McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc. 2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45
Marcella McGrath f/k/a Marcella Widger v. SNH Development, Inc. and John Doe, an unnamed individual
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY
2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45
May 19, 2008, Decided
THE ORDERS ON THIS SITE ARE TRIAL COURT ORDERS THAT ARE NOT BINDING ON OTHER TRIAL COURT JUSTICES OR MASTERS AND ARE SUBJECT TO APPELLATE REVIEW BY THE NEW HAMPSHIRE SUPREME COURT.
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Affirmed by McGrath v. SNH Dev., Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 969 A.2d 392, 2009 N.H. LEXIS 43 (2009)
JUDGES: [*1] GILLIAN L. ABRAMSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE.
OPINION BY: GILLIAN L. ABRAMSON
The plaintiff commenced the instant action alleging negligence against the defendants, SNH Development, Inc. (“SNH Development”) and John Doe, an unnamed individual. The defendants now move for summary judgment, and the plaintiff objects.
For purposes of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the parties do not appear to dispute the following facts. SNH Development is a subsidiary of Peak Resorts, Inc. and owns and operates the Crotched Mountain Ski Area in Bennington, New Hampshire. On October 23, 2003, the plaintiff signed an application (the “application”) for a season pass to the Crotched Mountain Ski Area. The application provides:
I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing in its various forms is a hazardous sport, and I realize that injuries are a common occurrence. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the ski area facility, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury or death of property damage, release Crotched Mountain its owners and its agents, employees, directors, officers and shareholders from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage [*2] which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises, the operations of the ski area including, but not limited to, grooming snow making, ski lift operations, actions or omissions of employees or age the area, or my participation in skiing, accepting myself the full responsibility
Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B. Moreover, on December 20, 2003, the plaintiff signed a Liability Release Agreement, which provides:
I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing in its various forms is a hazardous sport, and I realize that injuries are a common occurrence. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the area facility, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury or death or property damage, and release Peak Resorts, Inc, all of its subsidiaries, and its agents, employees, directors, officers, shareholders and the manufacturers and distributors of this equipment and the school and group organizers (collective “providers’), from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises, the operation of the area including, but not limited to grooming, [*3] snowmaking, lift operations, actions or omissions of employees or agents of the areas, or my participating in skiing, snowboarding, blading, accepting myself the full responsibility.
Id. On February 20, 2004, the plaintiff was skiing 1 a trail at the Crotched Mountain Ski Area when an employee of SNH Development drove a snowmobile into the plaintiff’s path, causing a collision.
1 Some of the pleadings state that the plaintiff was skiing, while other’s state that the plaintiff was snowboarding.
The defendants now move for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff signed the application and the Liability Release Agreement, both of which are valid, enforceable exculpatory contracts. The plaintiff objects, arguing that the application and the Liability Release Agreement violate public policy and that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim.
In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court “consider[s] the affidavits and other evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” White v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 151 N.H. 544, 547, 864 A.2d 1101 (2004). [*4] The Court must grant a motion for summary judgment if its “review of the evidence does not reveal a genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law Id. A fact is material “if it affects the outcome of the litigation under the applicable substantive law.” Palmer v. Nan King Restaurant, 147 N.H. 681, 683, 798 A.2d 583 (2002).
New Hampshire law generally prohibits exculpatory contracts, but the Court will enforce them if; “(1) do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims were within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.” Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-267, 786 A.2d 834 (2001). Thus, the Court considers each of these requirements in turn.
Regarding the first requirement, an exculpatory contract violates public policy if a special relationship existed between the parties or if there was some other disparity in bargaining power. See Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 106, 509 A.2d 151 (1986) (“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does [*5] not contravene public policy i.e that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.”).
A special relationship exists “[w]here the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service….” Id. The plaintiff contends that a special relationship existed between the parties because any person operating a snowmobile has a statutory duty to yield the right of way, RSA 215-C:49, XII (Supp. 2007), and because the Crotched Mountain Ski Area serves the public. Assuming that RSA 215-C:49, XII applies to the operation of a snowmobile on a privately owned ski area, the plaintiff has not offered any legal support for the conclusion that this statute somehow charges the defendants with a duty of public service. Moreover, the fact that the Crotched Mountain Ski Area serves the public is not conclusive. For example, Barnes, involved a negligence claim arising from a collision at an enduro kart racing facility. In Barnes, the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted that the defendant’s served the public but held that the defendant’s were not charged with a duty of public service because [*6] Endurokart racing is not “affected with a public interest.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. Similarly, skiing is a recreational activity not affected with a public interest, and the Court finds that the defendant’s are not charged with a duty of public service.
The Plaintiff also contends that she was at an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power because all ski areas require skiers to sign releases. The Court disagrees.
This case … does not have any hallmarks of a disparity in bargaining power. The [skiing] service offered by the defendant is not a “matter of practical necessity.” Nor did the defendant in this ease have monopoly control over this service such that the plaintiff could not have gone elsewhere.
Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 418, 640 A.2d 777 (1994) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108). 2
2 The Plaintiff also argues that the application and the Liability Release Agreement violate public policy because they relieve the defendant’s from compliance with RSA chapter 215-C, which governs snowmobiles. Assuming that RSA chapter 215-C applies to the operation of a snowmobile on privately owned ski area, the application and the Liability Release Agreement would have no bearing on the enforcement of RSA chapter 215-C. [*7] See RSA 215-C-32 (Supp.2007) (providing for the enforcement of RSA chapter 215-C).
“Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. “The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.” Wright v. Loon Mt. Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 169, 663 A.2d 1340 (1995). The Court
therefore examine[s] the language of the release to determine whether “a reasonable person in [the plaintiff’s] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence….”
Id. (citations omitted) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107). The Court “will assess the clarity. the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining [*8] isolated words and phrases. Id. at 169-170.
The plaintiff does not appear to dispute that she understood the import of the application or the Liability Release Agreement. Rather, the plaintiff argues that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim. Thus, the Court turns to the third requirement.
“[T]he plaintiff’s claims must have been within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement. The parties need not, however, have contemplated the precise occurrence that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries. They may adopt language to cover, a broad range of accidents….” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107 (citation omitted). To determine the scope of a release, the Court examines its language, strictly construing it against the defendant. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267.
Thus, in order to effectively release a defendant from liability for his own negligence, “the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” There is no requirement that the term “negligence” or any other magic words appear in the release as long “as the language of [*9] the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.”
Audley, 138 N.H. at 418 (citations omitted) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107).
The plaintiff contends that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim because neither the application nor the Liability Release Agreement reference snowmobiles. As rioted above, the parties need not have contemplated a negligence claim arising from a snowmobile accident. Rather, it is sufficient that the parties adopted language to cover a broad range of accidents. The application releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence,” and the Liability Release Agreement releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in from negligence.” Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B. This language clearly states that the defendants are not responsible for the consequences of their negligence.
The Plaintiff also contends that the parties did [*10] not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim because snowmobiles are not an inherent hazard of skiing. The plaintiff relies on Wright. In Wright, the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted:
The paragraphs preceding the exculpatory clause emphasize the inherent hazards of horseback riding. Because the exculpatory clause is prefaced by the term “therefore,” a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that
Wright, 140 N.H. at 170. Here, however, the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not mention the inherent hazards of skiing. Rather, the application and the Liability Release Agreement note that skiing is a hazardous sport and that injuries are a common occurrence and then, without using the term “therefore,” release the defendants from any and all liability. Because the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not use the phrase “inherent hazards of skiing” or the term “therefore,” this case is distinguishable from Wright. A reasonable person would have contemplated that the application and the [*11] Liability Release Agreement would release the defendants from a negligence claim, whether nor not that claim arouse from an inherent hazard of skiing.
Based on the foregoing, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.
Gibbud et al., v Camp Shane, Inc., 30 A.D.3d 865; 817 N.Y.S.2d 435; 2006 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8254; 2006 NY Slip Op 5075Posted: January 29, 2017
Benjamin W. Gibbud, an Infant, by Melissa H. Gibbud, His Parent, et al., Appellants, v Camp Shane, Inc., Respondent.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, THIRD DEPARTMENT
30 A.D.3d 865; 817 N.Y.S.2d 435; 2006 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8254; 2006 NY Slip Op 5075
June 22, 2006, Decided
June 22, 2006, Entered
Mercure, J.P., Peters, Spain and Kane, JJ., concur. Ordered that the order and judgment are affirmed, with costs.
COUNSEL: Keegan, Keegan & Strutt, L.L.P., White Plains (Barry R. Strutt of counsel), for appellants.
Gordon & Silber, P.C., New York City (Andrew B. Kaufman of counsel), for respondent.
JUDGES: Before: Mercure, J.P., Peters, Spain, Rose and Kane, JJ. Mercure, J.P., Peters, Spain and Kane, JJ., concur.
OPINION BY: Rose
[*865] [**436] Rose, J. Appeals (1) from an order of the Supreme Court (Clemente, J.), entered March 9, 2005 in Sullivan County, which granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and (2) from the judgment entered thereon.
[*866] After being told that he and his bunkmates could “sleep in” one rainy morning at defendant’s summer camp, 15-year-old plaintiff Benjamin W. Gibbud (hereinafter plaintiff) fractured his right ankle when he attempted to engage in horseplay in his cabin by jumping on his counselor’s back. Alleging negligent supervision, plaintiff and his mother commenced this action against defendant. When defendant moved [***2] for summary dismissal of the complaint, Supreme Court granted the motion, finding, among other things, that defendant’s counselor was not shown to have been negligent. Plaintiffs appeal, and we affirm.
At the time of the incident, plaintiff was 6 feet 3 inches and weighed 302 pounds. Alex Wendorf, plaintiff’s cabin counselor, was 21 years old, 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 335 pounds. When another camper, Noah Zilberstein, tried to goad Wendorf into a wrestling match by snapping a rat-tailed bath towel at him, Wendorf grabbed the towel out of Zilberstein’s hand. In his deposition, plaintiff described the encounter between Wendorf and Zilberstein as “just horsing around,” which he later explained as “pushing back and forth” or “trying to grab each other.” Zilberstein then tried to induce the other campers in the cabin to join in and “get” Wendorf. Out of a dozen or so campers, [**437] plaintiff was the only one who responded. Approaching Wendorf from behind, he jumped on Wendorf’s back and grabbed him in a bear hug, pinning Wendorf’s arms to his sides. Wendorf immediately raised his arms, shrugging plaintiff off, and pivoted to see who it was. According to Wendorf and Zilberstein, [***3] plaintiff slid off Wendorf’s back and fell to the floor. Plaintiff’s own account is that Wendorf turned, grabbed him and “started to force [him] down to the ground.” In either event, plaintiff’s foot struck the floor in such a way as to fracture his ankle.
Plaintiffs contend that Supreme Court improperly discredited plaintiff’s account in finding no questions of fact as to whether Wendorf had acted negligently immediately before and after plaintiff jumped on his back. We disagree. [HN1] While the duty of care owed by persons supervising children in a summer camp setting is that which a reasonably prudent parent would observe under comparable circumstances (see Douglas v John Hus Moravian Church of Brooklyn, Inc., 8 AD3d 327, 328, 778 NYS2d 77 ; Gustin v Association of Camps Farthest Out, 267 AD2d 1001, 1002, 700 NYS2d 327 ), “[a] certain amount of horseplay is almost always to be found in gatherings of young people, and is generally associated with children’s camps. It is only to be discouraged when it becomes dangerous” (Kosok v Young Men’s Christian Assn. of Greater N.Y., 24 AD2d 113, 115, 264 NYS2d 123 , affd 19 NY2d 935, 228 NE2d 398, 281 NYS2d 341 ). [***4] Moreover, [HN2] a parent, teacher or other person entrusted [*867] with the care or supervision of a child may use such physical force as he or she reasonably believes to be necessary to maintain control and discipline (see Sindle v New York City Tr. Auth., 33 NY2d 293, 297, 307 NE2d 245, 352 NYS2d 183 ; Matter of Collin H., 28 AD3d 806, 28 AD3d 806, 812 NYS2d 702 ; see also Restatement [Second] of Torts § 147).
Viewing the record in a light most favorable to plaintiffs and accepting plaintiff’s account, we find no factual basis to conclude that Wendorf’s responses to either Zilberstein’s rat-tailing or having been set upon from behind by plaintiff were negligent. Despite plaintiffs’ argument to the contrary, the admissible evidence fails to show that Wendorf’s efforts to quell horseplay by Zilberstein were negligent. In any event, that conduct was not the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury. While Zilberstein’s interaction with Wendorf may have furnished the occasion for plaintiff to decide to leave his bunk and join in, it was the manner in which he did so, his own impulsive and reckless act of grabbing Wendorf from behind, that led to his [***5] injury (see Lee v New York City Hous. Auth., 25 AD3d 214, 219, 803 NYS2d 538 , lv denied 6 NY3d 708, 812 NYS2d 443, 845 NE2d 1274 ; Loder v Greco, 5 AD3d 978, 979, 774 NYS2d 231 ; Ascher v Scarsdale School Dist., 267 AD2d 339, 339, 700 NYS2d 210 . Given that Wendorf did not know who had suddenly jumped on his back, his reaction to being blindsided and having his arms pinned to his sides in a bear hug by the physically imposing plaintiff raises no issue of his inappropriate or unreasonable use of force. By plaintiff’s own account, Wendorf merely turned, grabbed him and pushed him down. Under these circumstances, we can draw no inference of negligence (compare Gonzalez v City of New York, 286 AD2d 706, 707-708, 730 NYS2d 154 ).
Mercure, J.P., Peters, Spain and Kane, JJ., concur. ORDERED that the order and judgment are affirmed, with costs.
No one saw the deceased drown; no one could prove what happened. Campground was not liable for death of a swimmer.Posted: May 9, 2016
Legally if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to see it fall it does not make any noise.
State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport
Plaintiff: Adelson Luiz De Castro, Administrator of the Estate of Jose Luiz De Castro
Defendant: Odetah Camping Resort, Inc.
Plaintiff Claims: failure to provide lifeguards and knew or should have known of the danger associated with encouraging its guests to swim to its recreational flotation devices, yet failed to take reasonable steps to secure their safety in doing so.
Defendant Defenses: No proximate causation
Holding: for the Defendant
The defendant is a camping area that allows day users in order to access other recreational opportunities at the campground.
The defendant is an approximately 100-acre campground that offers multiple recreational activities. In addition to facilities to accommodate overnight camping, the defendant offers sporting facilities, which include a pool as well as volleyball, tennis, and basketball courts. The defendant abuts a large, thirty-two-acre freshwater lake, which includes a small beach, and offers swimming and boating activities. A portion of the lake that is adjacent to the beach has a designated swim area. The boundaries of the swim area are designated by a rope line and buoys. Just beyond the roped off swimming area are two inflatable platforms. One was described as a platform or trampoline, and the other was described as an “iceberg.” Both inflatable devices were attractions to be used by the resort guests. T
The plaintiff and friends entered the defendant’s campground and paid an entrance fee. The campground was adjacent to a large lake. There was a swimming area on the campground and roped off in the lake. Outside of the roped area were two large inflatable platforms, one described as a trampoline and the other described as an “iceberg.”
There were no lifeguards at either the defendant’s pool or the lake area. A single sign was posted that warned that there were no lifeguards at the lake.
The plaintiff and a friend entered the designated swimming area for the purpose of swimming out to the trampoline. The trampoline was just beyond the buoy line. The friend made it to the trampoline. However, the plaintiff, deceased never did.
When it was noticed he was missing 911 was called. A firefighter found the deceased floating just below the surface inside the swimming area. A postmortem autopsy determined the cause of death to be “asphyxia due to submersion.”
No one saw the deceased struggling or in distress, and no one saw him drown.
The case went to trial on two theories:
The first allegation was that the defendant was negligent in failing to provide lifeguards. The second allegation was that the defendant was negligent when it knew or should have known of the danger associated with encouraging its guests to swim to its recreational flotation devices, yet failed to take reasonable steps to secure their safety in doing so.
The jury returned a verdict based on the second issue. The defendant filed an appeal.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
Under Connecticut law to establish a basic or prima facie case, the plaintiff must:
[T]o establish a prima facie case, the proponent must submit evidence which, if credited, is sufficient to establish the fact or facts which it is adduced to prove . . . [T]he evidence offered by the plaintiff is to be taken as true and interpreted in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], and every reasonable inference is to be drawn in [the plaintiff’s] favor.
To win its case the plaintiff must prove negligence.
“In order to make out a prima facie case of negligence, the plaintiff must submit evidence that, if credited, is sufficient to establish duty, breach of duty, causation, and actual injury . . . A defendant’s duty and breach of duty is measured by a reasonable care standard, which is the care [that] a reasonably prudent person would use under the circumstances . . . After the plaintiff establishes that the defendant did not exercise reasonable care, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries. To do so, the plaintiff must first establish causation in fact, that is, that the injury would not have occurred but for the actor’s conduct . . . The plaintiff then must show proximate cause . . . Proximate cause requires that the defendant’s conduct [was] a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s injuries and that there was an unbroken sequence of events that tied [the plaintiff’s] injuries to the [defendant’s conduct] . . . Proximate cause does not require the plaintiff to remove from the realm of possibility all other potential causes of the accident . . . Instead, the plaintiff must establish that it is more likely than not that the cause on which the plaintiff relies was in fact a proximate cause of the accident. The more likely than not standard ensures that the causal connection . . . [is] based [on] more than conjecture or surmise.”
The defendants’ defense was no one saw the deceased drown. There was thus no proof of causation.
Interrogatories were provided to the jury. Interrogatories are questions the jury must answer in reaching its decision or in deciding the case. The interrogatory answers seemed to focus on the fight the owner’s manual of the trampoline warned that users should wear life jackets. Life jackets were available to swimmers in a shed on the beach; however, they were not required to be worn.
The plaintiff hired an expert witness who opined that the defendant campground was liable for failing to have safety measures in place, failing to have life guards and failing to have an emergency safety plan. However, these breaches of duty, if true, still had no link to how the decedent died. There was no way to say having one of the missing items identified by the expert witness was not proof that the plaintiff might have lived. “To do so, the plaintiff must first establish causation in fact, that is, that the injury would not have occurred but for the actor’s conduct…”
The court reversed the jury’s decision because there was no evidence of what happened to the plaintiff. Consequently, there was no relationship, no causal link between the failures to require life jackets to the deceased’s death.
The plaintiff failed to present any evidence to establish an unbroken sequence of events causally flowing from the defendant’s conduct that the jury found negligent to the decedent’s drowning. “The establishment of proximate cause is an essential element of a negligence claim and the parties recognize that if proximate cause is lacking, the plaintiff cannot prevail.”
The appellate court reversed the jury findings.
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, based on the evidence presented by the plaintiff, no reasonable juror could find that the negligence of the defendant caused or was a substantial factor in causing the decedent’s death by drowning. The lack of any evidence as to what caused this drowning is fatal to the plaintiff’s case.
So Now What?
It is sad when someone dies. However, just because someone dies or a bandage is used, does not mean there is liability and the need to write a check. There must be a connection between something the defendant did wrong and the injury to the victim.
That connection in Connecticut must be an unbroken string of events linking the plaintiff’s injuries to the defendant’s conduct.
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Deliah Colyer, as Natural Mother and Next Friend of Marshuan Braxton, Deceased, and on Behalf of all Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Marshuan Braxton, Deceased, Appellant v. First United Methodist Church of New Albany and John Does 1-15, APPELLEES
COURT OF APPEALS OF MISSISSIPPI
2016 Miss. App. LEXIS 160
March 29, 2016, Decided
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: UNION COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/22/2014. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. ROBERT WILLIAM ELLIOTT. TRIAL COURT DISPOSITION: SUMMARY JUDGMENT GRANTED TO APPELLEES.
DISPOSITION: REVERSED AND REMANDED.
COUNSEL: FOR APPELLANT: JOSHUA A. TURNER.
FOR APPELLEES: WILTON V. BYARS III, JOSEPH LUKE BENEDICT.
JUDGES: BEFORE IRVING, P.J., CARLTON AND JAMES, JJ. LEE, C.J., BARNES AND FAIR, JJ., JOIN THIS OPINION. WILSON, J., JOINS THIS OPINION IN PART. CARLTON, J., SPECIALLY CONCURRING.
OPINION BY: JAMES
NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL – WRONGFUL DEATH
BEFORE IRVING, P.J., CARLTON AND JAMES, JJ.
JAMES, J., FOR THE COURT:
P1. This case arises out of a wrongful-death action filed by Deliah Colyer on behalf of her deceased son, Marshuan Braxton. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of First United Methodist Church of New Albany. On appeal, Colyer argues that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment. Finding error, we reverse and remand this case for a trial.
P2. On June 20, 2009, Braxton, along with other minors and adult chaperones, flew from Memphis, Tennessee, to Costa Rica on a mission trip. Braxton, a seventeen-year-old, was expecting to begin his senior year at New Albany High School when classes [*2] resumed for the 2009-2010 school year. The purpose of the mission trip was to construct a sanctuary in Villa Briceno, Costa Rica, and conduct other mission activities. The trip was led by Amanda Gordon, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church of New Albany, Mississippi (FUNA). Amanda coordinated the trip with missionary Wil Bailey through the regional United Methodist missions group. There were fifteen members on the mission trip from FUNA, with nine adults and six minors. Five other individuals, four adults and one minor, from First United Methodist Church of Brandon, Mississippi, also joined.
P3. Before leaving for the mission trip, Elnora Howell, Braxton’s legal guardian and grandmother, signed two documents before a notary public as a condition of Braxton participating. These documents included a New Albany First United Methodist Church Youth Medical / Parent Consent form and a Parental Consent form. Braxton also signed a document entitled “Int. Missionary Profile and Release of Claim” that contained warnings about the dangers associated with participating in the mission trip.
P4. The group arrived in San Isidro, Costa Rica, on June 20. On June 21, 2009, the group left [*3] San Isidro to travel to the worksite in Villa Briceno. Since they expected to ride on the bus for several hours, Bailey suggested they stop for lunch at a scenic site on their way to Villa Briceno. The group stopped and ate at a roadside café. After leaving the café, they stopped at the Dominicalito, a beach, located near the Pacific Ocean. The weather was clear, and there were a few picnic tables in the area. A few locals were also there. The group intended to go on a brief excursion and take photographs. The bus driver suggested two or three areas on the beach for the group to visit.
P5. The group separated into two or three smaller groups and headed to the suggested areas. Braxton, Mattie Carter, and Josh Creekmore, along with adult chaperones, Sam Creekmore and Mike Carter, went to a rock formation and climbed onto it to observe crabs. The adults eventually climbed down and walked behind the rock formation. Braxton, Mattie, and Josh stayed up top and continued to observe the crabs. While Braxton, Mattie, and Josh were still up top, a large wave crashed into the rock formation and knocked them into the ocean.
P6. Mike and Sam immediately climbed back on the rock formation and saw [*4] Braxton, Mattie, and Josh swimming with their heads above water. The wave current, however, began to wash the minors away from the rock formation. Sam instructed them to swim around the rocks into an inlet area to reach safety on the beach. Mike climbed down closer to the water level. A second wave rose and knocked Mike into the ocean, and the current took him in the opposite direction of Braxton, Mattie, and Josh. Mike was eventually rescued by a local Costa Rican resident that had a life jacket and rope. Braxton, unfortunately, disappeared into the water before Mike was rescued. Mattie and Josh, however, were able to swim out onto the beach after being in the water for about five minutes.
P7. Adam Gordon and his wife, Amanda, went to a different area of the beach, but because of the distance and obstructions blocking their view they were unable to see the minors. Adam testified that he was knocked down by a wave at the same time that the wave reached the area where Braxton, Josh, and Mattie were located. Amanda was standing nearby and saw the wave approaching Adam. Amanda yelled to her husband and then saw the wave knock him down. According to the Gordons, only one or two minutes [*5] passed before they had turned the corner of the taller rock formation and could see the rock where Braxton had been located. And it was at that time that they saw Mattie and Josh getting out of the water and Mike being rescued. However, according to Josh, fifteen to twenty minutes passed between Adam being knocked down by the large wave and the minors being swept into the water by another large wave.
P8. The mission-trip members immediately began to seek help after seeing people on the beach reacting and in the water. The locals contacted emergency services by telephone, and residents in the area helped. The ambulance and local authorities arrived. Thereafter, everyone at the beach began to look for Braxton. The mission-trip group stayed on the beach for over three hours after the incident until darkness ended their search. Regrettably, Braxton’s body was found the next day and identified by Amanda, Adam, and Sam.
P9. The complaint was filed on November 10, 2011, in the Circuit Court of Union County, Mississippi. FUNA filed its answer and defenses on March 16, 2012, and, after conducting discovery, filed it motion for summary judgment on March 5, 2014. A hearing was [*6] held on April 28, 2014, and resulted in the circuit court granting Colyer’s request for additional time to conduct discovery. Colyer conducted additional discovery and depositions followed by the parties providing supplemental briefing. Another hearing was held on September 16, 2014. After considering all of the sworn evidence and the arguments of counsel, the circuit court found that no genuine issue of material fact existed to support Colyer’s claims of negligence. The circuit court entered an order granting FUNA’s motion for summary judgment on September 23, 2014.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
P10. [HN1] We review the trial court’s grant or denial of summary judgment under a de novo standard. Moss Point Sch. Dist. v. Stennis, 132 So. 3d 1047, 1049-50 (P10) (Miss. 2014).
[HN2] Summary judgment is appropriate and shall be rendered if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Importantly, the party opposing summary judgment may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleadings, but his response, by affidavit or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific [*7] facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. If he does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, will be entered against him.
Karpinsky v. Am. Nat’l Ins., 109 So. 3d 84, 88 (P10) (Miss. 2013) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “[T]he evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion has been made.” One S. Inc. v. Hollowell, 963 So. 2d 1156, 1160 (P6) (Miss. 2007).
I. The trial court erred by granting summary judgment, as genuine issues of material fact existed.
P11. Colyer alleges that FUNA was negligent and FUNA owed a duty to supervise Braxton while the group was on the mission trip. FUNA’s position is that no negligence existed and that summary judgment was proper. [HN3] The elements of a prima facie case of negligence are duty, breach, causation, and damages. Grisham v. John Q. Long V.F.W. Post, No. 4057 Inc., 519 So. 2d 413, 416 (Miss. 1988); Burnham v. Tabb, 508 So. 2d 1072, 1074 (Miss. 1987). Colyer contends that FUNA owed a duty to Braxton to provide ordinary care while supervising him during this trip. Colyer alleges that the duty was breached, and that the negligent acts or omissions of FUNA caused the death of Braxton.
P12. FUNA agrees that a duty was owed to supervise Braxton, but FUNA contends that Braxton’s age at the time of his death diminishes that duty. Nevertheless, our supreme court has held that [HN4] adequacy of supervision is a question for the jury. Summers v. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Sch., 759 So. 2d 1203, 1215 (PP48-50) (Miss. 2000); see also James v. Gloversville Enlarged Sch. Dist., 155 A.D.2d 811, 548 N.Y.S.2d 87, 88-89 (N.Y. App. Div. 1989). Therefore, [*8] regardless of Braxton’s age, a jury must decide what constitutes proper and adequate supervision. See Todd v. First Baptist Church of W. Point, 993 So. 2d 827, 829 (P12) (Miss. 2008).
P13. There are also disputed facts regarding whether it was reasonable to expect Amanda to give Braxton warning after she witnessed her husband being knocked down by a wave. And we have determined that [HN5] “[c]ontradictory statements by a witness go to the weight and credibility of that witness[‘s] testimony, not its sufficiency, and a summary judgment motion does not place the trial court in the role of weighing testimony and determining the credibility of witnesses.” Jamison v. Barnes, 8 So. 3d 238, 245 (P17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (citation omitted).
P14. Additionally, Colyer alleges other acts of negligence: (1) failure to research the dangers of the Pacific coast and (2) allowing the children, including Braxton, to go onto a dangerous rock structure on the coast of the Pacific Ocean without any knowledge of oceanic activities in Costa Rica.
P15. We conclude that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether FUNA provided ordinary care while supervising Braxton during this trip, and so we reverse the grant of summary judgment.
II. The trial court erred in granting summary judgment by considering the waivers of Howell and Braxton.
P16. Even though Colyer [*9] raised this issue, it does not appear that the judge considered the waiver. In his opinion, the judge stated:
[The plaintiff] claims that the defendant is liable for the wrongful death of Marshuan Braxton, who die[d] from drowning during a mission trip to Costa Rica on June 21, 2009. Viewing the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court finds no genuine issues of material fact exist[ ] to support [the] plaintiff’s claim of negligence against the defendant. Therefore, this Court finds as a matter of law [the] defendant’s motion to dismiss shall be granted.
P17. FUNA admits that it does not appear that the court relied on the release. However, FUNA states that the waivers are valid and bar recovery. It is undisputed that the parties in this appeal are not the same parties that executed the waivers. It appears that one of the waivers was signed by Howell, who was Braxton’s grandmother. She signed a “parental consent form,” but she is not a party to this action. Braxton, a seventeen-year-old minor at the time, appeared to have signed the release waiver.
P18. [HN6] Pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-19-13 (Rev. 2013), Braxton could not legally sign a contract of this nature to waive liability.1 Braxton’s contract [*10] was not legally binding because of his age and the nature of the contract. FUNA also alleges that the wrongful-death beneficiaries are bound by the contract of Braxton since they are third-party beneficiaries of Braxton’s contract. [HN7] “[O]rdinary contract principals require a meeting of the minds between the parties in order for agreements to be valid.” Am. Heritage Life Ins. v. Lang, 321 F.3d 533, 538 (5th Cir. 2003) (internal quotations and citations omitted). A contract cannot bind a nonparty. E.E.O.C. v. Waffle House Inc., 534 U.S. 279, 308, 122 S. Ct. 754, 151 L. Ed. 2d 755 (2002).
1 [HN8] “All persons eighteen (18) years of age or older, if not otherwise disqualified, or prohibited by law, shall have the capacity to enter into binding contractual relationships affecting personal property. Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect any contracts entered into prior to July 1, 1976. In any legal action founded on a contract entered into by a person eighteen (18) years of age or older, the said person may sue in his own name as an adult and be sued in his own name as an adult and be served with process as an adult.” See also Garrett v. Gay, 394 So. 2d 321, 322 (Miss. 1981).
P19. The two waivers executed in this case are not binding on Colyer and the trial court was correct in not giving any effect to these two waivers in its opinion.
P20. There is sufficient evidence before this Court [*11] to show that genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether FUNA’s supervision was negligent. Therefore, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment is reversed, and this case is remanded for a trial.
P21. THE JUDGMENT OF THE UNION COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT IS REVERSED, AND THIS CASE IS REMANDED FOR A TRIAL. ALL COSTS OF THIS APPEAL ARE ASSESSED TO THE APPELLEES.
LEE, C.J., IRVING, P.J., BARNES AND FAIR, JJ., CONCUR. WILSON, J., CONCURS IN RESULT ONLY WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION. CARLTON, J., SPECIALLY CONCURS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION, JOINED BY LEE, C.J., BARNES AND FAIR, JJ.; WILSON, J., JOINS IN PART. GRIFFIS, P.J., DISSENTS WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION. ISHEE AND GREENLEE, JJ., NOT PARTICIPATING.
CONCUR BY: CARLTON
CARLTON, J., SPECIALLY CONCURRING:
P22. I specially concur with the majority’s opinion in this case, and I write specially to address the material questions of fact raised herein. With respect to the negligence claims raised, the question as to whether a duty to warn arose from the relationship between the parties constitutes a question of law. See Pritchard v. Von Houten, 960 So. 2d 568, 579 (P27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). Questions of law are reviewed de novo. Id. at 576 (P20). However, the questions as to causation and foreseeability include material [*12] questions of fact. P23. In this case, a duty clearly arose from the relationship between Braxton, a seventeen-year-old minor, and Amanda, the associate pastor and leader of FUNA’s youth mission trip. At the very least, FUNA, by and through its employee, Amanda, bore a duty to use ordinary care to plan and supervise this international mission trip composed of church members to Costa Rica and its shores on the Pacific Ocean. As the facts of this case reflect, a duty also arose and existed to supervise Braxton on the rock formations of the Costa Rica Pacific coastline. Accordingly, I find that genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether FUNA, through its employee, Amanda, negligently failed to warn of dangerous conditions that she knew or should have known existed on the beaches of Costa Rica’s Pacific Ocean edge, and whether Amanda, as the mission-trip leader, negligently planned and supervised this international mission trip. See Garrett v. Nw. Miss. Junior Coll., 674 So. 2d 1, 3 (Miss. 1996).2
2 In Garrett, 674 So. 2d at 3, the Mississippi Supreme Court relied upon Roberts v. Robertson County Board of Education, 692 S.W.2d 863, 870 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1985), where the Tennessee Court of Appeals imposed a duty of care upon a high-school vocational teacher “to take those precautions that any ordinarily reasonable and prudent person would take to protect his [*13] shop students from the unreasonable risk of injury.”
P24. In Pritchard, 960 So. 2d at 579 (P27),3 we recognized that “[a]n important component of the existence of a duty is that the injury is reasonably foreseeable.” The Pritchard court further explained:
A defendant charged with a duty to exercise ordinary care must only take reasonable measures to remove or protect against foreseeable hazards that he knows about or should know about in the exercise of due care. Such a defendant must safeguard against reasonable probabilities, and is not charged with foreseeing all occurrences, even though such occurrences are within the range of possibility. A defendant whose conduct is reasonable in light of the foreseeable risks will not be found liable for negligence.
Id. at (P29) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted); see also Donald v. Amoco Prod. Co., 735 So. 2d 161, 175 (P48) (Miss. 1999). While duty constitutes an issue of law, causation is generally a question of fact for the jury. Brown v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 06-CV-199, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40816, 2007 WL 1657417, at *4 (S.D. Miss. June 4, 2007).
3 The court in Pritchard, 960 So. 2d at 579 (P27), found that a vocational teacher “has the duty to take those precautions that any ordinary reasonable and prudent person would take to protect his shop students from the unreasonable risk of injury.”
P25. In Foster ex rel. Foster v. Bass, 575 So. 2d 967, 972 (Miss. 1990), the supreme court stated that “in order to recover for an injury to a [*14] person or property, by reason of negligence or want of due care, there must be shown to exist some obligation or duty toward the plaintiff which the defendant has left undischarged or unfulfilled.” Issues of fact as to foreseeability and breach of duty preclude summary judgment. See Summers ex rel. Dawson v. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Sch. Inc., 759 So. 2d 1203, 1214 (PP48-51) (Miss. 2000) (reversing summary judgment on negligent-supervision claim because issues of fact as to foreseeability existed).
P26. In this case, the record reflects that Amanda served as both the associate minister and youth minister at FUNA. Amanda testified that she was responsible for planning the trip to Costa Rica and that she recruited others to participate in this international mission trip. She provided that she had led youth mission trips before and had traveled with youth groups internationally before. Amanda testified that she had consulted with team leaders from another church who had traveled to Costa Rica on youth mission trips, but she admitted to failing to check with the United States State Department online travel advisory warnings, or any other travel advisories, as to any unsafe beach, tide, or surf conditions in Costa Rica. She also admitted to not instructing or warning Braxton or any other youth [*15] about beach safety or about the dangerous surf or riptides of Coast Rica’s Pacific Coast.4
4 Compare Rygg v. Cnty. of Maui, 98 F. Supp. 2d 1129, 1132-33 (D. Haw. 1999).
P27. Geographically, Costa Rica sits between the Carribean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The record reflects that the youth group was on the Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica, and that Braxton and other members of the mission team began climbing on volcanic-rock formations that were separated from the shore by shallow water. Braxton and Josh climbed on and over the rock formation to the Pacific Ocean side, and then they climbed down by the Pacific Ocean’s edge, where they saw some crabs. While watching the crabs, waves from the Pacific Ocean knocked Braxton and Josh off of the rock formation, into the ocean, and into the current of the dangerous riptides. Josh explained that the waves knocked them into different currents.
P28. Regarding the traumatic events, Josh testified that he was standing on the rock formation with Braxton when a wave knocked them off of the rock and into the water. Josh testified that two more waves hit them as they tried to climb back onto the rock. Josh recalled getting pushed back under water after the second wave hit. When he came back [*16] to the surface, Braxton was grabbing his back, and the water had pushed the two of them close enough to the rock that they had fallen off of that they could try to climb back up. When the water from the wave subsided, they slid back down into the water, and Josh and Braxton then became separated by different currents. Josh testified that he was pushed into a current separate from Braxton, taking them in different directions. Josh recalled looking back and watching Braxton climb onto a smaller rock. When a third wave hit them, he and Braxton went under water again, and when he came back up, he could no longer see Braxton. Josh testified that prior to the trip, no one warned him of unsafe tide, surf, waves, or other conditions existing on the Pacific Ocean coast of Costa Rica. He also testified that he brought a swim suit with him on the trip.
P29. The record contains pictures of the location where Braxton was knocked off of the volcanic-rock formation and into the Pacific Ocean. Josh described the top of the rock that he and Braxton climbed on as twenty feet high above the water, and stated that he and Braxton were on the ocean side of the formation, ten feet from the top, when the wave [*17] swept them off. Josh provided that water completely surrounded the rock on all sides, separating the rock from dry sand by approximately thirty to forty feet of ankle-deep water on one side. Josh explained that the water was deeper on the ocean side of the rock where he and Braxton were knocked in the water.
P30. Josh testified that he recalled Adam, a grown man who weighed approximately 340 pounds, slipping into the water before the wave hit him and Braxton. Adam testified that he was knocked down by a seven-to-eight-foot wave. Josh recalled that Adam was swept into the water about fifteen to twenty minutes before a different wave swept him and Braxton into the ocean.
P31. The record reflects existing material questions of fact as to whether the church, through its mission-trip leader and employee, Amanda, negligently breached its duty to Braxton, a minor, to plan and supervise this international mission trip and to warn Braxton of the dangerous beach and surf conditions on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Therefore, the trial court erred in granting summary judgment since triable issues of material fact exist in this case. In planning and supervising this trip, a duty existed to warn of [*18] the hidden dangers and perils not in plain view that FUNA and its mission trip leader, Amanda, knew, or should have known, existed. Additionally, once the tide rose and the large waves knocked the adults down, Amanda bore a duty to supervise and warn Braxton of the dangerous conditions.
P32. The trial court’s decision failed to address the Youth Medical/Parental Consent form waivers or their applicability in this case. However, the enforceability of the waivers was argued on appeal, and I write briefly to address this issue. Jurisprudence reflects that the preinjury waivers herein are unenforceable with respect to the negligence claims for wrongful death raised in this case against the church for its negligence in planning, supervising, and failing to warn of the dangerous beach and ocean conditions on this mission trip to Costa Rica. See Ghane v. Mid-S. Inst. of Self Def. Shooting Inc., 137 So. 3d 212, 221-22 (P23) (Miss. 2014). The language in the waivers in this case applied to church-mission-related activities and related risks. The waivers contained no language regarding the liability or risks of recreational activities such as hiking, swimming, or rock climbing on Costa Rica’s beaches on the Pacific Ocean or the risks of the dangerous riptides and dangerous ocean surf. [*19] Public policy prohibits the use of preinjury waivers of liability for personal injury due to future acts of a defendant’s own negligence. See Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So. 2d 467, 469 (P8) (Miss. 1999) (waiver unenforceable where it did not express intent of student to accept any heightened exposure to injury caused by malfeasance of instructor’s failure to follow safety guidelines); Rice v. Am. Skiing Co., No. CIV.A.CV-99-06, 2000 Me. Super. LEXIS 90, 2000 WL 33677027, at *2 (Me. Super. Ct. May 8, 2000). For a waiver to be valid and enforceable, it must not be ambiguous and it must be specific in wording as to the liability. See Turnbough, 754 So. 2d at 469 (P8). Waivers will be strictly construed against the defendant. Id. When a waiver contains ambiguous language, it cannot be construed as a waiver of liability for injuries that result from the negligence of the defendant. Id. at 470 (P9).
P33. As stated, the evidence in the record reflects material questions of fact exist as to foreseeability and breach of duty for negligent failure to plan and supervise the mission trip and failure to warn of the dangerous beach and surf conditions of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.5 Therefore, summary judgment must be reversed and the case remanded.
5 Compare Diamond Crystal Salt Co. v. Thielman, 395 F.2d 62, 65 (5th Cir. 1968) (plaintiff was injured on a guided tour of a mine where “the danger was not obvious, and if the dangerous condition [*20] had in fact been observed it would not have been appreciated by persons of ordinary understanding”); see also Martinez v. United States, 780 F.2d 525, 527 (5th Cir. 1986) (duty to warn at shallow swimming area of federal park); Wyatt v. Rosewood Hotels & Resorts LLC, 47 V.I. 551, 2005 WL 1706134, at *4-5 (D.V.I. 2005).
LEE, C.J., BARNES AND FAIR, JJ., JOIN THIS OPINION. WILSON, J., JOINS THIS OPINION IN PART.
Adelson Luiz De Castro, Administrator of the Estate of Jose Luiz De Castro v. Odetah Camping Resort, Inc.
SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF FAIRFIELD AT BRIDGEPORT
2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2297
September 2, 2015, Decided
September 2, 2015, Filed
NOTICE: THIS DECISION IS UNREPORTED AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO FURTHER APPELLATE REVIEW. COUNSEL IS CAUTIONED TO MAKE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION OF THE STATUS OF THIS CASE.
JUDGES: [*1] Michael P. Kamp, J.
OPINION BY: Michael P. Kamp
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO SET ASIDE THE VERDICT AND MOTION FOR JUDGMENT NOTWITHSTANDING THE VERDICT
The defendant, Odetah Camping Resort, Inc., has filed a renewal of its motion for directed verdict and a motion to set aside the jury’s verdict.1 The trial commenced on April 28, 2015, and evidence concluded on May 6, 2015, when the defense rested its case. The jury received the charge on the law on May 6, 2015. On May 6, 2015, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, Adelson Luiz DeCastro, Administrator of the Estate of Jose Luiz DeCastro, and awarded total damages of $229,155.96. Regarding the question of comparative negligence, the jury found the plaintiff’s decedent, Jose DeCastro, was 49% responsible for his own injuries.
1 The defendant originally moved for a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiff’s case in chief. At that time, the court reserved decision, and the defendant commenced its defense. On close of the defendant’s case, the matter was submitted to the jury.
The defendant filed its motion to set aside the verdict on May 15, 2015. The plaintiff filed its objection to the defendant’s motion [*2] on May 19, 2015. On June 22, 2015, the court heard the matter at short calendar and took the papers.
The defendant argues in its motion that the plaintiff failed to prove beyond the realm of surmise and speculation that the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of the death of the decedent. This argument is based upon a lack of evidence as to what actually caused the decedent to drown.
After a trial, the jury could have found as follows. On July 7, 2011, the decedent and a group of friends went to the defendant resort located in Bozrah, Connecticut. In order to gain entrance, the decedent paid an entrance fee. The defendant is an approximately 100-acre campground that offers multiple recreational activities. In addition to facilities to accommodate overnight camping, the defendant offers sporting facilities, which include a pool as well as volleyball, tennis, and basketball courts. The defendant abuts a large, thirty-two-acre freshwater lake, which includes a small beach, and offers swimming and boating activities. A portion of the lake that is adjacent to the beach has a designated swim area. The boundaries of the swim area are designated by a rope line and buoys. Just [*3] beyond the roped off swimming area are two inflatable platforms. One was described as a platform or trampoline, and the other was described as an “iceberg.” Both inflatable devices were attractions to be used by the resort guests. The defendant did not provide lifeguards at the pool or lake swim area. A single sign was posted at one end of the beach area, indicating: “No Lifeguard on Duty. Swim at Your Own Risk.” No employees of the defendant directly supervised the lake swimming area.
On July 9, 2011, the decedent and his friend, Saulo Sousa, entered the designated swimming area for the purpose of swimming out to the trampoline just beyond the buoy line. When Sousa reached the rope line, he observed the decedent immediately behind him in the water. The depth of the water at this location was approximately six feet. As Sousa lifted the rope line to duck under it, he observed the decedent diving forward and under the rope. When Sousa reached the trampoline, he climbed on it but did not observe the decedent. After spending a few minutes on the trampoline, Sousa reentered the water and swam to the shore. After unsuccessfully attempting to locate the decedent, employees of the defendant [*4] were notified that he was missing. After a brief search, 911 emergency services were dispatched, and Bozrah firefighters and rescue personnel responded to the scene. When notified that the decedent was last seen in the designated swim area near the buoy line, firefighter Colin Laffey entered the water and located the decedent floating unresponsive just below the surface of the water just inside the buoy line. Laffey testified that he located the decedent in an area where the depth of the water was less than six feet. The decedent was brought to shore, and CPR was administered. The decedent was then transported by ambulance to Backus Hospital, but never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead. A postmortem autopsy determined the cause of death to be asphyxia due to submersion. The postmortem examination was negative for any signs of illness, traumatic injury, or any preexisting medical condition or disease. A toxicology examination was negative for the presence of any drugs, alcohol, or medication.
The decedent’s drowning was unwitnessed despite the fact that there were numerous people in the water and on the beach. Although other members of the decedent’s group, including his [*5] girlfriend, were on the beach adjacent to the swimming area, no one saw him in distress or struggling in the water. He was identified by his friends as a good or strong swimmer.
Practice Book §16-37 provides, in relevant part: “Whenever a motion for a directed verdict made at any time after the close of the plaintiff’s case in chief is denied or for any reason is not granted, the judicial authority is deemed to have submitted the action to the jury subject to a later determination of the legal questions raised by the motion.” “Directed verdicts are not favored . . . A trial court should direct a verdict only when a jury could not reasonably and legally have reached any other conclusion . . . In reviewing the trial court’s decision to direct a verdict in favor of a defendant we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff . . . Although it is the jury’s right to draw logical deductions and make reasonable inferences from the facts proven . . . it may not resort to mere conjecture and speculation . . . A directed verdict is justified if . . . the evidence is so weak that it would be proper for the court to set aside a verdict rendered for the other party.” (Internal [*6] quotation marks omitted.) Riccio v. Harbour Village Condominium Assn., Inc., 281 Conn. 160, 163, 914 A.2d 529 (2007). “A verdict may be directed . . . where the claim is that there is insufficient evidence to sustain a favorable verdict.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Beale v. Yale-New Haven Hospital, 89 Conn.App. 556, 565-66, 874 A.2d 259 (2005).
Likewise, “[a] trial court may set aside a verdict on a finding that the verdict is manifestly unjust because, given the evidence presented, the jury mistakenly applied a legal principle or because there is no evidence to which the legal principles of the case could be applied . . . A verdict should not be set aside, however, where it is apparent that there was some evidence on which the jury might reasonably have reached its conclusion . . . This limitation on a trial court’s discretion results from the constitutional right of litigants to have issues of fact determined by a jury.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Deas v. Diaz, 121 Conn.App. 826, 841, 998 A.2d 200, cert. denied, 298 Conn. 905, 3 A.3d 69 (2010), rev’d on other grounds, Saleh v. Ribeiro Trucking, LLC, 303 Conn. 276, 32 A.3d 318 (2011).
“[T]o establish a prima facie case, the proponent must submit evidence which, if credited, is sufficient to establish the fact or facts which it is adduced to prove . . . [T]he evidence offered by the plaintiff is to be taken as true and interpreted in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], and every reasonable inference is to be drawn in [the plaintiff’s] [*7] favor.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Cadle Co. v. Errato, 71 Conn.App. 447, 455-56, 802 A.2d 887, cert. denied, 262 Conn. 918, 812 A.2d 861 (2002). “The credibility and weight to be attributed to any evidence offered [at trial] is solely within the province of the jury.” Murteza v. State, 7 Conn.App. 196, 208-09, 508 A.2d 449, cert. denied, 200 Conn. 803, 510 A.2d 191 (1986). “[I]t is not the function of [the trial] court to sit as the seventh juror when [it] review[s] the sufficiency of the evidence . . . rather, [it] must determine, in the light most favorable to sustaining the verdict, whether the totality of the evidence, including reasonable inferences therefrom, supports the [trier’s] verdict . . . In making this determination, [t]he evidence must be given the most favorable construction in support of the verdict of which it is reasonably capable . . . In other words, [i]f the [trier] could reasonably have reached its conclusion, the verdict must stand, even if [the trial] court disagrees with it.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) O’Connor v. Larocque, 302 Conn. 562, 612, 31 A.3d 1 (2011).
“In order to make out a prima facie case of negligence, the plaintiff must submit evidence that, if credited, is sufficient to establish duty, breach of duty, causation, and actual injury . . . A defendant’s duty and breach of duty is measured by a reasonable care standard, which is the care [that] a reasonably prudent person would use under [*8] the circumstances . . . After the plaintiff establishes that the defendant did not exercise reasonable care, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries. To do so, the plaintiff must first establish causation in fact, that is, that the injury would not have occurred but for the actor’s conduct . . . The plaintiff then must show proximate cause . . . Proximate cause requires that the defendant’s conduct [was] a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s injuries and that there was an unbroken sequence of events that tied [the plaintiff’s] injuries to the [defendant’s conduct] . . . Proximate cause does not require the plaintiff to remove from the realm of possibility all other potential causes of the accident . . . Instead, the plaintiff must establish that it is more likely than not that the cause on which the plaintiff relies was in fact a proximate cause of the accident. The more likely than not standard ensures that the causal connection . . . [is] based [on] more than conjecture or surmise.” (Citations omitted; emphasis omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Rawls v. Progressive Northern Insurance Company, 310 Conn. 768, 776-77, 83 A.3d 576 (2014).
The defendant’s primary argument is that no one [*9] witnessed the decedent’s drowning, and there was no evidence offered as to what caused him to drown. The defendant relies on Wu v. Fairfield, 204 Conn. 435, 528 A.2d 364 (1987). In Wu, the plaintiff’s decedent who was fifteen years old, went to Lake Mohegan, a freshwater lake, with her mother and two brothers for an afternoon of swimming. Id., 437. There was a designated swim area marked by a buoy line. At the time of the occurrence, there were four lifeguards on duty. Id. Those lifeguards had observed that the plaintiff’s decedent was a poor swimmer and had warned her twice to return to the shallow portion of the designated swim area. Id. When an approaching storm prompted the lifeguards to clear the water, the plaintiff’s decedent did not return to shore. Id. After a search, one of the lifeguards found the decedent’s body at the bottom of the lake in the designated swim area but beyond the shallow portion. Id., 437-38. The plaintiff alleged that the town and several of its employees, the lifeguards, were negligent in the performance of their duties. Id., 436. A jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Id. The plaintiff then filed a motion to set aside the verdict, which motion was denied. Id. In affirming the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s [*10] motion to set aside the verdict, the court held that “[w]hile it is undisputed that the decedent drowned, there was no evidence tying any negligence on the defendant lifeguards’ part to her death . . . Here, the plaintiff presented no evidence other than that the victim perished in an unwitnessed drowning. The plaintiff failed to establish an unbroken sequence of events causally flowing from the defendant lifeguards’ arguably negligent supervision to the decedent’s drowning.” Id., 440.
In this case, the plaintiff’s May 4, 2015 amended complaint contained two specifications of negligence as to the conduct of the defendant. The first allegation was that the defendant was negligent in failing to provide lifeguards. The second allegation was that the defendant was negligent when it knew or should have known of the danger associated with encouraging its guests to swim to its recreational flotation devices, yet failed to take reasonable steps to secure their safety in doing so. In response to jury interrogatories submitted by the court the jury found that the defendant was negligent with regard to the second specification but not the first. With regard to the claim of negligence concerning encouraging [*11] swimmers to use the flotation devices, the plaintiff relied on testimony that the owner’s manual for the two devices contained warnings that recommended users wear life vests. Although life vests were available in a shed adjacent to the lake swim area, the defendant did not require guests entering the lake or using any of the flotation devices to wear them. In addition, the plaintiff argued that the defendant failed to properly supervise and monitor the swimming area and had an inadequate emergency rescue plan.
The plaintiff offered the testimony of Gerald Dworkin, an aquatic safety expert. Dworkin offered opinion testimony regarding the defendant’s lack of safety measures including its failure to have lifeguards monitoring the swim area. Dworkin was also critical of the defendant’s lack of an emergency safety plan. Dworkin did not, however, offer any opinion testimony as to what actually caused the decedent to drown. He affirmed that it was an unwitnessed drowning. In addition, although the owner’s manuals for the flotation devices recommended the use of life vests, the decedent was not using either device when he drowned; the little evidence there is indicates he never left the designated [*12] swim area. The flotation devices were located outside that designated area.
Here, as in Wu, the plaintiff presented no evidence other than that the decedent died in an unwitnessed drowning. There was no evidence as to what caused the decedent to drown. In the absence of any such evidence, any number of factual possibilities could explain this accident. Without any evidence as to what caused this unfortunate incident, only speculation and conjecture could link the plaintiff’s drowning to the negligent conduct of the defendant. The plaintiff failed to present any evidence to establish an unbroken sequence of events causally flowing from the defendant’s conduct that the jury found negligent to the decedent’s drowning. “The establishment of proximate cause is an essential element of a negligence claim and the parties recognize that if proximate cause is lacking, the plaintiff cannot prevail.” Wu v. Town Of Fairfield, supra, 204 Conn. 441.
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, based on the evidence presented by the plaintiff, no reasonable juror could find that the negligence of the defendant caused or was a substantial factor in causing the decedent’s death by drowning. The lack of any evidence as to what [*13] caused this drowning is fatal to the plaintiff’s case.
Because the plaintiff failed to establish that the negligent conduct of the defendant was the proximate cause of the decedent’s drowning, the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict is granted. Judgment may enter for the defendant.
New Jersey does not support fee shifting provisions (indemnification clauses) in releases in a sky diving case.Posted: June 1, 2015
Plaintiff’s claims were dismissed because the plaintiff failed to present enough evidence to support any elements of his claim for his injuries skydiving.
State: New Jersey, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division
Plaintiff: Joseph Dare and Patricia Dare
Defendant: Freefall Adventures, Inc., John Ed-Dowes, Warren Acron and Eric Keith Johnson, Defendants-Respondents.
The plaintiff was injured when he attempted to avoid colliding with another sky diver. The co-participant had left the airplane first and was lower than the plaintiff; therefore, the co-participant had the right of way.
The plaintiff had been jumping from this site with the defendant for two years, which totaled 137 jumps, including every week the six months before the accident.
Prior to jumping the plaintiff signed a release. The release was five pages long and included an indemnity agreement. The plaintiff also signed a release for Cross Keys Airport, Inc.
The plaintiff sued his co-participant sky diver, as well as the jump facility for his injuries.
The plaintiff denied that it was the cause of his injury; however, he had made arrangements to have his wife photograph him during the jump. In order to allow his wife the opportunity to photograph him, he had to steer through buildings towards the concession trailer where his wife was located.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted because the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence.
Prima facie, Latin for first look, which legally means the plaintiff, could not establish any facts or sufficient facts to support its claims. A plaintiff must show enough to the court to establish the very basics supporting the elements in its claim.
The defendant had argued that based on the release it should be awarded its attorney fees and costs also; however, the trial court did not grant this motion.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first looked at the standard of care between participants in a sporting event.
…the duty of care applicable to participants in informal recreational sports is to avoid the infliction of injury caused by reckless or intentional conduct.” The Court’s determination was grounded on two policy considerations; the promotion of vigorous participation in athletic activities, and the avoidance of a flood of litigation generated by voluntary participation in games and sports.
The reckless standard is a greater standard than the negligence standard. That means the acts of the co-participant to be liable for the injuries of another participant must be beyond negligent acts.
The applicability of the heightened standard of care for causes of action for personal injuries occurring in recreational sports should not depend on which sport is involved and whether it is commonly perceived as a “contact” or “noncontact” sport. The recklessness or intentional conduct standard of care articulated in Crawn was not meant to be applied in a crabbed fashion. That standard represented the enunciation of a more modern approach to our common law in actions for personal injuries that generally occur during recreational sporting activities.
Another reason for the application of the reckless standard rather than the negligence standard is the concern that the lower standard would create a flood of lawsuits for any sporting injury.
Recklessness under New Jersey law “entails highly unreasonable conduct, involving “an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent.”
“The standard is objective and may be proven by showing that a defendant ‘proceeded in disregard of a high and excessive degree of danger either known to him [or her] or apparent to a reasonable person in his [or her] position.'”. “Recklessness, unlike negligence, requires a conscious choice of a course of action, with knowledge or a reason to know that it will create serious danger to others.”
The court also felt that a failure on the part of the plaintiff to provide expert testimony as to what standard of care was for skydiving doomed the plaintiff’s claims.
skydiving requires the training and licensing of participants. According to the record, it involves knowledge and conduct peculiar to the activity, including an understanding of wind direction and velocity, proper diver spacing, control of descent, and avoidance of ground hazards.
The appellate court upheld the trial courts dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims against the other co-participant sky diver. The court then looked at the plaintiffs’ claims against the defendant sky diving operation. The court found that the recklessness standard did not apply to the facility.
Consequently, the question here was whether, under the ordinary duty owed to business invitees, considering the nature of the risks associated with skydiving and the foreseeability of injury, plaintiff’s risk of injury was materially increased beyond those reasonably anticipated by skydiving participants as a result of the manner by which Freefall operated its facility. Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate such a material increase in risk.
For the plaintiff to make a claim against the defendant facility, he would have to prove that facility materially increased the risks over that of a normal sky-diving facility. Again, the plaintiff failed to prove that or provide enough evidence to proceed with his claims.
There was absolutely no evidence presented that Freefall failed to supervise the divers on the day of plaintiff’s accident. The record established that the loading of the aircraft, its operation, and the jumps themselves, were uneventful. Nothing suggests that Freefall personnel knew or should have known that plaintiff, or any other diver, was in peril because of the conduct of other participants. Moreover, Freefall had no way of controlling plaintiff’s, Johnson’s, or any other jumper’s maneuvering of their parachute canopies during the descent. Both plaintiff and Johnson were trained and licensed sky-divers. It is undisputed that once airborne, it was their duty alone to proceed with due care.
Plaintiff also claimed the landing zone of the defendant facility was not in accordance with regulatory minimums; however, he never stated what those minimums were or how the defendant’s facility failed to meet those minimums.
The appellate court upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.
We conclude that the recklessness standard applied to Johnson and the ordinary negligence standard applied to Freefall, and, based on the evidentiary material submitted, summary judgment was properly granted to all defendants.
The court then looked at the indemnification provisions in the release which the court called “fee shifting provisions.”
The court looked at how other states had handled fee shifting provisions in sky-diving cases. New Jersey had not looked at the issue in skydiving, but had examined the issue in other cases, which had found the provisions were void.
The court reiterated that the plaintiff’s claim had been dismissed based on the plaintiff’s failure to present a prima facie case, not based on the release. The fee shifting provisions were part of the release. Under New Jersey law, “that sound judicial administration is best advanced if litigants bear their own counsel fees.” Even when fee shifting provisions are allowed, they will be strictly construed.
Essentially, the fee-shifting clause in Freefall’s release/waiver may be construed as an indemnification agreement, whereby plaintiff has agreed to pay counsel fees incurred by Freefall in defending plaintiffs’ suit, even if the cause of plaintiff’s injuries was Freefall’s own negligence. Such agreements, of course, must also be strictly construed against the indemnitee.
Reviewing construction law and finding no recreational case law where a fee shifting provision had been upheld the court determined the provisions were void as a violation of public policy.
Against this backdrop, we conclude that the fee-shifting provision in Freefall’s agreement is void as against public policy. It obviously runs counter to our strong policy disfavoring fee shifting of attorneys’ fees.
The deterrent effect of enforcing such a fee-shifting agreement offends our strong policy favoring an injured party’s right to seek compensation when it is alleged that the injury was caused by the tortious conduct of another.
The court also justified its decision by saying that because skydiving was regulated boy by the FAA and the New Jersey Department of Transportation it would be wrong to allow recovery of attorney fees by the defendant when the plaintiff argued the regulations had been violated, Even though the plaintiff’s arguments had no proof.
The defendant also attempted to argue the plaintiff’s complaint was frivolous which under a New Jersey statute would have allowed the defendant to recover their attorney fees defending a frivolous claim. However, the court found there were enough bases in the plaintiff’s complaint that it did not meet the frivolous claim threshold.
So Now What?
As stated in several other cases, indemnification clauses, even when well written, as you might assume from a five-page release, rarely result in recovery of attorney fees.
This also shows that the length of the release is not a deterrent, whether the release is effective in some court. Some people balk at a release over one page. However, when stopping a multi-million dollar claim a few pieces of paper are not a big issue.
Have your release written so that it protects you and all possible co-defendants and maybe includes a well-written indemnification clause.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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