tour members were lured into taking a dangerous rafting trip as a result of GTLC and Tauck’s material misrepresentations regarding the level of danger. “To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation.” Garrison v. CC Builders, Inc., 2008 WY 34, 179 P.3d 867, 877 (Wyo. 2008). The false representation must be made knowingly: “One cannot be guilty of fraudulently or intentionally concealing or misrepresenting facts of which he is not aware.” Meeker v. Lanham, 604 P.2d 556, 559 (Wyo. 1979). Plaintiffs’ fraud claim fails because they have failed to provide evidence from which a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants knowingly made a false representation of a material fact.

Plaintiffs first cite statements made in Tauck’s travel brochure discussing the rafting trip. “[T]he record shows that Tauck’s 2006 Brochure described the Snake River as a ‘meandering float trip,’ when in actuality, the Plaintiffs’ [sic] ended up on a whitewater raft trip with Class IV rapids.”
[*34] Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Fraud Claim, 8. Plaintiffs also cite statements in Tauck’s promotional materials stating that its tour directors are “knowledgeable professionals, with a wealth of information,” and that Tauck “does it all for you,” and that tour members can “leave all day-to-day details” to Tauck. Id.

For the most part, these promotional statements are “mere puffery” E.g., Alpine Bank v. Hubbell, 555 F.3d 1097, 1106 (10th Cir. 2009). The one arguable exception is the description of the activity as a “meandering float trip,” which may be sufficiently definite that a sensible person may be justified in relying on it to some degree. Even in that case, however, there is no indication that Tauck was aware that the river floating trip would be anything other than as described.

The key problem with Plaintiffs’ case is that there is no indication that this particular stretch of the Snake River was inherently dangerous on the day of the collision. Instead, the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, indicates that the guide of the raft that collided with the log jam took the raft into an unsafe channel. For example, the deposition of Wayne Johnson, one of the river guides on June 2, 2006, indicates [*35] that he viewed the “Funnelcake” channel as dangerous on that date. Johnson Depo. 184. Mr. Reed Finlay, a river guide with a different company, testified at some length about the “Funnelcake” channel, specifically that it was dangerous on the date of the collision. Finlay Depo. 126-32. Indeed, it is undisputed that the float trip on the day of the collision was peaceful and uneventful until Raft No. 2 entered the channel and struck the log jam. J. Wilson Depo. 76-77; R. Rizas Depo. 102, 209, 219. In short, there is no indication that Tauck made a misrepresentation when the rafting trip was marketed as a “meandering float trip.”

Plaintiffs also rely on several statements made by employees of Tauck and GTLC before the raft trip. First, Mr. Wilson saw saw people white water rafting while on the bus trip into Jackson on June 1, 2006. When the he asked the tour director, Mr. Rice, if that was what their rafting trip would be like, Mr. Rice replied that the rafting trip would be a “leisurely, scenic float down the Snake River,” and not to worry. Mr. Rice also stated that Tauck had “never lost anybody.” L. Wilson Depo. 61-62. Second, while the groups were in the GTLC vans on the way to the [*36] river, Ms. Elizabeth Rizas asked the van driver about the safety of the float trip. The van driver responded by telling her that she was more likely to be in an accident in the van traveling to the river than on the float trip. J. Wilson Depo 39-40. There is also some evidence that the van driver also stated that they had “never lost anybody yet.” Id. 60.

Again, there is no evidence indicating that these statements are deliberately false. Much like Tauck’s advertising, there was no reason for Tauck or GTLC to believe that the rafting trip would be anything other than a leisurely, scenic float trip. Although Plaintiffs repeatedly rely on the fact that the river was flowing stronger and faster than usual because of the spring thaw, there is no evidence suggesting that this change in conditions precluded GTLC from being able to provide the safe and relaxing experience that the tour members were expecting. The additional fact that the float trip resulted in a devastating collision instead is not relevant when considering what Tauck and GTLC knew at the time they made the statements at issue.

Lastly, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants committed fraud by failing to inform them of the full nature [*37] of the risks on this particular float trips. The Court finds that any failure to inform the guest of these dangers is not actionable as a matter of law. First, there can be no fraud because there is no statement involved. The Court also relies on the Wyoming Supreme Court’s explicit refusal to adopt the tort of nondisclosure in Pittard v. Great Lakes Aviation, 2007 WY 64, 156 P.3d 964, 976 (Wyo. 2007). Plaintiffs have failed to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact that would preclude summary judgment in Defendants’ favor on the fraud issue.

Punitive Damages

GTLC has moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages.3 Plaintiffs’ response is similar to their fraud argument, that is, that GTLC deliberately misrepresented the float trip as safe and leisurely.

3 Tauck has also moved for summary judgment in its favor on the punitive damages issue. The Court, however, has already determined that Tauck is not liable, either directly or vicariously. Accordingly, the Court’s discussion addresses only Plaintiffs’ claim as it applies to GTLC.

The Wyoming Supreme Court has set out the following standard regarding punitive damages:

We have explained that punitive damages “are to be awarded only for conduct involving some element of outrage, similar to that usually found in crime. . . . We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intentional torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Weaver v. Mitchell, 715 P.2d 1361, 1369-70 (Wyo. 1986). Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, [*38] or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. Mayflower Rest. Co. v. Griego, 741 P.2d 1106, 1115 (Wyo. 1987). “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.” Bryant v. Hornbuckle, 728 P.2d 1132, 1136 (Wyo. 1986) (internal citation omitted).

Cramer v. Powder R. Coal Co., 2009 WY 45, 204 P.3d 974, 979-80 (Wyo. 2009).

Plaintiffs reason as follows:

Defendants here should have communicated the true Snake River conditions to the Plaintiffs rather than misrepresent the conditions and intentionally take the guests who had signed up for a scenic float trip into something knowingly quite different. Defendant’s failure to communicate the details indicates “reckless disregard of the consequences, and under such circumstances and conditions that a reasonable man would know, or have reason to know, that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in substantial harm to another.” Danculovich [v. Brown], 593 P.2d [187,] 191.

Plaintiffs’ Response to Motion for Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages [*39]
, 11.

Plaintiffs’ contention that GTLC was aware that the float trip was materially more dangerous than previously represented to the tour members is not, as the Court has discussed, reflected in the record. Although it is undisputed that the level and flow of water was increased, and that this increase may heighten the risk of log jams or hide obstructions in the river, there is no evidence suggesting that the character of the river was altered to such an extent that it was willfully reckless to take passengers on the float trip.

The facts of this case are in stark contrast to those cases relied on by the Plaintiffs in which the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned trial courts’ grants of summary judgment in defendants’ favor on punitive damages. For example, the conduct alleged in Danculovich was drunk driving and speeding resulting in the driver losing control of the vehicle and killing the decedent. 593 P.2d at 190. The evidence in that case indicated that the defendant, who was driving the vehicle, had a blood alcohol content of 0.12%. Id. The court described the evidence of speeding as follows:

Radar clock of vehicle at 56 m.p.h. was made at north edge of business district. A witness estimated speed [*40] at 75 m.p.h. at city limits. Another witness estimated speed at 85 m.p.h. when vehicle passed him at point about .4 of mile before place of accident. Accident reconstruction expert estimated speed at place of accident to be minimum of 75 m.p.h. The speed limit within the city limits was 30 m.p.h. and beyond the city limits, 55 m.p.h.

Id. n.3. In Errington v. Zolessi, a treating physician conducted several cystograms of a patient following a laparoscopically assisted vaginal hysterectomy. 9 P.3d 966, 968 (Wyo. 2000). The cystograms initially indicated the presence of a fistula, and later confirmed it, but the doctor told the patient that she was healing normally, albeit slowly. Id. The Wyoming Supreme Court held that there was sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that the physician acted with reckless disregard for the patient’s safety. In either case, it is apparent that simply failing to advise the tour group members of the increased flow of the river does not rise to the level of reckless and willful misconduct. There is no question that the consequences of any negligence committed were devastating. But this Court must evaluate the question of outrageous conduct based on what was known [*41] at the time of the allegedly negligent act, not looking back at events with the benefit of hindsight. This is not to say that this conduct may not constitute simple negligence, but it does not warrant punitive damages.

IT IS ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Docket No. 87, is DENIED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim of Negligence, Docket No. 81, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Joint Venture, Docket No. 84, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Fraud, Docket No. 90, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Punitive and Exemplary Damages, Docket No. 93, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Grant Teton Lodge Company’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims, Docket No. 96, is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, the motion is DENIED as it relates to application of the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, and is in all other respects GRANTED.

Dated this day of October, 2009.

/s/ Alan B. [*42] Johnson

ALAN B. JOHNSON

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


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Rental agreement release was written well enough it barred claims for injuries on the mountain at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming

The plaintiff became a quadriplegic after her fall skiing which almost guaranty’s litigation because of the amount of money for past and future medical bills as well as lost wages.

Cunningham v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 22608

State: Wyoming, United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Lindy Grace Cunningham; Michael Chad Cunningham

Defendant: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, premises liability, negligent training and supervision, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant Ski Area

Year: 2016

This is a simple case, and fairly simple analysis by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The plaintiff’s rented skis from a ski shop owned by the defendant ski area. The rental agreement included a release. The release specifically stated it covered negligence of the shop and the ski area.

During a January 2013 vacation to Teton Village, Wyoming, Lindy Cunningham rented ski equipment from a JHMR shop located at the base of the resort’s ski area. During the rental process, Mrs. Cunningham signed a rental agreement,….

The plaintiff was injured when she fell skiing and slid into a trail sign. The collision rendered her a quadriplegic.

On January 14, while skiing at JHMR, Mr. Cunningham followed behind Mrs. Cunningham, filming her on his helmet-mounted GoPro camera. Footage from the camera shows Mrs. Cunningham fall toward the right side of the trail, slide, and then collide with a trail sign. The accident severely injured Mrs. Cunningham’s spine, rendering her a quadriplegic.

The plaintiff’s sued for negligence, premise’s liability, negligent training and supervision and loss of consortium. The district court granted a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendant based on the release. The plaintiff appealed the decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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

The court first looked at the law to be applied to a diversity case. A diversity case is a case in federal court based on the parties living or residing in two different states. Federal court has limited jurisdiction. A federal court can only hear cases involving federal law or federal agencies or a case between two parties from different states.

When a diversity case arises, the law that is applied to the case is the law of the state where the lawsuit was filed. If the state law where the lawsuit was filed does not have case law on the facts as argued, then other state law and federal decisions are used to support the decision.

Because this is a diversity case, we apply the substantive law of Wyoming, the forum state.” Specifically, we “must ascertain and apply state law to reach the result the Wyoming Supreme Court would reach if faced with the same question.” If “no state cases exist on a point, we turn to other state court decisions, federal decisions, and the general weight and trend of authority.”

The court then reviewed the four –part test set out by the Wyoming Supreme Court to determine the validity of a release.

In reaching its determination a court considers . . . (1) whether a duty to the public exists; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Only exculpatory agreements meeting these requirements are enforceable.

If the release passes all four parts of the test, the release is deemed valid. In looking at the first two factors the court stated that the Wyoming Supreme court had essentially combined them.

In application, the Wyoming Supreme Court has essentially combined the first two factors, stating that “[a] duty to the public exists if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest and the service performed is considered an essential service.”

The plaintiff argued that a public duty did exist because the ski area was located on federal land and was subject to federal regulations. The plaintiff also argued the release was contrary to public policy as set forth in the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act and that it unlawfully barred claims for essential services.

On appeal, the Cunninghams make arguments related to the first three factors by asserting (1) JHMR owes a duty to the public because it operates on United States Forest Service land pursuant to a special use permit and is subject to federal regulation, (2) the release is contrary to public policy as expressed in the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, and (3) the release unlawfully bars negligence actions arising from essential services such as the provision of emergency medical services at the JHMR clinic.

The court first took note of the fact that none of the arguments raised by the plaintiff had been raised at the trial court level. Consequently, there was no requirement that the appellate court review those issues. Consequently, the court did not look at these issues.

The fourth issue raised by the plaintiffs the court did review. “…whether the release agreement evidences the parties’ intent to abrogate negligence liability in clear and unambiguous language….” Reviewing this argument required close scrutiny of the release and traditional contract principles of looking at the document as a hole. That review also requires looking at the nature of the service provided and the purpose of the release.

This language broadly bars all claims related to Mrs. Cunningham’s use of facilities and services at JHMR. Although the Cunninghams argue their negligence claims should not be barred by this pro-vision, the Wyoming Supreme Court has determined on multiple occasions that exculpatory clauses “clearly and unambiguously” express the parties’ intent to release negligence liability even where the clauses do not mention negligence specifically. We conclude the Wyoming Supreme Court would reach the same result here, where the exculpatory clause expressly emphasizes that it “INCLUDE[S] NEGLIGENCE.”

The court found the language of the release met the requirements of Wyoming law. However, the court did not stop there. The plaintiff also argued the parties mutually misunderstood the release, both believing it only covered the liability issues of renting equipment.

This was broken down into four sub-issues. The release contained hidden exculpatory language, there was an internal conflict in the release; the release was overly broad and there was a mutual mistake. Again, the court shot down these arguments.

The Cunninghams first assert the exculpatory clause was too inconspicuous to be “clear and unambiguous.” We have found no case imposing a “conspicuousness” requirement to exculpatory clauses under Wyoming law. But even assuming enforcement of a sufficiently inconspicuous clause could offend public policy, the release here is not inconspicuous.

While the print is necessarily small, it is readable even in the further-shrunken form presented in the record on appeal. And as the district court observed, “there is nothing to suggest that [Mrs.] Cunningham requested larger print or indicated that she could not read the release.” For these reasons, even if conspicuousness is a requirement under Wyoming law, the release here was conspicuous.

The internal conflict argument was the release was both consistent and inconsistent with the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act. Again, the court found no inconsistency.

The WRSA does not exempt or identify specific inherent risks; it generally defines “inherent risks” as “those dangers or conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.”

The final argument was the issue that the release was overly broad.

First, the Cunninghams argue the release is ambiguous because “it relates to all ‘activities’ and all ‘facilities’ and all ‘premises’ on ‘each and every day’ against a wide array of entities and individuals.” Because the exculpatory clause includes broad language covering all facilities and activities at the resort at any time of year, the Cunninghams conclude “[t]here is no way possible for a person to understand what this clause actually encompasses.”

The court found the release was no different than other releases previously reviewed by the Wyoming Supreme Court.

The release explicitly limits JHMR’s liability for “any and all claims, demands, causes of action, liabilities, actions . . . arising directly or indirectly out of my use of the facilities, ski area or ski lifts at JHMR.” Although this language is broad, there is nothing ambiguous about it. Indeed, the Wyoming Supreme Court rejected an analogous argument when it held that a release from liability for “legal claims or legal liability of any kind whether foreseen or unforeseen” meant precisely what it said and thus clearly barred a plaintiff’s negligence claims.

The mutual mistake argument means neither party thought the release was applied to anything other than renting of ski equipment. This argument was not raised at the trial court level so it was moot at the appellate court.

Finally, the court looked at the argument that the actions of the defendant were willful and wanton. Although not stated, I am assuming this argument was meant to void the release for covering more than simple negligence.

The court first defined willful and wanton under Wyoming Law.

Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing of an act, or an intentional failure to do an act, in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know, or have reason to know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another.

Under Wyoming law willful and want conduct is more aggravated than gross negligence and to prove willful and wanton conduct, there must be a demonstration of a state of mind approaching an intent to do harm.

The court found nothing in the pleadings or any evidence which showed evidence of actions that rose to this level.

Here, there is no evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude JHMR acted willfully or wantonly when it placed the trail sign with which Mrs. Cunningham collided. It is undisputed that the sign has been in the same spot in substantially the same form for over thirty years. Yet there was no evidence presented that anyone other than Mrs. Cunningham has collided with the sign in that time. Although the Cunninghams’ experts criticized JHMR’s choices in placing and constructing the sign, as the district court concluded, “[a]t best, the alleged failings related to the placement and construction of the sign are negligent, not willful and wanton behavior.”

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the motion for summary judgment and dismissal of the case by the district court.

So Now What?

This case was won by the ski area because the risk manager at the ski area looked outside his or her office. When a ski area, or other resort operations, owns rental, retail and lodging, there are several different places a release can be signed. Making sure that the release covers all the activities offered by the resort can make a big difference as in this case.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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

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Cunningham v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 22608

Cunningham v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 22608

Lindy Grace Cunningham; Michael Chad Cunningham, Plaintiffs – Appellants, v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation, a Wyoming corporation, Defendant – Appellee.

No. 16-8016

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 22608

December 20, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] (D.C. No. 2:15-CV-00007-NDF). (D. Wyo.).

COUNSEL: For LINDY GRACE CUNNINGHAM, MICHAEL CHAD CUNNINGHAM, Plaintiff – Appellant: Gerard R. Bosch, Mary Alison Floyd, Law Offices of Jerry Bosch, LLC, Wilson, WY.

For JACKSON HOLE MOUNTAIN RESORT CORPORATION, a Wyoming Corporation, Defendant – Appellee: James Kent Lubing, Lubing Law Group, Jackson, WY.

JUDGES: Before KELLY, MATHESON, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION BY: Carolyn B. McHugh

OPINION

ORDER AND JUDGMENT*

* This order and judgment is not binding precedent, except under the doctrines of law of the case, res judicata, and collateral estoppel. It may be cited, however, for its persuasive value consistent with Fed. R. App. P. 32.1 and 10th Cir. R. 32.1.

Lindy and Chad Cunningham sued Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation (JHMR)1 for injuries Mrs. Cunningham sustained when she collided with a trail sign while skiing. The district court granted summary judgment for JHMR, concluding the Cunninghams’ claims were barred by the terms of a release Mrs. Cunningham signed when she rented ski equipment from JHMR’s ski shop. Exercising jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

1 Throughout this opinion, we use the acronym JHMR to refer to both the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort property and the corporation that owns the resort, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation.

  1. BACKGROUND

During a January 2013 vacation to Teton Village, Wyoming, Lindy Cunningham rented ski equipment from a JHMR shop located at the base of the resort’s ski area. During the rental process, Mrs. Cunningham signed a rental agreement,2 which included the following language (the release):

I [the signor] further agree to forever release, discharge, waive, [*2]  save and hold harmless, indemnify, and defend JHMR . . . from and against any and all claims, demands, causes of action, liabilities, actions, and any and all medical expenses or other related expenses, including damage to persons and property, asserted by others, by me, or on my behalf, my estate, executors, heirs, or assigns brought under any theory of legal liability, INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE, arising directly or indirectly out of my use of the facilities, ski area or ski lifts at JHMR, or my presence on JHMR premises.

2 The Cunninghams contend there is a genuine dispute of fact regarding whether Mrs. Cunningham actually signed the rental agreement because, in response to requests for admission, Mrs. Cunningham asserted she viewed the agreement on a computer screen and not in the form presented during discovery. But there is no dispute Mrs. Cunningham’s physical signature appears on the rental agreement. And there is no dispute JHMR provides the same agreement to every rental customer on a computer screen before printing a hard copy for the customer’s signature. Moreover, this evidence relates solely to the third factor in our analysis of the release’s enforceability, which requires consideration of “whether the agreement was fairly entered into.” Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057, 1060 (Wyo. 1986). As explained below, Mrs. Cunningham raised arguments only with respect to the fourth factor and therefore waived the arguments for which the signature evidence would be relevant. See Richison v. Ernest Grp., Inc., 634 F.3d 1123, 1128 (10th Cir. 2011). Accordingly, the evidence does not provide a basis to reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment.

On January 14, while skiing at JHMR, Mr. Cunningham followed behind Mrs. Cunningham, filming her on his helmet-mounted GoPro camera. Footage from the camera shows Mrs. Cunningham fall toward the right side of the trail, slide, and then collide with a trail sign. The accident severely injured Mrs. Cunningham’s spine, rendering her a quadriplegic.

The Cunninghams sued JHMR, claiming negligence, premises liability, negligent training and supervision, and loss of consortium. After limited discovery, the district court concluded the Cunninghams’ claims were barred by the release, and it therefore granted summary judgment in JHMR’s favor.

  1. DISCUSSION

[HN1] We review the district [*3]  court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. Sapone v. Grand Targhee, Inc., 308 F.3d 1096, 1100 (10th Cir. 2002). “Because this is a diversity case, we apply the substantive law of Wyoming, the forum state.” Id. Specifically, we “must ascertain and apply state law to reach the result the Wyoming Supreme Court would reach if faced with the same question.” Cooperman v. David, 214 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 2000). If “no state cases exist on a point, we turn to other state court decisions, federal decisions, and the general weight and trend of authority.” Grand Targhee, 308 F.3d at 1100 (citation omitted). Here, the district court concluded the release signed by Mrs. Cunningham was valid and enforceable under Wyoming law and encompassed all of the Cunninghams’ claims. In addition, the district court determined JHMR did not act willfully or wantonly.3 We affirm each of the district court’s determinations.

3 JHMR also argued the claims were barred by the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act (WRSA), Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to -123, because Mrs. Cunningham hit a trail sign, which is an inherent risk of skiing. But the district court denied summary judgment on this basis, and neither party has appealed this determination. Accordingly, we do not address it here.

  1. Enforceability and Scope of the Release

[HN2] Wyoming courts will enforce clauses releasing parties from liability for injury or damages so long as the clause is not contrary to public policy. Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057, 1059 (Wyo. 1986). And as relevant here, “[g]enerally, specific agreements absolving participants and proprietors from negligence liability during hazardous recreational activities are enforceable, subject to willful misconduct limitations.” Id.; see also Fremont Homes, Inc. v. Elmer, 974 P.2d 952, 956 (Wyo. 1999) (“Where willful and wanton [*4]  misconduct is shown, an otherwise valid release is not enforceable.”). To determine the enforceability of a particular exculpatory clause, the Wyoming Supreme Court applies a four-part test:

In reaching its determination a court considers . . . (1) whether a duty to the public exists; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Only exculpatory agreements meeting these requirements are enforceable.

Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060; see also Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 710 (Wyo. 1987) (“An agreement passing scrutiny under these factors is valid, denying the signing party an action in negligence.”). In application, the Wyoming Supreme Court has essentially combined the first two factors, stating that “[a] duty to the public exists if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest and the service performed is considered an essential service.” Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063, 1066 (Wyo. 1988). The third factor has also been discussed in conjunction with the first two. See Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060 (“The service provided by appellees was not a matter of practical necessity for any member of the public. It was not an essential service, so no decisive bargaining advantage existed.”). [*5]

On appeal, the Cunninghams make arguments related to the first three factors by asserting (1) JHMR owes a duty to the public because it operates on United States Forest Service land pursuant to a special use permit and is subject to federal regulation, (2) the release is contrary to public policy as expressed in the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, and (3) the release unlawfully bars negligence actions arising from essential services such as the provision of emergency medical services at the JHMR clinic. But the Cunninghams did not raise these arguments before the district court. In their opposition to summary judgment, the Cunninghams focused exclusively on the fourth factor: whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. In addition, the Cunninghams failed to present evidence to the district court in support of these new arguments, which is why they ask this court to take judicial notice of the requisite facts.4 Although the Cunninghams maintain they raised the public-duty issue below, the discussion was limited to isolated references in the facts section of their memorandum to the district court, which merely recited the ownership interest of the [*6]  Forest Service and the alleged existence of a special use permit. The Cunninghams did not provide analysis or argument to the district court related to JHMR’s public duty or the other two arguments now raised on appeal. Under these circumstances, the Cunninghams have forfeited these arguments, and we do not consider them for the first time on appeal. See Bancamerica Commercial Corp. v. Mosher Steel of Kan., Inc., 100 F.3d 792, 798 (10th Cir. 1996) (“Vague, arguable references to a point in the district court proceedings do not preserve the issue on appeal.” (alterations, ellipsis, and citation omitted)).

4 Because the Cunninghams’ proffered evidence relates only to arguments not preserved for appeal, we deny the motion for judicial notice.

We therefore limit our review to  [HN3] the fourth factor, which “requires us to determine whether the release agreement evidences the parties’ intent to abrogate negligence liability in clear and unambiguous language.” Boehm, 748 P.2d at 711. To make this determination, we must “closely scrutinize” the exculpatory clause. Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060. In doing so, we must interpret the clause “using traditional contract principles and considering the meaning of the document as a whole.” Massengill v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Med. Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132, 1135 (Wyo. 2000). In addition, “the nature of the service and the purpose of the release must be considered.” Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1062. Applying these principles, the district court concluded the rental agreement clearly and unambiguously released JHMR from liability for all of the Cunninghams’ [*7]  claims. We agree.

When Mrs. Cunningham signed the rental agreement, she released JHMR

from and against any and all claims, demands, causes of action, liabilities, actions, and any and all medical expenses or other related expenses, including damage to persons and property, asserted by others, by me, or on my behalf, my estate, executors, heirs, or assigns brought under any theory of legal liability, INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE, arising directly or indirectly out of my use of the facilities, ski area or ski lifts at JHMR, or my presence on JHMR premises.

.See Street v. Darwin Ranch, Inc., 75 F. Supp. 2d 1296, 1302 (D. Wyo. 1999) (“The Release blatantly and unambiguously [*8]  specifies that Plaintiff waived negligence claims against Defendant for all injuries resulting from participation in the recreational activity, making it even more clear than the exculpatory clauses found valid in Schutkowski and Milligan.” (internal cross-reference omitted)).

Nonetheless, the Cunninghams contend the release is unclear and/or ambiguous because the exculpatory language is “hidden,” the release is internally conflicted, and the release is overly broad. The Cunninghams also contend that, even if the release is clear and unambiguous, the parties mutually misunderstood the release to cover only rental-equipment-related injuries and that, by its terms, the release applies only to injuries arising from inherent hazards of skiing. We address each of these arguments in turn.

  1. “Hidden” Exculpatory Language

The Cunninghams first assert the exculpatory clause was too inconspicuous to be “clear and unambiguous.” We have found no case imposing a “conspicuousness” requirement to exculpatory clauses under Wyoming law.5 But even assuming enforcement of a sufficiently inconspicuous clause could offend public policy, the release here is not inconspicuous.

5 The only case the Cunninghams cite that identified such a requirement in the context of a liability waiver for recreational activity is  [*9] Kolosnitsyn v. Crystal Mountain, Inc., No. C08-05035-RBL, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, 2009 WL 2855491 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 28, 2009). There, the district court considered whether Crystal Mountain’s liability release was conspicuous, but it did so under Washington state law, which deems exculpatory clauses “enforceable unless they violate public policy, are inconspicuous, or the negligence falls below standards established by law.” 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, [WL] at *3 (citing Scott v. Pac. W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 10 (Wash. 1992)). Unlike Washington, Wyoming deems exculpatory clauses enforceable unless they violate public policy; it does not consider the two additional exceptions to enforceability that Washington recognizes. See, e.g., Massengill v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Med. Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132, 1136 (Wyo. 2000).

The Cunninghams maintain the exculpatory language is buried in a long block of text, written in small typeface, and presented in the rental agreement under circumstances which make it appear as though the whole agreement pertains only to equipment rental. But the district court correctly explained, “While the Release is part of the Rental Agreement, it makes up the bulk of the agreement.” The entire rental agreement fills one side of one piece of paper, with the release provision placed front and center. The release is presented under a heading that states “RENTAL WARNING, RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT — PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING.” Assumption of risk and waiver of liability are addressed in the first two paragraphs of the release, and they are clearly set apart from one another. Moreover, the first sentence of the release signals that its scope is broader than the rental of equipment, as it discusses the dangers of skiing in general. The exculpatory provision also stands out because the phrase “INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE” is written in all caps. Furthermore, the last paragraph of the release states in part, “I HAVE CAREFULLY READ THIS RELEASE, UNDERSTAND [*10]  ITS CONTENTS, AND UNDERSTAND THAT THE TERMS OF THIS DOCUMENT ARE CONTRACTUAL . . . . I AM AWARE THAT I AM RELEASING CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS THAT I OTHERWISE MAY HAVE . . . .” While the print is necessarily small, it is readable even in the further-shrunken form presented in the record on appeal. And as the district court observed, “there is nothing to suggest that [Mrs.] Cunningham requested larger print or indicated that she could not read the release.” For these reasons, even if conspicuousness is a requirement under Wyoming law, the release here was conspicuous.

  1. Internal Conflict

The Cunninghams next cite Rowan v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 31 F. Supp. 2d 889, 899-900 (D. Colo. 1998), and argue the release is ambiguous because it is both consistent and inconsistent with the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act (WRSA). But the Cunninghams’ reliance on Rowan is misplaced. There, the court found a release ambiguous in part because it specifically released the resort of liability for all risks, including the use of ski lifts. Id. at 899. The release then stated the plaintiff assumed the inherent risks of skiing as set forth in Colorado’s Ski Safety Act, a statute that explicitly states that use of ski lifts does not qualify as an “inherent risk.” Id. Thus, the release conflicted [*11]  with the relevant statutory language.

Here, by contrast, there is no conflict between the WRSA and the types of risks or injuries JHMR listed in the release.  [HN4] The WRSA does not exempt or identify specific inherent risks; it generally defines “inherent risks” as “those dangers or conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i). And the release here, unlike the release in Rowan, does not incorporate by reference the WRSA. In light of these significant differences, Rowan does not support a finding of ambiguity here.

  1. Overbreadth

Next, the Cunninghams make multiple arguments related to the alleged overbreadth of the release. First, the Cunninghams argue the release is ambiguous because “it relates to all ‘activities’ and all ‘facilities’ and all ‘premises’ on ‘each and every day’ against a wide array of entities and individuals.” Because the exculpatory clause includes broad language covering all facilities and activities at the resort at any time of year, the Cunninghams conclude “[t]here is no way possible for a person to understand what this clause actually encompasses.”

At the outset, we question whether the Cunninghams adequately [*12]  preserved this argument. The Cunninghams’ opposition to summary judgment contains only a passing reference to the issue:

The []release language appears to apply to the signator’s “presence on JHMR premises.” Theoretically, if someone left the ski hill and came back for dinner at the resort and was injured as a result of [JHMR]’s negligence this release would apply. This is not clear or unambiguous or within [the] scope of renting skis.

And the Cunninghams presented no evidence in the district court of JHMR’s ownership or operation of other facilities and activities at the resort. The Cunninghams instead attempt to introduce such evidence on appeal through their motion for judicial notice.

But even if we consider this issue, the Cunninghams’ arguments fail on the merits. The release explicitly limits JHMR’s liability for “any and all claims, demands, causes of action, liabilities, actions . . . arising directly or indirectly out of my use of the facilities, ski area or ski lifts at JHMR.” Although this language is broad, there is nothing ambiguous about it. Indeed, the Wyoming Supreme Court rejected an analogous argument when it held that a release from liability for “legal claims or legal [*13]  liability of any kind whether foreseen or unforeseen” meant precisely what it said and thus clearly barred a plaintiff’s negligence claims. Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1068.

The Cunninghams also argue the release should be deemed void because it covers a broad range of potential injuries but is presented in a rental agreement, thus leading renters to believe they are releasing only claims for injuries caused by the rental equipment, while in fact, the release covers all injuries, including those unrelated to equipment. In support of their argument, the Cunninghams cite Kolosnitsyn v. Crystal Mountain, Inc., in which the court expressed concern about a person “unwittingly” signing away his rights because the rental-agreement release might have applied to injuries related to the rental equipment alone or to injuries related to use of the ski area. No. C08-05035-RBL, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, 2009 WL 2855491, at *4 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 28, 2009) (unpublished).

But the decision in Kolosnitsyn was based on facts not present here. In Kolosnitsyn, the plaintiff rented equipment from a ski shop and while skiing at an adjoining resort suffered injuries not caused by his equipment. 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, [WL] at *1. When he sued the resort, it invoked a release the plaintiff had signed when renting his equipment, based on the resort’s ownership [*14]  of the ski shop and the release’s waiver of claims against “the ski/snowboard shop, its employees, [and its] owners.” 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, [WL] at *1-2 (emphasis added). The court found the release unenforceable because it did not clearly identify the adjoining resort as the ski shop’s “owner.” 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, [WL] at *4. Thus, the plaintiff would not have known from the release itself that he was waiving claims against the resort, including for the resort’s own negligence. Id.

Here, by contrast, the release expressly waives claims against JHMR itself–it bars “any and all claims,” including those “arising directly or indirectly” from “use of the facilities, ski area or ski lifts at JHMR.” Thus, Kolosnitsyn does not support the Cunninghams’ position. Moreover, although neither we nor Wyoming courts have addressed this precise issue, we have concluded that an exculpatory release signed in conjunction with the rental of sporting equipment can bar claims for injuries arising out of participation in the sport but unrelated to the equipment. See Mincin v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 308 F.3d 1105, 1108, 1109, 1112-13 (10th Cir. 2002) (applying Colorado’s four-factor test that Wyoming has since adopted and concluding a release signed in connection with a mountain-bike rental barred negligence claims against resort for biker’s injuries [*15]  unrelated to the bike or other rented equipment).

The Cunninghams also argue the release should be held invalid because it applies to skiers who rent equipment, but not to skiers who bring their own. Although this argument finds some support in the Kolosnitsyn decision, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, 2009 WL 2855491, at *4, it does not fit squarely within the four-factor framework established by Wyoming law. Rather, it seems to be a general appeal to public policy. While the Wyoming Supreme Court does not enforce contracts that are contrary to public policy, it also “will not invalidate a contract entered into freely by competent parties on the basis of public policy unless that policy is well settled.” Andrau v. Mich. Wis. Pipe Line Co., 712 P.2d 372, 376 (Wyo. 1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Cunninghams have not shown a settled public policy in Wyoming that discourages releases like JHMR’s. Moreover, the evidence shows JHMR requires its season-pass holders to sign releases identical or similar to the one signed by Mrs. Cunningham. We therefore reject this argument.

  1. Mutual Mistake and Inherent Hazards

The Cunninghams next argue that even if the release is unambiguous, it does not bar their claims for two reasons. First, the Cunninghams maintain both they and JHMR believed the release [*16]  applied only to injuries related to rental equipment and therefore the parties were mutually mistaken as to the release’s scope. But the Cunninghams also concede they did not raise this argument before the district court. We therefore decline to address the argument because it has been forfeited and the Cunninghams did not argue plain-error review. See Richison v. Ernest Grp., Inc., 634 F.3d 1123, 1128 (10th Cir. 2011).

Second, the Cunninghams briefly argue that, based on the reasoning of a Wyoming state district court in Beckwith v. Weber, Civ. Action No. 14726, the exculpatory language in the second paragraph of the release must be read to apply only to injuries arising from the “inherent hazards” discussed in the first paragraph of the release. But, as the district court concluded, Beckwith is distinguishable because the release there contained only a single sentence that did not mention a release of liability for negligence. By contrast, the release here clearly and unambiguously bars negligence claims against JHMR, not just claims arising out of the inherent risks of skiing. And even if the release could be limited to the inherent risks identified in the first paragraph of the release, such risks include “collisions with . . . man-made objects [*17]  and features.” Because Mrs. Cunningham collided with a man-made trail sign, she cannot succeed on this argument, even if the release could be read to apply only to the identified inherent risks.

In sum, we agree with the district court that the release clearly and unambiguously bars the Cunninghams’ claims. And because the ambiguity of the release was the only issue preserved for our review, we conclude the release is valid and enforceable under Wyoming law.

  1. Willful and Wanton Conduct

Finally, the Cunninghams argue the release is unenforceable because JHMR engaged in willful and wanton misconduct. See Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063, 1068 (Wyo. 1988) ( [HN5] “Where willful and wanton misconduct is shown, an otherwise valid release is unenforceable.”). Wyoming sets a high bar for establishing willful and wanton misconduct.

Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing of an act, or an intentional failure to do an act, in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know, or have reason to know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another.

Hannifan v. Am. Nat’l Bank of Cheyenne, 2008 WY 65, 185 P.3d 679, 683 (Wyo. 2008) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Weaver v. Mitchell, 715 P.2d 1361, 1370 (Wyo. 1986)). It is “more aggravated than gross negligence.” Danculovich v. Brown, 593 P.2d 187, 191 (Wyo. 1979). “In order to [*18]  prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.” Cramer v. Powder River Coal, LLC, 2009 WY 45, 204 P.3d 974, 979 (Wyo. 2009) (citation omitted).

Here, there is no evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude JHMR acted willfully or wantonly when it placed the trail sign with which Mrs. Cunningham collided. It is undisputed that the sign has been in the same spot in substantially the same form for over thirty years. Yet there was no evidence presented that anyone other than Mrs. Cunningham has collided with the sign in that time. Although the Cunninghams’ experts criticized JHMR’s choices in placing and constructing the sign, as the district court concluded, “[a]t best, the alleged failings related to the placement and construction of the sign are negligent, not willful and wanton behavior.”

Moreover, the only case to which the Cunninghams draw an analogy–Rowan v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 31 F. Supp. 2d 889 (D. Colo. 1998)–is clearly inapposite. Rowan involved a skier who died after colliding with a picnic deck (1) that was at the bottom of a race course on which skiers “attained speeds in excess of 120 kilometers per hour,” id. at 892; (2) that was positioned such that skiers had “to make a hard left turn at the end of the course to avoid [*19]  the deck,” id. at 893-94; (3) that was unpadded, despite having been previously padded and despite available padding that easily could have been attached, id. at 893, 900; and (4) with which there had been several “close calls” and an actual injury on the same day the skier was killed and in the two days prior, id. at 900. In addition, the resort made the decedent and other skiers sign the release in the middle of the third day of their test runs, doing so only after receiving notice of multiple close calls and an actual injury, and claiming it routinely required releases but without producing evidence to support this claim. Id. at 898, 900. The present circumstances bear no similarity to the facts in Rowan. Where the trail sign here had been in place without known incident for over thirty years prior to Mrs. Cunningham’s accident, no reasonable jury could conclude JHMR engaged in willful and wanton misconduct by placing it there. Accordingly, the release is enforceable and bars the Cunninghams’ claims.6

6 Because Mr. Cunningham’s claim for loss of consortium is derivative of Mrs. Cunningham’s claims related to her injuries, his claim also fails. Massengill, 996 P.2d at 1137; Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 710 (Wyo. 1987).

III. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of JHMR. And we DENY the Cunninghams’ motion for judicial notice.

Entered for the Court

Carolyn B. McHugh

Circuit Judge

 


Well written decision from Wyoming defines release law and how releases should be written.

This case is interesting because one of the attempts to remove the release from the decision was a claim the plaintiff was at the defendant gym working out because he was told to by a physician, and the gym was owned by a different physician.

Massengill, v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21

Plaintiff: James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill

Defendant: S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

The plaintiff was injured when a pin in a lat-pull-down machine that secured the weights came out, and he fell backwards injuring his wrist. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant raised the defense of release.

The plaintiff was told by his physician to exercise more. One day while at a drugstore, he had met an owner of the defendant gym, a physician, who talked to him about the gym.

The plaintiff and his wife went to the gym. They were given a release and told to take it home and read it. Three days later the plaintiff’s came back, signed the release and began to use the facilities.

The plaintiff had not asked for instructions on the lat-pull-down machine and did not ask for any because he had used one previously. He had been using the particular machine for a month and had noticed that the pin did not appear to fit when he was injured.

The trial court ruled the release was valid and barred the claims of the plaintiffs, dismissing the case. The plaintiff’s appealed. This case is based in Wyoming, which only has trial courts and the Wyoming Supreme Court, in intermediate appellate courts.

Summary of the case

The court first looked at the language of the release, to determine if the language was clear and unequivocal.

Our reading of the Agreement and Release convinces us that the intention of S.M.A.R.T., and the Massengills is expressed in clear and unequivocal language. The language clearly assigns the risk to members who agree to be liable for any and all risks. The Agreement and Release continues with an unequivocal statement that S.M.A.R.T. shall not be liable for any injuries or damages to any member or the member’s property, including those caused by the negligence of S.M.A.R.T.

The court found the language was clear and unequivocal as well as broad and specially released the defendant from claims and actions for negligence.

The court then examined the release based on contract law. Releases are contracts and are interpreted using traditional contract principles. The entire document is examined as a whole.

The language of the Agreement and Release is clear in manifesting an intention to release S.M.A.R.T. and those involved with the facility from liability; it specifically states that S.M.A.R.T. will not be held liable for “those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents.”

Wyoming has four factors to examine to determine if a release is valid.

(1) whether a duty to the public exists;

(2) the nature of the service performed;

(3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and

(4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language

The court found the release in question was properly reviewed by the trial court, and the release met all four tests. The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims the release violated public policy. Under Wyoming law, a duty to the public exists “if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest, and the service performed is considered an essential service.” A release that affecting a public interest giving rise to a duty to the public is one that:

“concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it * * *. As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.”

In Wyoming, this list of businesses would be “common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers, and services involving extra-hazardous activities.”

A health club or gym is recreational in nature and do not meet the requirements and do not qualify as a business suitable for public regulation. A gym or health club is not essential.

The services offered by S.M.A.R.T. to its members were those of a private recreational business which did not qualify as suitable for public regulation because they did not affect the public interest nor could they be considered as necessary or essential….

Then court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims that he was at the gym for medical reasons. However, the court could find no evidence that the plaintiff was at the gym engaging in rehabilitation.

The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claim that there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties which should void the release. However, this argument also failed.

Since membership in a private recreational facility such as S.M.A.R.T. is purely optional and does not qualify as an essential service, no decisive bargaining advantage exists. “A disparity of bargaining power will be found when a contracting party with little or no bargaining strength has no reasonable alternative to entering the contract at the mercy of the other’s negligence.

The plaintiff’s raised one final argument that claimed the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to 1-1-123:

…creates a statutory duty on the part of providers of a sport or recreational opportunity because it preserves actions based upon negligence if damage or injury is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.

The court called this a convoluted argument and did not agree with the argument.

The final argument was based on the wife’s claim for loss of consortium. The court held there were two different ways this claim also failed. The first was the wife signed a release at the same time as her husband; the plaintiff and the release stopped her suit. Also because her claim of loss of consortium is derivative, meaning only can exist if the original claim exists, then her claim fails also.

The record reflects that Massengill’s participation was purely recreational and S.M.A.R.T. did not owe him a public duty. S.M.A.R.T. is not engaged in a type of business generally thought suitable for public regulation, and Massengill was engaged in a recreational activity not an activity pursuant to a physician’s order.

The court upheld the trial courts dismissal of the claims.

So Now What?

This is a great decision to assist in writing a release in Wyoming. Of interest was the fact the court pointed out, the plaintiffs were given three days to review the release before signing.

The four requirements for a release are similar to most other states. How you deal with the issue of someone at your facility for health or rehabilitation reasons might present a problem.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Massengill, v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21

Massengill, v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21

James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill, Appellants (Plaintiffs), v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., Appellee (Defendant).

No. 98-150

SUPREME COURT OF WYOMING

996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21

February 14, 2000, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County. The Honorable Nicholas G. Kalokathis, Judge.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

COUNSEL: Representing Appellants: Robert A. Hampe, Cheyenne, Wyoming (Withdrew pursuant to an Order of Suspension Upon Consent entered in the Wyoming Supreme Court on June 18, 1999.)

Representing Appellee: John I. Henley of Vlastos, Brooks, Henley & Drell, P.C., Casper, Wyoming.

JUDGES: Before LEHMAN, C.J., and THOMAS, MACY, GOLDEN, and TAYLOR, * JJ.

* Retired November 2, 1998.

OPINION BY: THOMAS

OPINION

[*1132] THOMAS, Justice.

The only issue in this case is whether a waiver of liability in a contract between S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C. (S.M.A.R.T.) and James Massengill (Massengill) is enforceable under the standards adopted in Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057 (Wyo. 1986) and followed in later cases. Massengill was using a lat-pull-down machine at S.M.A.R.T. when a pin used to secure the weights fell out. Apparently the pin did not fit properly in the machine, and when the pin fell out, Massengill fell over backwards injuring his wrist. In various statements of the [*1133] issues, Massengill attacks the validity of the waiver of liability on the grounds [**2] that it violated public policy; the business of S.M.A.R.T. is suitable for public regulation; the use of the premises at the time of injury by Massengill is not material; the question of duty is one that must be determined by a trier of fact; and S.M.A.R.T. owed a statutory duty to Massengill which invalidates the waiver. Our review of the record and legal precedent in Wyoming persuades us that the district court ruled correctly that there is no genuine issue of material fact in this case, and S.M.A.R.T. is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is affirmed.

In the Appellants’ Supreme Court Brief, filed on behalf of James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill (collectively the Massengills), these issues are stated:

Issue I

Did the district court error [sic] in validating the “waiver of liability” in the “sports specific training and advanced rehab agreement and release[“] due to the fact that:

(A) The release violated public policy,

(B) The business operated by appellee is suitable for public regulation, and

(C) Plaintiff J. Massengill was engaged in non therapeutic activities on the premises of [**3] the medical clinic has no bearing on whether the release should be validated or not?

Issue II

Is the duty issue in this case purely a question of law where the basic facts are undisputed or is the duty issue one which can only be determined by the trier of fact?

Issue III

Did appellee owe a statutory duty of care to appellant which would invalidate the waiver incorporated in the sports specific training and advanced rehabilitation agreement & release?

In the Brief of Appellee S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., the issues are stated in this way:

Was the waiver of liability executed by the Appellants valid[?]

(i) Was the Appellee’s waiver language inclusive and unambiguous as required by prior Wyoming Supreme Court case law; [or]

(ii) Is the waiver language of the Appellee contrary to public policy[?]

One evening James Massengill engaged in a conversation at a Cheyenne drugstore with the equity owner of S.M.A.R.T., a physician in Cheyenne. Massengill knew that S.M.A.R.T. had a weight room, and had seen recent advertisements to the effect that the facility offered personal trainers to assist members. In the course of a brief [**4] conversation, Massengill mentioned his interest in S.M.A.R.T.’s facilities, and the physician suggested he come over and try it out. A month or two following the conversation, Massengill went to S.M.A.R.T. and toured the facilities. The purpose of his initial visit was to assure himself that the equipment met his need, which was to get in better condition.

After he had been shown the facilities and the equipment, Massengill was given a Sports Specific Training and Advanced Rehabilitation Agreement and Release (Agreement and Release) to take home and review. Three days later, both Massengill and his wife executed the Agreement and Release, and they began using the facilities. Massengill was present at S.M.A.R.T. almost every day, and he had been using the lat-pull-down machine for nearly a month prior to his injury. He had not asked any questions about using the machine because he had used one previously. On March 13, 1996, Massengill was warming up on the machine, and he noticed that the pin holding the weights was shaped like a “T” rather than the longer “I” usually used. When Massengill pulled the bar down, the pin holding the weights popped out, and he fell over backwards, hitting [**5] his left hand and injuring his wrist.

On May 29, 1997, the Massengills filed their Complaint for Negligence and Damages. The first count of the Complaint for Negligence and Damages was couched in terms of alleged negligence causing injury to James Massengill, and the second count was couched in terms of recovery by Kaylea Massengill [*1134] for loss of consortium based upon her husband’s injuries. Various procedural steps, including discovery, followed the Answer by S.M.A.R.T., which included the affirmative defense of waiver and the affirmative defense that Kaylea Massengill’s claims were derivative of James Massengill’s claim. On October 3, 1997, there was filed by facsimile a Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment accompanied by a Memorandum in Support of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Additional procedural steps ensued, and on February 2, 1998, the district court entered an Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

The district court ruled that the exculpatory clause, including the release and waiver, was not ambiguous and was enforceable. Since the premise for the grant of the summary judgment by the district court was the language contained in the Agreement [**6] and Release, the district court ruled implicitly that any other issues of fact, genuine or not, were not material. The Massengills have appealed from the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

In Mercado v. Trujillo, 980 P.2d 824, 825-26 (Wyo. 1999), we summarized our rules with respect to review of summary judgments:

“‘When [HN1] a motion for summary judgment is before the supreme court, we have exactly the same duty as the district judge; and, if there is a complete record before us, we have exactly the same material as did he. We must follow the same standards. The propriety of granting a motion for summary judgment depends upon the correctness of a court’s dual findings that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the prevailing party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. This court looks at the record from the viewpoint most favorable to the party opposing the motion, giving to him all favorable inferences to be drawn from the facts contained in affidavits, depositions and other proper material appearing in the record.'” Reno Livestock Corporation v. Sun Oil Company (Delaware), Wyo., 638 P.2d 147, 150 (1981). [**7] See also, Blackmore v. Davis Oil Company, Wyo., 671 P.2d 334, 336 (1983).

“A [HN2] summary judgment should only be granted where it is clear that there are no issues of material facts involved and that an inquiry into the facts is unnecessary to clarify the application of law. Johnson v. Soulis, Wyo., 542 P.2d 867 (1975). A material fact is one which has legal significance. Johnson v. Soulis, supra. It is a fact which would establish a defense. Wood v. Trenchard, Wyo.[,] 550 P.2d 490 (1976). [HN3] After the movant establishes a prima facie case the burden of proof shifts to the opposing party who must show a genuine issue of material fact, Gennings v. First Nat’l Bank of Thermopolis, Wyo., 654 P.2d 154 (1982), or come forward with competent evidence of specific facts countering the facts presented by the movant. Matter of the Estate of Brosius, Wyo., 683 P.2d 663 (1984). The burden is then on the nonmoving party to show specific facts as opposed to general allegations. 10 Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil § 2727, p. 538. The material presented must be admissible evidence [**8] at trial. Conclusory statements are not admissible. Bancroft v. Jagusch, Wyo., 611 P.2d 819 (1980). We give the party defending the motion the benefit of any reasonable doubt.” Roth v. First Security Bank of Rock Springs, Wyoming, Wyo., 684 P.2d 93, 95 (1984).

Nowotny v. L & B Contract Industries, 933 P.2d 452, 455 (Wyo.1997) (quoting Thomas by Thomas v. South Cheyenne Water and Sewer Dist., 702 P.2d 1303, 1304 (Wyo.1985)).

More specifically and succinctly, with respect to this case, when review is sought of a summary judgment this Court must determine that there is no genuine issue of a material fact and the party prevailing in the district court is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Utilization of summary judgment serves the purpose of eliminating formal trials where only questions of law are involved. [HN4] In accomplishing the review of a summary judgment resting upon a question [*1135] of law, our review is de novo and affords no deference to the district court’s ruling on that question. E.g., Roberts v. Klinkosh, 986 P.2d 153, 156 (Wyo. 1999); Gray v. Norwest Bank Wyoming, N.A., 984 P.2d 1088, 1091 (Wyo. 1999); [**9] Ahrenholtz v. Time Ins. Co., 968 P.2d 946, 949 (Wyo. 1998).

Our reading of the Agreement and Release convinces us that the intention of S.M.A.R.T. and the Massengills is expressed in clear and unequivocal language. The language clearly assigns the risk to members who agree to be liable for any and all risks. The Agreement and Release continues with an unequivocal statement that S.M.A.R.T. shall not be liable for any injuries or damages to any member or the member’s property, including those caused by the negligence of S.M.A.R.T. It continues with this language:

1. Any member using S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS facility shall undertake any and all risks. The member shall also be liable for any and all risks. S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS shall not be liable for any injuries or damage to any member, or the property of the member, or be subject to any claim, demand, injury or damages whatsoever, including, without limitation, those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents. The member, for himself/herself and on behalf of his/her executors, administrators, heirs, assigns, and assignees and successors, does hereby expressly forever [**10] waive, release and discharge S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its owners, officers, employees, agents, assigners and successors from all such claims, demands, injuries, damages, actions or causes of action.

The language of the Agreement and Release is broad, and specifically releases S.M.A.R.T. from claims and actions for negligence. Indeed, the Massengills do not assert that the agreement does not apply to this action; instead, their contention is that the agreement is not enforceable. In the absence of any genuine issue of a material fact with respect to the language of the Agreement and Release, the issue is a pure question of law with respect to whether the district court invoked and correctly applied the pertinent rules of law.

In Shepard v. Top Hat Land & Cattle Co., 560 P.2d 730, 732 (Wyo. 1977), the applicable rule was summarized:

[HN5] If the language of the contract is plain and unequivocal that language is controlling and the interpretation of the contractual provisions is for the court to make as a matter of law. The meaning of the instrument is to be deduced only from its language if the terms are plain and unambiguous. Mauch v. Ballou, Wyo., 499 P.2d 591 (1972); [**11] Craig v. Gudim, Wyo., 488 P.2d 316 (1971); Chandler-Simpson, Inc. v. Gorrell, Wyo., 464 P.2d 849 (1970); Flora Construction Company v. Bridger Valley Electric Association, Inc., Wyo., 355 P.2d 884 (1960); Barlow v. Makeeff, 74 Wyo. 171, 284 P.2d 1093 (1955).

This rule first was alluded to by this Court in Horvath v. Sheridan-Wyoming Coal Co., 58 Wyo. 211, 230, 131 P.2d 315, 321 (1942), and it has been consistently applied over the years, appearing most recently in Saulcy Land Co. v. Jones, 983 P.2d 1200, 1202 (Wyo. 1999).

[HN6] Exculpatory clauses or releases are contractual in nature, and we interpret them using traditional contract principles and considering the meaning of the document as a whole. Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063, 1065 (Wyo. 1988); Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 712 (Wyo. 1987); Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1059; Kelliher v. Herman, 701 P.2d 1157, 1159 (Wyo. 1985). The language of the Agreement and Release is clear in manifesting an intention to release S.M.A. [**12] R.T. and those involved with the facility from liability; it specifically states that S.M.A.R.T. will not be held liable for “those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents.” And, just as in Boehm, 748 P.2d at 712, “[a] plain reading of the language in the context of the entire membership application evidences no other rational purpose for which it could have been intended.”

The Massengills endeavor to avoid the release and waiver articulated in the Agreement and Release by arguing that it is not valid as a matter of public policy because the business of S.M.A.R.T. is appropriate for [*1136] public regulation, and the nature of the use of the equipment by Massengill is not material to the public policy or public regulation determination. We said in Fremont Homes, Inc. v. Elmer, 974 P.2d 952, 956 (Wyo. 1999):

[HN7] In Wyoming, a contract limiting liability for negligence may be enforced only if it does not contravene public policy. Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057, 1059-60 (Wyo.1986); Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 710 (Wyo. 1987); Brittain v. Booth, 601 P.2d 532, 535 (Wyo.1979). [**13]

In Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060, this Court adopted from Colorado a four-part test for evaluating a negligence exculpatory clause. [HN8] The factors the court considers are: “(1) whether a duty to the public exists; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” A comparison of Massengill’s claim with these factors leads to the ineluctable conclusion that the district court’s decision was correct as a matter of law.

We said in Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066, “[ [HN9] a] duty to the public exists if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest and the service performed is considered an essential service.” We then adopted from California [HN10] a definition of a release agreement affecting the public interest, giving rise to a public duty, which is that it

“concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for [**14] some members of the public. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it * * *. As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.” (Emphasis added and footnotes omitted.) Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46, 6 A.L.R.3d 693 (1963).

Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066. We also adopted a [HN11] list of examples of services which are typically subject to public regulation and which demand a public duty or are considered essential. The list includes common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers, and services involving extra-hazardous activities. Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066.

Schutkowski was a case involving a sky diving injury, and we held that [HN12] a private recreational business does not qualify as one that owes a special duty to the public nor are its services of a special, highly [**15] necessary nature. Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060. The services offered by S.M.A.R.T. to its members were those of a private recreational business which did not qualify as suitable for public regulation because they did not affect the public interest nor could they be considered as necessary or essential, and there was no greater duty to the public than existed in Schutkowski, Boehm or Milligan. The district court in its Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment cites and relies upon decisions from other jurisdictions which have held that [HN13] exculpatory clauses in health club contracts do not violate public policy. Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 926 (Minn. 1982); Shields v. Sta-Fit, Inc., 79 Wn. App. 584, 903 P.2d 525, 528 (1995). We are persuaded that the approach of the courts in Minnesota and Washington is the correct rule.

Massengill further maintains that he joined S.M.A.R.T. pursuant to a doctor’s order, and as such was receiving an essential service; therefore, S.M.A.R.T. owed him a public duty that is subject to regulation. A casual conversation, at a drugstore one evening, with the doctor/equity [**16] owner of the S.M.A.R.T. facility hardly qualifies as a prescription. The doctor was not Massengill’s treating physician nor was he acting in that capacity; he engaged in the conversation as the owner of the facility and not a physician. Moreover, the record is devoid of evidence showing that on the day he was injured, Massengill was engaging in a rehabilitation program. He admitted joining S.M.A.R.T. to [*1137] get into better physical condition. That was the purpose of his membership at S.M.A.R.T., and it qualifies as a recreational activity and not a practical necessity. Based on Massengill’s own testimony, his membership was purely recreational and not pursuant to a doctor’s order. There is no genuine issue of material fact as to the purpose or nature of Massengill’s use of the S.M.A.R.T. facility that needs to be resolved.

The third factor in the Schutkowski test is whether the contract was fairly entered into. Since membership in a private recreational facility such as S.M.A.R.T. is purely optional and does not qualify as an essential service, no decisive bargaining advantage exists. “A disparity of bargaining power will be found when a contracting party with little or no bargaining [**17] strength has no reasonable alternative to entering the contract at the mercy of the other’s negligence.” Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066. Similar to the releases in Milligan, which involved an optional ski race, and Schutkowski, which involved sky diving, no evidence suggests that Massengill was unfairly pressured into signing the agreement or was deprived of the opportunity to understand its implications. In fact, after Massengill initially toured the facilities, he was given the Agreement and Release to take with him, which he filled out at home and returned three days later.

In determining that the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment should be considered under principles of contract law, we held that the last factor of the Schutkowski test is satisfied in this case. The intent of the parties was clearly expressed in clear and unambiguous language. [HN14] We interpret exculpatory clauses or releases using traditional contract principles, and consider the meaning of the document as a whole. Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1067. Just as in Boehm, 748 P.2d at 712, “[a] plain reading of the language in the context of the [**18] entire membership application evidences no other rational purpose for which it could have been intended.”

In a further effort to avoid the Agreement and Release, the Massengills present an argument that the Recreation Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to 1-1-123 (Lexis 1999), creates a statutory duty on the part of providers of a sport or recreational opportunity because it preserves actions based upon negligence if damage or injury is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity. The Massengills rely upon Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 565 (Wyo. 1995), and the distinction drawn in that case between primary assumption of risk and secondary assumption of risk. The thrust of this rather convoluted argument is that, if the conduct of the defendant comes within the category of secondary assumption of risk, a statutory duty is created by the language that preserves actions based on negligence. The Massengills then contend that the Agreement and Release cannot be enforced because it is contrary to the statutory duty. No authority is cited for that precise proposition, and we are satisfied that [HN15] the Recreation Safety Act does not foreclose [**19] the invocation of a contractual release or waiver for negligent conduct that is not released by the assignment of the inherent risk to the person participating in the sport or recreational opportunity under the statute. Indeed, the limited reach of the statute would suggest that a contractual release in addition to the statute would be prudent.

With respect to the claim of Kaylea Massengill for loss of consortium, her cause of action was included in the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. She executed the same Agreement and Release that James Massengill signed. Furthermore, her claim for loss of consortium was derivative of James Massengill’s claim for injuries, and it fails when his claim fails. Verschoor v. Mountain West Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 907 P.2d 1293, 1301 (Wyo. 1995); Boehm, 748 P.2d at 708.

The only pertinent issue in this case was whether the exculpatory clause should be held to violate public policy and not enforced for that reason. The record reflects that Massengill’s participation was purely recreational and S.M.A.R.T. did not owe him a public duty. S.M.A.R.T. is not engaged in a type of business generally [**20] thought suitable for public regulation, and Massengill was engaged in a recreational activity not an activity pursuant to a physician’s order. The case [*1138] is correctly resolved as a matter of law under principles relating to contract, and the contractual language being clear and unambiguous, there are no genuine issues of material fact. The case is controlled by Schutkowski and the later cases that followed it. We affirm the district court’s Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.