Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Dawson et al., v. Mt. Brighton, Inc. et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43730, 2013 WL 1276555

Dawson et al., v. Mt. Brighton, Inc. et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43730, 2013 WL 1276555

Corinne Dawson et al., Plaintiffs, v. Mt. Brighton, inc. et al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. 11-10233

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division.

March 27, 2013

ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR SANCTIONS AND ORDER SETTING FINAL PRETRIAL CONFERENCE AND TRIAL DATES

DENISE PAGE HOOD, District Judge.

I. BACKGROUND

On August 10, 2011, a First Amended Complaint was filed by Plaintiffs Corinne Dawson, individually and as co-Next Friend of A.M., a minor, Peter Miles, co-Next Friend of A.M., a minor, Justine Miles and Dwaine Dawson against Defendants Mt. Brighton, Inc. and Robert Sturgis alleging: By A.M., by and through his Co-Next Friends, Statute Violations against All Defendants under the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act, M.C.L. § 408.326a (Count I); By Corinne Dawson, Dwaine Dawson and Justine Miles, Statute Violations by All Defendants under the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act, M.C.L. § 408.326a (Count II); By A.M., by and through his Co-Next Friends, Common Law Premises Liability against All Defendants (Count III); and, By Corinne Dawson, Dwaine Dawson and Justine Miles, Common Law Premises Liability against All Defendants (Count IV).

A.M., a 12 year old minor and a beginner skier, was at Mt. Brighton participating in a school sponsored ski trip on January 30, 2008. The temperature the day before and early morning hours was over 40 degrees, but by 8:00 a.m. the temperature was less than 10 degrees, with strong winds. Mt. Brighton began grooming the grounds later than normal on January 30, 2008, because of the poor conditions the day before. Only two ski slopes were open, the two rope beginner ski slopes.

An employee of Mt. Brighton for about 8 years, Sturgis operated the grooming machine that day. (Sturgis Dep. at 19) Sturgis indicated that his main concern when operating the machine was the safety of skiers around the grooming machine while in operation. (Sturgis Dep. at 52) Sturgis was grooming with another operator, Mike Bergen. (Sturgis Dep. at 83) Bergen led the grooming, followed by Sturgis. They began by grooming the bunny slopes and intermediate slopes which were groomed prior to the opening of the resort that day. (Sturgis Dep. at 66-67, 83, 86)

Sturgis and Bergen also groomed the area described as the “black and red” slopes, which were closed. (Sturgis Dep. at 86) Sturgis and Bergen then went to groom the area called the “blue” slope, which was closed. (Sturgis Dep. at 87) The resort had opened by this time. The route to the blue slope from the black and red slopes took them along the Main Lodge. Sturgis testified that his groomer passed well below the bunny hill slope, located to his left. (Sturgis Dep. at 96-98) Sturgis saw two individuals on top of the bunny hill and two girls next to a pump house to his right. Sturgis maintained eye contact with the girls because they were closer to the grooming machine than the individuals on top of the bunny hill. (Sturgis Dep. at 98) As Sturgis was going around the pump house, a boy alongside the groomer was saying something about the tiller. Sturgis jumped out and saw A.M. under the tiller. Sturgis lifted up the tiller, shut the machine off and sought first-aid. Sturgis had no idea from whence A.M. had come. (Sturgis Dep. at 104-05)

A.M. testified that he received a lesson that day on how to start and stop on skis and had skied down the bunny slope several times with his friends. (A.M. Dep. at 30-31, 33-34). This was A.M.’s second time skiing. A.M. had been skiing in the beginner area and had seen the snow groomers. (A.M. Dep. at 32-33) A.M. indicated he was racing with another boy down the hill. When he reached the bottom, he turned around to say “I won” and that was the last thing he remembered. A.M. testified that as he was going down the hill, he was trying to stop, “was slipping and trying to grab something.” (A.M. Dep. at 32-33) A.M. struck the groomer and was entrapped in the tiller. A.M. was dragged over 200 feet by the groomer.

This matter is now before the Court on Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiffs filed a response, along with various documents, including “Plaintiffs’ Separate Statement of Facts”, Declaration of Larry Heywood, and Declaration of Timothy A. Loranger. Defendants filed a reply. Plaintiffs also filed a document titled “Plaintiffs’ Evidentiary Objections and Motion to Strike” portions of Defendants’ summary judgment motion. Defendants replied to this motion. Defendants filed a Motion to Adjourn Scheduling Order Dates seeking adjournment of the December 4, 2012 trial date, to which Plaintiffs submitted a response that they did not object to the motion.

II. MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

A. Standard of Review

Rule 56(a) of the Rules of Civil Procedures provides that the court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The presence of factual disputes will preclude granting of summary judgment only if the disputes are genuine and concern material facts. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute about a material fact is “genuine” only if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. Although the Court must view the motion in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, where “the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Summary judgment must be entered 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 that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be “no genuine issue as to any material fact, ” since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23. A court must look to the substantive law to identify which facts are material. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

B. Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act

Defendants argue they are entitled to summary judgment under Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act (“SASA”) which bars recovery for any injuries under common law premises liability or negligence claims. Plaintiffs respond that because of Defendants’ violation of SASA, specifically failing to post any signs that grooming was taking place, Defendants are not immune from liability under SASA. Plaintiffs also argue that SASA does not apply since the place where the incident occurred was not a ski run, slope or trail.

SASA was enacted in 1962. The purposes of SASA include, inter alia, safety, reduced litigation, and economic stabilization of an industry which contributes substantially to Michigan’s economy. Shukoski v. Indianhead Mountain Resort, Inc., 166 F.3d 848, 850 (6th Cir. 1999). The Michigan legislature perceived a problem with respect to the inherent dangers of skiing and the need to promote safety, coupled with the uncertain and potentially enormous ski area operators’ liability. Id. (citation omitted) Given the competing interests between safety and liability, the legislature decided to establish rules regulating ski operators and the ski operators’ and skiers’ responsibilities in the area of safety. Id. The Legislature decided that all skiers assume the obvious and necessary dangers of skiing, limiting ski area operators’ liability and promoting safety. Id. The statute states:

(1) While in a ski area, each skier shall do all of the following:

(a) Maintain reasonable control of his or her speed and course at all times.

(b) Stay clear of snow-grooming vehicles and equipment in the ski area.

(c) Heed all posted signs and warnings.

(d) Ski only in areas which are marked as open for skiing on the trial board…

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.

M.C.L. § 408.342. This subjection identifies two types of dangers inherent in the sport. Anderson v. Pine Knob Ski Resort, Inc., 469 Mich. 20, 24 (2003). The first is described as natural hazards and the second as unnatural hazards. Id. Both types of examples are only examples because the Legislature used the term “dangers include, but are not limited to.” Id. at 25.

A.M. was injured by snow-grooming equipment, which is expressly noted in SASA. Plaintiffs argue that there was no sign posted regarding the use of snow-grooming equipment, as required in the statute, M.C.L. § 408.326(a), which states,

Each Ski Area operator shall, with respect to operation of a ski area, do all of the following:

* * *

(f) Place or case to be placed, if snow grooming or snow making operations are being performed on a ski run, slope, or trial while the run, slope, or trial is open to the public, a conspicuous notice at or near the top of the entrance to the run, slope, or trail indicating that those operations are being performed.

M.C.L. § 408.326(a).

The Michigan courts have held that even if there are allegations that provisions of SASA were violated which may have caused injury, there is no limitation in SASA as to the risks assumed. Rusnak v. Walker, 273 Mich.App. 299, 307 (2006). Rusnak was a suit under SASA involving a collision between two skiers. In Rusnak, the Michigan Court of Appeals noted that, “the Legislature did not start off the subsection by stating except for violations of other sections of this act, ‘ the skier assumes the obvious and necessary dangers inherent in the sport.” Id . (italics added). The assumption of the risk provision in M.C.L. § 408.342 is “clear and unambiguous, providing that a skier assumes the risk of obvious and necessary dangers that inhere in the sport, and [t]hose dangers’ specifically include collisions” with snow groomers. Id.

The Michigan Supreme Court has made clear that the Legislature created a certainty concerning a ski area operator’s liability risks. Anderson, 469 Mich. at 26. In a case where a skier collided at the end of a ski run with a shack that housed race timing equipment, the Michigan Supreme Court noted:

To adopt the standard plaintiff urges would deprive the statute of the certainty the Legislature wished to create concerning liability risks. Under plaintiff’s standard, after any accident, rather than immunity should suit be brought, the ski-area operator would be engaged in the same inquiry that would have been undertaken if there had been no statute ever enacted. This would mean that, in a given case, decisions regarding the reasonableness of the place of lift towers or snow groomers, for example, would be placed before a jury or judicial fact-finder. Yet it is just this process that the grant of immunity was designed to obviate. In short, the Legislature has indicated that matters of this sort are to be removed from the common-law arena, and it simply falls to us to enforce the statute as written. This we have done.

Id. There is no need to consider whether the ski operator retains a duty under common-law premises liability. Id. at 26-27. Plaintiffs’ argument that Defendants violated SASA by failing to post the appropriate sign that snow grooming was taking place does not override the express assumption of the risk by the skier enacted by the Legislature.

The assumption of the risk provision as to groomers specifically, is “broad” and “clear” and “contains no reservation or limitation of its scope.” Rusnak, 273 Mich.App. at 309. However, “[t]he actions or inactions of a defendant cannot always be irrelevant, for if they were, the duties and liabilities placed on individual skiers would have no meaning.” Id. “Indeed, we cannot favor one section, such as the assumption-of-risk provision, over other equally applicable sections, such as the duty and liability provisions.” Id. The Rusnak panel held that a plaintiff does assume the risks set forth in the statute. Id. The provisions must be read together while giving them full force and effect. Id. However, a plaintiff can still recover limited damages against a defendant if the plaintiff can prove that a defendant violated SASA, causing the injuries suffered by the plaintiff. Id. In such a situation, the defendant’s acts would be relevant for a “comparative negligence” evaluation. Id. at 311. Depending on the facts, the actions of a defendant may be relevant for purposes of determining the allocation of fault and, perhaps damages. Id. at 313. Reading the provisions together is consistent with the plain language of the two provisions at issue, which conform to the legislative purpose of SASA – to reduce the liability of ski operators, while at the same time placing many, but not all, risks of skiing on the individual skiers. Id. at 314.

In this case, it is clear A.M. assumed the risk of skiing. However, A.M. has created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether there was a notice at or near the top of or entrance to the ski run, slope, or trail indicating that snow grooming operations were being performed as set forth in M.C.L. § 408.236a(f). There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the incident occurred falls within the phrase, “ski run, slope, or trail.” The State of Michigan Investigator and Defendants’ expert, Mark Doman, stated at his deposition that the area where the incident occurred could be described as a “ski run, slope, or trail” even though Defendants argue that this area is a “transition area.” (Doman Dep., p. 74) Summary judgment on the issue of notice under M.C.L. § 408.236a(f) is denied. Although there is no genuine issue of material fact that A.M. assumed the risk as to snow groomers under SASA, Defendants’ actions as to their duties under M.C.L. § 408.236a(f) as to notice is relevant for purposes of determining the allocation of fault and damages under a comparative negligence analysis.

III. SANCTIONS

Defendants seek sanctions against Plaintiffs under the Court’s inherent power. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have no intention to follow applicable well established court and ethical rules, including: page limit; entering onto Mt. Brighton for inspection in violation of Fed.R.Civ.P. 34 without notice to Defendants; and having contact with the owner of Mt. Brighton without counsel in violation of the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct 4.1 and 4.2. Defendants seek dismissal based on Plaintiffs’ alleged pattern of discovery abuse. Defendants claim that Plaintiffs’ counsel took an oath in this Circuit to follow the rules and practice with integrity, yet counsel had no plans to follow the oath and this Court must sanction Plaintiffs’ counsel to deter any further continued conduct. Plaintiffs respond that they did not violate the court or ethical rules.

A. Page Limit

As to the page limit claim, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs violated Local Rule 7.1 regarding page limits since Plaintiffs submitted separate documents setting forth their version of “material facts” separate from Plaintiffs’ response brief, in addition to other documents including “objection” to the summary judgment motion and “declarations” by Plaintiffs’ experts.

Plaintiffs respond that as to the page limit issue, this matter was argued at the time the Court heard the summary judgment motion. In any event, Plaintiffs claim they did not exceed the page limit since Local Rule 7.1(d)(3) states that the text of a brief may not exceed 20 pages and that Plaintiffs’ response brief was only 19 pages. Plaintiffs agree that the accompanying documents in support of their brief included declaration of expert witness, list of material facts, a motion to Defendants’ report and objections to Defendants’ purported “evidence.” These documents are not part of their response “brief” but other documents supporting Plaintiffs’ arguments. Plaintiffs argue that while there is nothing in the rules which requires the filing of a separate document of undisputed facts, there is nothing prohibiting such a filing.

Local Rule 7.1(d)(3) provides, “[t]he text of a brief supporting a motion or response, including footnotes and signatures, may not exceed 20 pages. A person seeking to file a longer brief may apply ex parte in writing setting forth the reasons.” E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(d)(3). A review of Plaintiffs’ “Response” to the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #28) shows that the brief is only 19 pages, which does not violate Local Rule 7.1(d)(3). However, Plaintiffs did file other documents supporting their opposition including a separate document entitled “Plaintiffs’ Separate Statement of Material Facts” (Doc. #29) which consists of 14 pages. This document highlights facts and source of the facts, including declarations and deposition page numbers. Plaintiffs also filed a separate document entitled “Plaintiffs’ Evidentiary Objections and Motion to Strike” (Doc. #30) which consists of 9 pages. Plaintiffs also filed two documents entitled “Declaration of Larry Heywood” (Doc. #31) and “Declaration of Timothy A. Loranger, Esq.” (Doc. #32).

Defendants did not cite to any authority, other than the Court’s inherent power, that violation of a Local Rule must result in dismissal of a case. It is noted that at the time of the filing of the response and other documents in September 2012, Defendants did not object to these filings by a separate motion until the instant motion which was filed on November 26, 2012. Defendants addressed the documents Plaintiffs filed in Defendants’ reply brief and so argued at oral arguments. Generally, exhibits and declarations supporting motions or response briefs are “attached” as exhibits to the main brief. As to Plaintiffs’ Separate Statement of Material Facts and Evidentiary Objections and Motion to Strike, these arguments should have been made in Plaintiffs’ main brief.[1] These documents may have been filed to circumvent the page limit requirement. However, the Court has the discretion to allow filings separate from the parties’ main brief. A violation of the page limit local rule does not support dismissal of the case as sanctions.

B. Rule 34

Defendants argue that Plaintiffs violated Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 34 regarding inspection of land when Plaintiffs’ counsel went to Mt. Brighton, without notice to Defendants and their counsel on two occasions.

Plaintiffs admit that counsel visited Mt. Brighton property without providing any notice to the defense because Plaintiffs believed no such notice was necessary since Mt. Brighton was open to the public for business when they visited. Plaintiffs argue that Rule 34 only states that a party “may” serve a request to permit entry and that the rule does not state “must.” Plaintiffs admit photographs were taken at that time, but that taking photographs was not prohibited by Mt. Brighton. Plaintiffs claim that admissions of these photographs at trial should be brought as motions in limine.

Rule 34 of the Rules of Civil Procedure provides:

(a) In General. A party may serve on any other party a request within the scope of Rule 26(b):

* * *

(2) to permit entry onto designated land or other property possessed or controlled by the responding party, so that the requesting party may inspect, measure, survey, photograph, test, or sample the property or any designated object or operation on it.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(a)(2).

Generally, if a party seeks protection from certain discovery matters, that party usually files a Motion for protective order under Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 26(c). Here, Defendants did not seek such protection, nor did Defendants object to Plaintiffs’ entry of the land once they learned of the first instance in June 29, 2012 during the deposition of David Mark Doman wherein Plaintiffs’ counsel admitted he had sent an agent to take pictures of Defendant’s premises without notice to defense counsel. The instant Motion as filed in November 2012. Discovery rule violations are usually addressed under Rule 37. Defendants did not file a motion under Rule 37 to prohibit Plaintiffs from using any photographs they took in connection with any pre-trial proceedings at that time.

The second incident occurred on November 14, 2012, the same day oral argument was heard on the summary judgment motion. Joseph Bruhn, owner of Mt. Brighton, indicated he met three gentlemen who did not identify themselves but indicated they were there for “breakfast” even though it was 11:00 a.m. (Bruhn Aff., ¶ 5) Mr. Bruhn indicated the restaurant was not open and later noticed the gentlemen were taking pictures from the deck. (Bruhn Aff., ¶ 8) Mr. Bruhn learned the gentlemen were lawyers from Los Angeles in town to attend facilitation of this matter to be held the next day, November 15, 2012. (Bruhn, Aff., ¶9) This second incident is troublesome. Although Mr. Bruhn did not identify himself as the owner of Mt. Brighton, Plaintiffs’ counsel themselves knew the purpose of their visit – to inspect the property and take pictures.

In general, Rule 37(b)(2)(B) of the Rules of Civil Procedure provides for sanctions where a party fails to comply with a court order requiring the party to produce another person for examination, including prohibiting the disobedient party from introducing matters in evidence, striking pleadings, rendering default judgment against the disobedient party, treating as contempt of court the failure to obey an order or any further “just orders.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(B); 37(b)(2)(A). Here, no order has been entered by the Court striking the photographs or finding that Plaintiffs violated Rule 34. The “spirit” of Rule 34 was violated in that Plaintiffs did not notify the defense they were inspecting the premises for discovery purposes, even if the property is open to the public. The property is private property, but open to the public. The lay of the land is at the core of these proceedings. Plaintiffs should have notified the defense they sought to inspect the land as required under Rule 34. “Trial by surprise” is not a tactic in civil actions and related discovery proceedings. However, dismissal of the case is not warranted at this time, but the Court will consider this matter at trial by way of a motion in limine or objection if any testimony or exhibit is sought to be introduced relating to Plaintiffs’ first visit to Mt. Brighton. The second visit is addressed below.

C. Violation of Michigan Rules of Professional Responsibility

Defendants seek dismissal as sanctions because they allege that Plaintiffs’ counsel violated the Michigan Rules of Professional Responsibility (“MRPC”) by contacting Mt. Brighton’s owner without counsel. Plaintiffs respond that when counsel visited Mt. Brighton unannounced, counsel did not know that the gentleman greeting him at the Mt. Brighton restaurant was Mr. Bruhn, the owner of Mt. Brighton. Mr. Bruhn informed counsel that the kitchen was not open but he never indicated that Mt. Brighton was closed. Plaintiffs’ counsel then went out onto the patio to take a few photographs of the ski/golf area. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants admit in their moving papers that Plaintiffs did not violate MRPC 4.2 since there was no discussion of any aspect of the “subject of the representation” but that because counsel did not identify himself to Mr. Bruhn. Mr. Bruhn indicated in an affidavit that he did not learn of Plaintiffs’ counsel identity until the facilitation in this matter the day after.

MRPC 4.2 provides, “In representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a party whom the lawyer knows to be represented in the matter by another lawyer, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer or is authorized by law to do so.” Although Defendants admit that “arguably” Plaintiffs did not directly speak with Mr. Bruhn as to the “subject of the representation, ” Plaintiffs’ counsel knew the reason they were on the premises was to take photographs of the property. Defendants seek an order from this Court finding that Defendants violated Rule 4.2 and that the proper sanction is to dismiss the case.

Although Plaintiffs’ counsel, as noted by the defense, did not “arguably” violate Rule 4.2, the Court cannot expressly so find. Violations of the professional responsibility code must be brought under E.D. Mich. LR 83.22. Defendants have not sought such a formal request. The Court, however, under Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2), will not allow Plaintiffs to offer any photographs taken of the property during the second visit to Mt. Brighton on November 14, 2012 since they knew the purpose of their visit was to take photographs and could have so indicated to opposing counsel, Mr. Bruhn or to any of Defendants’ agents. Plaintiffs had notice since June 2012 and under the discovery rules that they were required to notify Defendants of any access to Defendants’ property.

D. Rule 11 Sanctions

In Plaintiffs’ response, they indicate they may seek sanctions under Rule 11 themselves. Generally, Rule 11 provides that prior to requesting/filing a Motion for sanctions under this rule, the party must serve notice to the opposing party under the safe harbor provision of Rule 11. Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)(1)(A). Rule 11(c) states that the Motion shall not be filed if not submitted to the opposing party. Pursuant to the “safe harbor” provision in Rule 11, a party seeking sanctions under the rule must first serve notice to the opposing party that such a Motion will be filed. If either party seeks to file such Rule 11 sanctions, they must do so with the “safe harbor” provision in mind.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons set forth above,

IT IS ORDERED that Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 21) is DENIED as more fully set forth above.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Motion to Adjourn Scheduling Order Dates (Doc. No. 23) is MOOT.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Motion to Strike Portions of Defendants’ Summary Judgment Motion or Submit Evidence (Doc. No. 30) is DENIED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Motion for Sanctions (Doc. No. 39) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The second set of photographs is disallowed to be used as evidence in this case. The request for dismissal as sanctions is denied.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that a Final Pretrial Conference date is scheduled for Monday, June 10, 2013, 2:30 p.m. The parties must submit a proposed Joint Final Pretrial Order by June 3, 2013 in the form set forth in Local Rule 16.2. All parties with authority to settle must appear at the conference. The Magistrate Judge may reschedule the cancelled facilitation and submit a notice to the Court by June 3, 2013 once facilitation is complete.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Trial is scheduled for Tuesday, July 9, 2013, 9:00 a.m.

Notes:

[1] The parties are referred to E.D. Mich. LR 7.1 and CM/ECF Pol. & Proc. R5 and R18 governing filing of motions, briefs and exhibits. See, http://www.mied.usourts.gov.


Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

Jennifer Lee, et al., respondents-appellants, v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, appellant-respondent. (Index No. 503080/13)

2016-04353

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT

156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

December 13, 2017, Decided

NOTICE:

THE LEXIS PAGINATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE PENDING RELEASE OF THE FINAL PUBLISHED VERSION. THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND SUBJECT TO REVISION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: leave to amend, punitive damages, sport, gap, recover damages, personal injuries, summary judgment, rock climbing, inherent risks, prima facie, cross-appeal, recreational, engaging, mats, inter alia

COUNSEL: [***1] Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP, New York, NY (Nicholas P. Hurzeler of counsel), for appellant-respondent.

Carman, Callahan & Ingham, LLP, Farmingdale, NY (James M. Carman and Anne P. O’Brien of counsel), for respondents-appellants.

JUDGES: WILLIAM F. MASTRO, J.P., CHERYL E. CHAMBERS, HECTOR D. LASALLE, VALERIE BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ. MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.

OPINION

[**68] [*689] DECISION & ORDER

In an action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc., the defendant appeals, as limited by its brief, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, Kings County (Toussaint, J.), dated April 20, 2016, as denied its motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs cross-appeal, as limited by their brief, from so much of the same order as denied their cross motion pursuant to CPLR 3025(b) for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages.

ORDERED that the order is affirmed insofar as appealed and cross-appealed from, without costs or disbursements.

The plaintiff Jennifer Lee (hereinafter the injured plaintiff) allegedly was injured at the defendant’s rock climbing facility when she dropped down from a climbing wall and her foot landed in a gap [***2] between two mats. According to the injured plaintiff, the gap was covered by a piece of velcro.

[**69] [*690] The plaintiffs commenced this action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc. The defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs, inter alia, cross-moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages. The Supreme Court, inter alia, denied the motion and the cross motion. The defendant appeals and the plaintiffs cross-appeal.

Contrary to the defendant’s contention, the release of liability that the injured plaintiff signed is void under General Obligations Law § 5-326 because the defendant’s facility is recreational in nature (see Serin v Soulcycle Holdings, LLC, 145 AD3d 468, 469, 41 N.Y.S.3d 714; Vanderbrook v Emerald Springs Ranch, 109 AD3d 1113, 1115, 971 N.Y.S.2d 754; Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 558, 515 N.Y.S.2d 291). Therefore, the release does not bar the plaintiffs’ claims.

“Relieving an owner or operator of a sporting venue from liability for inherent risks of engaging in a sport is justified when a consenting participant is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; see Koubek v Denis, 21 AD3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746). “If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49; see Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; Joseph v New York Racing Assn., 28 AD3d 105, 108, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526). Moreover, “by engaging in a sport or recreational [***3] activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; see Simone v Doscas, 142 AD3d 494, 494, 35 N.Y.S.3d 720).

Here, the defendant failed to establish, prima facie, that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies. The defendant submitted the injured plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which reveals triable issues of fact as to whether the gap in the mats constituted a concealed risk and whether the injured plaintiff’s accident involved an inherent risk of rock climbing (see Siegel v City of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 488, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467; Dann v Family Sports Complex, Inc., 123 AD3d 1177, 1178, 997 N.Y.S.2d 836; Segal v St. John’s Univ., 69 AD3d 702, 704, 893 N.Y.S.2d 221; Demelio v Playmakers, Inc., 63 AD3d 777, 778, 880 N.Y.S.2d 710). Since the defendant failed to establish its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, its motion was properly denied, [*691] regardless of the sufficiency of the opposition papers (see Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 N.Y.S.2d 316).

The Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ cross motion for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages (see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352; Hylan Elec. Contr., Inc. v MasTec N. Am., Inc., 74 AD3d 1148, 903 N.Y.S.2d 528; Kinzer v Bederman, 59 AD3d 496, 873 N.Y.S.2d 692).

[**70] MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.


Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park),

Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park),

Scott Barth, Plaintiff,

v.

Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park), a Delaware corporation, The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc., a New Jersey corporation, and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc., a Delaware corporation, Defendants.

C.A. No. N15C-01-197MMJ

Superior Court of Delaware

November 29, 2017

Submitted: November 17, 2017

Motions for Summary Judgment on the Issue of Primary Assumption of Risk

Batholomew J. Dalton, Esq., Laura J. Simon, Esq., Dalton & Associates, Larry E. Coben, Esq. (Argued), Gregory S. Spizer, Esq., Anapol Weiss, Attorneys for Plaintiff Scott Barth

Michael J. Logullo, Esq. (Argued), Rawle & Henderson LLP Attorney for Defendants The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.

George T. Lees III, Esq., Logan & Petrone, LLC Attorney for Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC

OPINION

The Honorable Mary M. Johnston.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL CONTEXT

In this Opinion, the Court considers an apparent issue of first impression in Delaware. The question is whether the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies in certain risky or dangerous sports-related activities in the absence of an express waiver of liability. This is a personal injury case. The plaintiff, Scott Barth, suffered serious injuries during an off-road dirt-bike race. Barth alleges that the race’s course was owned by Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC (“Blue Diamond”), co-sponsored by Defendant Delaware Enduro Riders (“DER”), and overseen by Defendant East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. (“ECEA”). Barth alleges that the Defendants’ negligent and reckless failure to properly mark the race’s course caused his injuries. Prior to the race, Barth signed a release of liability form.

DER and ECEA filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment as to Barth’s allegations of recklessness, which Blue Diamond adopted. DER and ECEA also jointly filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, while Blue Diamond separately filed its own. At the hearing on the motions, this Court denied the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, holding that genuine issues of material fact exist regarding recklessness, particularly as to, among others things, “the adequacy of signage” and “the adequacy of warnings on the course.”[1] The Court declined to rule from the bench as to the Motions for Summary Judgment, instead instructing the parties to make additional submissions limited to the issue of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, the central grounds for the three defendants’ motions.

DER and ECEA argue they are entitled to summary judgment for two reasons. First, Barth signed a waiver releasing them from liability. Second, Barth assumed the risk inherent in an off-road dirt-bike race. In its separate motion, Blue Diamond makes the same two arguments and adds a third-Barth was a member of the Blue Diamond Riding Club, and Blue Diamond did not owe Barth the same duty it would owe a common law business invitee, MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment is granted only if the moving party establishes that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute and judgment may be granted as a matter of law.[2] All facts are viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party.[3] Summary judgment may not be granted if the record indicates that a material fact is in dispute, or if there is a need to clarify the application of law to the specific circumstances.[4] When the facts permit a reasonable person to draw only one inference, the question becomes one for decision as a matter of law.[5] If the non- moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, yet “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, ” then summary judgment may be granted against that party.[6]

ANALYSIS

Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Barth signed a release of liability and, separately, because Barth assumed the risk of participating in the race. Both of these arguments are properly analyzed within the framework of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.

In Delaware, “primary assumption of the risk is implicated when the plaintiff expressly consents ‘to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.'”[7] When primary assumption of risk exists, “the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no legal duty, he or she cannot be charged with negligence.”[8]

The Waiver Form Released the Defendants from Liability for Negligence, not Recklessness

Defendants argue they are entitled to summary judgment under a theory of express primary assumption of risk. Before participating in the race, Barth signed a release titled, “RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.” It states that Barth:

HEREBY RELEASES, WAIVES, DISCHARGES, AND COVENANTS NOT TO SUE . . . racing associations, sanctioning organizations … track operators, track owners … herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO THE UNDERSIGNED . . . FOR ANY AND ALL LOSS OR DAMAGE . . . ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE EVENT(S), WHETHER CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.

Barth asserts that the entire waiver agreement is unenforceable as an invalid contract due to lack of consideration. He further contends that even if the agreement is enforceable, it does not release Defendants from liability for recklessness.

To be enforceable under Delaware law, releases of liability “must be crystal clear and unequivocal” and “unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy.”[9] Barth does not (and cannot) argue that the waiver form at issue does not meet this standard. In Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, this Court found a virtually identical release form valid.[10]

Barth instead argues that the form is unenforceable due to lack of consideration. Barth bases his argument on this Court’s finding in Devecchio v. Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.[11] In Devecchio, this Court deemed a waiver of liability unenforceable due to lack of consideration when the form stated that riders agreed to inspect the course, but the defendants admitted that, under the race’s sanctioning body’s rules, the riders were not allowed to inspect the course before the race. [12]

As in Devecchio, the release here contains an agreement that the race participants “have or will immediately upon entering any of such RESTRICTED AREAS, and will continuously thereafter, inspect the RESTRICTED AREAS . . ., “[13] Unlike in Devecchio, however, no sanctioning body’s rule barred Defendants from performing an inspection of the course.

Instead, the rule in this case stated: “Participants are allowed to walk or bicycle the course prior to the event-with the club’s permission.” Barth argues that, despite this distinction, Devecchio should apply because Barth was never given permission or made aware of his responsibility to inspect the course. Notably, however, Barth never asked for permission to inspect the course. That Barth hypothetically may not have received permission to perform the inspection is not dispositive. Barth cannot claim he was denied permission if he never asked for it. Additionally, the “failure to apprise himself of, or otherwise understand the language of a release that he is asked to sign is insufficient as a matter of law to invalidate the release.”[14] The Court finds that Barth’s own failure to perform a permissive part of the agreement does not make the waiver invalid.

Pursuant to Lynam, however, the form exculpates the Defendants’ negligence, not recklessness. As in Lynam, the form here provides for a release of liability caused by “THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE ‘RELEASEES’ OR OTHERWISE.” As this Court determined in Lynam, “such [exculpatory] agreements [that expressly exempt defendants from liability for their negligent conduct] generally are not construed to cover the more extreme forms of negligence, described as willful, wanton, reckless or gross, and to any conduct which constitutes an intentional tort.”[15]

The Court finds that the waiver form releases the defendants from their liability for negligence, but not for recklessness.

Implied Primary Assumption of Risk Does Not Bar a Claim of Recklessness

It is undisputed that primary assumption of risk applies when the plaintiff signs a valid release of liability form.[16] But because Defendants argue that primary assumption of risk exists in addition to and independent of the waiver form, the Court must determine whether-and if so, how-to apply the defense beyond an express written agreement to waive liability.

Delaware courts have noted, paradoxically, that “depending upon the situation at hand, express consent may be manifested by circumstantial words or conduct.”[17]The illogic of “express consent” being “manifested by circumstantial words or conduct” can be resolved with the conclusion that Delaware recognizes an implied primary assumption of risk doctrine.[18]

Case law suggests that courts should find an implied primary assumption of risk only with respect to certain activities. Delaware cases have noted that primary assumption of risk commonly applies to “sports-related activities that ‘involv[e] physical skill and challenges posing significant risk of injury to participants in such activities, and as to which the absence of such a defense would chill vigorous participation in the sporting activity and have a deleterious effect on the nature of the sport as a whole.'”[19] Examples of such sports-related activities include:

(1) being a spectator at a sporting event such as a baseball or hockey game or tennis match where projectiles may be launched into the audience; (2) participating in a contact sporting event; (3) bungee jumping or bungee bouncing; (4) operating a jet-ski, or engaging in other noncompetitive water sports such as water-skiing, tubing, or white-water rafting; (5) drag racing; and (6) skydiving.[20]

The nature of the activity is pertinent to an analysis of primary assumption of risk. Otherwise, in the absence of a waiver of liability, the dangerousness of the activity would be irrelevant. The case law therefore suggests that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies to certain sports-related activities, even in the absence of an express waiver form. However, though Delaware seems to allow for the application of implied assumption of risk in certain sporting events, no Delaware case has provided a framework for applying the doctrine. This precise issue appears to be one of first impression.

The California case Peart v. Ferro, [21] which this Court cited in support of its observations on the prevalence of primary assumption of risk in dangerous sporting events, [22] provides a means of analysis. Under the Peart framework, courts must examine two things to determine whether an implied primary assumption of risk exists: the nature of the activity and the relationship between the parties.[23]

When examining the nature of the activity, courts consider:

what conditions, conduct or risks that might be viewed as dangerous in other contexts are so integral to or inherent in the activity itself that imposing a duty of care would either require that an essential aspect of the sport be abandoned, or else discourage vigorous participation therein. In such cases, defendants generally do not have a duty to protect a plaintiff from the inherent risks of the sport, or to eliminate all risk from the sport.[24]

In examining the relationship of the parties, the court bears in mind that “the general duty of due care to avoid injury to others does not apply to coparticipants in sporting activities with respect to conditions and conduct that might otherwise be viewed as dangerous but upon examination are seen to be an integral part of the sport itself.”[25]

When analyzed within this framework, implied primary assumption of risk remains distinct from secondary assumption of risk. Secondary assumption of risk has been subsumed by Delaware’s contributory negligence statute.[26] It is therefore no longer available as a complete defense. Secondary assumption of risk exists when “the plaintiffs conduct in encountering a known risk may itself be unreasonable, because the danger is out of proportion to the advantage which he is seeking to obtain.”[27] In contrast, the focus for implied primary assumption of risk remains on the nature of the activity the plaintiff has consented to participate in and the actions of the defendants-not how the conduct of the plaintiff may have contributed to his injuries. Commentators also have noted that implied primary assumption of risk is distinct from secondary assumption of risk.[28]

The Court finds that implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to negligence. Because Barth signed a valid release of liability for Defendants’ negligence, the remaining issue in this case is whether implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to allegations of recklessness as well.

Though defendants do not owe a duty to protect a plaintiff from the risks inherent in an activity to which the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk applies, “defendants do have a duty not to increase the risk of harm beyond what is inherent in the sport through intentional or reckless behavior that is completely outside the range of the ordinary activity in the sport.”[29]

Here, the Court has ruled as a matter of law that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendants recklessly marked the course with inadequate signage. The Court finds there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Defendants committed reckless conduct which increased the race’s risk of harm.[30] Further, the Court holds that the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate a tortfeasor from liability for intentional or reckless conduct. The Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment on this issue are denied.

Barth was a Business Invitee for the Race Despite his Blue Diamond Membership

Because Barth’s primary express and implied assumption of risk bar his claims of negligence, the Court need not reach this issue. However, for the sake of completeness, the Court finds that because Barth paid a fee to participate in the race, his relationship with Blue Diamond for the purposes of that event was that of a business invitee. His membership with the Blue Diamond Riding Club had no bearing on his participation in the race.

This fact distinguishes this case from Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, [31] upon which Blue Diamond relies. There, the plaintiff was a member of a fitness center and was injured while using a rowing machine. Because the fitness center was a “private-membership based business, ” the Court found the fitness center did not owe the plaintiff the same duty it “would owe to a common law business invitee or to the public at large.”[32]

In this case, participation in the race was not restricted to members of the Blue Diamond Riding Club. The race was open to any “American Motorcyclist Association Member.” Unlike the fitness center, Blue Diamond invited non-members to the race, and therefore owed participants the duties owed to business invitees.

CONCLUSION

The doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate tortfeasors from liability for intentional or reckless conduct.

DER and ECEA’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court finds that the allegations of negligence against these defendants are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to the allegations of recklessness against these defendants, Blue Diamond’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court finds that the allegations of negligence against this defendant are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to the allegations of recklessness against this defendant. With the dismissal of the negligence allegations, the question of Blue Diamond’s status as a business invitee is moot.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

Notes:

[1] October 3, 2017 Tr. of Motions, 71:12-16.

[2] Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c).

[3] Burkhart v. Davies, 602 A.2d 56, 58-59 (Del. 1991).

[4] Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c).

[5] Wooten v. Kiger, 226 A.2d 238, 239 (Del. 1967).

[6] Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

[7] Helm v. 206 Massachusetts Avenue, LLC, 107 A.3d 1074, 1080 (Del. 2014) (quoting Fell v. Zimath, 575 A.2d 267, 267-68 (Del. Super. 1989)).

[8] Id.

[9] Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 WL 5793725, at *3 (Del. Super.).

[10] See id. The release in Lynam read:

I HEREBY RELEASE, DISCHARGE AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE the . . . track owners, [and] owners and lessees of premises used to conduct the Event(s). . . all for the purposes herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO ME, THE MINOR, [and] my and the minor’s personal representatives . .. FOR ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, DEMANDS, LOSSES, OR DAMAGES ON ACCOUNT OF INJRY, including, but not limited to, death or damage to property, CAUSED… BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE “RELEASEES” OR OTHERWISE.

[11] 2004 LEXIS 444 (Del. Super.).

[12] Id.

[13] The corresponding clause in Devecchio read:

EACH OF THE UNDERSIGNED . . . acknowledges, agrees and represents that he has, or will immediately upon entering any of such restricted areas, and will continuously thereafter, inspect such restricted areas and all portions thereof which he enters and with which he come in contact, and he does further warrant that his entry upon such restricted area or areas and his participation, if any, in the event constitutes an acknowledgment that he has inspected such restricted area and that he finds and accepts the same as being safe and reasonably suited for the purposes of his use ….

[14] Id. This principle also dispenses with the argument that Barth did not have sufficient time to understand the release that he chose to sign.

[15] Id. (quoting W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on Torts, § 68 at 483-84 (5th ed. 1984)).

[16] See Lafate v. New Castle Cty., 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super.) (analyzing whether a signed waiver constitutes primary assumption of risk).

[17] Storm v. NSL Rockland Place, LLC, 898 A.2d 874, 882 (Del. Super. 2005) (citing Croom v. Pressley, 1994 WL 466013, at *5 (Del. Super. 1994)).

[18] See id. at 882 n.30 (‘”Primary assumption of risk is akin to express or implied consent… .'” (quoting 57B Am. Jur. 2d. Negligence § 1010)). Storm also quoted the Restatement (Second) of Torts at length to explain assumption of risk generally. Id. at 881. That passage described a form of assumption of risk “closely related to” that acquired through “express consent” as one in which:

the plaintiff has entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances. Thus a spectator entering a baseball park may be regarded as consenting that the players may proceed with the game without taking precautions to protect him from being hit by the ball. Again the legal result is that the defendant is relieved of his duty to the plaintiff.

Id.; see also McCormick v. Hoddinott, 865 A.2d 523, 529 (Del. Super. 2004) (“In the instant case there appears to be no evidence to support a claim that minor Plaintiff expressly or impliedly assumed any risk; therefore, an affirmative defense of assumption of risk based on primary assumption of risk cannot stand.”) (emphasis added).

[19] Helm, 107 A.3d at 1080 (quoting Storm, 898 A.2d at 883).

[20] Storm, 898 A.2d at 883 (citations omitted). Storm noted, however, that a “common theme” of these activities is that they frequently involve the signing of consent forms, suggesting the Court may have only meant to invoke them as another example of where express consent may apply. Id. However, a “common theme” is not a “common requirement”-spectators at sporting events do not sign releases of liability to view an event. Moreover, courts have found waiver of liability forms enforceable in contexts dissimilar to those listed above. See, e.g., Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 2015 WL 3540187, at *2 (Del. Super. 2015) (finding a waiver form sufficient to invoke primary assumption of risk when the plaintiff snapped a cable on a rowing machine at the defendant’s gym). The Storm Court would have had no occasion to comment on the nature of the activity if it were not independently meaningful in the analysis.

[21] 13 Cal.Rptr.3d 885, 894 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2004).

[22] See Storm, 898 A.2d at 883 (citing Peart to define the sort of sports-related activities that typically raise the issue of primary assumption of risk).

[23] Peart, 13 Cal.Rptr.3d at 894 (citations omitted).

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at 894-95.

[26] Helm, 107 A.3d at 1080 (“[I]t is now accepted in Delaware that the concept of secondary assumption of risk is completely subsumed by the principles of comparative negligence.”).

[27] Fell v. Zimath, 575 A.2d 267, 268 (Del. Super. 1989).

[28] See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496A (1979) (distinguishing a description of implied primary assumption of risk from a secondary assumption of risk, “in which the plaintiffs conduct in voluntarily encountering a known risk is itself unreasonable, and amounts to contributory negligence”); 57B Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 1010 (“Primary assumption of risk is akin to express or implied consent, and relieves the defendant of any obligation to exercise care for the injured person’s protection, including situations where an injured person, having knowledge of a hazard, continued voluntarily to encounter it. Secondary assumption of risk is akin to contributory negligence . . . .”).

[29] Peart, 13 Cal.Rptr.3d at 894.

[30] This conclusion is in line with Delaware decisions that applied similar logic under framework of a different name. See Farrell v. University of Delaware, 2009 WL 3309288, at *3 (Del. Super.) (finding persuasive the New York Supreme Court’s rationale that “[a]lthough [a] rink could not be liable for harms caused by the inherent dangers of skating or by unpreventable events, the court considered assumption of risk inapplicable to injuries resulting from ‘the reckless actions of another skater which the defendant, by adequate supervision, could have prevented.'”(quoting Shorten v. City of White Plains, 637 N.Y.S.2d 791, 796 (N.Y.App.Div.1996)); Lafate v. New Castle Cty., 1999 WL 1241074, at *4 (Del. Super. 1999) (denying summary judgment, in part because “it would not be within the normal expectation of the health risk of playing basketball that a supervising employee would place a metal bar within normal head range between two basketball courts” in spite of an express release of liability).

[31] 2015 WL 3540187 (Del. Super 2015).

[32] Id. at*l.


DeLamar v. Fort Worth Mt. Biker’s Ass’n, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466

DeLamar v. Fort Worth Mt. Biker’s Ass’n, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466

Norman Delamar, Appellant

v.

Fort Worth Mountain Biker’s Association, Appellee

No. 02-17-00404-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

January 24, 2019

On Appeal from the 348th District Court Tarrant County, Texas Trial Court No. 348-283758-16

Before Sudderth, C.J.; Gabriel and Pittman, JJ.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Bonnie Sudderth, Chief Justice.

I. Introduction

Appellant Norman DeLamar filed the underlying lawsuit against Appellee Fort Worth Mountain Biker’s Association (the Association) to recover for injuries he sustained when he was knocked off of his mountain bike after he struck a downed tree across a mountain bike trail at Gateway Park (Gateway). Norman claimed that the Association was negligent in failing to properly maintain a safe mountain bike trail as purportedly required by its contractual agreement with the City of Fort Worth (City). The trial court granted summary judgment on Norman’s claims against the Association. We will affirm.

II. Background

On July 12, 2014, Norman was riding his mountain bike on a trail in Gateway, a park owned by the City, when he came upon a downed tree resting across the trail at head level. Although known to be a “really good rider,” Norman asserts that because he did not have time to stop or avoid the tree, the tree “clotheslined” his head and neck and knocked him off of his bicycle, causing him injuries.

Norman sued the City, asserting claims of general negligence and gross negligence. In a single pleading, the City filed an answer and identified the Association as a responsible third party because of an “Adopt-A-Park Agreement” (Contract) that made the Association “responsible for constructing and maintaining the bike trail in question.” Norman then amended his petition and added the Association as a defendant in the suit.[1] Norman asserted that through the Contract, the Association agreed to “assume responsibility for maintenance, construction and safety of the trails,” and as such owed “a duty to protect the general public from dangerous conditions such as falling trees.” Norman claimed that the Association had breached this alleged duty by

• failing to make any effort to ensure that the trees alongside of the bicycle trail were not a danger to cyclists;

• failing to implement any sort of safety procedure with respect to the danger of falling trees in high bicycle (and pedestrian) traffic areas;

• failing to maintain the trails to prevent dangerous conditions from occurring despite knowing the dangers associated with cycling;

• failing to provide cyclists with adequate safeguards, or any safeguards at all, to prevent dangerous conditions from occurring; and

• consciously disregarding the heath of the trees and the danger that they pose.

The Contract provides that the Association “shall perform all work and services hereunder as an independent contractor . . . . [and] shall have exclusive control of, and the exclusive right to control the details of the work performed hereunder[.]” The Contract specifically provides that the Association “shall, at its sole cost and expense, construct and maintain the Trails in accordance with [the] Agreement,” and it defines “trail maintenance” as including, but not limited to, “repairing, replacing, and rebuilding trails or sections of trails that are eroding or in disrepair; pruning of trees; [and] removal of brush[.]” However, the Contract prohibits the Association from “trimming and pruning, until written approval is obtained from the Director [of the Parks and Community Services Department],” and from “remov[ing] any tree without prior written permission from the City Forester.” [Emphasis added.] Finally, the Contract expressly reserves the City’s right to control and access all portions of Gateway: “The City does not relinquish the right to control the management of the Parks, or the right to enforce all necessary and proper rules for the management and operation of the same. The City . . . has the right at any time to enter any portion of the Parks[.]”

The Association answered and then filed a no-evidence and traditional motion for summary judgment. In its motion, the Association asserted that there was no evidence that

• the Association was negligent as it owed Norman no duty with respect to the condition of the premises; or

• the Association owed a duty to keep the premises in reasonably safe condition, inspect the premise to discover any defects, or to make safe any defect or give an adequate warning of any dangers.

Although the Association clearly challenged the existence of any legal duty it owed to Norman, the Association’s motion primarily argued that Norman’s claim sounded in premises liability rather than general negligence and that he could not artfully plead a general negligence claim when his injuries were caused by a premises defect. Norman filed a response and attached, inter alia, a short affidavit and an expert report from an arborist, Matthew Clemons. In his response, Norman appeared to adopt the Association’s characterization of his claim as one for premises liability and in doing so focused on his status, arguing that he was an invitee. Indeed, Norman’s “Conclusion” sought denial of the summary judgment motions because there was “more than enough credible evidence to find that the [Association] is liable under a premises liability theory for this incident[.]” [Emphasis added.] The Association filed a reply and objected to the expert report from Clemons as inadmissible hearsay.

Following the hearing on the Association’s no evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment, the trial court requested letter briefs and took the matter under advisement. In his letter brief, Norman altered his prior position and for the first time asserted that the Association’s summary judgment theory was flawed because his suit against the Association was based on a general negligence theory, not a premises liability theory. The trial court signed an order sustaining the Association’s objections to Clemons’s expert report and a separate order granting the Association’s no evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment.

On appeal, Norman contends the trial court erred by construing his claim as one for premises liability rather than general negligence and abused its discretion by sustaining the Association’s hearsay objection to Clemons’s report.

III. Norman’s Negligence Claim

A. Standard of Review

The movant for traditional summary judgment has the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c); Nixon v. Mr. Prop. Mgmt. Co., 690 S.W.2d 546, 548 (Tex. 1985). A defendant who conclusively negates at least one essential element of the nonmovant’s cause of action is entitled to summary judgment as to that cause of action. Randall’s Food Mkts., Inc. v. Johnson, 891 S.W.2d 640, 644 (Tex. 1995). Once the movant has established a right to summary judgment, the nonmovant has the burden to respond to the motion and present to the trial court any issues that would preclude summary judgment. City of Houston v. Clear Creek Basin Auth., 589 S.W.2d 671, 678-79 (Tex. 1979). The only question is whether an issue of material fact is presented. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c).

After an adequate time for discovery, a party without the burden of proof at trial may move for summary judgment on the ground that there is no evidence of one or more essential elements of a claim or defense. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(i). Once a no evidence motion has been filed in accordance with Rule 166a(i), the burden shifts to the nonmovant to bring forth evidence that raises a fact issue on the challenged evidence. See Macias v. Fiesta Mart, Inc., 988 S.W.2d 316, 317 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.). We review a no evidence motion for summary judgment under the same legal sufficiency standards as a directed verdict. King Ranch, Inc. v. Chapman, 118 S.W.3d 742, 750-51 (Tex. 2003). A no evidence motion is properly granted if the nonmovant fails to bring forth more than a scintilla of probative evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to an essential element of the nonmovant’s claim on which the nonmovant would have the burden of proof at trial. See id. at 751. If the evidence supporting a finding rises to a level that would enable reasonable, fair-minded persons to differ in their conclusions, then more than a scintilla of evidence exists. Id. A mere scintilla of evidence exists when the evidence is so weak as to do no more than create a mere surmise or suspicion of a fact, and the legal effect is that there is no evidence. See id.

When reviewing traditional and no evidence summary judgments, we perform a de novo review of the entire record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, indulging every reasonable inference and resolving any doubts against the motion. See Sudan v. Sudan, 199 S.W.3d 291, 292 (Tex. 2006); KPMG Peat Marwick v. Harrison Cty. Hous. Fin. Corp., 988 S.W.2d 746, 748 (Tex. 1999). We are not required to ascertain the credibility of affiants or to determine the weight of evidence in the affidavits, depositions, exhibits and other summary judgment proof. See Gulbenkian v. Penn, 252 S.W.2d 929, 932 (Tex. 1952); Palestine Herald-Press Co. v. Zimmer, 257 S.W.3d 504, 508 (Tex. App.-Tyler 2008, pet. denied).

All grounds in support of or in opposition to a motion for summary judgment must be presented in writing to the trial court. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c). “When a trial court’s order granting summary judgment does not specify the ground or grounds relied on for the ruling, summary judgment will be affirmed on appeal if any of the theories advanced are meritorious.” State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. S.S., 858 S.W.2d 374, 380 (Tex. 1993).

When a party moves for both a traditional and a no evidence summary judgment, we generally first review the trial court’s summary judgment under the no evidence standard of Rule 166a(i). See Ford Motor Co. v. Ridgway, 135 S.W.3d 598, 600 (Tex. 2004). If the no evidence summary judgment was properly granted, we need not reach arguments under the traditional motion for summary judgment. See id.

B. General Negligence vs. Premises Liability Theories of Recovery

Although premises liability is a form of negligence, “[n]egligence and premises liability claims . . . are separate and distinct theories of recovery, requiring plaintiffs to prove different, albeit similar, elements to secure judgment in their favor.” United Scaffolding, Inc. v. Levine, 537 S.W.3d 463, 471 (Tex. 2017); Clayton W. Williams, Jr., Inc. v. Olivo, 952 S.W.2d 523, 529 (Tex. 1997) (stating that “[b]ecause premises defect cases and negligent activity cases are based on independent theories of recovery, a simple negligence [jury] question . . . cannot support a recovery in a premises defect case”); E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. v. Roye, 447 S.W.3d 48, 57-58 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, pet. dism’d) (“Because [claimant] was limited to a premises liability theory of recovery, . . . the trial court erred when it submitted an ordinary negligence cause of action against [appellant] to the jury. . . . Accordingly, the jury’s finding that [appellant] was negligent is immaterial and cannot support a judgment against [appellant].”). As our sister court has explained, premises liability is a “special form of negligence in which the duty owed to the plaintiff depends upon the plaintiff’s status on the premises at the time of the incident.” Wyckoff v. George C. Fuller Contracting Co., 357 S.W.3d 157, 163-64 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2011, no pet.) (citing Scott & White Mem’l Hosp. v. Fair, 310 S.W.3d 411, 412 (Tex. 2010)).[2]

While, theoretically, a litigant may maintain causes of action for both general negligence and premises liability, to be viable, the general negligence theory of recovery must be based not upon an injury resulting from the condition of the property, but upon the defendant’s contemporaneous activity. See Mangham v. YMCA of Austin, Texas-Hays Comtys., 408 S.W.3d 923, 929 (Tex. App.-Austin 2013, no pet.); see also W. Invs., Inc. v. Urena, 162 S.W.3d 547, 550 (Tex. 2005) (analyzing claimant’s negligence and premises liability claims together). If the injury is one caused by a premises defect, rather than a defendant’s contemporaneous activity, a plaintiff cannot circumvent the true nature of the premises defect claim by pleading it as one for general negligence. Sampson v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin, 500 S.W.3d 380, 389 (Tex. 2016).

Because the lines between negligent activity and premises liability are “sometimes unclear,” Del Lago Partners, Inc. v. Smith, 307 S.W.3d 762, 776 (Tex. 2010), determining whether a claim is one for a premises defect or general negligence “can be tricky.” Austin v. Kroger Tex. L.P., 746 F.3d 191, 196 (5th Cir. 2014), certified question answered, 465 S.W.3d 193 (Tex. 2015). The policy undergirding this distinction is that negligence encompasses a malfeasance theory based on affirmative, contemporaneous conduct that caused the injury, whereas premises liability encompasses a nonfeasance theory based on the owner’s failure to take measures to make the property safe. See Del Lago Partners, 307 S.W.3d at 776; Timberwalk Apartments, Partners, Inc. v. Cain, 972 S.W.2d 749, 753 (Tex. 1998) (explaining negligent activity concerns “simply doing or failing to do what a person of ordinary prudence in the same or similar circumstances would have not done or done” while premises liability concerns the “failure to use ordinary care to reduce or eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm created by a premises condition which the owner or occupier [of land] knows about or in the exercise of ordinary care should know about” and quoting Keetch v. Kroger Co., 845 S.W.2d 262, 266-67 (Tex. 1992)).

C. Discussion

In his first issue, Norman argues that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment on a premises liability theory when his claims sounded in general negligence: “The Association characterized [my] lawsuit against it as one for premises liability. This argument is flawed because the Association was not the possessor of the premises when [I] was injured[.]” Norman argues that his “petition is fairly constructed as advancing an ordinary negligence claim” because he pleaded that the Association is liable for “failing to employ any procedure to ensure safety from falling trees, and for failing to maintain a safe bike path and the trees along it.” The Association responds that regardless of how Norman pleaded his claim, he is limited to a premises liability theory of recovery because Norman was injured by an unsafe or dangerous condition on the premises-not by contemporaneous negligent activity.[3]

1. Summary Judgment was Not Granted on an Unaddressed Claim Because the Association’s Motion for Summary Judgment Challenged the Existence of a Legal Duty

As a preliminary matter, we consider Norman’s contention that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment on his negligence claim when the Association’s motion for summary judgment actually addressed only an unpleaded premises-liability claim. See Chessher v. Sw. Bell Tel. Co., 658 S.W.2d 563, 564 (Tex. 1983) (stating it is reversible error to grant summary judgment on a claim not addressed in the motion). Three of our sister courts have addressed similar instances in which defendants filed summary judgment motions on the theory that the plaintiff had impermissibly pleaded a premises defect claim as a general negligence claim. See Griffin v. Shell Oil Co., 401 S.W.3d 150 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, pet. denied); Somoza v. Rough Hollow Yacht Club, Ltd., No. 03-09-00308-CV, 2010 WL 2867372, at *4 (Tex. App.-Austin July 20, 2010, no pet.) (mem. op.); Kalinchuk v. JP Sanchez Construction Co., No. 04-15-00537-CV, 2016 WL 4376628, at *3 (Tex. App.- San Antonio Aug. 17, 2016, no pet.) (mem. op.).

In Griffin, the First District Court of Appeals considered whether “the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Shell and CH2M on his negligent-activity claims because neither Shell nor CH2M sought summary judgment on these claims.” 401 S.W.3d at 157. After stating that a trial court errs by granting more relief requested by disposing of issues not presented to it in the summary judgment motion, the First court analyzed each defendant’s summary-judgment motion and held that based “upon the plain language,” the defendants sought summary judgment “only on [appellant’s] premises-defect claim” and not his negligent activity claim. Id. at 158-59. Thus, the First court reversed summary judgment on appellant’s negligence claim and remanded the case. Id. The First court did note, however, that “[a] legal duty must be established in order for [appellant] to ultimately recover on his negligent-activity claim[, ]” id. at 163 n.4, thus signaling its concern over the viability of appellant’s negligence claim.

In Somoza, the plaintiff had been injured while operating a jet ski when he allegedly ran into a partially submerged steel cable tethered to a floating dock, near the marina owned and operated by a yacht club. Somoza, 2010 WL 2867372, at *1. He filed suit against the yacht club and alleged negligence and premises liability claims. Id. The yacht club filed a hybrid no evidence and traditional motion for summary judgment, asserting, in part, that the plaintiff “has no claim for general negligence . . . because his negligence claim sounds solely in premises liability,” and that the plaintiff has “produced no evidence of the essential elements of duty, breach, or proximate cause.” Id. The trial court granted the motion.

On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeals considered the plaintiff’s contention that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment on his general negligence claim. Id. at *4. The Third court “assum[ed] without deciding that [the plaintiff] could bring a claim for general negligence despite his failure to allege injury resulting from any contemporaneous activity by the Yacht Club” and nevertheless concluded that “he has still failed to establish the existence of a duty to support a claim in negligence.” Id. at *5.

In Kalinchuk, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against his putative employer for negligence and gross negligence after he was injured at a baseball field renovation site by a section of bleachers that fell on him. 2016 WL 4376628, at *1. The employer moved for traditional and no evidence summary judgment, and alleged, inter alia, that the plaintiff did not have more than a scintilla of evidence to establish the existence of a legal duty. Id. In its motion, the employer relied on cases involving premises liability claims and asserted that the plaintiff purported to state a claim for negligence when his claim was “actually based on the theory of premises liability because he [sought] to recover for an injury allegedly created by a condition on the premises rather than for an injury created as a result of an activity.” Id. at *3. The plaintiff responded that the employer owed him a common law duty to exercise reasonable care and avoid a foreseeable risk of harm. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment. Id.

On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeals reasoned that “[w]hether [plaintiff’s] claim is a claim for negligence as he argues or a premises liability claim as [employer] contends, the question of whether a duty exists remains the same in that it requires a balancing of interrelated factors that make up the risk-utility balancing test.” Id. After applying the risk-utility balancing test to the facts of the case, the Fourth court concluded that the plaintiff had “failed to produce a scintilla of evidence creating a fact issue to support the existence of [a] legal duty owed to him by [the employer.]” Id. at *3-4.

We do not quarrel with the First court’s strict approach in refusing to read into the summary judgment motion a ground that was not clearly articulated. However, we view the approach by the Third and Fourth courts as allowing for a more expedient disposition while maintaining fidelity to Rule 166a(c)’s requirement that summary judgment motions “state the specific grounds therefor.” Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c); Somoza, 2010 WL 2867372, at *5; Kalinchuk, 2016 WL 4376628, at *3-4.

The existence of a legal duty is a threshold issue generally decided as a matter of law. Fort Bend Cty. Drainage Dist. v. Sbrusch, 818 S.W.2d 392, 395 (Tex. 1991). And even assuming under these facts that Norman could bring a claim for general negligence, the Association in its motion for summary judgment challenged the existence of a legal duty owed to him regarding the downed tree and maintenance of trail safety regardless of whether the duty arose under a premises liability theory based on Norman’s status at the time of the injury or a general negligence theory balancing test.[4] See Kalinchuk, 2016 WL 4376628, at *3-4 (explaining whether the plaintiff’s claim is a claim for negligence as he argued or a premises liability claim as the defendant contended, “the question of whether a duty exists remains the same in that it requires a balancing of interrelated factors that make up the risk-utility balancing test”); cf. Del Lago Partners, 307 S.W.3d at 767 (applying risk-utility balancing factors to determine duty in premises liability case); Wyckoff, 357 S.W.3d at 164 (“General negligence principles apply to a contractor who has left [a] premises in an unsafe condition.”). Therefore, because the summary judgment motion fairly challenged the existence of a legal duty, we reject Norman’s contention that the trial court erred by granting the motion on an unchallenged ground, and we now analyze whether the Association owed Norman a legal duty under a general negligence theory.

2. No Legal Duty Under a General Negligence Theory

The question of legal duty is a “multifaceted issue” requiring courts to balance a number of factors such as the risk and foreseeability of injury, the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the consequences of imposing the burden on the actor, and any other relevant competing individual and social interests implicated by the facts of the case. Tex. Home Mgmt., Inc. v. Peavy, 89 S.W.3d 30, 33 (Tex. 2002). “Although the formulation and emphasis varies with the facts of each case, three categories of factors have emerged: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured; and (3) public policy considerations.” Id. at 34. Of these factors, the Supreme Court of Texas has identified “foreseeability as the ‘foremost and dominant consideration’ in the duty analysis.” Id. at 36 (quoting El Chico Corp. v. Poole, 732 S.W.2d 306, 311 (Tex. 1987)). “Foreseeability means that a person who possesses ordinary intelligence should have anticipated the danger that his negligent act would create for others.” Midwest Emp’rs Cas. Co. ex rel. English v. Harpole, 293 S.W.3d 770, 779 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2009, no pet.). However, foreseeability alone is not sufficient to impose a duty. Id.

Here, Norman pleaded that the Association contractually assumed “responsibility for maintenance, construction and safety of the trails,” and as such, owed a duty to “protect the general public from dangerous conditions[.]” The record, which contains the Contract and deposition excerpts, evidences the Association’s agreement to, and exercise of, some limited control over the construction and maintenance of Gateway’s bike trails by having monthly meetings to discuss maintenance issues and by building trails in the months between May and October. The summary judgment evidence also provided that the Association holds an annual work day in June to make sure the trails are in “tiptop shape” for their annual “fat tire festival.” This workday consists of going through the entire trail to look for places that needed to be trimmed or pruned.

Lawrence “Larry” Colvin, the Association’s president at the time of Norman’s crash, testified that during the monthly meetings, the Association’s members discussed safety of the trees in general as well as identified certain problem trees to City employees who “were the only ones that [could] operate the chainsaws.” Larry also testified that the Association had once asked the City to close the trail because of “so many trees down,” but that the City refused. Larry testified that the Association worked with Melinda Adams, an “urban forester” with the City, who “[took] a look at the trees.” Although Larry acknowledged that the Association had no “tree safety plan” and had never consulted an arborist, he concluded that even retaining a certified arborist to walk Gateway once a week would still not prevent falling trees in a park “hundreds of thousands of trees.”

Larry’s testimony concerning the existence of “hundreds of thousands of trees” along the mountain bike trail provided proof that the danger of a falling tree was plausible. And in his deposition, Larry acknowledged that the likelihood of falling trees would increase in “an unprecedented drought like we were in in 2014”-the year of Norman’s injury.

However, Norman testified in his deposition that he had ridden the same trail “no more [than] two days” earlier and that he had not seen the downed tree, so it was possible that the tree had fallen only a day or two before his crash. Indeed, Norman conceded that it was possible that the tree could have actually fallen only a few hours before his crash. Moreover, the Contract expressly prohibits the Association from pruning trees without the Director’s prior written approval and expressly prohibits the Association from removing any tree without prior written permission from the Forester. Norman does not direct us to any part of the Contract showing that the Association had agreed to assume a legal duty to maintain the safety of the trails for the general public.

Based on our de novo review of the record, we hold that Norman failed to establish that the Association owed him a legal duty to protect him from the downed tree across the trail that the Association did not cause to fall, that may have fallen only hours-but no later than a day or two-before Norman struck it, and that the Association was not even authorized to unilaterally remove.[5] See Felts v. Bluebonnet Elec. Coop., Inc., 972 S.W.2d 166, 169 (Tex. App.-Austin 1998, no pet.) (rejecting complainant’s argument that an electrical co-op’s tree-trimming agreement creating a limited right to trim or clear trees for the purpose of protecting its power lines “created a broader duty to maintain the area for the protection of the general public traveling on the nearby county road”); Jacobs-Cathey Co. v. Cockrum, 947 S.W.2d 288, 292 (Tex. App.-Waco 1997, writ denied) (holding that “a defendant’s policy to remedy dangerous conditions he may come across does not impose a legal duty on him to these third parties” and that a defendant bears “no common law duty to remove debris . . . that was left by some other party”); see also J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Tex. Contract Carpet, Inc., 302 S.W.3d 515, 530-32 (Tex. App.-Austin 2009, no pet.) (holding a contractual agreement did not create a legal duty to a third party when the contractual benefit to the third party was not clearly intended by the contract and was merely incidental to the agreement).

Therefore, the trial court did not err by granting summary judgment on Norman’s negligence and gross negligence claims. See Gonzalez v. VATR Constr., LLC, 418 S.W.3d 777, 789 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2013, no pet.) (holding that because summary judgment was proper on negligence claim, it was also proper on gross negligence claim). We overrule Norman’s first issue.

IV. Norman’s Excluded Summary Judgment Evidence

Norman’s second issue challenges the trial court’s decision to sustain the Association’s hearsay objection and strike Matthew Clemons’s report. Norman’s contention is that because he submitted an affidavit from Clemons in which Clemons swore that the attached report was a true and correct copy of the report that he had personally prepared, the report was authenticated, “which overcomes the hearsay problem.” The Association responds that Norman misunderstands its objection, which was that the report was inadmissible hearsay, not that it was not properly authenticated.

A. Standard of Review

A trial court’s rulings on the admissibility of evidence are reviewable under an abuse of discretion standard. Gharda USA, Inc. v. Control Sols., Inc., 464 S.W.3d 338, 347 (Tex. 2015). An appellate court must uphold the trial court’s evidentiary ruling if there is any legitimate basis in the record for the ruling. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. v. Malone, 972 S.W.2d 35, 43 (Tex. 1998). A trial court’s discretion in determining whether an expert is qualified to testify on a matter is broad but not unbounded. In re Commitment of Bohannan, 388 S.W.3d 296, 307 (Tex. 2012). A trial court abuses its discretion by excluding expert testimony if the testimony is relevant to the issues in the case and is based on a reliable foundation. Id.; State v. Cent. Expressway Sign Assocs., 302 S.W.3d 866, 870 (Tex. 2009) (op. on reh’g).

B. Analysis

Norman attached a short affidavit from Matthew Clemons which stated, in relevant part, as follows:

I certify that the ‘Initial Assessment of Tree Conditions; Gateway Park Mountain Bike Trail’ was prepared on March 21, 2017 for Jackson Davis regarding Norman DeLamar’s bicycle incident, which is attached as an Exhibit to Plaintiff’s Response to Fort Worth Biker’s Association Traditional and No Evidence Motions for Summary Judgment, is a true and correct copy of the report which I personally prepared and provided Mr. Davis.

The March 21, 2017 letter was attached to Norman’s summary judgment response as Exhibit D.

The Association asserts that Clemons’s affidavit (which was not objected to), may authenticate the attached report, but it does not remove the report from the ambit of hearsay. We agree. See Tex. R. Evid. 801, 802; cf. Petty v. Children’s WorldLearning Ctrs., Inc., No. 05-94-00998-CV, 1995 WL 379522, at *5 (Tex. App.-Dallas May 31, 1995, writ denied) (explaining that “[a]uthenticity is separate and apart from qualification as an exception under the hearsay rule”). Further, the report does not obviously fall within any of the exclusions from hearsay (Tex. R. Evid. 801(e)) or exceptions to the rule against hearsay (Tex. R. Evid. 803)-indeed, Norman does not assert any exclusion or exception.

Accordingly, we hold that the court did not abuse its discretion by sustaining the Association’s hearsay objection to Clemons’s report, and we overrule Norman’s second issue.

V. Conclusion

Having held that the trial court did not err by granting summary judgment on Norman’s negligence and gross negligence claims and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding Norman’s expert’s report as inadmissible hearsay, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.

—–

Notes:

[1]Norman’s suit against the Association for negligence and gross negligence was eventually severed from his suit against the City.

[2]To prevail on a premises-liability claim, a plaintiff must prove (1) actual or constructive knowledge of some condition on the premises by the owner; (2) that the condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) that the owner did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk; and (4) that the owner’s failure to use such care proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Gonzalez, 968 S.W.2d 934, 936 (Tex. 1998), whereas under the common law doctrine of negligence, a plaintiff must prove (1) a legal duty owed by one person to another; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach. Helbing v. Hunt, 402 S.W.3d 699, 702 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, pet. denied).

[3]The Association asserts it is a “non-possessory interest holder” which is “the legal equivalent of the occupier” of the bike trail portion of Gateway. Put differently, the Association contends it has rights akin to that of an easement holder. See Brookshire Katy Drainage Dist. v. Lily Gardens, LLC, 333 S.W.3d 301, 309 (Tex. App.- Houston [1st Dist.] 2010, pet. denied) (“[A]n easement is a nonpossessory interest in another’s property that authorizes its holder to use that property for a particular purpose.”).

[4]Although we do not reach the issue, we believe that Norman’s claim sounds in premises liability in any event. See United Scaffolding, 537 S.W.3d at 472 (“We have recognized that slip/trip-and-fall cases have consistently been treated as premises defect causes of action. In such cases, the plaintiff alleges injury as a result of a physical condition or defect left on the premises, not as a contemporaneous result of someone’s negligence.” (internal citation and quotation marks omitted)); Sampson, 500 S.W.3d at 389-90 (citing Univ. of Tex. at Austin v. Hayes, 327 S.W.3d 113 (Tex. 2010) (per curiam), a case with injuries caused by a bicycle crash after the cyclist ran over a metal chain stretched across a college campus driveway as illustrating a “quintessential premises defect claim”); Tex. Dept. of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 230 (Tex. 2004) (concluding that the “allegation of an injury caused by a tree limb falling on [plaintiff] constitutes an allegation of a condition or use of real property and is an allegation of a premises defect”).

[5]Norman also does not persuade us that we should create a legal duty regarding the downed tree and trail safety based on public policy considerations. See Kalinchuk, 2016 WL 4376628, at *4. Indeed, public policy considerations weigh heavily against imposing such a legal duty on what is essentially a group of volunteer mountain bike enthusiasts who have been granted such limited oversight over the safety of the bike trails, if any.

trail, summary judgment, general negligence, premises liability, premises, trial court, legal duty, no evidence, summary judgment motion, pet, hearsay, grant summary judgment, premises liability theory, mountain bike, balancing, nonmovant, falling, dangerous condition, gross negligence, negligence claim, downed tree, contemporaneous, foreseeability, factors, cause of action, yacht club, scintilla, injuries, bicycle, cases


Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne, Plaintiffs, v. Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 11-cv-01114-KMT-BNB

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

January 12, 2012, Decided

January 12, 2012, Filed

CORE TERMS: collection, collector, snowmobile, summary judgment, discovery, credit card, rental, Mountain Law Group, demand letters, email, entity, law firm, preface, missing, nonmoving party, principal purpose, regularity, regularly, disputed, opposing, genuine, rental agreement, signature, machine, ride, admissible, engaging, owed, practice of law, attorney’s fees

COUNSEL: [*1] For Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, Thomas J. Henne, Plaintiffs: Daniel Teodoru, Erin Colleen Hunter, West Brown Huntley & Hunter, P.C., Breckenridge, CO.

For Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant: Rusty David Miller, Thomas Neville Alfrey, Treece Alfrey Musat, P.C., Denver, CO.

JUDGES: Kathleen M. Tafoya, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: Kathleen M. Tafoya

OPINION

ORDER

This matter is before the court on Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] (“Mot.”) filed August 12, 2011. Plaintiffs, Tracy Hightower-Henne and Thomas Henne (collectively “the Hennes”), responded on September 14, 2011 [Doc. No. 23] (“Resp.”) and the defendant filed a Reply on October 3, 2011 [Doc. No. 25]. Also considered is Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply” [Doc. No. 26], which is denied.1

1 Neither the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure nor the Local Rules of Practice in the District of Colorado provide for the filing of a surreply. Additionally, the court’s review of the proposed surreply reveals it is nothing more than an attempted unauthorized additional bite at the proverbial apple and adds nothing of merit to the summary judgment analysis.

Background

On February 8, 2010, Nebraska residents Tracy L. Hightower-Henne [*2] and her husband Thomas Henne joined a small group of friends and family for a snowmobile ride in Vail, Colorado. Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. (Mot., Ex. H, Judgment Order of County Court Judge Wayne Patton, April 21, 2011, hereinafter “Judgment Order” at 1.)2 While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. (Id.) Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely [*3] visible to any driver. (Id. at 3.) At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 (Id. at 2.) Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 (Id.) Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee5 and charged Mr. Henne oa total of only $220.11. (Mot., Ex. B.)

2 As will be discussed in more detail herein, one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by [*4] CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court, Case Number 10 C 255 ). (See Mot., Ex. G; hereinafter, the “Summit County case.”) This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.

3 This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” (Judgment Order at 3.) The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court [*5] does not believe that the fairing just fell off.” (Id.)

4 Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.

5 CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.” (Mot., Ex. B.)

Upon their return to Nebraska, however, Mr. and Mrs. Henne apparently decided they did not want to pay for the damage to the snowmobile, even with the waiver of the rental loss, and contested the charge to Mr. Henne’s credit card resulting in a reversal of the charge by the credit card issuer. Further, the Hennes leveled criminal forgery accusations against CBR’s employee with the Frisco, Colorado Police Department (id. at 4), alleging that the acknowledgment of damage form and the credit card slip were not signed by Mr. Henne. The police department investigated, but no charges were filed.

Mr. Henne’s ultimate cancellation of his former acquiescence to payment caused CBR to contact their corporate lawyer, Defendant Gelman, and ask that he attempt to obtain payment from the Hennes, authorizing a law suit if initial requests for payment failed. Obviously, CBR was no longer willing [*6] to waive the fee for loss of rental which was part of the contract Mrs. Hightower-Henne signed. (Id. at 2.)

At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s signature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. (Id. at 4.) The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. (Id.) The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.” (Id.)

After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees provision, the court awarded CBR [*7] $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.” (Mot., Ex. I, June 22, 2011 Order of Hon. Wayne Patton, hereinafter “Atty. Fee Order” at 3.) The court also found that “although this was a case akin to a small claims case, Mrs. Hightower-Henne defended the case as if it were complex litigation.”7 (Id. at 1.) Judge Patton stated, with respect to the counterclaim filed by the Hennes, that “[a]lthough Mrs. Hightower-Henne did not pursue that claim at trial it shows the lengths she was willing to go to avoid payment of what was a fairly small claim.” (Id. at 1.)

6 Costs were awarded against both Mr. and Mrs. Henne [*8] jointly and severally.

7 In December 2010, the Hennes hired outside counsel to defend them in the county court action. (Id. at 4.)

As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.

In a prodigiously perfect example of throwing good money after bad, the Hennes now continue to prosecute this federal action against the lawyer representing CBR in the Summit County case, alleging violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).8 Unfortunately, even though the issue was raised at some point in the county court case, (see id. at 3, “Mrs. Hightower-Henne also made allegations that Plaintiff was violating fair debt collection laws”), these particular allegations were not resolved by the county court. Therefore, this court is now compelled to reluctantly follow the Hennes down this white rabbit’s hole to resolve the federal case.

8 This case was originally filed against CBR’s lawyer by the Hennes in Summit County on March 31, 2011, suspiciously [*9] a mere one week before commencing trial on the underlying case before Judge Patton. Defendant Gelman removed the case to federal court post-trial on April 27, 2011, one week subsequent to Judge Patton’s ruling against the Hennes. Between April 27, 2011 and August 12, 2011, the Hennes could have revisited the wisdom of continuing with this case had they been so inclined. However, the Hennes have not sought to even amend their Complaint in this matter, even though the findings call into question many of the arguments embodied in the federal complaint. (See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 26.)

Analysis

A. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of showing an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). “Once the moving party meets this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial on a material matter.” Concrete Works, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1518 (10th Cir. 1994) (citing [*10] Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). The nonmoving party may not rest solely on the allegations in the pleadings, but must instead designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A disputed fact is “material” if “under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir.1998) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that it might lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Thomas v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 631 F.3d 1153, 1160 (10th Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court may consider only admissible evidence. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d 1202, 1209-10 (10th Cir. 2010). The factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom are viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Concrete Works, 36 F.3d at 1517. At the summary judgment stage of litigation, a plaintiff’s version of the facts must find support in the record. Thomson v. Salt Lake Cnty., 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009). [*11] “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007); Thomson, 584 F.3d at 1312.

B. Request for Additional Discovery

As an initial matter, Plaintiffs request the court grant them further discovery in order to fully explore the matters raised by Defendant Gelman’s affidavit, attached to the Motion. [Doc. No. 17-1, hereinafter “Gelman Affidavit.”]

The party opposing summary judgment and who requests additional discovery must specify by affidavit the reasons why it cannot present facts essential to its opposition to a motion for summary judgment by demonstrating (1) the probable facts are not available, (2) why those facts cannot be presented currently, (3) what steps have been taken to obtain these facts, and (4) how additional time will enable the party to obtain those facts and rebut the motion for summary judgment. Valley Forge Ins. Co. v. Healthcare Mgmt. Partners, Ltd., 616 F.3d 1086, 1096 (10th Cir. 2010)(internal quotations omitted); Been v. O.K. Indust., Inc., 495 F.3d 1217, 1235 (10th Cir. 2007)(The [*12] protection under Rule 56(d) “arises only if the nonmoving party files an affidavit explaining why he or she cannot present facts to oppose the motion.”)

As noted above, the instant motion and the Gelman Affidavit were filed on August 12, 2011. The discovery cut-off date in this case was not until October 3, 2011. (Scheduling Order, [Doc. No. 10] at 6.) Therefore, written discovery could have been timely served any time prior to August 31, 2011. When Defendant filed his motion and the affidavit, Plaintiffs still had nineteen days to compose and serve interrogatories and requests for production of documents in order to obtain substantiation – or lack thereof – of the matters contained in the Gelman Affidavit. Additionally, Plaintiffs had 49 days remaining within which to notice and schedule the deposition of Mr. Gelman, or any other person. Apparently, Plaintiffs did not avail themselves of these opportunities, or, for that matter, any other attempt to obtain discovery during the entirety of the discovery period. There is no reason for the court to now accredit Plaintiffs’ professed need for discovery at this late date when they did not undertake any discovery within the appropriate time [*13] frame even though the issues were then squarely before them. The request for further discovery is denied.

C. Defendant Gelman’s Status as Debt Collector

The court has been presented with the following: the testimony through affidavit of Leonard M. Gelman; the testimony through affidavit of Tracy Hightower (Resp., Ex. 3 [Doc. No. 23-3] “Hightower Affidavit”); the Judgment Order and the Atty. Fee Order of Judge Wayne Patton referenced infra; the Complaint filed in the Summit County case – case number 10 C 255 (Mot., Ex. G); a letter from Lee Gelman to Thomas Henne dated April 1, 2010 (Mot., Ex. D; Resp., Ex. 1, “Demand Letter”); a letter to Lee Gelman from Tracy L. Hightower-Henne dated April 5, 2010 (Mot., Ex. E); an email exchange between Lee Gelman and Tracy Hightower dated April 13, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 4); an undated internet home page of Mountain Law Group (Mot., Ex. F); a document purporting to be a “Colorado Court Database” listing seven cases involving as plaintiff either Summit Interests Inc., Back Country Rentals, or Colorado Backcountry Rentals for the time period March 25, 2009 through November 18, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 7); three letters signed by “Lee Gelman, Esq.” drafted on letterhead [*14] of a law firm named Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell with origination dates of March 10, 2008, March 19, 2009 and December 19, 2008 (Resp., Ex. 8); and, the snowmobile rental agreements and other documents relevant to the Summit County case (Mot., Exs. A – C).

The FDCPA regulates the practices of “debt collectors.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). If a person or entity is not a debt collector, the Act does not provide any cause of action against them. Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges only violations of the FDCPA (See Compl. [Doc. No. 2]) by Defendant Gelman; therefore, if Defendant is not a debt collector, Plaintiffs’ action must fail.

The FDCPA contains both a definition of “debt collector” and language describing certain categories of persons and entities excluded from the definition.9 Thus, an alleged debt collector may escape liability either by failing to qualify as a “debt collector” under the initial definitional language, or by falling within one of the exclusions. The plaintiff in an FDCPA claim bears the burden of proving the defendant’s debt collector status. See Zimmerman v. The CIT Group, Inc., Case No. 08-cv-00246-ZLW-KMT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108473, 2008 WL 5786438, at *9 (D. Colo. October 6, 2008) (citing Goldstein v. Hutton, Ingram, Yuzek, Gainen, Carroll & Bertolotti, 374 F.3d 56, 60 (2d. Cir.2004).

9 None [*15] of these enumerated exceptions are alleged to be applicable in this case.

The Act defines “debt collector” as:

[A]ny person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.

15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). See Allen v. Nelnet, Inc., Case No. 06-cv-00586-REB-PAC, 2007 WL 2786432, at *8-9 (D. Colo. Sept. 24, 2007). The Supreme Court has made it clear that the FDCPA applies to attorneys “regularly” engaging in debt collection activity, including such activity in the nature of litigation. Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291, 299, 115 S. Ct. 1489, 131 L. Ed. 2d 395 (1995). The FDCPA establishes two alternative predicates for “debt collector” status – engaging in such activity as the “principal purpose” of an entity’s business and/or “regularly” engaging in such collection activity. 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). It is clear from the evidence that debt collection is not Defendant Gelman’s or his law firm’s principal purpose, nor is debt collection the principal purpose of non-defendant CBR. Goldstein, 374 F.3d at 60-61. Therefore [*16] the court must examine the issue from the regularity perspective. The Goldstein court directed

Most important in the analysis is the assessment of facts closely relating to ordinary concepts of regularity, including (1) the absolute number of debt collection communications issued, and/or collection-related litigation matters pursued, over the relevant period(s), (2) the frequency of such communications and/or litigation activity, including whether any patterns of such activity are discernable, (3) whether the entity has personnel specifically assigned to work on debt collection activity, (4) whether the entity has systems or contractors in place to facilitate such activity, and (5) whether the activity is undertaken in connection with ongoing client relationships with entities that have retained the lawyer or firm to assist in the collection of outstanding consumer debt obligations. Facts relating to the role debt collection work plays in the practice as a whole should also be considered to the extent they bear on the question of regularity of debt collection activity . . . . Whether the law practice seeks debt collection business by marketing itself as having debt collection expertise [*17] may also be an indicator of the regularity of collection as a part of the practice.

Id. at 62-63.

1. Defendant Gelman’s Practice of Law at Mountain Law Group

The testimony of Mr. Gelman provided through his affidavit is considered by the court to be unrefuted since Plaintiffs failed to avail themselves of any discovery which might have provided grounds for contest.

After recounting his background as an environmental lawyer for the Department of Justice, Mr. Gelman describes his practice of law with the Mountain Law Group as an attorney and through the Colorado Office of Dispute Resolution as a mediator. (Gelman Aff. ¶¶ 1, 3.) Mr. Gelman also acts as the manager of his wife’s medical practice. (Id. ¶ 5.) Because of his responsibilities as a mediator and an administrator, Mr. Gelman only spends approximately 25% of his working time engaged in the practice of law through Mountain Law Group. (Id. ¶ 8.) If one considers a normal business day to be nine hours, Mr. Gelman then spends approximately 2.25 hours a day practicing law at the Mountain Law Group. Of that time at the law firm, Mr. Gelman devotes approximately 30% to “Business/Contracts,” the only area of his practice which generates any [*18] debt collection activity. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 22.) Extrapolating, then, Mr. Gelman spends approximately .67 of an hour, or approximately 45 minutes, out of each day pursuing business matters of all kinds for his clients.

One of Mr. Gelman’s business clients is CBR to which he provides legal assistance “with all of CBR’s corporate needs . . . [including] a) contract drafting and consultation on rental agreements, waivers, and other forms; and b) representation concerning regulatory and enforcement matters between the U.S. Forest Service and CBR.” (Id. ¶ 19.) Of all the clients of the Mountain Law Group’s seven lawyers, CBR is the only one who generates any debt collection work at all. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 22, 23.) Additionally, of the seven lawyers, Mr. Gelman, through his client CBR, is the only lawyer to have ever worked on, in any capacity, any debt collection matter.10 (Id.)

10 As noted in the Hightower Affidavit, it is not disputed that, as part of CBR’s employment of Mr. Gelman as their corporate attorney, they requested that he attempt to collect the Henne’s debt.. (Id. ¶ 2.)

Over a forty (40) month period, Mr. Gelman states that he sent only 18 demand letters on behalf of CBR to renters of snowmobiles [*19] who did not pay for damages they caused to CBR’s equipment. (Id. ¶ 20.) This averages out to one demand letter every 2.5 months.11

11 Of course, this does not mean that the demand letters are actually sent on such a regular basis.

In connection with Mr. Gelman’s practice of law with the Mountain Law Group, the court reviewed what is purportedly the law firm’s internet home page. (Mot., Ex. F.) This submission contains no date or retrieval or publication. Therefore, the court can give it little weight. However, as part of the analysis, the court notes that at the time of the internet display – whenever that was – the Mountain Law Group’s home page did not include any advertisement suggesting they provided debt collection services or as had any expertise in the collection of debt.

Mr. Gelman otherwise states that the Mountain Law Group neither owns nor uses any specialized computer software designed to facilitate debt collection activity. (Gelman Aff. ¶ 12.) Further, his unrefuted testimony is that the firm employs no paralegal or other staff to assist in debt collection for the firm. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Plaintiffs, however, assert that Mr. Gelman regularly and frequently pursues debt collection matters [*20] on behalf of CBR, pointing the court’s attention to a document entitled “Colorado Court Database” (“CCD”). The CCD may indicate that CBR or Summit Interests, Inc.12 was involved in seven13 case filings in 2009 and 2010. (Resp., Ex. 7.) None of the cases contained on the CCD indicate whether or not Defendant Gelman represented the named entity, nor do any of the cases identify the other parties. The CCD is in the form of a table with columnar headings, “Name,” “Case,” “Filed,” “Status,” “Party” and “County.” Under the column “Party,” six of the cases indicate “Money” and one indicates “Breach of Contract”; both of these terms are undefined. The court does not begin to understand how “Breach of Contract” for instance, can be a “party ” to a lawsuit. The court is completely unable to ascertain the relevance of this document or what bearing it has on whether or not Mr. Gelman is a debt collector since it does not reference Mr. Gelman or debt collection. The CCD, unintelligible as it stands, is therefore inadmissible and will not be considered for any purpose in the summary judgment proceeding. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d at 1209-10.

12 In the April 1, 2010 demand letter from [*21] Mr. Gelman to Mr. Henne, Mr. Gelman professes to represent “Summit Interests, Inc., d/b/a/ Colorado Backcountry Rentals.” (Resp, [Doc. No. 23-1].)

13 The documents references more than ten items, but several have the same case number.

2. Mr. Gelman’s Debt Collection Methodology

This case involves essentially two communications from Mr. Gelman: the April 1, 2010 letter to Mr. Henne and the April 13, 2010 email from Mr. Gelman to Mrs. Hightower-Henne following her letter professing to represent Mr. Henne. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-23, 25, re: Demand Letterl and id. ¶ 24, re: April 13, 2010 email.)

a. Debt Collector Preface

In the April 1, 2010 letter, Mr. Gelman represented that “[t]his firm14 is a debt collector” and in the April 13, 2010 email, under his signature block, was the notation, “This is from a debt collector . . .” The court notes that the warning on the bottom of the April 13, 2010 email does not appear to be part of the normal signature block of Mr. Gelman, because it does not appear on the short transmission at the beginning of the email string wherein Mr. Gelman advised “Tracy,” that he just left her a voice mail as well. (Resp. at Doc. No. 23-4.) This email warning, therefore, appears [*22] to have been specifically typed in for inclusion in the lengthy portion of the email.

14 The letterhead on the communication is “Mountain Law Group.” Mountain Law Group is not a defendant in this action.

Mr. Gelman states he has mediated a large number of debt collection disputes and is therefore “relatively familiar with the collection industry.” (Gelman Aff. ¶ 11.) While the court considers the language used by Mr. Gelman – commonly referred to as a “mini-Miranda” or the “debt collector preface” – as “some” evidence to be considered in the debt collector determination, it is not particularly persuasive standing alone. First, setting forth such a debt collector preface does not create any kind of equitable estoppel. Equitable estoppel requires a showing of a misleading representation on which the opposing party justifiably relied which would result in material harm if the actor is later permitted to assert a claim inconsistent with the prior representation. Plaintiffs have offered no evidence to support a claim that they detrimentally relied upon the debt collector preface. See In re Pullen, 451 B.R. 206, 210 (Bkrtcy. N. D. Ga. 2011).

When attempting to collect a debt, the court applauds [*23] a practice whereby the sender recognizes itself as a debt collector in a mini-Miranda warning regardless of any legal requirement and considers such an advisement prudent and in the spirit of the FDCPA. This course of action would be expected of an attorney such as Mr. Gelman who frequently is in a position to mediate debt collection disputes. However, calling oneself a rose, does not necessarily arouse the same olfactory response as would a true rose.

b. Use of Form Letters

Plaintiffs argue that Mr. Gelman communicates as a debt collector through the use of form letters. For this proposition, they attach Exhibit 8, three letters apparently authored by Mr. Gelman when he was associated with the law firm of Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell, LLC. Each of the three letters appear to be what is commonly known as a demand letter – an attempt to collect money from persons who allegedly owed CBR as a result of damage done to a snowmobile. Each letter begins with a one line salutation introducing the lawyer as representing Colorado Backcountry Rentals, Inc. Thereafter, each letter proceeds for several paragraphs to outline specific and unique facts concerning the alleged debtor’s obligation for damages [*24] to CBR. (Id.) Each letter then contains a paragraph, in bold typeface, stating that the debtor can submit a sum certain in settlement of the matter in bold typeface. Each of the three letters contain a summary paragraph at the end which states the letter is a settlement offer and that court proceedings may be instituted if payment is not made. This general format is consistent with the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne. Two of the letters in Exhibit 8 contain the debt collector preface at both the beginning and end of the letter; one of the letters contains the legend only at the beginning, similar to the format of the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne by Mr. Gelman.

The court finds that these letters are not “form” collection letters such as those which would be utilized by a business engaged primarily in the business of debt collection. Although there is some boilerplate language common to all, each letter is personally authored and the main body of the text is a unique recitation of the facts and circumstances peculiar to that case. These three letters, viewed against the April 1, 2010 letter Mr. Gelman sent to Mr. Henne, are similar only in the boilerplate [*25] language at the beginning and end of the letter and do not persuade the court that they are form letters indicating that Mr. Gelman is in the regular business of collecting debts.

c. Pattern of Litigation Activity

Mrs. Hightower-Henne states, without any evidentiary foundation, that Defendant has filed “several suits for collections for CBR” which indicate “a pattern of escalating fees for nominal claims.” (Hightower Affidavit ¶ 4.) She does not further describe or attach any of the cases to which she refers, although one might assume they may be among those cases sketchily mentioned in rejected Exhibit 7 to the Plaintiffs’ Response. Mrs. Hightower-Henne blithely asserts that she has spoken to several persons who were “parties in these suits” but does not state what significance anything they may have told her was, or for that matter, what they even said. (Id.) Although the court will recognize this testimony as admissible, it is wholly unpersuasive as to the issue to which it is apparently directed.

d. Summary

Considering the undisputed testimony of Mr. Gelman and Mrs. Hightower-Henne together with the admissible documentary evidence submitted by the parties, this court finds that there [*26] are no material facts in dispute relevant to the determination of whether Mr. Gelman is a debt collector as defined in the FDCPA. For all the reasons set forth above, the court finds that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector pursuant to the FDCPA and therefore, summary judgment in his favor is appropriate.

Given that the determination that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector is dispositive of the case, the court declines to address further Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s standing to sue or whether any of the actions undertaken by Mr. Gelman would have violated the FDCPA had he been found to be a debt collector under the Act.

Wherefore, it is ORDERED

1. Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.

2. Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply,” [Doc. No. 26] is DENIED.

3. The Final Pretrial Conference set for January 19, 2012 at 10:45 a.m. is VACATED

Dated this 12th day of January, 2012.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Kathleen M Tafoya

Kathleen M Tafoya

United [*27] States Magistrate Judge