Neither a release nor the Pennsylvania Equine Liability Act protects a stable for injuries when the stirrup broke.Posted: June 19, 2017
Between a poorly written release, an Equine statute that requires proof the rider assumed the risk and the “cavalier” attitude of the defendant; the plaintiff will proceed to trial.
Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576
State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania
Plaintiff: Wilberto Melendez
Defendant: Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc.
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Recklessness
Defendant Defenses: Release and Pennsylvania Equine Liability Protection Act
Holding: For the plaintiff
The plaintiff was part of a group ride. Upon arrival he was told, he had to sign a release which he did. At the office where the plaintiff signed, the release signs were posed as required by the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act. During the ride, the plaintiff asked the guides if he could gallop the horse and was told no several times. Eventually at the end of the ride, the plaintiff was allowed to gallop his horse.
Plaintiff then mounted the horse and participated in a guided group horseback ride for the next forty-five minutes without incident. On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail. At the end of the ride, one of the guides brought Plaintiff away from the group so that Plaintiff could canter the horse. Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal.
While galloping the horse, the stirrup broke causing the plaintiff to fall incurring injuries.
The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release signed by the plaintiff and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act. The court denied the motion because the issue of the stirrup breaking could be considered reckless under Pennsylvania law.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The decision first looks at releases or exculpatory agreements under Pennsylvania law.
An exculpatory clause is valid if (1) the clause does “not contravene public policy”; (2) the contract is “between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs”; and (3) each party is “a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.
Under Pennsylvania, the language of the release must be clear in relieving notifying the possible plaintiff, he or she is releasing the defendant of negligence. “However, a valid exculpatory clause will nevertheless, be unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”
As in most states, releases are not favored and must conform to contract law. However, the term “not favored” is a term of art rather than a term used to determine if the release will be valid.
Contracts immunizing a party against liability for negligence are not favored by law and therefore established standards must be “met before an exculpatory provision will be interpreted and construed to relieve a person of liability for his own or his servants’ acts of negligence.”
In that regard Pennsylvania, courts have set up standards on how releases will be governed.
1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by ex-press stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.
As in most other states, Pennsylvania does not allow a release to relieve a defendant for intentional or reckless acts. “Further, exculpatory clauses may not immunize a party for intentional or reckless behavior.”
The plaintiff did not argue that the release was not valid. The court reviewed the release on its own and find it valid.
First, the agreement does not violate any public policy of Pennsylvania. In light of the Equine Activities Immunity Act–discussed in the next section–and similar statutes addressing other recreational activities, it is the policy of the state to encourage participation in those activities, despite their inherent danger, and assign the risk of loss to those who choose to participate in them.
Second, the agreement was between two private parties, Happy Trails and Mr. Melendez, concerning the purely private matter of renting a horse for recreational purposes. Finally, this is not a contract of adhesion. (“The signer I is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”). Thus, the agreement is facially valid.
The court also found Pennsylvania law allowed the use of releases for inherently dangerous activities. Horseback riding in Pennsylvania is an inherently dangerous activity.
The plaintiff’s argument centered on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Inherent, a limiting word, defines the risks that are part of horseback riding no matter what. Inherent risks are part of horseback riding and can rarely be reduced or modified by someone because of the horse. However, there are more than just inherent risks in any activity and the plaintiff argued that a stirrup breaking was not an inherent risk and not covered by the release or the statute.
How the bridle or saddle is attached to the horse is under the control of the stable, thus not an inherent risk of horseback riding in must states. How the horse responds; maneuvers or acts is an inherent risk of riding a horse.
Plaintiff contends that Defendant has failed to meet its burden to show either that defective equipment is an inherent risk of horseback riding, or that the language of the agreement shows that Plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of defective equipment.
Plaintiff points out that the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk. (Id.). Further, Plaintiff argues that a broken stirrup is not an inherent risk of horseback riding as demonstrated by the testimony of both Happy Trails’ owner and a Happy Trails’ employee who both stated they had never seen a stirrup break before. Thus, Plaintiff argues, because the risk was not foreseeable and was not expressly in the agreement, Plaintiff could not appreciate the risk and could therefore not assume it.
(For other articles on the use of “inherent” in a release see: Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release and 2015 SLRA – Inherent Risk: Should the Phrase be in your Release?)
The court looked at the issue and rephrased it to a contract analogy. A contract must state the intention of the parties. A release is a contract.
…the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties”–is not met in this case because the agreement did not specifically enumerate the risk of defective equipment. Pennsylvania courts, however, have rejected this argument before.
The court then looked at the issue and found that defective equipment was not an inherent risk of horseback riding. This means if you use the term “inherent risk” in your release to describe all of the risks, claims based defective equipment would not be covered by your release in Pennsylvania. However, the release in this case was written broadly so it was not an issue.
Concerning the case at hand, while this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the provision of defective equipment is not an inherent risk in the sport of horseback riding, this point is not dispositive. As one Pennsylvania court explained, “the assumption of the risk doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering in tort for risks inherent to a certain activity. In contrast, the explicit, broad, and valid language of the exculpatory clause bars all claims, regardless of whether they arise from an inherent risk.”
Pennsylvania courts have held that a release protects against claims for inherent as well as non-inherent risks if written to include those risks, and this release was written broadly.
The plaintiff argued the release should be read narrowly because the release did not identify defective equipment as a risk to be covered. However, the court found that every risk needs not be reviewed or identified in a release.
Plaintiff advances a more narrow reading of the agreement and argues that because the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk, he did not expressly assume it. The Chepkevich Court, however, was clear that no illustrations or examples are required to give common terms effect in an exculpatory agreement. “All claims” and “negligence” are commonly used terms and Pennsylvania law does not require drafters of exculpatory clauses to enumerate every possible contingency that is included in broader language they choose to use.
The next point the plaintiff argued was the actions of the defendant amounted to recklessness and as such voided the release. The court defined recklessness under Pennsylvania law as:
Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.”
Pennsylvania uses the term recklessness to define acts of the defendant that exceed the scope of a release. The majority but not all states use the term gross negligence.
This argument the court did accept. The court found that it was the defendant’s responsibility to inspect the equipment, and the defendant could not provide any evidence of any inspection.
Defendant’s bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. The record shows that Happy Trails provided a saddle for Plaintiffs ride, that a stirrup on that saddle broke during the ride, and that Plaintiff fell from a horse when the stirrup broke. It was the responsibility of Happy Trails, not the customer, to inspect the equipment, but no records of inspections or repairs were kept, nor was the Happy Trails’ owner able to say if any inspection of the specific stirrup occurred on the day of the accident.
The court on this same topic went on looking at the facts to determine other reckless acts of the defendant. In that review, the court added a comment about the attitude of the defendant/owner of Happy Trails and described his attitude as “cavalier.”
He was unable to say where he procured the saddle in question, how long he had had it, or how old it was. Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal. Viewing the record in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains as to whether Defendant’s action rose to the level of recklessness
Finding a lack of knowledge about the age or condition of the defendant’s equipment, no record of inspecting or maintaining the equipment and the attitude of the defendant allowed the court to reach a conclusion that the actions of the defendant would be found by a jury to be reckless. As such, a motion for summary judgment could not be granted if there were “genuine dispute as to any material fact.”
The next issue was the application of the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act to the case. The court could find no other case law in Pennsylvania that looked at the application of the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act to defective equipment. Consequently, the court had to interpret the statute to see if the language of the statute covered defective equipment.
The Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act like most equine liability protection acts provides immunity to horse owners, stables, etc., for the actions of the animals. (Since Equine Acts have been created, they have been 100% effective. No horses have been sued. Lawsuits against horse owners have increased.) However, the Pennsylvania statute places a burden on the stable or horse owner to prove knowledge of the risk for the immunity to apply.
Most equine protection acts are written to say that when on a horse, or at places where horses, llamas, mules, etc., are, you assume the risk of the actions of the animal. By assuming the risk, the defendant owner is immune from liability for the plaintiff’s injuries. The Pennsylvania statute is different. The Pennsylvania statute states “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven.”
This requirement puts a burden upon the horse owner to provide additional education to the rider.
The court looked at the definition of assumption of risk as defined in the Restatement of Torts, which found four different definitions or as the Restatement defines them doctrines of assumption of the risk.
The Restatement outlines four varieties of the doctrine, the first two of which are of interest in this case. The first, express assumption of risk occurs when lithe plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. (emphasis added). This is the type of assumption of risk examined above in respect to the agreement signed by Plaintiff. The second, implied assumption of risk, occurs when lithe plaintiff has entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.”
The first type of assumption of risk the court found that applied here was express assumption of risk. Express assumption of risk occurs when the plaintiff has consented to the risk. Usually, this consent is given by writing, if written property as part of a release.
The second type applicable in this case was implied assumption of the risk. Implied assumption of the risk has no exactness to the risk assumed. The plaintiff knows there is risk, and the defendant hopes the plaintiff knows of the explicit risk that may injure the plaintiff or that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. If the plaintiff had no knowledge of the risk, then the plaintiff cannot assume the risk.
It is self-evident that a person “cannot be found to have implicitly assumed a risk of which he had no knowledge.” (plurality opinion). As such, lithe defense of assumption of the risk requires that the defendant show that the plaintiff was subjectively aware of the facts which created the danger and…must have appreciated the danger itself and the nature, character and extent which made it unreasonable.”
In this case, there was no evidence that the plaintiff knew of the risk. That risk was of equipment failure that the stirrup would break. Consequently, the plaintiff could not assume the risk.
Thus, for a defendant to prevail on a summary judgment motion based on the assumption of risk defense, it must be “beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.”
In short, to preclude Plaintiffs negligence action under the EAIA, Defendant must show that Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge.
Because the risk that injured the plaintiff was outside of the risks assumed by the plaintiff, the defense of assumption of the risk did not apply. As such, the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act did not provide the defendant with any protection.
With the release not valid and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act not providing any protection both defenses of the defendant failed. The defendant’s motion for summary judgment was denied.
So Now What?
This case would not have meant anything if the plaintiff had simply fallen off the horse. Both the release and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act would have prevented recovery if a claim had even been made.
But broken equipment always creates a different issue. Here it created an issue of whether the actions of the defendant were reckless and proved the plaintiff did not assume the risk.
Another important issue is courts put into their decision the facts they find persuasive or at least interesting. There were several facts in the decision that did not alter or affect the decision on its face, but important enough for the court to identify them anyway. I always find these facts as instructional and a good indication of something that was not enough for the judge to argue but important anyway.
I also believe that they may not have any legal value, but if written into the decision by the judge, they had to have an impact on the judge’s thinking, and consequently, those issues did affect the outcome of the case.
In this decision those facts included:
After his group arrived, Plaintiff went into the stable’s office to register. Plaintiff was presented with a form (the “agreement”), which stated, in pertinent part….
Combined with the next sentence:
An employee of Happy Trails informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff must sign the agreement in order to go horseback riding. Plaintiff signed the agreement.
Meaning, the plaintiff was not told in advance he was going to be required to sign a release.
Another one was the plaintiff being told galloping was too dangerous yet he was eventually allowed to gallop his horse.
On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail.
Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal.
If galloping the horse was too dangerous earlier, what changed? More importantly, galloping the horse led to the broken stirrup which led to the injury.
And then there are the straight out in your face statements a court rarely makes.
Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal.
If this statement or something like it has been at the beginning, you would have known immediately that the defendant was going to lose. Never walk into a courtroom looking like the bad guy and never give the court proof, such as this, that you are.
For other Equine Liability Act articles see:
Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release http://rec-law.us/1nvfCV5
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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law
Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law
Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law
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By Recreation Law Recfirstname.lastname@example.org James H. Moss
#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., trail, summary judgment, exculpatory, recklessness, equine, stirrup, stable, immunity, genuine, horse, horseback riding, recreational, animal, material fact, skiing, ride, assumption of risk, faulty, broken, ski, rider, inherent risk, exculpatory clause, riding, sport, skier, enumerate, counter, rental, entity, Equine Liability Act,
For 10 years, I kept track of fatalities while skiing/boarding inbounds at resorts. Lately several news agencies have been doing the same but with what I consider an evil intent, to create liability for the ski areas or the NSAA.
I’ve never wanted to track this information with the intent of placing blame. People die skiing. People die in the bathroom, getting ready to go skiing, and more than anything, people die driving to and from the ski area. However, these news agencies seem to believe that dying with a pair of skis on or a snowboard requires special reaction from the ski area or the National Ski Area Association (NSAA).
Even funnier, they seem to get upset when the NSAA does nothing when someone dies out of bounds. The name is Ski Area association?
I wanted to know why people died skiing. I wanted to be able to talk with my students at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) in the Ski Area Operations (SAO) program about deaths. I thought if I looked at these deaths, I might learn something. I did. Dying at a ski area is more bad luck than anything else that I can track or understand.
If you don’t want to die at a ski area:
Don’t ski near trees (tress attack skiers!)
Never ski alone (because if you get ill, there is no one to help)
Never ski out of control.
Other than that nothing else seems to make a difference. Definitely, as I’ve always said, wearing a helmet is not going to keep you alive skiing. Helmets were designs to protect your head from minor injuries, nothing more. More people are dying these days wearing a helmet than not wearing a helmet. Maybe Risk Homeostasis is a thing.
The one thing I have learned is there is very little if anything a ski area can do to prevent fatalities while skiing or boarding. Ten years of looking at reports in the media from fatalities and the liability of a ski area does not pop out as a cause of the death.
Several news organizations have been collecting similar data and publicizing it with an obvious intent to create liability for a ski area or kick the NSAA for whatever reason. I don’t want to be associated with those organizations.
I represent several trade associations and am a member of several. The American Bar Association does not track how many lawyers die at work. However, several news organizations, some in ski area country, now believe that is a requirement of the NSAA, and they are not doing their job if they don’t.
I never see reports from the Association of Alternative Weeklies about how many journalists died last week. Should journalists know, probably? Should students know how risky their profession might be, probably? However, you don’t see articles condemning the association when they don’t write up stories about a writer found dead on his keyboard; coffee spilled over his notes and a burnt out joint in the ash tray. (I’m talking Colorado here.)
Nor do these news reporting businesses look at other outside activities. They don’t track mountain biking, road biking, scuba diving, or anything else with any interest. They certainly don’t start a headline about a fatality with the number of deaths in that sport this year or season. Maybe because skiing has such a big economic impact, it gets the special treatment? But then all their reporting is going to do is decrease the amount of money coming into the state.
People die every day all sorts of ways. Some at ski areas, some because they were thinking about skiing I suspect. People die going to and from the ski areas, but I don’t see headlines about how and why the Colorado Department of Transportation is not reporting these deaths. Another person dies on I-70 coming home from a great day of skiing.
I just don’t want to be associated with that group. So last week’s report will also be the last one.
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Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law
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#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer,
Name of Product: Look Cycle road bikes and Aerostems
Hazard: The stainless steel clamp that secures the stem to the handlebars can corrode and break, posing a fall and crash hazard.
Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles with the recalled Aerostems and return them to the place of purchase for a free repair. Consumers unable to return their bicycles should contact Look Cycle for instructions on receiving a free repair.
Consumer Contact: Look Cycle at 800-822-1980 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, email at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at http://www.lookcycle.com/ click on the Safety Notice tab for more information.
Photos available at: https://cpsc.gov/Recalls/2017/Look-Cycle-Recalls-Aerostems–and-Road-Bikes
Units: About 800
Description: This recall involves Look Cycle Aerostems sold either as an after-market component or installed as original equipment on Look Cycle model 695 and 795 road bikes for model years 2014 through 2017. The Look Aerostems are made of black carbon fiber material with a black steel clamp around the handlebars. Recalled models have either no number or the number 380706 printed in white on the bottom of the clamp. A complete list of photos of the recalled stems and bike models can be found on the firm’s website at http://www.lookcycle.com/en/safety-notice.
Incidents/Injuries: The firm has received one report of the stainless steel clamp on an Aerostem breaking. No injuries have been reported.
Sold at: Independent bike stores nationwide from July 2013 through December 2016 for about $500 for the stems sold individually and for between $5,500 and $16,000 installed as original equipment on Look Cycle road 695 and 795 road racing bicycles.
Importer: Hawley LLC, of Lexington, S.C.
Manufactured in: France and Switzerland
NSSRA Offers Ship Skis as Newest Member Benefit
Program Is Designed To Increase Store Traffic While Offering Customers an Easy Way To Ship Their Gear
MOUNT PROSPECT, IL — The National Ski & Snowboard Retailers Association (NSSRA) Board of Directors is pleased to announce an agreement with Ship Skis to provide ski and board gear shipping services to NSSRA members. Ship Skis provides similar services to the golf industry under the Ship Sticks brand.
NSSRA members who participate in the program will be able to ship their customers’ gear to and from any home, business, or ski resort in the United States or abroad. Retailers will be provided with an easy to complete Ship Skis web page for their websites, which quickly calculates shipping charges. Through Ship Skis, shipping fees are offered at discount rates. This allows NSSRA retailers to earn a margin on their customers shipping charges for facilitating the shipment. Shipments are insured against loss or damage, and Ship Skis will cover up to $200 should the customer have to rent gear for any shipments that are delayed in-transit.
“This is such a natural service to provide our members that we didn’t want to wait until next season to get started,” said NSSRA Chairman of the Board Wilbur Rice. “Many retailers provide similar services for their customers, but the Ship Skis program will save significantly on the cost of shipping skis, boards or other gear to ski resorts.
“I want to thank NSSRA Past Chairman Brad Nelson and Chairman-Elect Teddy Schiavoni for their work in putting this together,” Rice said. “As busy as they have been in their shops, they understood the importance of making Ship Skis available to our members now rather than waiting until next season.”
“We are ecstatic about the new partnership with the NSSRA and proud to join the existing partners in the endeavor to advocate for Ski/Snowboard retailers across the country,” says Nicholas Coleman, CEO. “We believe Ship Skis will extend a unique opportunity to assist every member of the NSSRA with increased foot traffic and revenue at each of its specialty retailers and vendors. This partnership will provide ski/snowboard business vendors and down slope retailers with a way to ensure their customer base has a full-service experience from the counter at the store to the slopes anywhere in the world.”
For more information on Ship Skis, please visit wsmith
For more information on NSSRA, contact NSSRA President Larry Weindruch, lweindruch, or stop by Booth #3628 during the SIA Snow Show.
About NSSRA: The National Ski & Snowboard Retailers Association is a volunteer-led organization dedicated to growing snow sports participation and to support and educate specialty snow sports retailers. Since its founding in 1989, NSSRA has served as the voice of specialty retailers, representing their interest on issues that affect the specialty retail channel. NSSRA publishes research reports for specialty snow sports retailers, offers cost-saving services, and compiles and distributes the Combined Indemnified Bindings List. For more information, please contact NSSRA President Larry Weindruch, (847) 391-9825, or email: lweindruch.
About Ship Skis: Ship Skis provides a door-to-door shipping solution for the traveler who desires a hassle-free traveling experience. As the most reliable and cost effective shipping service available, Ship Skis has partnered with the world’s finest Ski Resorts, Ski Shops and Hotels to allow for an effortless shipping experience. Shipping skis, snowboards, and luggage with Ship Skis allows you to save time and money at the airport by avoiding the long check-in lines, crowded baggage terminals, and expensive baggage fees. Whether your skis, snowboards or luggage are being picked up from your home or office, Ship Skis guarantees an on-time delivery to wherever you’re staying or skiing. For additional information with regards to these convenient services, please visit www.shipskis.com.
McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc. 2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45
Marcella McGrath f/k/a Marcella Widger v. SNH Development, Inc. and John Doe, an unnamed individual
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY
2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45
May 19, 2008, Decided
THE ORDERS ON THIS SITE ARE TRIAL COURT ORDERS THAT ARE NOT BINDING ON OTHER TRIAL COURT JUSTICES OR MASTERS AND ARE SUBJECT TO APPELLATE REVIEW BY THE NEW HAMPSHIRE SUPREME COURT.
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Affirmed by McGrath v. SNH Dev., Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 969 A.2d 392, 2009 N.H. LEXIS 43 (2009)
JUDGES: [*1] GILLIAN L. ABRAMSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE.
OPINION BY: GILLIAN L. ABRAMSON
The plaintiff commenced the instant action alleging negligence against the defendants, SNH Development, Inc. (“SNH Development”) and John Doe, an unnamed individual. The defendants now move for summary judgment, and the plaintiff objects.
For purposes of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the parties do not appear to dispute the following facts. SNH Development is a subsidiary of Peak Resorts, Inc. and owns and operates the Crotched Mountain Ski Area in Bennington, New Hampshire. On October 23, 2003, the plaintiff signed an application (the “application”) for a season pass to the Crotched Mountain Ski Area. The application provides:
I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing in its various forms is a hazardous sport, and I realize that injuries are a common occurrence. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the ski area facility, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury or death of property damage, release Crotched Mountain its owners and its agents, employees, directors, officers and shareholders from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage [*2] which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises, the operations of the ski area including, but not limited to, grooming snow making, ski lift operations, actions or omissions of employees or age the area, or my participation in skiing, accepting myself the full responsibility
Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B. Moreover, on December 20, 2003, the plaintiff signed a Liability Release Agreement, which provides:
I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing in its various forms is a hazardous sport, and I realize that injuries are a common occurrence. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the area facility, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury or death or property damage, and release Peak Resorts, Inc, all of its subsidiaries, and its agents, employees, directors, officers, shareholders and the manufacturers and distributors of this equipment and the school and group organizers (collective “providers’), from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises, the operation of the area including, but not limited to grooming, [*3] snowmaking, lift operations, actions or omissions of employees or agents of the areas, or my participating in skiing, snowboarding, blading, accepting myself the full responsibility.
Id. On February 20, 2004, the plaintiff was skiing 1 a trail at the Crotched Mountain Ski Area when an employee of SNH Development drove a snowmobile into the plaintiff’s path, causing a collision.
1 Some of the pleadings state that the plaintiff was skiing, while other’s state that the plaintiff was snowboarding.
The defendants now move for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff signed the application and the Liability Release Agreement, both of which are valid, enforceable exculpatory contracts. The plaintiff objects, arguing that the application and the Liability Release Agreement violate public policy and that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim.
In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court “consider[s] the affidavits and other evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” White v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 151 N.H. 544, 547, 864 A.2d 1101 (2004). [*4] The Court must grant a motion for summary judgment if its “review of the evidence does not reveal a genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law Id. A fact is material “if it affects the outcome of the litigation under the applicable substantive law.” Palmer v. Nan King Restaurant, 147 N.H. 681, 683, 798 A.2d 583 (2002).
New Hampshire law generally prohibits exculpatory contracts, but the Court will enforce them if; “(1) do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims were within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.” Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-267, 786 A.2d 834 (2001). Thus, the Court considers each of these requirements in turn.
Regarding the first requirement, an exculpatory contract violates public policy if a special relationship existed between the parties or if there was some other disparity in bargaining power. See Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 106, 509 A.2d 151 (1986) (“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does [*5] not contravene public policy i.e that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.”).
A special relationship exists “[w]here the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service….” Id. The plaintiff contends that a special relationship existed between the parties because any person operating a snowmobile has a statutory duty to yield the right of way, RSA 215-C:49, XII (Supp. 2007), and because the Crotched Mountain Ski Area serves the public. Assuming that RSA 215-C:49, XII applies to the operation of a snowmobile on a privately owned ski area, the plaintiff has not offered any legal support for the conclusion that this statute somehow charges the defendants with a duty of public service. Moreover, the fact that the Crotched Mountain Ski Area serves the public is not conclusive. For example, Barnes, involved a negligence claim arising from a collision at an enduro kart racing facility. In Barnes, the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted that the defendant’s served the public but held that the defendant’s were not charged with a duty of public service because [*6] Endurokart racing is not “affected with a public interest.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. Similarly, skiing is a recreational activity not affected with a public interest, and the Court finds that the defendant’s are not charged with a duty of public service.
The Plaintiff also contends that she was at an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power because all ski areas require skiers to sign releases. The Court disagrees.
This case … does not have any hallmarks of a disparity in bargaining power. The [skiing] service offered by the defendant is not a “matter of practical necessity.” Nor did the defendant in this ease have monopoly control over this service such that the plaintiff could not have gone elsewhere.
Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 418, 640 A.2d 777 (1994) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108). 2
2 The Plaintiff also argues that the application and the Liability Release Agreement violate public policy because they relieve the defendant’s from compliance with RSA chapter 215-C, which governs snowmobiles. Assuming that RSA chapter 215-C applies to the operation of a snowmobile on privately owned ski area, the application and the Liability Release Agreement would have no bearing on the enforcement of RSA chapter 215-C. [*7] See RSA 215-C-32 (Supp.2007) (providing for the enforcement of RSA chapter 215-C).
“Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. “The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.” Wright v. Loon Mt. Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 169, 663 A.2d 1340 (1995). The Court
therefore examine[s] the language of the release to determine whether “a reasonable person in [the plaintiff’s] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence….”
Id. (citations omitted) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107). The Court “will assess the clarity. the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining [*8] isolated words and phrases. Id. at 169-170.
The plaintiff does not appear to dispute that she understood the import of the application or the Liability Release Agreement. Rather, the plaintiff argues that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim. Thus, the Court turns to the third requirement.
“[T]he plaintiff’s claims must have been within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement. The parties need not, however, have contemplated the precise occurrence that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries. They may adopt language to cover, a broad range of accidents….” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107 (citation omitted). To determine the scope of a release, the Court examines its language, strictly construing it against the defendant. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267.
Thus, in order to effectively release a defendant from liability for his own negligence, “the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” There is no requirement that the term “negligence” or any other magic words appear in the release as long “as the language of [*9] the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.”
Audley, 138 N.H. at 418 (citations omitted) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107).
The plaintiff contends that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim because neither the application nor the Liability Release Agreement reference snowmobiles. As rioted above, the parties need not have contemplated a negligence claim arising from a snowmobile accident. Rather, it is sufficient that the parties adopted language to cover a broad range of accidents. The application releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence,” and the Liability Release Agreement releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in from negligence.” Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B. This language clearly states that the defendants are not responsible for the consequences of their negligence.
The Plaintiff also contends that the parties did [*10] not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim because snowmobiles are not an inherent hazard of skiing. The plaintiff relies on Wright. In Wright, the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted:
The paragraphs preceding the exculpatory clause emphasize the inherent hazards of horseback riding. Because the exculpatory clause is prefaced by the term “therefore,” a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that
Wright, 140 N.H. at 170. Here, however, the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not mention the inherent hazards of skiing. Rather, the application and the Liability Release Agreement note that skiing is a hazardous sport and that injuries are a common occurrence and then, without using the term “therefore,” release the defendants from any and all liability. Because the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not use the phrase “inherent hazards of skiing” or the term “therefore,” this case is distinguishable from Wright. A reasonable person would have contemplated that the application and the [*11] Liability Release Agreement would release the defendants from a negligence claim, whether nor not that claim arouse from an inherent hazard of skiing.
Based on the foregoing, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.