Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412
Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.
CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412
July 31, 2012, Decided
July 31, 2012, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)
CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure
COUNSEL: [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.
For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.
JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II
Jones, II, U.S.D.J.
Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1
1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).
T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment
T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.
Failure to Warn
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 [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).
2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.
Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). 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.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).
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.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. 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 [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:
o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.
o Plaintiff [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.
o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.
o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.
Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.
However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, 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, [*7] 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. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).
Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. 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.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611. [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). 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. 3 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. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.
3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.
4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.
In sum, this evidence of record establishes [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.
Assumption of Risk
T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 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. Martinez v Capital One, N.A., F. Supp. 2d , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish [*10] 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.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.
5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).
Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.
6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).
Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed, [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).
Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7
7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.
Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.
Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages
Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (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.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.
As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. 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 [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).
Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. 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 [*20] 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.
III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment
Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9
8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.
9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.
Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.
10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.
11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s [*25] apparent invitation.
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). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.
12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.
Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product. [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.
An appropriate Order follows.
AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:
- Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
- Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
- Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
- The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.
In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.
13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II
- DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.
Walker v. UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 5934
Cynthia Walker, Individually and on Behalf of the Estate of Norman Walker; Stephen Walker; Stephanie Walker Hatton; Jordan Walker; and Caren Ann Johnson, Appellants v. UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs; WWGAF, Inc. d/b/a Rockin ‘R’ River Rides; William George Rivers; and Richard Duane Rivers, Appellees
Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin
2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 5934
June 3, 2016, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF COMAL COUNTY, 433RD JUDICIAL DISTRICT. NO. C2012-0796D, HONORABLE DIB WALDRIP, JUDGE PRESIDING.
JUDGES: Before Justices Puryear, Goodwin, and Field.
OPINION BY: David Puryear
Appellants Cynthia Walker, Individually and on Behalf of the Estate of Norman Walker; Stephen Walker; Stephanie Walker Hatton; Jordan Walker; and Caren Ann Johnson1 filed suit against appellees UME, Inc. d/b/a Camp Huaco Springs; WWGAF, Inc. d/b/a Rockin ‘R’ River Rides; William George Rivers; and Richard Duane Rivers for injuries sustained when the Guadalupe River overran its banks during a flash flood in June 2010.2 The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of appellees. We affirm the trial court’s orders granting summary judgment.
1 Cynthia Walker was married to Norman Walker, and Stephen Walker, Stephanie Walker Hatton, and Jordan Walker are their children. Caren Johnson is married to Terry Johnson, Cynthia’s brother. Cynthia, Norman, Caren, and Terry were camping together at Camp Huaco Springs when they were caught in the flood. Norman died, while Cynthia, Terry, and Caren were injured. Caren and Cynthia sued for their own injuries. Cynthia also sued as a representative of [*2] Norman’s estate and, along with her children, as a wrongful death beneficiary.
2 UME, Inc. operates Camp Huaco Springs, WWGAF operates Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, a river-tubing and recreation outfitter, and William and Richard Rivers own the two businesses.
In June 2010, Cynthia and Norman Walker and Terry and Caren Johnson went to Camp Huaco Springs in their RV campers for a weekend of camping and river rafting. When they arrived at the campground, they were assigned two parking spaces. The Walkers and the Johnsons parked their campers as directed. On Saturday, the Walkers and the Johnsons took a canoe trip on the river and went to tour nearby caverns. When they returned to the campsite and went to bed, it was not raining. They had not heard any weather reports and did not know heavy rain was forecast for that night. Cynthia woke at about 6:00 a.m. to thunder and lightning. She looked out the window and saw Terry was screaming that they had to leave. Cynthia looked down and noticed that the river had risen to surround the two campers, causing them to begin floating. The Walkers and Johnsons were all swept downstream in the flood. Norman died in the flood. Cynthia, Terry, and [*3] Caren were rescued miles downstream from the campsite and all required medical attention.
Appellants filed suit alleging negligence, premises liability, and gross negligence. They asserted that WWGAF was liable because it was a joint enterprise with UME and that the Rivers brothers were liable under a theory of alter ego. Appellants asserted that appellees knew that the campground was prone to flooding and failed: to warn appellants of that fact; to warn of the approaching storm; to prepare a plan for flood awareness, communication, and evacuation; to have and use speakers or sirens to warn of flooding; to employ someone to monitor the weather and warn and evacuate guests; to have an employee on site during severe weather; and to make reasonable modifications, have emergency communications, or educate guests about severe-weather risks.
UME and the Rivers brothers filed a traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment, asserting that the Texas Recreational Use Statute3 limited appellants to asserting a gross-negligence claim and that appellants could not show various elements of gross negligence; that there was no evidence that they had a duty to warn that the campground was in [*4] a flood zone, to warn that severe weather was approaching, or to plan and prepare for flooding; that there was no evidence they had a duty to have and use speakers or sirens to warn guests; and that there was no evidence that appellants’ injuries were caused by any negligence on the part of UME or the Rivers brothers. UME and the Rivers brothers filed a separate motion for traditional and no-evidence summary judgment addressing appellants’ theories of alter ego and joint enterprise. WWGAF filed its own motion for summary judgment, asserting that it did not own or operate Camp Huaco, that it did not owe a duty to the Walkers and the Johnsons, and that it was a separate entity from Camp Huaco and could not be held liable under theories of joint enterprise or vicarious liability. The trial court signed several orders granting appellees’ motions for summary judgment without specifying the grounds.
3 See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 75.002 (owner, lessee, or occupant of agricultural land who invites another onto premises for recreation owes invitee same duty that would be owed to trespasser and only owes duty not to injure invitee wilfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence); see generally id. §§ 75.001-.007 (chapter 75, titled [*5] “Limitation of Landowners’ Liability”).
The first question to be addressed, the answer to which is dispositive of this appeal, is whether appellees owed any duty to the Walkers and the Johnsons. Even if we assume that the recreational use statute does not apply, we hold, as a matter of law, that appellees did not owe the Walkers and Johnsons a duty to warn of or ensure against rising river waters. Without such a duty, appellants’ premises-liability claims must fail.4
4 Although appellants alleged both negligence and premises-defect claims, “negligent activity encompasses a malfeasance theory based on affirmative, contemporaneous conduct bythe owner that caused the injury, while premises liability encompasses a nonfeasance theory based on the owner’s failure to take measures to make the property safe.” Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 776 (Tex. 2010); see Scurlock v. Pennell, 177 S.W.3d 222, 224-25 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2005, no pet.) (citing Timberwalk Apartments, Partners, Inc. v. Cain, 972 S.W.2d 749, 753 (Tex. 1998)) (“Recovery for a negligent activity requires that a person have been injured by the activity itself, rather than by a condition created by the activity; in contrast, recovery for premises liability depends upon a failure to use ordinary care to reduce or to eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a premises condition about which the owner or occupier [of [*6] land] knows or, in the exercise of ordinary care, should know.”). The claims raised by appellants clearly alleged that appellees had failed to take various measures that would have made the campsite safe; they did not allege “contemporaneous conduct . . . that caused the injur[ies].” See Smith, 307 S.W.3d at 776. We therefore consider appellants’ claims under a theory of premises liability. Regardless of the theory under which they are analyzed, appellants’ claims would fail because, as we explain below, appellees did not owe the duty that appellants claim was breached. See General Elec. Co. v. Moritz, 257 S.W.3d 211, 217 (Tex. 2008) (“Like any other negligence action, a defendant in a premises case is liable only to the extent it owes the plaintiff a legal duty.”).
When an injured invitee asserts a premises-liability claim, she must show that the owner or occupier had actual or constructive knowledge of a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm and did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk and that such failure proximately caused her injury. CMH Homes, Inc. v. Daenen, 15 S.W.3d 97, 99 (Tex. 2000). We initially note that appellants do not assert that a condition on the premises caused the tragedy and thus was the basis for liability. Instead, the injuries suffered by appellants were caused by a rain-swollen [*7] river that inundated the campground, a condition that came to the premises.
Regardless of that fact, Texas courts have consistently held as a matter of law that naturally occurring or accumulating conditions such as rain, mud, and ice do not create conditions posing an unreasonable risk of harm. M.O. Dental Lab v. Rape, 139 S.W.3d 671, 675-76 (Tex. 2004); see Scott & White Mem. Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 412-14 (Tex. 2010) (“Because we find no reason to distinguish between the mud in M.O. Dental and the ice in this case, we hold that naturally occurring ice that accumulates without the assistance or involvement of unnatural contact is not an unreasonably dangerous condition sufficient to support a premises liability claim.”); Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Surratt, 102 S.W.3d 437, 445 (Tex. App.–Eastland 2003, pet. denied) (landowner “does not have a duty to protect its invitees from conditions caused by a natural accumulation of frozen precipitation on its parking lot because such an accumulation does not constitute an unreasonably dangerous condition”).5 The basis for those rulings is that rain, dirt, and mud are naturally occurring conditions beyond a landowner’s control. See, e.g., M.O. Dental Lab, 139 S.W.3d at 676 (“rain is beyond the control of landowners” and “accidents involving naturally accumulating mud and dirt are bound to happen, regardless of the precautions taken by landowners”). Requiring a landowner to protect an invitee [*8] from precipitation or other acts of nature would place an enormous burden on the landowner. See id.; see also Fair, 310 S.W.3d at 414 (requiring landowners “to guard against wintery conditions would inflict a heavy burden because of the limited resources landowners likely have on hand to combat occasional ice accumulations”).
5 See also State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp. v. Kitchen, 867 S.W.2d 784, 786 (Tex. 1993) (per curiam) (in premises defect case under Texas Tort Claims Act, supreme court held that “[w]hen there is precipitation accompanied by near-freezing temperatures, . . . an icy bridge is neither unexpected nor unusual, but rather, entirely predictable [and] is something motorists can and should anticipate when the weather is conducive to such a condition”); Brownsville Navigation Dist. v. Izaguirre, 829 S.W.2d 159, 160 (Tex. 1992) (“Plain dirt which ordinarily becomes soft and muddy when wet is not a dangerous condition of property for which a landlord may be liable.”); Lee v. K&N Mgmt., Inc., No. 03-15-00243-CV, 2015 WL 8594163, at *3-4 (Tex. App.–Austin Dec. 11, 2015, no pet.) (mem. op.) (plant that extended over edge of flowerbed was not unreasonably dangerous condition; “The Texas Supreme Court has held that certain naturally occurring substances generally do not pose an unreasonable risk of harm. . . . Under the facts of this case, the plant, like mud and dirt, may have formed a condition that posed a risk of harm, [*9] but on this record, we cannot conclude that it was an unreasonable risk of harm.”); City of Houston v. Cogburn, No. 01-11-00318-CV, 2014 WL 1778279, at *4 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] May 1, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.) (“as a matter of law, naturally occurring conditions that are open and obvious do not create an unreasonable risk of harm for purposes of premises liability”; tree roots over which plaintiff tripped were “open and obvious and were a naturally occurring condition”).
Further, an invitee is or should be “at least as aware” as the landowner of visible conditions that have “accumulated naturally outdoors” and thus “will often be in a better position to take immediate precautions against injury.” M.O. Dental Lab, 139 S.W.3d at 676. In other words, as the supreme court has explained:
When the condition is open and obvious or known to the invitee, however, the landowner is not in a better position to discover it. When invitees are aware of dangerous premises conditions–whether because the danger is obvious or because the landowner provided an adequate warning–the condition will, in most cases, no longer pose an unreasonable risk because the law presumes that invitees will take reasonable measures to protect themselves against known risks, which may include a decision not to accept the invitation to enter onto the landowner’s premises. [*10] This is why the Court has typically characterized the landowner’s duty as a duty to make safe or warn of unreasonably dangerous conditions that are not open and obvious or otherwise known to the invitee
Austin v. Kroger Tex., L.P., 465 S.W.3d 193, 203 (Tex. 2015) (citations omitted). Texas courts have repeatedly observed that a landowner “‘is not an insurer'” of an invitee’s safety and generally “has no duty to warn of hazards that are open and obvious or known to the invitee.” Id. at 203-04 (quoting Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 769 (Tex. 2010)). Texas courts have held in various contexts that flooding due to heavy rains is an open and obvious hazard. See, e.g., State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 288 (Tex. 2006) (“[T]he owner may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river, or even a concealed rattlesnake. But a landowner can be liable for gross negligence in creating a condition that a recreational user would not reasonably expect to encounter on the property in the course of the permitted use.”); City of Austin v. Leggett, 257 S.W.3d 456, 475 (Tex. App.–Austin 2008, pet. denied) (flooded intersection was readily apparent and presented obstacle that would be open and obvious to ordinary motorists).
We see no useful distinction to be drawn between ice and mud, which are natural conditions caused by rain and freezing temperatures, and rising [*11] river waters, caused by a natural weather event over which appellees could exercise no control. See Fair, 310 S.W.3d at 414. The June 2010 flood was not a condition inherent in or on the land in question. Instead, the flooding was a condition that came to the campground as the adjacent river, the same river that made the land an attractive place to camp, rose due to heavy rains. The Walkers and the Johnsons had gone canoeing on the river the day before the flooding occurred, and thus they were obviously aware of the river’s proximity to their campsite. This situation is indeed a tragic one, but it is not one for which appellees can be held to bear legal responsibility. We hold that as a matter of law appellees had no duty to warn the Walkers and Johnsons of the possibility that the river they were camping beside might rise in the event of heavy rain, posing a risk to the campground.6
6 We further note that, even if the campground had posted warnings or issued flood cautions when the Walkers and Johnsons checked into the campsite, there is nothing in this record to indicate that events would have turned out any differently. The Walkers and Johnsons went to bed not having heard that heavy rains would approach [*12] and slept heavily enough that none of them woke up during the storm or to warnings by the local sheriff’s officers, who drove through the campsite at about 4:00 a.m., blowing an airhorn and flashing their car’s lights as they announced over their PA system that the river was rising.
Because appellees did not owe a duty to warn of or attempt to make the campground safe against flooding of the adjacent river due to torrential rain, the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor. We affirm the trial court’s orders.
David Puryear, Justice
Before Justices Puryear, Goodwin, and Field
Filed: June 3, 2016
Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198
David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellants, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe, Defendant. David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellees, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellant, Jane Doe, Defendant.
No. 328221, No. 328985
COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN
2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198
November 29, 2016, Decided
NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO. Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO.
CORE TERMS: harness, climbing, gross negligence, rock, climb, belay, incorrectly, backwards, walked, deposition testimony, loop, red, putting, front, genuine issue, material fact, reasonable minds, precautions, favorable, watched, donned, order granting, rock climbing, grossly negligent, adjacent, facing, matter of law, conduct constituted, ordinary negligence, evidence submitted
JUDGES: Before: M. J. KELLY, P.J., and MURRAY and BORRELLO, JJ.
In Docket No. 328221, plaintiffs, David Alvarez and his wife Elena Alvarez, appeal as of right the trial court’s order granting summary disposition in favor of defendant, LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center (Lifetime). In Docket No. 328985, Lifetime appeals as of right the order denying its request for case evaluation sanctions and for taxation of costs. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the trial court’s order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings.
This litigation arises from David’s fall from a rock climbing wall at Lifetime’s facility in Novi. Plaintiffs were at Lifetime, where they are members, with their minor daughter to allow her the opportunity to use the rock climbing wall. Neither the plaintiffs, nor their daughter, had previously attempted to use the rock climbing wall. After David signed the requisite forms, Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, [*2] 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.
Plaintiffs argued that, as an employee of Lifetime, Agredano was grossly negligent1 in failing to ascertain whether David had properly attached his harness and the belay system before permitting him to climb the rock wall or descend. Defendant filed a motion for summary disposition arguing the assumption of risk and waiver of liability provision within the paperwork David signed barred plaintiffs’ claims because Agredano’s asserted conduct constituted only ordinary negligence and not gross negligence. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary disposition finding plaintiffs failed to “present any evidence establishing that defendant was grossly negligent in failing to take precautions for plaintiff’s safety.”
1 Plaintiffs had signed a waiver of any negligence based liability.
Plaintiffs assert that the trial court erred in dismissing their claim of gross negligence against Lifetime, arguing a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether Agredano [*3] was grossly negligent. We agree.
The trial court granted summary disposition in accordance with MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (10). This Court reviews “de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition.” In re Mardigian Estate, 312 Mich App 553, 557; 879 NW2d 313 (2015). Specifically:
When considering a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a court must view the evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Summary disposition is appropriate under MCR 2.116(C)(10) if there is no genuine issue regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence submitted might permit inferences contrary to the facts as asserted by the movant. When entertaining a summary disposition motion under Subrule (C)(10), the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence. [Id. at 557-558, quoting Dillard v Schlussel, 308 Mich App 429, 444-445; 865 NW2d 648 (2014) (quotation marks omitted).]
In determining whether a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7), a court must accept as true a plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations, affidavits, or other [*4] documentary evidence and construe them in the plaintiff’s favor. Where there are no factual disputes and reasonable minds cannot differ on the legal effect of the facts, the decision regarding whether a plaintiff’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo. [Terrace Land Dev Corp v Seeligson & Jordan, 250 Mich App 452, 455; 647 NW2d 524 (2002) (citation omitted).]
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.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 269; 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (citations omitted). “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” Woodman v Kera, LLC, 280 Mich App 125, 152; 760 NW2d 641 (2008), aff’d 486 Mich 228 (2010). “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” Id. “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.” Tarlea v Crabtree, 263 Mich App 80, 90; 687 NW2d 333 (2004). However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]” Id.
As [*5] evidence of Agredano’s gross negligence, plaintiffs offered their deposition testimony. In his deposition testimony, David indicated that Agredano provided him with a harness and was present as he put it on and prepared to climb the wall:
- Q. And where was [Agredano] when you were placing the harness on yourself?
- A. She was in front of us. We were here. She was in front of us.
- Q. So she’s staring directly at your as you’re putting the harness on?
- A. She was, yeah, in front of us. We were here, and she was — I mean, we could show the picture if you want.
- Q. But I want to know if she was facing you when you were putting this harness on?
- A. Yes.
* * *
- Q. How much time elapsed between the time that you had your harness on and began climbing from the time when your wife began climbing?
- A. Okay. So they walked over to the wall, and then, as soon as I put on my harness, I walked over to the wall adjacent to [Agredano], and I watched my wife. She was already up the So whatever time it took for her to get up the eight feet, which is probably a couple minutes. I mean, a minute maybe.
- Q. All right. And when you walked over to the wall, was [Agredano] standing to your right?
- A. When I walked over to [*6] the wall, she was on my right.
- Q. And would you say she was within three or four feet of you?
- A. I could touch her. She was right there.
Further, David stated that Agredano spoke to him after he had inadvertently placed the harness on backwards and directed him to a climbing area, but did not warn him that the red loop on his harness should be on his front before he began to climb the wall:
- Q. When were you told to hook into something between your legs?
- A. Sure. So I had trouble putting on the harness, right? They walked over to the I followed . . . . I was next to — adjacent to [Agredano] . . . . As my wife started to come down [the rock wall], I asked — I asked, where should I go climb? [Agredano] pointed me over to the other adjacent valet or belay.
- Q. Belay
- A. Belay. Then somewhere between there I asked — or I don’t know if I asked, but she said, Hook it between your legs. . . .
David also stated that Agredano was present in the climbing wall area during the whole incident and watched him climb the rock wall while wearing the harness incorrectly:
- Q. And was [Agredano] facing you when you began climbing?
- A. She was facing both of us.
* * *
- Q. What I want to know is were [sic] you and [*7] your wife on the climbing, and she was behind you looking at the two of you?
- A. Yeah. She was looking at both of us.
* * *
- Q. Was there any point in time, while you were putting on your harness or after you put on your harness, where [Agredano] was inside the wall, through this door?
- A. No.
- Q. So she was outside in the climbing wall area with you the entire time?
- A. Correct.
In Elena’s deposition testimony, she testified that Agredano also spoke to David after he reached the top of the rock wall, gave him instructions regarding how to descend, and instructed David to let go of the wall despite his incorrectly worn harness:
- Q. What happened at that point?
- A. And he said — he asked her twice how to go down. And he asked her two times, because I remember, like, why he’s asking her? . . . So then, when he asked her two times, she said, just let go, and it will bring you down, the automatically thing will bring you down. And she said, I think, you know, push, let go. She said, just let go. Just let go. . . .
While Agredano claimed that she was not in the room when David incorrectly donned his harness and ascended the wall, we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs and [*8] accept their testimony as true. Terrace Land Dev Corp, 250 Mich App at 455. David and Elena’s deposition testimony was that Agredano was present when David donned his harness and ascended the wall, that she had ample opportunity to determine that David had put his harness on incorrectly, but that she failed to correct his mistake. Further, plaintiffs testified that Agredano watched David climb the wall in an unsafe harness, and directed David to let go of the wall to repel back down to the ground despite the red loop on David’s harness indicating that his harness was on backwards. 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 indication2 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. 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 [*9] 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” David. Tarlea, 263 Mich App at 90. Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence. Thus, the trial court erred in granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition.
2 Agredano testified that if someone was standing below a rock climber, that person would be readily able to see if a harness was on backwards.
Because we have concluded that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition to defendant, it is unnecessary for us to address in Docket No. 328985 whether the decision to deny the case evaluation award would otherwise have been appropriate if the grant of summary disposition had been proper.
We reverse the order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.
/s/ Michael J. Kelly
/s/ Christopher M. Murray
/s/ Stephen L. Borrello
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.
Johnson v. Gibson, 358 Ore. 624; 369 P.3d 1151; 2016 Ore. LEXIS 129
Emily Johnson, Plaintiff, v. Scott Gibson and Robert Stillson, Defendants.
SUPREME COURT OF OREGON
358 Ore. 624; 369 P.3d 1151; 2016 Ore. LEXIS 129
November 13, 2015, Argued and Submitted
March 3, 2016, Decided
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Reconsideration denied by Johnson v. Gibson, 2016 Ore. LEXIS 281 (Or., Apr. 21, 2016)
PRIOR HISTORY: [***1] US Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit 1335087. On certified questions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; certification order dated April 24, 2015; certification accepted June 4, 2015.
Johnson v. Gibson, 783 F.3d 1159, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 6551 (9th Cir. Or., 2015)
COUNSEL: Thane W. Tienson, Landye Bennett Blumstein LLP, Portland, argued the cause and filed the brief for plaintiff. With him on the brief was Christine N. Moore.
Harry Auerbach, Chief Deputy City Attorney, Portland, argued the cause and filed the brief for defendants. With him on the brief was Denis M. Vannier, Deputy City Attorney.
Kathryn H. Clarke, Portland, argued the cause and filed the brief for amicus curiae Oregon Trial Lawyers Association. With her on the brief was Shenoa L. Payne, Haglund Kelley LLP, Portland.
Thomas W. McPherson, Mersereau Shannon, LLP, Portland, filed the brief for amici curiae League of Oregon Cities, Association of Oregon Counties, Citycounty Insurance Services, Oregon School Boards Association, Special Districts Association of Oregon, and The International Municipal Lawyers Association.
Janet M. Schroer, Hart Wagner LLP, Portland, filed the brief for amicus curiae Oregon Association of Defense Counsel.
JUDGES: Before Balmer, Chief [***2] Justice, and Kistler, Walters, Landau, Baldwin, Brewer and Nakamoto, Justices.*
* Linder, J., retired December 31, 2015, and did not participate in the decision of this case.
OPINION BY: WALTERS
[**1152] [*626] WALTERS, J.
This case is before the court on two certified questions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. See ORS 28.200 – 28.255 (providing for certification of certain questions of Oregon law from specified federal courts and appellate courts of other states to Oregon Supreme Court). As framed by the Ninth Circuit, the questions are (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.2 We conclude that the individual employees in this case do not qualify as “owner[s]” under the Act, and that we need not address the second certified question.
1 ORS 105.672(4), which defines “owner” for purposes of the Act, was amended in 2009, and those changes [***3] went into effect January 1, 2010. Or Laws 2009, ch 532, § 1. Plaintiff alleges that her injuries occurred in July 2009. We therefore assume, as do the parties, that the Ninth Circuit’s questions refer to the version of the statute in place at the time plaintiff’s injuries occurred. That statute is ORS 105.672(4) (2007).
The current version of ORS 105.672(4) provides: “‘Owner’ means the possessor of any interest in any land, such as the holder of a fee title, a tenant, a lessee, an occupant, the holder of an easement, the holder of a right of way or a person in possession of the land.”
2 The remedy clause provides: “[E]very man [HN1] shall have remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property, or reputation.” Or Const, Art 1, § 10.
This case arose when plaintiff, who is legally blind, was injured when she stepped into a hole while jogging in a public park in the City of Portland (the City). Plaintiff filed a complaint against the City and defendants Gibson and Stillson. Defendant Gibson had created the hole to fix a malfunctioning sprinkler head; he was a park technician with primary responsibility for maintenance of the park. Defendant Stillson was the maintenance supervisor for all westside parks in the City.
[*627] Plaintiff filed her [***4] complaint in federal district court, invoking federal claim and supplemental jurisdiction. Plaintiff alleged, under federal law, that the City had violated Title II of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 USC sections 12131 to 12165, and, under state law, that all three defendants were liable for negligently causing her injuries. The City filed two motions: A motion to substitute itself as the sole defendant, pursuant to the Oregon Tort Claims Act (OTCA), ORS 30.260 to 30.302; and a motion for summary judgment.
The district court denied the City’s motion for substitution. Johnson v. City of Portland, CV No 10-117-JO (D Or Feb 10, 2011) (“Johnson I“). The court reasoned that substitution of the City would violate the remedy clause in Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution, because the City was immune from liability under the Public Use of Lands Act. Had the court substituted the City as the sole defendant in the case, the only defendant would have been immune and entitled to dismissal, leaving plaintiff without a remedy for her injury. Id.
The district court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, in part. The court granted the City summary judgment as to plaintiff’s federal ADA claim, leaving plaintiff’s negligence claim as her only remaining claim. The [***5] district court declined to retain supplemental jurisdiction over that state law claim and dismissed the case. Id.
Plaintiff then filed a new complaint in federal court invoking diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiff again alleged a state law negligence claim against defendants Gibson and Stillson, and those defendants again filed a motion to substitute the City as the sole defendant under the OTCA. In Johnson II, the district [**1153] court agreed with the prior ruling in Johnson I that substitution of the City was not appropriate. Johnson v. Gibson, 918 F Supp 2d 1075, 1082 (D Or 2013). Then, the individual defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that they were immune from liability under the Public Use of Lands Act. Id. at 1083. The district court agreed, reasoning that employees who maintain land qualify as “owner[s]” under that Act, and that defendants Gibson and Stillson were therefore immune from liability. [*628] Id. at 1085. The court also held that the Public Use of Lands Act does not violate the remedy clause. Id. at 1088. The court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Id. at 1089. Plaintiff appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit certified to this court the two questions now before us.
We begin with the first question [***6] posed and the text of the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act, which provides, in part:
[HN2] “Except as provided by subsection (2) of this section, and subject to the provisions of ORS 105.688, an owner of land is not liable in contract or tort for any personal injury, death or property damage that arises out of the use of the land for recreational purposes * * * when the owner of land either directly or indirectly permits any person to use the land for recreational purposes * * *. The limitation on liability provided by this section applies if the principal purpose for entry upon the land is for recreational purposes * * *.”
ORS 105.682(1). “Land” is defined as “all real property, whether publicly or privately owned.” ORS 105.672(3). “Owner” is defined as follows:
“‘Owner’ means the possessor of any interest in any land, including but not limited to possession of a fee title. ‘Owner’ includes a tenant, lessee, occupant or other person in possession of the land.”
ORS 105.672(4) (2007).
From that definition of “owner,” defendants make a three-step argument: First, that the definition of the term “owner” is ambiguous and is not limited to those with a legal interest in the land; second, that, considered in its proper context, the term includes owners’ employees and [***7] agents; and third, that as City employees, defendants are entitled to recreational immunity.
Defendants’ argument focuses on the second sentence of the definition of “owner.” Defendants recognize that they do not qualify as “owner[s]” under the first sentence of that definition because they do not have legal title to, or a legal right in, the property where plaintiff was injured. However, they contend, the second sentence in the definition [*629] is broader, and it includes both persons who have a legal right in property–specifically, “tenant[s]” and “lessee[s]”–and those who do not–specifically, “occupant[s]” and those who are “in possession of the land.” Id. According to defendants, the dictionary definitions of those latter terms demonstrate that “owner[s]” include persons without legal or equitable title to, or interest in, land.
[HN3] 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 [***8] 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.” Id. “Occupy” means “to hold possession of”; “to reside in as an owner or tenant.” Id. at 1561. 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.” Id. 1560.
Like defendants, we surmise, from those definitions, that [HN4] the terms “occupant” and “person in possession of the land” may include persons without legal or equitable title to, or interest in, the land. But that is not the only lesson we take from those definitions. Like plaintiff, we conclude that those terms describe persons who do more than [**1154] take up space on 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 [***9] of it. The terms “occupant” and “person in possession of the land” are used in the same sentence as the terms “tenant” and “lessee.” ORS 105.672(4) (2007). Tenants and lessees have the ability to decide who may use the space that they control and for what purposes. Under noscitur a sociis, a maxim of statutory construction that [*630] tells us that the meaning of an unclear word may be clarified by the meaning of other words used in the same context, it is likely that the legislature intended that “occupant[s]” and “person[s] in possession of the land” have the same type of control as tenants and lessees. See State v. McCullough, 347 Ore. 350, 361, 220 P3d 1182 (2009) (so describing noscitur a sociis). Under that interpretation, only persons with authority to control and exclude from the land qualify as “owner[s]” of the land.
Further support for that interpretation is found in the context in which the term “owner” is used in the Act. The Legislative Assembly enacted [HN5] the Public Use of Lands Act in 1971 “to encourage owners of land to make their land available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability toward persons entering thereon for such purposes.” Or Laws 1971, ch 780, § 2, codified as former ORS 105.660 (1971), now codified as amended as ORS 105.676 (emphasis added). The immunities [***10] provided by the Act apply only if “[t]he owner makes no charge for permission to use the land.” Former ORS 105.688(2)(a) (2007), renumbered as ORS 105.688(3) (2010) (emphasis added). An individual without a right to exclude others from the land or to otherwise control use of the land does not have the decision-making authority that the statute contemplates–the authority to make the land available to the public or to charge for permission to use the land.
Defendants do not point us to any statutory context or legislative history that indicates that the legislature understood the terms “occupant” or “person in possession of the land” in ORS 105.672(4) (2007) to support the unbounded meaning that defendants ascribe to those terms.3 In fact, a case that defendants cite for a different proposition supports [*631] plaintiff’s narrow interpretation of those terms. In Elliott v. Rogers Construction, 257 Ore. 421, 433, 479 P2d 753 (1971), the court considered the standard of care that applied to a contractor that was building a road for its principal. In discussing that issue, the court observed that “[c]ases from other jurisdictions and legal writers do not treat a contractor as an occupier of land.” Id. at 432. In that case, the court was not interpreting the definition of “owner” in the Public Use of Lands Act, but its observation [***11] about the legal meaning of the word “occupant” is consistent with our interpretation of that word as being limited to individuals with a right to control and exclude from the land.
3 Defendants do argue that the main sponsor of the bill that led to the current version of the Act stated that it was “designed to be very broad” and to “guarantee [landowners] that they [would not] be paying out of pocket for * * * allowing their property to be used.” Tape Recording, House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Agriculture and Forestry, HB 2296, Jan 30, 1995, Tape 4, Side A (statement of Rep Kevin Mannix). However, we do not find that general statement of purpose to be of assistance in determining the meaning of defined terms in the statute. See State v. Gaines, 346 Ore. 160, 171, 206 P3d 1042 (2009) (“[I]t is not the intent of the individual legislators that governs, but the intent of the legislature as formally enacted into law[.]”).
In this case, defendants do not argue that they had a right to exclude others from the land or to otherwise control the use of the land. Rather, they argue that the definition of “owner” is so ambiguous that it requires us to look beyond the words of the definition to the context surrounding ORS 105.682, particularly the [***12] pre-existing common law. See Fresk v. Kraemer, 337 Ore. 513, 520-21, 99 P3d 282 (2004) (context includes pre-existing common law). Defendants contend that an examination of that pre-existing common law shows that the legislature must have intended “owner” to include persons who are employed [**1155] by, or are agents of, persons who are more classically denominated as owners.
Defendants argue that where land and property are concerned, the common law rule has long been that employees and agents have the same privileges and immunities as their principals. Defendants contend that, insofar as the legislature enacted and amended the Act in the context of that common law rule, it intended that that rule apply. Consequently, defendants assert, the legislature was not required to say explicitly what the common law already provides.
For the common law rule on which they rely, defendants point to two Oregon cases–Herzog v. Mittleman, 155 Ore. 624, 632, 65 P2d 384 (1937); and Elliott, 257 Ore. at 432-33. In the first of those cases, Herzog, the court examined a guest passenger statute that provided that a guest in a vehicle would have no cause of action against the owner or operator for damages unless the accident was “intentional on the [*632] part of [the] owner or operator or caused by his gross negligence or intoxication or his reckless disregard [***13] of the rights of others.” Id. at 628. The question presented was whether a vehicle owner’s guest, who was operating the vehicle in question at the owner’s invitation, would be protected by the same rule on the theory that he was acting as the owner’s agent while driving the vehicle. The court looked to the Restatement (First) of Agency (1933) for assistance and began with section 343, which provides:
“An agent who does an act otherwise a tort is not relieved from liability by the fact that he acted at the command of the principal or on account of the principal, except where he is exercising a privilege of the principal, or a privilege held by him for the protection of the principal’s interest.”
Id. at 631 (internal quotation marks omitted). The court also looked to section 347 of the Restatement, which provides: “An agent who is acting in pursuance of his authority has such immunities of the principal as are not personal to the principal.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Finally, the court quoted comment a to that section:
“a. Persons may have a personal immunity from liability with respect to all persons and for all acts, as in the case of a sovereign, or for some acts, as in the case of an insane person, or as to some persons as in the [***14] case of a husband to a wife. * * * Unlike certain privileges such immunities cannot be delegated. On the other hand where an immunity exists in order to more adequately protect the interests of a person in relation to his property, the agent may have the principal’s immunity. Thus, the servant of a landowner while acting in the scope of his employment is under no greater duties to unseen trespassers than is the landowner[.]”
Id. at 631-32 (internal quotation marks omitted) (omission in original).
Reasoning from those provisions, the court explained that although “it is well settled that an agent who violates a duty which he owes to a third person is answerable for the consequences thereof,” if the agent is “acting within the authority, and pursuant to the direction of the principal, the agent is entitled to the same immunities as the principal would be had the principal done the same act under the [*633] same circumstances and such immunities were not personal to the principal.” Id. at 632. Applying that legal authority to the facts at hand, the court concluded that the standard of care set out in the statute was not personal to the principal–the car owner–but that it also extended to the agent–a guest that the owner [***15] had authorized to drive the car. Id. at 633. The court further concluded that the plaintiff could not recover from the defendant-agent without a showing that the defendant-agent was grossly negligent. Id.
In the second of the Oregon cases that defendants cite, Elliott, the court considered whether a contractor working on a landowner’s property had the same limited duty of care to trespassers and licensees as did the landowner. 257 Ore. at 431-33. In that case, an employee of a construction company that was building a road for the State Highway Department accidentally injured a pedestrian who was crossing a portion of the road that had not yet been opened to the public. Id. at 424. The [**1156] court explained that, “[b]eing ‘clothed with the rights of the owner,’ [the construction company] was only under a duty to the plaintiff’s decedent to abstain from inflicting injury willfully or by active negligence.” Id. at 433. Because the plaintiff had alleged that the company’s employee had acted with wanton misconduct, however, the court held that the lawsuit could proceed. Id. at 434-35. Thus, without discussing the issues in the same terms used in the Restatement (First) of Agency, the court implicitly concluded that the standard of care applicable to the landowner [***16] was not personal to the landowner, but that it also extended to the landowner’s agent.
In this case, defendants’ reliance on Herzog and Elliott is misplaced. Defendants draw general conclusions from the results in those cases without recognizing the distinction that is explicit in Herzog and implicit in Elliott–that is, the distinction between immunities that are personal to the principal and those that may extend to a principal’s agent. 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 [*634] sovereign immunity of governmental landowners precluding their liability for defective conditions on their streets extends to agents responsible for the repair of those streets. The first case in which the court contemplated that issue was Mattson v. Astoria, 39 Ore. 577, 65 P 1066 (1901).
In Mattson, the plaintiff was injured as a result of the city’s failure to keep a public street in repair and suitable for travel. Id. at 578. The plaintiff challenged a clause of the city charter that exempted the city and members of [***17] its council from liability for such failure. Id. The court said the following:
“That it is within the power of a legislature to exempt a city from liability to persons receiving injuries on account of streets being defective or out of repair, is unquestioned. * * * But in such case the injured party is not wholly without remedy. He may proceed personally against the officers to whom the charter delegates the duty of keeping the streets in repair, and from whose negligence the injury resulted.”
Id. at 579. Since Mattson, the court has consistently recognized that the liability of a local government as landowner is distinct from the liability of employees and agents of the government. For instance, in Gearin v. Marion County, 110 Ore. 390, 396-97, 223 P 929 (1924), the court explained:
“The constitutional guaranty that ‘every man shall have remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property or reputation’ we think is self-executing and operates without the aid of any legislative act or provision. * * * It has, however, no application to an action sounding in tort when brought against the state or one of the counties of the state. In strict law neither the state nor a county is capable of committing a tort or lawfully authorizing one to be [***18] committed. Counties, as well as the state, act through their public officials and duly authorized agents. The officers, agents, servants and employees of the state or a county, while in the discharge of their duties, can and sometimes do commit torts, but no lawful authorization or legal justification can be found for the commission of a tort by any such officer, agent, servant or employee. When a tort is thus committed, the person committing it is personally liable for the injury resulting therefrom. The wrongful act, however, is the act of the wrongdoer and not [*635] the act of the state or county in whose service the wrong-doer is then engaged. For the damages occasioned by the wrong thus committed it is within the power of the legislature to impute liability against the state or the county in whose service the wrongdoer is then engaged, or to exempt the state or county from such liability, but in either event the wrongdoer is himself personally responsible. It is the remedy against the wrongdoer himself and not the remedy which may or may not be imposed by statute against the state or county for the torts of its officers or agents [**1157] to which the constitutional guarant[y] applies.”
See also Rankin v. Buckman, et al., 9 Ore. 253, 259-63 (1881) (city [***19] employees liable even when city is not).
From those cases, it appears that whether a principal’s immunity is personal to the principal or may extend to an agent is a matter of legislative choice subject to constitutional bounds. We presume that the legislature was aware of that existing law. Blachana, LLC v. Bureau of Labor and Industries, 354 Ore. 676, 691, 318 P3d 735 (2014). In addition, the Restatement (Second) of Agency section 347(1) (1958), which had been published by the American Law Institute when the Legislative Assembly enacted the Oregon Public Use of Lands Act in 1971, is in accord. It provides that “[a]n agent does not have the immunities of his principal although acting at the direction of the principal.” Id. Restatement section 347 comment a clarifies: “Immunities exist because of an overriding public policy which serves to protect an admitted wrongdoer from civil liability. They are strictly personal to the individual and cannot be shared.” Subject to constitutional limitations, the legislature must determine as a matter of public policy how broadly to extend immunities.
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 legal principles that [***20] the court had previously applied, as well as the common law rules reflected in the restatements, recognized that the grant of immunity to a principal, particularly to a governmental principal, would not necessarily extend to the employees and agents of the [*636] principal. Whether a court would imply such an extension could depend, for instance, on whether the court considered the grant of immunity personal to the principal, or whether extension of immunity to an agent would eliminate a remedy that the Oregon Constitution requires.
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.
Second, we look to the [***21] statute’s context and legislative history and note that, when it was originally enacted in 1971, the Act was supported by owners of forestland who wished to open their lands to the public for recreational uses such as hunting and fishing. Testimony, Senate Committee on State and Federal Affairs, SB 294, March 1, 1971 (written statement of Sam Taylor, a proponent of the bill). When originally enacted, the Act provided that “[a]n owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the land safe for entry or use by others for any recreational purpose or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity on the land to persons entering thereon for any such purpose.” Or Laws 1971, ch 780, § 3. 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.
The legislature amended the Act in 1995 to make it expressly [***22] applicable to public landowners. Or Laws 1995, ch 456, § 1. However, neither that change nor other changes [*637] in the wording of the statute disclose an intent to change the purpose of the statute or to benefit additional classes of persons. Importantly, the legislature did not materially change the definition of owner in 1995. The 1971 Act provided that an “owner” is “the possessor of a fee title interest in any land, a tenant, lessee, occupant or other person in [**1158] possession of the land.” Or Laws 1971, ch 780, § 1. In 1995, the legislature broke the definition into two sentences and changed the phrase in the first sentence from “possessor of a fee title interest in any land” to “possessor of any interest in any land.” Or Laws 1995, ch 456, § 1. However, the legislature did not change the categories of persons to whom it granted immunity; in 1995, the legislature exempted the same persons from liability that it had exempted in 1971. When the legislature made the Public Use of Lands Act expressly applicable to public landowners in 1995, it did not demonstrate an intent to broaden the Act to benefit those who do not have the ability to make decisions about the use of land, or to relieve non-owners [***23] who commit negligent acts from responsibility for injuries caused by such acts.
Defendants argue, however, that other statutory context points in that direction. Defendants call our attention to the fact that just four years earlier, in 1991, the legislature had amended the OTCA to provide that a claim against a public body is the sole remedy for the torts committed by employees of that public body. Or Laws 1991, ch 861, § 1. Defendants contend that, in light of that amendment, the Public Use of Lands Act must be read to shield governmental employees and agents; otherwise, the immunity it grants to governmental landowners would mean nothing. We disagree. The Public Use of Lands Act applies not only to public landowners, but also to private landowners. Just as it did before the amendment of the OTCA, the Public Use of Lands Act protects all “owner[s]” from liability in their capacity as “owner[s].” Just like private owners, public owners are exempt from liability for their own acts. The fact that public owners are not, in addition, exempt from liability for the acts of their employees or agents does not make the immunity granted by the Public Use of Lands Act illusory. The fact that public owners, like [***24] private owners, are not shielded from liability if they employ non-owners who cause injury to [*638] others in the negligent performance of their duties does not mean that the Public Use of Lands Act has no purpose.
The legislature knows how to extend immunity to governmental employees and agents when it chooses to do so. See ORS 368.031 (immunizing counties and their officers, employees, or agents for failure to improve or keep in repair local access roads); ORS 453.912 (immunizing the state and local government and their officers, agents and employees for loss or injury resulting from the presence of any chemical or controlled substance at a site used to manufacture illegal drugs); ORS 475.465 (immunizing the state, DEQ, EQC, and their officers, employees, and agents from liability to a person possessing chemicals at alleged illegal drug manufacturing site).4 The legislature did not make that express choice in the Public Use of Lands Act. Should the legislature wish to extend the immunity provided to “owner[s]” to governmental employees and agents, it is free to do so, within constitutional bounds. However, we are unwilling to insert into the definition of “owner” in ORS 105.672(4) (2007) terms that the legislature did not include. See ORS 174.010 (office [***25] of judge is to ascertain what is contained in statute, not to insert what was omitted or to omit what was inserted).
4 Another example, although enacted after the Public Use of Lands Act, is a 2011 statute that grants immunity relating to public trails. ORS 105.668(2) immunizes a “city with a population of 500,000 or more” and its “officers, employees, or agents” from liability for injury or damage resulting from the use of a trail or structures in a public easement or an unimproved right of way.
We answer the Ninth Circuit’s first certified question as follows: [HN6] Individual employees responsible for repairing, maintaining, and operating improvements on Cityowned 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.
The certified questions are answered.
Barnes and a. v. New Hampshire Karting Association, Inc, 128 N.H. 102; 509 A.2d 151; 1986 N.H. LEXIS 254Posted: February 5, 2017
Barnes & a. v. New Hampshire Karting Association, Inc, 128 N.H. 102; 509 A.2d 151; 1986 N.H. LEXIS 254
John E. Barnes & a. v. New Hampshire Karting Association, Inc. & a.
Supreme Court of New Hampshire
128 N.H. 102; 509 A.2d 151; 1986 N.H. LEXIS 254
May 12, 1986
COUNSEL: David J. KillKelley, of Laconia, by brief and orally, for the plaintiffs.
Sulloway Hollis & Soden, of Concord (Edward M. Kaplan and Robert J. Lanney on the brief, and Mr. Kaplan orally), for the defendants.
JUDGES: King, C.J. All concurred.
OPINION BY: KING
[*104] [**152] The plaintiffs, John E. and Virginia A. Barnes, sued the 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) for damages arising from injuries sustained by John Barnes (Barnes, or the plaintiff) in an Enduro kart collision at Bryar in 1981. Defendants Whitesell, NHKA, WKA and Bryar moved for summary judgment, claiming that the release executed by Barnes barred him from seeking recovery. Following a hearing, the Master (Louie C. Elliott, Jr., Esq.) recommended that the defendants’ motion for summary judgment be granted as to all counts asserted by John Barnes against Whitesell, NHKA, WKA and Bryar. The master recommended denial of the motion for summary judgment as to the [***2] claims asserted by Virginia Barnes and ruled that the release did not bar claims against International. The Superior Court (DiClerico, J.) approved the master’s recommendations. We affirm.
On August 29, 1981, before entering the pit area at the Bryar Motorsport Park, John Barnes signed a “pit pass” containing the release at issue. The pass comprised three parts; the participant was given the top portion, which stated “THE HOLDER ACKNOWLEDGES SIGNING WAIVER & RELEASE FROM LIABILITY BEFORE ENTERING TRACK AREA.” The middle section, which each participant was required to sign in order to receive a number for the race, provided:
“RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT
IN CONSIDERATION of being permitted to enter for any purpose any RESTRICTED AREA (herein defined as including but not limited to, the racing surface, pit areas, infield, burn out area, approach area, shut down area, and all walkways, concessions and other areas appurtenant to [*105] any area where any activity related to the event shall take place), or being permitted to compete, officiate, observe, work for, or for any purpose participate in any way in the event, EACH OF THE UNDERSIGNED [***3] . . .
- HEREBY RELEASES, WAIVES, DISCHARGES AND COVENANTS NOT [**153] TO SUE . . . from all liability to the undersigned . . . for any and all loss or damage, and any claim or demands therefor on account of injury to the person or property or resulting in death of the undersigned, whether caused by the negligence of the releases [sic] or otherwise while the undersigned is in or upon the restricted area, and/or competing, officiating in, observing, working for, or for any purpose participating in the event;
. . .
- HEREBY ASSUMES FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR AND RISK OF BODILY INJURY, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGE due to the negligence of releasees or otherwise while in or upon the restricted area and/or while competing, officiating, observing, or working for or for any purpose participating in the event.
EACH OF THE UNDERSIGNED expressly acknowledges and agrees that the activities of the event are very dangerous and involve the risk of serious injury and/or death and/or property damage. . . .
THE UNDERSIGNED HAS READ AND VOLUNTARILY SIGNS THE RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT, and further agrees that no oral representations, statements of inducements [sic] [***4] apart from the foregoing written agreement have been made.”
The master found that Barnes did not read the release portion before signing the pit pass on this occasion or on the previous occasions he had raced at the track. Nonetheless, Barnes admitted that he had read the top portion and understood that the document he was signing was “[s]ome sort of waiver or release.”
Barnes proceeded to take a practice run. As he rounded a blind turn, his kart collided with a disabled kart on the track. No flagman was present to warn drivers of hazards out of view beyond that turn. John Barnes and his wife, Virginia, sued the defendants for injuries and loss of consortium, respectively, alleging liability for ordinary and gross negligence.
[*106] The question presented for review is whether the plaintiff’s causes of action are barred by the release and waiver of liability and indemnity agreement he signed. Barnes contends that the release does not bar his claims because it violates public policy, is ambiguous, and does not apply to risks not inherent in the sport, which were not within the contemplation of the parties. He further argues that the release does not cover gross negligence, [***5] and that it is void because it involves an illegal tying arrangement.
[HN1] 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.” Siciliano v. Capitol City Shows, Inc., 124 N.H. 719, 730, 475 A.2d 19, 25 (1984). Failure to do so will result in liability for injuries proximately caused by the breach of duty.
Contraposed against this basic rule of tort law is the principle that, [HN2] as a matter of efficiency and freedom of choice, parties should be able to contract freely about their affairs. ABA Special Committee on the Tort Liability System, Towards a Jurisprudence of Injury: The Continuing Creation of a System of Substantive Justice in American Tort Law § 5-27 (Nov. 1984); Morrow v. Auto Championship Racing Ass’n, Inc., 8 Ill. App. 3d 682, 685, 291 N.E.2d 30, 32 (1972). Under this rule, parties may bargain [***6] 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. See W. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton, D. Owen, [**154] Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, at 480-81 (5th ed. 1984) (hereinafter cited as Prosser & Keeton).
In New Hampshire, exculpatory contracts are generally prohibited. [HN3] 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. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B, comment g (1965); Restatement of Contracts § 575 (1932); see Wessman v. Railroad, 84 N.H. 475, 152 A. 476 (1930).
[*107] Courts have refused to uphold such agreements because one party is at an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power. Prosser [***7] & Keeton, supra § 68, at 482.
“The disparity in bargaining power may arise from the defendant’s monopoly of a particular field of service, from the generality of use of contract clauses insisting upon assumption of risk by all those engaged in such a field, so that the plaintiff has no alternative possibility of obtaining the service without the clause; or it may arise from the exigencies of the needs of the plaintiff himself, which leave him no reasonable alternative to the acceptance of the offered terms.”
Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B, comment j (1965). Cf. Cailler v. Humble Oil & Refining Co., 117 N.H. 915, 919, 379 A.2d 1253, 1256 (1977). 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. See Shaer Shoe Corporation v. Granite State Alarm, Inc., 110 N.H. 132, 135, 262 A.2d 285, 287 (1970).
[HN4] 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 [***8] 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. Arnold v. Shawano County Agr. Society, 106 Wis. 2d 464, 470, 317 N.W.2d 161, 164 (1982), aff’d, 111 Wis. 2d 203, 330 N.W.2d 773 (1983). 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, as they did in this case by specifying injuries involving negligence on the part of the defendants.
Nonetheless, since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence. Prosser & Keeton, supra § 68, at 483-84. 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. Cf. Commercial Union Assurance Co. v. Brown Co., 120 N.H. 620, 623, 419 A.2d 1111, 1113 (1980).
[*108] As a preliminary [***9] matter, we note that the plaintiff’s failure to read the entire release does not preclude enforcement of the agreement. Barnes testified that he was in a line of people waiting to pay money and obtain numbers for the race and that the workers wanted to “get [them] on [their] way.” 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.” Lee v. Allied Sports Associates, Inc., 349 Mass. 544, 550, 209 N.E.2d 329, 332 (1965).
[**155] 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 [***10] 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. Winterstein v. Wilcom, 16 Md. App. 130, 138, 293 A.2d 821, 825 (1972).
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. Cailler, 117 N.H. at 919, 379 A.2d at 1256; Schlessman v. Henson, 83 Ill. 2d 82, 86-87, 413 N.E.2d 1252, 1254 (1980). Barnes wished to compete and voluntarily agreed not to hold others liable for his injuries. Hence, we conclude that the release was not barred by public policy and may be upheld.
The plaintiff cites a number of cases from other jurisdictions that hold on public policy grounds [***11] that an exculpatory agreement does not release defendants from liability for gross negligence. 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. . . .” Lee v. Chamberlin, 84 N.H. 182, 188, [*109] 148 A. 466, 469 (1929). The plaintiff advances no reasons for abandoning this rule and we decline to create an exception to allow him to pursue his claims of gross negligence.
We now examine the language of the release to determine the extent of its coverage. Barnes contends that the accident did not occur in a “restricted area” because, although he was on the racing surface, the area did not become restricted until numbers were given and racing had begun, and he was merely taking a practice lap at the time of the accident. In interpreting this contract, we will give language used by the parties its common meaning, Murphy v. Doll-Mar, Inc., 120 N.H. 610, 611-12, 419 A.2d 1106, 1108 (1980), and will give the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person. [***12] Kilroe v. Troast, 117 N.H. 598, 601, 376 A.2d 131, 133 (1977).
The first paragraph of the release states that the release is given “IN CONSIDERATION of being permitted to enter for any purpose any RESTRICTED AREA . . . or being permitted to compete . . . or for any purpose participate in any way in the event . . . .” The agreement defines “restricted area” as including “the racing surface, pit areas, infield, burn out area, approach area, shut down area, and all walkways, concessions and other areas appurtenant to any area where any activity related to the event shall take place.” Finally, the agreement states that the defendants are released “from all liability to the undersigned . . . whether caused by the negligence of the releases [sic] or otherwise while the undersigned is in or upon the restricted area, and/or competing . . . or for any purpose participating in the event.”
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 [***13] [**156] 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.
[*110] Barnes contends that the release is unenforceable because it involves an illegal tying arrangement. He asserts that, in violation of RSA 417:4, XIII, the pit pass and certain insurance coverage were offered at a single price, without an option to take one “product” and not the other. [HN5] RSA 417:4, XIII provides that it is an unfair method of competition and an unfair and deceptive act and practice in the business of insurance to:
“Arrang[e] or participat[e] in any plan to offer [***14] or effect in this state as an inducement to the purchase or rental by the public of any property or services, any insurance for which there is no separate charge to the insured. . . .”
Although it appears that no separate charge was made for the insurance, we find that the insurance was not offered as an inducement to the purchase of the pit pass or the use of the Bryar Motorsport Park.
Jason C. Marsh and Rhonda Marsh, Appellant-Plaintiffs, vs. Kirk Dixon, Dyna Soar Aerobatics, Inc., Appellee-Defendants.
COURT OF APPEALS OF INDIANA, FIFTH DISTRICT
707 N.E.2d 998; 1999 Ind. App. LEXIS 372; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P15,479
March 12, 1999, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] APPEAL FROM THE MARION SUPERIOR COURT. The Honorable Richard H. Huston, Judge. Cause No. 49D10-9610-CT-1378.
DISPOSITION: Affirmed in part and reversed in part.
COUNSEL: For APPELLANT: JAMES F. LUDLOW, Indianapolis, Indiana.
For APPELLEE: MICHAEL A. ASPY, Landau, Omahana & Kopka, Carmel, Indiana.
JUDGES: ROBB, Judge. BAKER, J., and GARRARD, J., concur.
OPINION BY: ROBB
Appellants-Plaintiffs, Jason C. Marsh and Rhonda Marsh (collectively referred to as “Marsh”), appeal the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Appellees, Kirk Dixon and Dyna Soar Aerobatics, Inc. (collectively referred to as “Dyna Soar”) on Marsh’s gross negligence and products liability claim. We affirm in part and reverse in part.
Marsh raises two issues for our review which we restate as:
I. Whether the trial court erred by entering summary judgment in favor of Dyna Soar when it determined that the release signed by Marsh was valid; and
II. Whether the trial court erred by entering summary judgment in favor of Dyna Soar when it determined that the facts of this case do not support a products liability claim.
Facts and Procedural [**2] History
The facts most favorable to the judgment show that on October 9, 1994, Marsh decided to ride in a wind tunnel (“Dyna Soar Machine”) constructed by Kirk Dixon (“Dixon”) for Dyna Soar Aerobatics, Inc. Dixon is the sole officer of this company. The Dyna Soar Ride simulates the experience of free-fall by projecting columns of air through a cable trampoline upon which patrons of the ride levitate. Marsh signed a release which discharged Dyna Soar, its director, and its employees from liability in the event of an accident. While on the Dyna Soar ride, Marsh fell off of a column of air and fractured his ankle. Marsh sued Dyna Soar, bringing both a negligence claim and a products liability claim. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Dyna Soar finding that “the facts do not support a products liability claim or a misrepresentation claim.” (R. 159). This appeal ensued.
Discussion and Decision
Before we reach Marsh’s first issue, we note that Dyna Soar argues in their brief that Marsh waives the issue regarding the validity of the release for two reasons. First, Dyna Soar argues that Marsh failed to make a negligence claim in his original complaint. In [**3] his original complaint, Marsh filed a claim under a gross negligence theory. Second, Marsh failed to raise the same issue in his Motion to Correct Errors.
First, we find that Dyna Soar has waived their argument regarding the fact that Marsh made a gross negligence claim rather than a negligence claim. In their brief, they cite no cases and outline no argument developing this position. [HN1] Ind. Appellate Rule 8.3 requires Dyna Soar to support each contention with an argument, including citations to the authorities, statutes, and record for support. App.R. 8.3(A)(7); Burnett v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 690 N.E.2d 747, 749 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998). Failure of a party to [*1000] present a cogent argument in his or her brief is considered a waiver of that issue. Id.
Second, we conclude that a party does not waive their right to appeal a claim by omitting the same from its Motion to Correct Errors. Marsh raised two issues in its Motion to Correct Errors. He argued that he presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Dyna Soar was grossly negligent, and he argued that he had a viable products liability claim. He did not raise the issue of whether the release [**4] was valid. Indiana Trial Rule 59(A) provides that only two issues must be addressed in a Motion to Correct Errors before they may be appealed to this court: newly discovered material evidence and claims that a jury verdict is excessive or inadequate. T.R. 59(A)(1) and (2). The trial rule states that any other issues that are “appropriately preserved during trial may be initially addressed in the appellate brief.” Id. Trial Rule 59(D) states that a Motion to Correct Errors “need only address those errors found in Trial Rule 59(A)(1) and (2). Id. Based on the plain language of Trial Rule 59, therefore, we conclude that [HN2] a party does not waive its right to appeal a trial court’s decision if it fails to raise an issue in its Motion to Correct Errors which was properly preserved at trial. Dyna Soar’s claims to the contrary are based on cases referring to Trial Rule 59 before it was amended. Accordingly, we conclude that the following issue is properly before this court.
Marsh argues that the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment on his negligence claim. In particular, he argues that the release he signed exculpating Dyna Soar was not sufficient to release [**5] Dyna Soar for its own negligence. We agree.
[HN3] It is well settled in Indiana that exculpatory agreements are not against public policy. Powell v. American Health Fitness Center, 694 N.E.2d 757, 760 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998). Generally, parties are permitted to agree that a party owes no obligation of care for the benefit of another, and thus, shall not be liable for consequences that would otherwise be considered negligent. Id. In Powell, however, this court held that an exculpatory clause will not act to absolve the drafting party from liability unless it “specifically and explicitly refers to the negligence of the party seeking release from liability.” 694 N.E.2d at 761. In Powell, the clause at issue stated that Powell released the defendant “from ‘any damages’ and placed the responsibility on Powell for ‘any injuries, damages or losses.” Id. The Powell court concluded:
As a matter of law, the exculpatory clause did not release [the defendant] from liability resulting from injuries she sustained while on its premises that were caused by its alleged negligence. Therefore, the exculpatory clause is void to the extent it purported to release [the defendant] from [**6] liability caused by its own negligence.
694 N.E.2d at 761-62 (emphasis added). This rule is based on the principle that an agreement to release a party from its own negligence “clearly and unequivocally manifest a commitment by [the plaintiff], knowingly and willing [sic] made, to pay for damages occasioned by [the defendant’s] negligence.” Indiana State Highway Commission v. Thomas, 169 Ind. App. 13, 346 N.E.2d 252, 260 (Ind. Ct. App. 1976) (emphasis in original). We note, however, that [HN4] an exculpatory clause not referring to the negligence of the releasee may act to bar liability for those damages incurred which are inherent in the nature of the activity, or, as Powell stated, the exculpatory clause is void only to the extent it purports to release a defendant from liability caused by its own negligence. See Powell, 694 N.E.2d at 761-62. The requirement of specificity is only necessary when the risk of harm is a latent danger, i.e. the defendant’s own negligence. See 694 N.E.2d at 761.
In this case, we are presented with a similar exculpatory clause as in Powell. The release states in pertinent part:
I hereby fully and forever discharge and release [**7] . . . Dyna-Soar Aerobatics, Inc. and all of the partners, directors, officers, employees, and agents for the aforementioned companies from any and all liability, claims, demands, actions, and causes of action whatsoever arising out of any damages, [*1001] both in law and in equity, in any way resulting from personal injuries, conscious suffering, death or property damage sustained while flying Dyna-Soar.
(R. 275). Obviously, the release fails to specifically and explicitly refer to Dyna Soar’s own negligence. The injury sustained by Marsh was not allegedly derived from a risk which was inherent in the nature of the ride. Dixon instructed Marsh that he would only levitate three to four feet from the ground. When the ride started, however, Marsh was allegedly shot fifteen feet in the air and subsequently dropped to the ground. Such a risk is not inherent in the nature of a wind tunnel ride. Thus, if, indeed, the accident occurred as Marsh describes, the injury must have resulted from the negligence of Dyna-Soar. We conclude that the release is not sufficient to release Dyna-Soar because the release did not specifically and explicitly refer the Dyna-Soar’s “own negligence.” While this [**8] exculpatory clause may act to bar some types of liability, it cannot act to bar liability arising from Dyna Soar’s own negligence. Therefore, the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment in favor of Dyna Soar based on the release.
Dyna Soar argues that the Powell decision should not be applied retroactively. In support of this argument, Dyna Soar cites Sink & Edwards, Inc. v. Huber, Hunt & Nichols, Inc., 458 N.E.2d 291 (Ind. Ct. App. 1984). In Sink, the court held that ” [HN5] pronouncements of common law made in rendering judicial opinions of civil cases have retroactive effect unless such pronouncements impair contracts made or vested rights acquired in reliance on an earlier decision.” Id. at 295 (emphasis added). Dyna Soar argues that Powell changed the common law, and therefore, it should not apply to exculpatory agreements made prior to said decision. We disagree. Before the Powell decision, Indiana courts had never decided whether an exculpatory clause required specific language. In fact, in Powell, this court was careful to distinguish other cases which have upheld exculpatory clauses similar to the clause used by Dyna Soar:
Although [**9] we have upheld exculpatory clauses which have used similar language, those cases can be distinguished. In Shumate [v. Lycan, 675 N.E.2d 749 (Ind.Ct.App.1997), trans. denied] and Terry v. Indiana State University, 666 N.E.2d 87 (Ind.Ct.App.1996), the nonspecificity of the language in the exculpatory clauses was not put at issue nor addressed. In Marshall [v. Blue Springs Corp., 641 N.E.2d 92 (Ind.Ct.App.1994)], the focus of the appeal was that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the releases were signed “willingly” or under economic or other compulsion. The nonspecificity of the language used to effect release for the defendant’s own negligence was not presented as an issue nor addressed. In LaFrenz [v. Lake Cty. Fair Bd., 172 Ind. App. 389, 360 N.E.2d 605 (1977)], we noted “the form and language of the agreement explicitly refers to the appellees’ [party released] negligence.” Therefore, had the issue been raised, the language contained the specific and explicit reference to negligence we now hold to be necessary.
Powell, 694 N.E.2d at 762 (citations omitted). From the language of the Powell decision itself, we [**10] conclude that Powell did not change Indiana common law. Thus, Dyna Soar can not show that they relied on earlier Indiana decisions when drafting its exculpatory agreement.
Marsh also argues that the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment on his products liability claim. In particular, he argues that the Dyna Soar machine is a product for purposes of the Indiana Products Liability Act. 1 We disagree.
1 The Indiana Products Liability was codified at Ind. Code § 33-1-1.5-1 et seq. Since the inception of this litigation, however, the Act has been recodified at Ind. Code § 34-20-1-1 et seq. Hereinafter, we shall refer to the Indiana Products Liability Act using its former citation.
[HN6] In order to be subject to liability under the Indiana Products Liability Act, Dyna Soar must be defined as the seller of a product. The Act defines a seller as “a person engaged in the business of selling or leasing a product for resale, use, or consumption.” [*1002] Ind. Code § 33-1-1.5-2(5). 2 A product [**11] is defined as follows:
” [HN7] Product” means any item or good that is personalty at the time it is conveyed by the seller to another party. It does not apply to a transaction that, by its nature, involves wholly or predominantly the sale of a service rather than a product.
Ind. Code § 33-1-1.5-2(6). 3 Marsh claims that Dixon created a machine, a product, and provided a service. He argues that his claim should not be barred just because a service was provided in this case. In support of his argument, he points this court to Ferguson v. Modern Farm Systems, Inc., 555 N.E.2d 1379 (Ind. Ct. App. 1990). In Ferguson, a worker fell off of a ladder that was attached to a grain bin. The plaintiffs sued the manufacturers of the grain bin and its component parts under a products liability theory. In determining that the Indiana Products Liability Act applied to the plaintiffs’ claims, the Ferguson court stated: “the legislature did not contemplate a distinction between movable and nonmovable property, but rather sought to exclude transactions which relate primarily to the act of providing a service, such as that provided by an accountant, attorney, or physician.” 555 N.E.2d at 1384-85. [**12] Marsh claims that no such service was provided in his case. We do not find Ferguson dispositive. The crucial issue in Ferguson concerned whether the real estate improvement statute of limitations or the products liability statute of limitations applied to the plaintiffs’ products liability claim. Thus, the Ferguson court discussed whether property affixed to real estate constitutes a product. Such is not the issue in the present case.
2 See now Ind. Code § 34-6-2-136
3 See now Ind. Code § 34-6-2-114
We find Hill v. Rieth-Riley Const. Co., Inc., 670 N.E.2d 940 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996) more applicable to the set of facts presented here. In Hill, the defendants removed and reset guardrails to facilitate the resurfacing of U.S. 31. The plaintiff struck one of these guardrails and brought suit against the defendants under the Indiana Products Liability Act. This court held that the contract between the Indiana Department of Transportation and the plaintiffs was predominantly a contract for [**13] services. The Hill court stated: “even if it were true that 31 new concrete plugs were installed and some rusted rails replaced, the [plaintiffs] have presented no evidence that this contract was not “for the most part” about the service of resurfacing the roadway.” 670 N.E.2d at 943. In this case, the transaction between Marsh and Dyna Soar wholly involved a service. By purchasing a ticket from Dyna Soar, Marsh received the limited right to ride the Dyna Soar machine. He did not receive an interest in any property. In fact, Dyna Soar retained all rights to operate and control the machine in question. We conclude that the trial court did not err by entering summary judgment against Marsh on his products liability claim.
Affirmed in part and reversed in part.
BAKER, J., and GARRARD, J., concur.