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

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

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

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

Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau

Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak

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

Defendant Defenses:

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

Year: 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

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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Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

Email: Rec-law@recreation-law.com

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Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

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By Recreation Law           Rec-law@recreation-law.com     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, Cornell University, Cornell, Tumbl Trak, Gymnastic, Gym, Open and Obvious, Failure to Warn, Assumption of the Risk, Punitive Damages, Summary Judgment, Causation,

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, premises liability, and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: No Duty and Texas Recreational Use Statute

Holding: For the defendants

Year: 2016

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The court then summed up its ruling.

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

Email: Rec-law@recreation-law.com

Google+: +Recreation

Twitter: RecreationLaw

Facebook: Rec.Law.Now

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

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By Recreation Law           Rec-law@recreation-law.com     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,

 


Allowing a climber to climb with harness on backwards on health club climbing wall enough for court to accept gross negligence claim and invalidate the release.

Whether or not the employee was present the entire time, is irrelevant, anytime any employee had the opportunity to see the harness on incorrectly was enough to be gross negligence.

Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

State: Michigan, Court of Appeals of Michigan

Plaintiff: David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez

Defendant: LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

Facts

The facts are difficult to determine because the interpretation of the court in its opinion does not follow the normal language used in the climbing industry.

The plaintiff was injured when he leaned back to descend after climbing a climbing wall. Because he was not hooked in properly, something broke, and he fell. The plaintiff claims an employee of the defendant watched him put the harness on and hook into the belay system. The employee alleges she was not present for that. The plaintiff allegedly put the harness on backwards.

The harness allegedly had a red loop that should have been in front. No one either knew how the harness was to be worn or that the harness was on incorrectly.

Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, and attempted to lower himself back down via the automatic belay system. However, because David’s harness was on backwards and incorrectly hooked to the belay system, it broke and he fell to the ground suffering multiple injuries.

The plaintiff argued the employee was grossly negligent. The trial court granted the defendants motion to dismiss based on the release, and this appeal ensued.

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

The court first started by defining gross negligence under Michigan’s law. Michigan law is similar if not identical to many other states. Gross negligence requires proof the defendant engaged in reckless conduct or acted in a way that demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for the plaintiff.

To establish a claim for gross negligence, it is incumbent on a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant acted or engaged in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” “Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient under Michigan law, because, with the benefit of hindsight, a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result.” However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]”

Although the issue debated in the appeal was the location of the employee when the plaintiff was putting on the harness and climbing. It was undisputed the defendant’s employee was instructing the plaintiff while he was climbing. Eventually, the court found this not to be a real issue since any opportunity to see the harness was on incorrectly would have allowed the defendants employee to resolve the issue.

Thus, plaintiffs’ testimony allows the inference that Agredano did not simply have the ability to do more to assure David’s safe climb. Instead, accepting plaintiffs’ testimony as true, evidence exists that Agredano ignored the red loop in David’s harness–a clear visible indication that David was climbing the rock wall in an unsafe manner–and took no steps to avoid the known danger associated with climbing the rock wall with an improperly secured harness.

Failure then, to spot the problem or resolve the problem was proof of gross negligence, or a failure to care about the safety and welfare of the plaintiff.

Thus, Agredano’s alleged failure to affirmatively instruct David on the proper way to wear the harness before he donned it himself, coupled with her alleged disregard for the red loop warning sign that David had his harness on backwards, and instructing him to push off the wall, could demonstrate to a reasonable juror that she “simply did not care about the safety or welfare of” Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence.

Because the court could determine the acts of the defendant employee were possibly gross negligence, it was enough to determine what occurred and if gross negligence occurred.

So Now What?

This is pretty plane on its face. You allow a person to use a piece of equipment incorrectly who is then injured there is going to be a lawsuit. You allow a person to use a piece of safety equipment, equipment needed for the safe operation of your business incorrectly you are going to lose no matter how well written your release.

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.

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

Email: Rec-law@recreation-law.com

Google+: +Recreation

Twitter: RecreationLaw

Facebook: Rec.Law.Now

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Blog: www.recreation-law.com

Mobile Site: http://m.recreation-law.com

By Recreation Law           Rec-law@recreation-law.com     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, Climbing Wall, Lifetime Fitness, Climbing Harness, Health Club,

 


New Hampshire court upholds release and defines the steps under NH law to review a release.

Release law is stretched in New Hampshire court to cover injuries from snowmobile driven by employee hitting the plaintiff on the ski slopes.

McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc. 2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45

State: New Hampshire, Superior Court of New Hampshire, Hillsborough County

Plaintiff: Marcella McGrath f/k/a Marcella Widger

Defendant: NH Development, Inc. and John Doe

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2008

The defendant is the owner of Crotched Mountain Ski Area in New Hampshire. The plaintiff signed an application for a season pass which included release language in the application. While skiing one day the plaintiff was hit by an employee of the defendant driving a snowmobile.

The defendants moved for summary judgment based on the release. The plaintiff objected stating the release violated public policy. The plaintiff also argued the parties, when the release was signed, did not contemplate the release would cover negligence claims.

The phrase “did not contemplate” is another way of saying there was no meeting of the minds. For a contract to be valid, the parties to the contract must understand the basic nature of the contract. There must be a meeting of the minds to the contract. This does not mean that all aspects of the contract must be contemplated by both parties, just that the major issues and purpose of the contract are understood.

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

The court reviewed the requirements for a release to be valid under New Hampshire law, which requires the release to:

…(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.

Then the court looked at each of the three requirements. The first, Public Policy in New Hampshire, means the parties did not have a special relationship and were not of disparity in bargaining power. This definition is the original definition of public policy.

Special relationship means where one party had no choice but to deal with the other party to obtain a necessary good or service.

A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does 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

Specifically, a special relationship exists between common carriers, innkeepers or public utilities and the public. A Monopoly that supplies goods or services that a person must have is an example of a defendant this definition would fit. Transportation, a place to stay and gas and electric providers have special relationships with the people they serve. This is the original definition of relationship that creates unequal bargaining power where releases are void.

The theory behind public policy was the state must step in to protect the common public from unscrupulous, overbearing or overreaching companies when the public had no choice but to deal with them. This relationship is based on the practical necessity of the goods or services they provide. Without them, life would not be possible or as possible.

Skiing in New Hampshire is not a practical necessity. You can live your life and never ski, in fact, many people do. On top of that the defendant was not the only ski area. Meaning the plaintiff could have gone to any number of other ski areas; the defendant did not force her to visit its ski area nor was she compelled to visit the defendant’s ski area. Consequently, there was no disparity of bargaining power because the plaintiff could have bargained with someone else or not gone skiing and still lived on.

The plaintiff also argued the release was a violation of public policy because it relieved the defendant of statutory compliance with a New Hampshire statute governing the use of snowmobiles. However, the court found the release did not affect the enforcement of the statute. The statute was one outlining the requirements for a state commissioner to make and enforce laws concerning snowmobiles. The release did not alter the commissioner’s ability to do so and would not alter any law or regulation made or the law or regulations affect.

If the release does not violate public policy, then the requirement two requires a review of whether or not the plaintiff or a reasonable person would have understood the exculpatory provisions in the release. For the plaintiff to argue that she did not understand the release, she would have to prove the language in the release was not understandable.

…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….”

The plaintiff did not deny she understood the release; she argued that the release did not cover the precise occurrence that gave rise to here injuries. Meaning the release did not cover injuries from being hit by a snowmobile being driven by an employee of the defendant. However, the law does not require a release to be specific in its language to cover the injury the plaintiff may later claim.

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 the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.”

The release language was broadly written to cover all types of injuries that could occur while skiing. New Hampshire also does not require “magic words” such as negligence to make the release valid or convey a specific risk to the signor.

In reviewing the language the court found the language was broad enough to cover the injury the plaintiff received.

As noted 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.”

The final argument made by the plaintiff was the release did not contemplate a snowmobile accident because snowmobiles are not an inherent part of skiing.

In this case, the release did not refer to the inherent risks of skiing, but stated that skiing was a hazardous sport and that injuries are commonplace.

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 Liability Release Agreement would release the defendants from a negligence claim, whether nor not that claim arouse from an inherent hazard of skiing.

Consequently, the restrictions that the term inherent would have identified were not there, the language was broad enough to cover the accident the plaintiff complained of.

The case was dismissed based upon the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

Use of the narrowing term inherent in the release when referring to the risks might have allowed the plaintiff to continue with her claim. Remember inherent is a restricting word and if used in this release, it might have excluded a snowmobile accident from the pool of possible claims. As the release was worded the snowmobile accident was covered.

The bigger issue is the attempt to spread the definition of Public Policy board enough that it would void this release. However, the court did not do that and kept the definition to the original definition that a release cannot protect those monopolies that provide a necessity to the public cannot use a release to limit their liability.

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

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Oregon Supreme Court decision says protection afforded by the OR Recreational Use Statute only applies to landowner, not volunteers or others on the land.

How this will affect Federal Lands I don’t know. Federal volunteer statutes and state volunteer statutes may provide some protection.

However, you are now liable for volunteer work you might have done in the past building trails or putting in bolts or other volunteer work to make recreation in the State of Oregon better.

Johnson v. Gibson, 358 Ore. 624; 369 P.3d 1151; 2016 Ore. LEXIS 129

State: Oregon, Supreme Court of Oregon

Plaintiff: Emily Johnson

Defendant: Scott Gibson and Robert Stillson

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and violation of the American with Disabilities Act

Defendant Defenses: Oregon Recreational Use Statute

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2015

This is a weird case with a scary outcome. The plaintiff was a blind jogger who stepped into a hole in a Portland public park. The defendants, Gibson and Stillson were employees of the city and had created the hole to fix a sprinkler head.

The plaintiff filed her complaint in Federal District court arguing a Federal claim, creating federal jurisdiction. The City of Portland, the employer of the two defendants filed a motion for substitution and a motion for summary judgment. The motion for substitution says as the employer, the city is the real defendant because the city is liable for the acts of its employees.

The federal court denied to substitute the city for the two defendants stating the city would not be liable based on the Oregon Constitution, and that would leave the plaintiff without a claim. The court did grant part of the cities’ motion for summary judgment saying the Americans with Disabilities Act claim was thrown out but not the negligence claim.

The plaintiff then filed a new complaint in federal court invoking diversity jurisdiction. Diversity jurisdiction says that the parties are from different states; therefore Federal Court is the proper court. The second complaint alleged the two defendants were negligent. The city filed another motion for substitution, which was denied.

The two defendants then filed a motion for summary judgment arguing they were immune from liability under the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act (commonly called a Recreational Use Statute.) The federal district court agreed with this defense and dismissed the claim.

The plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Because this was a state law question which no Oregon court had decided, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals then asked the Oregon Supreme Court for clarification.

This decision is the Oregon Supreme Court answer to the question presented by the Ninth Circuit court of Appeals. The questions answered by the Oregon Supreme Court with this decision were:

(1) whether individual employees responsible for repairing, maintaining, and operating improvements on City-owned recreational land made available to the public for recreational purposes are “owner[s]” of the land, as that term is defined in the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act, ORS 105.672 to 105.700,1 and therefore immune from liability for their negligence; and (2) if such employees are “owner[s]” under the Act, whether the Act, as applied to them, violates the remedy clause of Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution.

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

The court first looked at the language of the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act and dissected the language to determine if employees of the land owner were protected under the act. The first word reviewed in the act was “Owner.” Owner is defined by the statute so possessor was then reviewed in relation to the land.

A possessor may or may not own the land, but may control the land.

A “possessor” is “one that possesses: one that occupies, holds, owns, or controls.” Webster’s Third New Int’l Dictionary 1770 (unabridged ed 2002). A “possessor” is also “one that holds property without title–called also naked possessor; contrasted with owner.” Id. (emphasis in original). “Possession” means “the act or condition of having in or taking into one’s control or holding at one’s disposal”; “actual physical control or occupancy of property by one who holds for himself and not as a servant of another without regard to his ownership and who has legal rights to assert interests in the property”; “something owned, occupied, or controlled.” “Occupy” means “to hold possession of”; “to reside in as an owner or tenant.” An “occupant” is “one who takes the first possession of something that has no owner”; “one who occupies a particular place or premises”; and “one who has the actual use or possession of something.”

In the same paragraph, the court tackled the definition of what it means to occupy the land. After reviewing the definitions, the court determined that an occupant or a possessor must have some control over the land.

Under those definitions, an “occupant,” or a “person in possession of the land” must have some control over the space, and, given the context in which those terms are used, it is likely that the control that the legislature intended is the ability to decide who may use the space or what use may be made of it.

This then evolved into a determination that occupier and possessors of land were similar to lessees and tenants. Control over the land meant more than able to do stuff to the land, but to open the land, close the land and/or prevent others from using the land. The court then referred back to the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act where the term’s occupier and possessor were used to determine that the act did not cover the individual defendants who were employees of the owner, occupier or possessor of the land.

Meaning since the employees/defendants could not open or close the land to others, were just working on the land, the protection of the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act was not available to them.

Using those definitions and that reasoning, the court then carved out an exception to the law, which was not specifically identified, so that the employees of the defendant would not be covered by the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act.

Immunities provided to a principal may, but do not always, extend to the principal’s agents. That is clear not only from the comment to the Restatement quoted above, but also from a line of Oregon cases to which plaintiff calls our attention. In those cases, this court considered whether the sovereign immunity of governmental landowners precluding their liability for defective conditions on their streets extends to agents responsible for the repair of those streets.

So the immunity provided immunity to the land owner, in this case the city of Portland, does not extend to agents or employees of the land owner. The court found the legislature did not extend the immunity provided the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act to agents or employees of the land owner.

Consequently, we conclude that when the Legislative Assembly enacted the Public Use of Lands Act, legislators would not necessarily have assumed that granting immunity to landowners would also grant immunity to their employees and agents.

The court then narrowed the effect of the statute even further limiting its protection to those who hold legal title to the land and those who stand instead of the landowners such as tenants. The court specifically identified employees and non-employee agents as NOT being protected by the statute.

In this case, in deciding whether to imply an extension of the immunity granted to “owner[s]” of land to their employees and agents, we first consider the statute’s text. Significantly, that text indicates that the legislature intended to extend the immunity of those who hold legal title to land to some others who stand in their stead–the owners of other lesser interests in land, including tenants and lessees, and those who qualify as “occupant[s]” or “person[s] in possession” of the land. The text does not, however, disclose a legislative intent to extend the immunity of owners to additional persons who stand in their stead, such as employees and non-employee agents.

The court further reinforced its finding that the immunity provided by the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act only applied to the landowner. The court held that those who do not have the ability to make decisions about the land or to relieve others from liability for the land are not protected by the act.

Thus, it appears that the legislature’s original intent was to relieve those who control the use of their land from responsibility to take affirmative steps to make their property safe for use by others; the legislature did not express an intent to benefit those who do not have the ability to make decisions about the use of land, or to relieve non-owners who commit negligent acts from responsibility for injuries caused by such acts.

As with other decisions similar to this, the Oregon Supreme Court when out of its way to legally deny the defendant any chance of relief in this case and all future cases similar to this. (See Oregon Supreme Court finds release signed at ski area is void as a violation of public policy to see the same court use the same technique to eliminate releases as a defense in the state of Oregon.)

The Oregon Public Use of Lands Act was amended in 1995 to include in the definition of landowner public landowners such as cities, counties, municipalities.  However, the court found that language did not change the intent of the legislature to limit the protection to landowners and those who stand in the place of the landowner.

The legislature amended the Act in 1995 to make it expressly applicable to public land-owners. Or Laws 1995, ch 456, § 1. However, neither that change nor other changes in the wording of the statute disclose an intent to change the purpose of the statute or to benefit additional classes of persons.

The court held the employees of the city were not protected by the Oregon Recreational Use Statute known as the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act prior to or after it was amended.

Individual employees responsible for repairing, maintaining, and operating improvements on City owned recreational land made available to the public for recreational purposes are not “owner[s]” of the land, as that term is defined in the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act. They are therefore not immune from liability for their negligence. We do not reach the second certified question concerning Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution.

So Now What?

This is a long decision with a short ending. If you are not the landowner or the tenant, you will not be protected from lawsuits by the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act.

A short list of those types of people who are not protected would be all volunteers, commercial guides and outfitters, or contractors hired to work on the land. You are volunteering to guide a group of people down a river trip as a fund raiser and someone is hurt, the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act would not provide any protection for you.

There may be other statutes that protect certain types of people on the land such as the Federal Volunteer Protection Act and any Federal laws for federal land and the Oregon Volunteer Protection Act. However, the strongest law protecting those opening their land for recreation now only protects the landowner. Landowners have nothing to fear; their protection did not change. No protection is afforded the statute now other than the landowner.

Landowners are still going to open their land; they are protected, but no work will be done to make the land better for recreation.

The Worst Part: Stopping now won’t matter. What volunteer work you might have done in the past building trails, putting in bolts or other work on lands as a volunteer can create liability for you now.

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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New Hampshire does not recognize more than one type of negligence, simple or ordinary negligence. Claims for gross negligence, say to void a release, do not exist.

Supreme Court outlines requirements for releases. to be successful including public policy and failure to read the release requirements.

Barnes & a. v. New Hampshire Karting Association, Inc, 128 N.H. 102; 509 A.2d 151; 1986 N.H. LEXIS 254

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: John E. and Virginia A. Barnes

Defendant: New Hampshire Karting Association (NHKA), David E. Whitesell, Midway Raceway, Inc. d/b/a Bryar Motorsport Park (Bryar), the World Karting Association (WKA) and International Insurance Company (International)

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 1986

The plaintiff went to a go kart event. He signed a pit pass which contained a release. While driving he hit another kart on the track that was disabled. There was no indication or warning of the disabled go-kart before the plaintiff hit it.

The plaintiff sued for ordinary and gross negligence. The lower court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, and the plaintiff appealed.

New Hampshire has three courts; however, the lower two, Circuit and Superior handle different matters. Both the Circuit court and the Superior courts are trial courts so any appeal is to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

The plaintiff claimed the release was barred by public policy; the release was ambiguous and did not apply to the risks, not inherent in the sport. The plaintiff also argued the release did not cover gross negligence.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court first looked at releases in New Hampshire.

Exculpatory agreements call into conflict two tenets of the law.  First, a party should be liable for the consequences of the negligent breach of a duty owed another.  As this court stated in a recent case involving an amusement ride accident, the owner of a place of public amusement “must exercise that degree of care which, under the same or similar circumstances, would be exercised by an ordinarily careful or prudent individual.” Failure to do so will result in liability for injuries proximately caused by the breach of duty.

However, parties may eliminate tort liability by contract.

Contraposed against this basic rule of tort law is the principle that, as a matter of efficiency and freedom of choice, parties should be able to contract freely about their affairs. Under this rule, parties may bargain for various levels of risk and benefit as they see fit. Thus, a plaintiff may agree in advance that the defendant has no legal duty toward him and thereby assume the risk of injury arising from the defendant’s conduct.

Under New Hampshire law, a defendant must show the release does not contravene public policy, that no special relationship existed between the parties and there was no disparity of bargaining power.

A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power. Where the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service, the defendant cannot by contract rid itself of its obligation of reasonable care.

Public policy, not identified as such, is held to include common carriers, innkeepers and public utilities. A go-kart operation is not a commercial transport for hire, a place to sleep or a public utility providing gas, electricity or such.

Disparity in bargaining power occurs when the defendant is a monopoly or where the plaintiff has no alternative but to deal with the defendant. “Where there is a disparity in bargaining power, the plaintiff may not be deemed to have freely chosen to enter into the contract; accordingly, courts refuse to enforce the agreement.”

Again, a go-kart facility is not a necessity such that the plaintiff had to negotiate for its life or substance.

Once the public policy argument is out of the way, the issue then becomes whether the plaintiff understood the basics of the agreement.

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 a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.  Furthermore, the plaintiff’s claims must have been within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement.

This contemplation must not cover the exact issues the plaintiff complains about, but covers a broad range of accidents or injuries the plaintiff may suffer.

Contracts are generally construed against the writer, in the case of a release, construed against the defendant.

…the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence. As long as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.

The plaintiff argued he did not read the entire release; however, that does not invalidate the release. The court found he could have if he wanted, therefore, his argument failed based on his own actions.

There was no evidence, however, that Barnes was denied the opportunity to read the body of the release.  “[H]aving failed to avail himself of that opportunity, yet gaining the admission to which his signature was a condition precedent, he cannot now complain that he had no notice of the import of the paper . . . he signed.”

Summing up the public policy argument made by the plaintiff failed as stated by the court

With these principles in mind, we now consider whether the release bars the plaintiff’s claims in this case.  The first question is whether the release is contrary to public policy. The defendants do not fall within any of the commonly-recognized classes of persons charged with a duty of public service. The record indicates that the 1981 Enduro kart races at Bryar were organized by the NHKA, which is associated with the WKA and which manages its races in accordance with WKA rules and regulations.  Although the defendants serve a segment of the public, we cannot say that Enduro kart racing is affected with a public interest.  Provision of racing facilities is not a service of great importance to the public, nor is racing a matter of practical necessity.

Moreover, there was no substantial disparity in bargaining power among the parties, despite the fact that Barnes was required to sign the release in order to use the racetrack. The plaintiff was under no physical or economic compulsion to sign the release.  Since the defendants’ service is not an essential one, the defendants had no advantage of bargaining strength over Barnes or others who sought to participate in Enduro kart racing.

Thus the release was not barred by public policy arguments in New Hampshire.

The plaintiff then argued that the actions against the defendant were grossly negligent and cited cases from other jurisdictions to support its claim. The court simply stated:

These cases are inapposite because New Hampshire law does not distinguish causes of action based on ordinary and gross negligence. “[T]he doctrine of definitive degrees of negligence is not recognized as a part of our common law.

There is only one claim in New Hampshire for negligence no matter egregious the defendants’ actions.

The plaintiff then argued the release was only valid for a restricted area of the facility. However, applying the common meaning to the language in the release the court found the language covered the area where the accident occurred.

We find that participation in practice laps on the racing surface comes within the terms of the release.  The restricted areas are defined in terms of physical spaces, not in terms of function, and the reference to “enter[ing] for any purpose” contemplates that the racing surface is a restricted area during practice runs and during the actual race.  Although the plaintiff testified that he had practiced on occasion without signing a release, he signed the release prior to taking a practice lap on the day in question.  One can contemplate that racers are exposed to a variety of hazards while in the racing arena regardless of whether the actual race is taking place.  We believe that the practice run taken by Barnes in preparation for the race later that day may reasonably be construed as part of “participat[ion] in the event.” We therefore uphold the master’s conclusion that the language of the agreement was not ambiguous and that the release applied to practice laps.

A final argument was made that the release was an “illegal tying arrangement.” Meaning the release and the insurance coverage were illegally tied together the plaintiff could not take one without taking the other. The court found this was not the case because no evidence was presented that insurance was a separate charge after admissions.

The trial court decision was affirmed.

So Now What?

New Hampshire law is fairly standard on how it looks at release law, even though the particular language used might vary. What is significant is the Supreme Court has held that New Hampshire does not recognize gross negligence.

Not being able to plead gross negligence limits the ability of the plaintiff to void a release or argue for greater damages. Normally a jury finding the defendant acted grossly negligent includes greater damages, sometimes punitive damages.

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

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An ugly case balancing the marketing program to make people feel safe, which is then used to prove the incident giving rise to the negligence claim, was foreseeable.

YMCA summer camp sued in Indiana for sexual assault on a minor by a predator hiding in the woods. The brochure marketing the program specifically outlined how bathroom procedures were to be done. The procedure was not followed in this case, which led to a successful lawsuit.

A.M.D., a Minor, vs. Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis, 2013 Ind. App. Unpub. LEXIS 913; 990 N.E.2d 527

State: Indiana, Court of Appeals of Indiana

Plaintiff: A.M.D., a Minor, by his Parents and Guardians, John Doe and Jane Doe, and John Doe and Jane Doe, individually

Defendant: Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Indianapolis

Plaintiff Claims: 1) The YMCA negligently supervised A.M.D.; 2) the YMCA failed to prevent foreseeable intentional conduct by a third-party; 3) the YMCA did not have to be the sole cause of A.M.D.’s injuries; and 4) the YMCA is not released from its responsibility to A.M.D. and his parents by virtue of the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application form signed by Jane Doe.

Defendant Defenses: Release and Superseding or Intervening Cause

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2013

First, this is a case based on a sexual assault of a minor at a day or summer camp offered by the defendant. The case is awful, ugly, and sad.

Second, the issue of whether or not the release was valid for the minor’s injuries was never part of the case. The issue is how the defendant’s rules created a small issue for the situation that of course blew up when the problem the rules attempted to prevent occurred.

The minor was enrolled in a day camp offered by the defendant. The camp was for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade. On the day of the incident, 20 minors and three counselors went to a park to go rafting. The group arrived at the park around 2:00 PM.

The park was not known for any incidents, and no one was spotted that day that gave any concern to the counselors.

When the rafting began, one counselor was stationed at the start and two counselors at the end. Shortly after the rafting started the plaintiff minor told one of the counselors he had to go to the bathroom. The public restrooms were a 10-15-minute walk away. The counselor instructed the minor to go pee on a bush that was within her view. The counselor new about the defendant’s bathroom policy.

Raab [counselor] instructed A.M.D. [minor] to urinate in the bushes, she knew that the YMCA’s bathroom policy required at least one counselor and one buddy to go with a camper to the restroom. No campers were to go to the bathroom by themselves.

When the counselor turned her attention to the creek to check on the other children the minor disappeared.

Unknown to A.M.D. and the YMCA counselors, there was a sexual predator hiding in the woods near where A.M.D. was going to the bathroom. It was later determined that Stephen Taylor was the person hiding in the woods, and who attacked A.M.D. Taylor was so well hidden that A.M.D. did not see Taylor approach him from the front until after he had finished going to the bathroom.

Once Taylor emerged from the woods, he approached A.M.D., told him he was a doctor, and offered to give A.M.D. a piggy-back ride, which A.M.D. accepted. Taylor successfully lured A.M.D. farther into the woods where they were both alone and out of sight from any of the YMCA camp counselors. While hidden in the woods, Taylor sexually assaulted A.M.D.

Once the counselor knew the minor was missing she started screaming his name and looking for him.

The family of the minor filed suit against the defendant YMCA alleging negligence. The YMCA filed a motion for summary judgment claiming:

1) The YMCA was not the proximate cause of A.M.D.’s injuries because Taylor’s criminal actions were not reasonably foreseeable; and 2) the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application signed by Jane Doe released the YMCA from any and all claims.

The plaintiff’s opposed the motion for summary judgment claiming four theories:

…1) The YMCA negligently supervised A.M.D.; 2) the YMCA failed to prevent foreseeable intentional conduct by a third-party; 3) the YMCA did not have to be the sole cause of A.M.D.’s injuries; and 4) the YMCA is not released from its responsibility to A.M.D. and his parents by virtue of the exculpatory clause contained in the camper application form signed by Jane Doe.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff’s appealed.

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

The appellate court started by establishing the elements the plaintiff’s must prove to win their case. Indiana uses a three-part test to establish negligence.

A plaintiff seeking damages for negligence must establish (1) a duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant, (2) a breach of the duty, and (3) an injury proximately caused by the breach of duty. Absent a duty, there can be no breach, and therefore, no recovery for the plaintiff in negligence.

Whether or not there was a duty owed is also a 3-part test in Indiana.

…(1) the relationship between the parties, (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured, and (3) public policy concerns, but that analysis is not necessary where the duty is well settled.

The trial court found the defendant owed a duty to the minor, and this issue was not argued during the appeal. The issue then was causation.

We have held that causation is an essential element of a negligence claim. The injurious act must be both the proximate cause and the cause, in fact, of an injury. Generally, causation, and proximate cause, in particular, is a question of fact for the jury’s determination.

Causation can be broken by a superseding and intervening causation. This means a third party or third action caused the real injury or interrupted the chain of events for the original cause so that the defendant is not longer liable.

The doctrine of superseding or intervening causation has long been part of Indiana’s common law. It provides that when a negligent act or omission is followed by a subsequent negligent act or omission so remote in time that it breaks the chain of causation, the original wrongdoer is relieved of liability. A subsequent act is “superseding” when the harm resulting from the original negligent act “could not have reasonably been foreseen by the original negligent actor.” Whether the resulting harm is “foreseeable” such that liability may be imposed on the original wrongdoer is a question of fact for a jury.

Meaning that the action of the predator in attacking the minor was a superseding and intervening cause of action.

However, if the superseding or intervening cause of action was foreseeable by the defendant, then it does not relieve the defendant of liability. The Restatement (Second) of Torts §449, known as the very duty doctrine, provides an example.

If the likelihood that a third person may act in a particular manner is the hazard or one of the hazards which makes the actor negligent, such an act, whether innocent, negligent, intentionally tortious, or criminal does not prevent the actor from being liable for harm caused thereby. At the heart of these concepts is the necessity for an analysis of foreseeability.

The brochure the defendant created, stated the rules for the camper’s bathroom procedure. This was obviously not followed by the counselor.

No camper is ever alone, and no camper is ever alone with a staff member. All campers will take trips to the bathroom with entire camp and/or camp groups and camp staff. Campers will only use bathrooms inspected for safety by camp staff.

There was additional information requiring the day campers to go to the bathroom in pairs. The defendant also had a code of conduct covering restroom supervision.

[Why is a restroom procedure in a code of conduct?]

3. Restroom supervision: Staff will make sure the restroom is not occupied by suspicious or unknown individuals before allowing children to use the facilities. Staff will stand in the doorway while children are using the restroom. This policy allows privacy for the children and protection for the staff (not being alone with a child). If staff are assisting younger children, doors to the facility must remain open. No child, regardless of age, should ever enter a restroom alone on a field trip. Always send children in pairs, and whenever possible, with staff.

Finally, the court found that counselors were instructed to never leave a child unsupervised.

In particular, a day camp counselor, the position Raab held with the YMCA at the time of the molestation, has the general function of directly supervising approximately twelve campers and taking responsibility for each child’s safety.

The counselor at her deposition testified she knew the procedures.

The court found this information, provided by the defendants own documents and training, showed the defendant knew this type of incident was foreseeable.

We disagree that only one conclusion can be drawn or inferred from the undisputed facts. “[A]n actor need not foresee the exact manner in which harm occurs, but must, in a general way, foresee the injurious consequences of his act.”

The court found three factors were important in the analysis of the issue.

First, courts on review have examined whether the intervening actor is independent from the original actor. Id. Next, we examine whether the instrumentality of harm was under the complete control of the intervening actor. Id. Third, we examine whether the intervening actor as opposed to the original actor is in a better position to prevent the harm.

Consequently, the appellate court held that whether or not the criminal act by the third party was foreseeable was for a jury to decide.

Whether the criminal assault on A.M.D. by a stranger, Taylor, was foreseeable by the YMCA such that the chain of causation was broken, should be decided by a trier of fact and not as a matter of law.

The case was sent back to trial for a jury trial to determine if the actions of the third party were foreseeable.

So Now What?

First, it sucks to have a case like this; however, it has a lot of useful information.

Fifteen to twenty children, some as young as kindergartener’s and three adults for an activity around water, the first issue I suspect most of you thought of was, there are not enough counselors.

Second, with all the written documentation that the defendant created, I don’t believe foreseeability will be difficult to find by the jury. In fact, anyone can argue that the paper was created in response to this possibility, and then obviously the issue was foreseeable.

At the same time, how do you get across to the members of your staff the issues at play here without creating your own noose? Some documentation is required. Create it under the write heading, in the right document if needed. More importantly, train your staff. Don’t just throw paper at them.

Documentation is proof of just being lazy over the winter in this type of situation. Probably because the documentation was found in at least three different places, it was “make work” for three different people. Writing rules down over the winter is easy and lasts for years (decades in too many situations). However, training your staff lasts a lifetime.

Look at who you need to understand what you are writing down. In most cases young men and women who seem not to read much but who can absorb a lot of information. If you expect 20 year olds to read a book for a job, you are your own worst enemy. You are only creating documentation that will be used to prove you or your staff was negligent.

Training allows the information to be absorbed in the way necessary and provides the understanding of the rules. Training says this is how you do it, now show me you know how to do it, and then tell me why you do it this way. Training is a pain for you, and your senior staff, but if you want to solve problems and really help the people, your employees, trains them. Let them know why you have to do things this way and then teach them to do things this way.

Think about it. What is going to be more effective. Giving everyone a book to read at night or creating a scenario from this incident and having your staff act it out and go through the issues.

Don’t create documentation because you have nothing else to do over the winter, or you are trying not to train your staff.

Never create documentation just to punish employees. Those will always come back to haunt you. You can’t sue an employee as a defense anyway, except in extremely rare cases, so why create a situation that will come back to haunt you in other ways.

This is a sad case all around.

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