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

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

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

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

Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau

Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak

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

Defendant Defenses:

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

Year: 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

July 31, 2012, Decided

July 31, 2012, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)

CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure

COUNSEL:  [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.

For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II

OPINION

Jones, II, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1

1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and  [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which  [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).

T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.

Failure to Warn

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause  [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).

2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.

Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded  [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:

o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.

o Plaintiff  [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.

o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.

o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.

 

Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.

However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA,  [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).

Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611.  [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.

3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.

4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.

In sum, this evidence of record establishes  [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.

Assumption of Risk

T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A.,     F. Supp. 2d    , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish  [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.

5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).

Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased  [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff  [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.

6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to  [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006)  [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).

Punitive Damages

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled  [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed,  [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).

Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and  [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7

7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.

Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.

Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages

Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct  [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).

Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would  [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s  [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9

8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.

9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.

Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to  [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the  [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.

10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In  [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.

11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s  [*25] apparent invitation.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.

Conclusion

Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product.  [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.

An appropriate Order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:

  1. Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
  2. Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
  3. Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
  4. The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.

In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed  [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.

13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II

  1. DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.

 


Arizona University did not owe student a duty of care during a study abroad program when the students organized an “off campus” trip, which resulted in a student’s death

Two different issues determine most outcomes in lawsuits against college & universities, whether the class was for credit or not and whether the incident occurred off campus or on campus.

Boisson v. Arizona Board Of Regents, et. al., 236 Ariz. 619; 343 P.3d 931; 2015 Ariz. App. LEXIS 36; 708 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 7

State: Arizona, Court of Appeals of Arizona, Division One

Plaintiff: Elizabeth Boisson

Defendant: Arizona Board Of Regents, a public entity; State of Arizona, a public entity; Nanjing American University, L.L.C., an Arizona corporation doing business as, or under the trade name of Yangtze International Study Abroad

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: no duty owed

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2015

The deceased signed up for an international study abroad trip in China through the defendant university. While in China, the deceased and several other students organized a trip to Everest base camp. While at Everest base camp the deceased suffered altitude sickness and died.

From China, you can drive to the North Side base camp of Everest, which is at 19,000 feet.

During a student-organized trip, 14 study abroad students — including Morgan — flew to Lhasa, Tibet. The students then drove to the Mount Everest base camp a few days later. While at base camp, which is approximately 18,000 feet above sea level, Morgan developed and then died of altitude sickness.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

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

The court first looked at the requirements to prove negligence in Arizona.

Although described in various ways, a plaintiff alleging a claim for negligence under Arizona common law has the burden to show: (1) duty; (2) breach of that duty; (3) cause-in-fact; (4) legal (or proximate) causation and (5) resulting damages.

Arizona uses a five-step test for negligence when most other states use a four-point test. The difference is Arizona expands the definition of proximate causation requiring an actual cause and a proximate cause to prove negligence.

Of the five steps, the first, whether or not there was a duty, is a decision that is made by the court.

The existence of a duty of care is a distinct issue from whether the standard of care has been met in a particular case. As a legal matter, the issue of duty involves generalizations about categories of cases. Duty is defined as an “obligation, recognized by law, which requires the defendant to conform to a particular standard of conduct in order to protect others against unreasonable risks of harm.” . . . .

Whether the defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care is a threshold issue; absent some duty, an action for negligence cannot be maintained. Thus, a conclusion that no duty exists is equivalent to a rule that, for certain categories of cases, defendants may not be held accountable for damages they carelessly cause, no matter how unreasonable their conduct.

Foreseeability is not an issue under Arizona’s law. Whether or not the defendant could foresee the injury to the plaintiff does not come into play when determining if a duty existed.

The court then looked at the duties owed by a college in Arizona to a student. Most duties arise when the relationships between the school and the student are custodial. Arizona does owe students a duty of reasonable care for on campus activities.

However, the duties owed for off-campus  activities by a university to a student are different.

Therefore, in the student-school relationship, the duty of care is bounded by geography and time, encompassing risks such as those that occur while the student is at school or otherwise under the school’s control.

This analysis has seven steps to determine the duty owed, if any, by an Arizona college.

…Arizona cases have identified the following factors in determining whether an off-campus activity is deemed a school activity: (1) the purpose of the activity, (2) whether the activity was part of the course curriculum, (3) whether the school had supervisory authority and responsibility during the activity, and (4) whether the risk students were exposed to during the activity was independent of school involvement. Courts elsewhere also have looked at whether (5) the activity was voluntary or was a required school activity; (6) whether a school employee was present at or participated in the activity or was expected to do so and (7) whether the activity involved a dangerous project initiated at school but built off campus.

Here the trip was conceived and organized by the students. The students dealt with a Chinese tour company to make the arrangements. Not all the students in the study abroad program undertook the trip. The college offered no academic credit for the trip, and the trip was not in the curriculum of the program.

Defendants had no supervisory authority over, or responsibility for, the trip, and no faculty or staff went on the trip. The risk of altitude sickness was present independent of any involvement by Defendants and the trip did not involve a potentially dangerous project initiated at school but built off campus. Accordingly, applying these factors, the Tibet trip was not an off-campus school activity for which Defendants owed Morgan a duty under Arizona law.

The plaintiff hired an expert witness who stated that the university absolutely had a duty to the plaintiff. However, the court ignored the expert finding the determination of a duty was solely within the province of the court, and the expert witness’s opinion did not matter.

The trial court’s determination was upheld because the appellate court found that the school owed no duty to the deceased.

So Now What?

One important thing that parents seem to forget when their sons and daughters leave for college is not only are they leaving home, but they are also leaving any real supervision, custody or control. Colleges and universities are not baby sitters or parents and parents probably should be reminded of that fact.

Here, the effects were disastrous; however, the issues were clear. A group of students left campus to do something. Where campus is, did not matter and where the students went did not matter. Whether or not the effects of altitude on a student at 19, 000 did also not matter because the college did not arrange, run, manage or control the students.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Doctrine of Primary Assumption of Risk precludes a student for suing for injuries in a for credit college karate class

Ohio holds there is no difference between a sport and recreation and a for credit class sport, assumption of the risk applies evenly to both.

Morgan, v. Kent State University et al., 2016-Ohio-3303; 54 N.E.3d 1284; 2016 Ohio App. LEXIS 2160

State: Ohio, Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth Appellate District, Franklin County

Plaintiff: Aaron S. Morgan

Defendant: Kent State University et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: primary assumption of the risk and release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2016

The plaintiff enrolled in a for credit karate class with the defendant university. The syllabus stated the students would be using holds, releases, throwing punches and kicks, that the students were expected to protect themselves from. Students were also expected to wear a mouth guard and padded gloves.

The course syllabus for beginning karate listed objectives for the students, including: “[d]emonstrat[ing] basic self-defense techniques including release from various holds and counter attacks, joint locks and throws.” Additionally, the syllabus listed a variety of fighting techniques, including punches and kicks, that the students were expected to perform. Students enrolled in the class were required to wear a mouth guard and padded gloves.

One day the plaintiff was sparring with the instructor. The instructor was not wearing padded gloves. The student was expected to protect himself from punches. If the student dropped their guard, normally the exercise was paused till the student was able to protect themselves again.

In this case as the plaintiff lost his footing he dropped his guard and the instructor punched him in the face.

On October 24, 2012, while appellant was sparring with Malecki, he lost his balance and dropped his guard. When appellant dropped his guard, Malecki punched appellant in the face. According to appellant, Malecki’s palm struck him on the nose. Malecki was not wearing padded gloves when he struck appellant. Appellant’s nose immediately started bleeding. Malecki and a student employee helped to stop appellant’s bleeding and then filled out an incident report. Appellant later sought medical care and was told that he suffered a nasal fracture.

The student suffered injuries from the punch and sued. Lawsuits in against the State of Ohio are brought in the Ohio Court of Claims. Kent State University is a state school, owned by the State of Ohio.

The Court of Claims granted the defendants motion for summary judgment and the student appealed to the Ohio Appellate Court.

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

The plaintiff argued four different reasons why the Court of Claims decision should be reversed. The appellate court looked at the second argument first. That argument was the doctrine of primary assumption of risk as defined in Ohio did not apply to his claim.

The court first examined the requirements to establish a negligence claim under Ohio law.

“[I]n order to establish actionable negligence, one seeking recovery must show the existence of a duty, the breach of the duty, and injury resulting proximately therefrom.” “Under the law of negligence, a defendant’s duty to a plaintiff depends on the relationship between the parties and the foreseeability of injury to someone in the plaintiff’s position.”

A defendant has a duty to plead assumption of the risk if it is applicable in a case. That duty means the defense is an affirmative defense and must be plead with the answer or lost.

Ohio recognizes three different Assumption of the Risk defenses.

Ohio law recognizes three categories of assumption of the risk as defenses to a negligence claim: express, primary, and implied or secondary.” Ohio courts have historically applied the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to cases involving sporting events and recreational activities.

Primary assumption of the risk is the defense that is argued when a participant in a sporting event is injured by an inherent risk of the activity.

“Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in the activity unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries.”

An inherent risk in a sport or activity is one that is so much a part of the sport that to eliminate the risk, the sport would not exist. If there is not inherent risk, then a claim of negligence may occur.

When applied to sporting events in Ohio, the knowledge or consent of the injured plaintiff is not at issue. It is not what the plaintiff knew or assumed that is important, it is solely a question of the risks of the sport.

When considering a defense of primary assumption of the risk, “the injured plaintiff’s subjective consent to and appreciation for the inherent risks are immaterial to the analysis.” Thus, even persons “‘entirely ignorant of the risks of a sport, still assume the risk * * * by participating in a sport or simply by attending the game. The law simply deems certain risks as accepted by plaintiff regardless of actual knowledge or consent.

Primary assumption of the risk is a look at the sport or activity, not the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s knowledge or ascent to the activity.

…’primary assumption of [the] risk requires an examination of the activity itself and not plaintiff’s conduct. If the activity is one that is inherently dangerous and from which the risks cannot be eliminated, then a finding of primary assumption of [the] risk is appropriate.’

If the risk is an inherent risk of the activity, then the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies and the defendant did not owe a duty to the plaintiff. If no duty is owed, then no breach occurred. If no duty is owed then no negligence occurred.

“The affirmative defense of primary assumption of the risk completely negates a negligence claim because the defendant owes no duty to protect the plaintiff against the inherent risks of the recreational activity in which the plaintiff engages.” “‘Because a successful primary assumption of risk defense means that the duty element of negligence is not established as a matter of law, the defense prevents the plaintiff from even making a prima facie case.'”

The court found the risks the plaintiff suffered were an inherent risk of karate and the plaintiff assumed the inherent risks of the sport.

The Court of Claims found that “[t]here is no question that the martial arts class was a sports or recreational activity with an inherent risk of injury.” Furthermore, the Court of Claims found that “[p]hysical contact between participants during karate sparring is simply a foreseeable hazard of the activity.”

Karate is a recreational activity involving physical contact in the form of punches, kicks, and other techniques as detailed in the course outline for the beginning karate course in which appellant was enrolled. Thus, by its very nature, karate, as a martial art, is an inherently dangerous activity from which the risk of harm cannot be eliminated. Indeed, the course outline notes that a “mouthguard; sparring gloves; athletic supporter w/cup” are required. As danger is inherent in karate, it is common knowledge that such danger exists, and appellant’s injury occurred during the course of participating in the inherently dangerous activity, we find that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies in this case.

Because the risk was inherent, it was assumed and the plaintiff had no claim because there was no negligence.

Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, KSU owed no duty to protect appellant from the inherent risks of the activity. As a result, appellant is precluded from establishing a prima facie case of negligence, and the trial court did not err in granting KSU’s motion for summary judgment.

After making this finding, the court held that the plaintiff’s first and third assignment of error were moot. Moot meaning no longer at issue because of the finding on the second assignment of error by the court.

The fourth assignment of error was a procedural claim for attorney fees and the court ruled no attorney fees were to be paid to the plaintiff.

The appellate court agreed with the lower courts and the case was dismissed.

So Now What?

First it is always interesting to see how a court will rule when a student is injured in a for credit class at a college or university. The syllabus is always entered as an exhibit. Consequently, as a professor, lecturer, instructor, adjunct or whatever word someone has coined to describe the person in front of a classroom out of high school, make sure you syllabus includes the risk of the activity.

This might mean your syllabus becomes an assumption of the risk document. A syllabus in many states is an agreement between the student and the college (without a signature, but never the less a contract). Consequently use that opportunity to inform the student of the risks they may encounter in your class.

Second, if you are doing an activity where the court may not fully understand the risks of the activity, you need to prepare that defense in advance of any litigation. Do not limit your documents to identifying just the inherent risks of an activity, but all of the risks of an activity. Have videos available or on your website for your guests to review so they understand what is going to happen and what the real risks are.

Most importantly, do what you do best. Educate. The more your students know before their desks, they should fully understand all aspects of what they are going to encounter.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Morgan, v. Kent State University et al., 2016-Ohio-3303; 54 N.E.3d 1284; 2016 Ohio App. LEXIS 2160

Morgan, v. Kent State University et al., 2016-Ohio-3303; 54 N.E.3d 1284; 2016 Ohio App. LEXIS 2160

Aaron S. Morgan, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Kent State University et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 15AP-685

COURT OF APPEALS OF OHIO, TENTH APPELLATE DISTRICT, FRANKLIN COUNTY

2016-Ohio-3303; 54 N.E.3d 1284; 2016 Ohio App. LEXIS 2160

June 7, 2016, Rendered

COUNSEL: On brief: David B. Spalding, for appellant.

On brief: Michael DeWine, Attorney General, and Lee Ann Rabe, for appellee Kent State University.

JUDGES: DORRIAN, P.J. BROWN and SADLER, JJ., concur.

OPINION BY: DORRIAN

OPINION

[**1287] (REGULAR CALENDAR)

DECISION

DORRIAN, P.J.

[*P1] Plaintiff-appellant, Aaron S. Morgan, appeals the June 19, 2015 judgment of the Court of Claims of Ohio granting summary judgment in favor of defendant-appellee Kent State University (“KSU”). For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Claims.

I. Facts and Procedural History

[*P2] During the period of time relevant to the present matter, appellant was a student at KSU’s Stark campus. In the fall semester 2012, appellant enrolled in a beginning karate class taught by Edward C. Malecki, an employee of KSU. Appellant had no experience in martial arts before enrolling in the beginning karate class, but had a general idea of what karate entailed through movies and television.

[*P3] The course syllabus for beginning karate listed objectives for the students, including: “[d]emonstrat[ing] basic self defense techniques including release from various holds and counter attacks, joint [***2] locks and throws.” (Apr. 17, 2015 KSU Mot. for Summ. Jgmt., Ex. D.) Additionally, the syllabus listed a variety of fighting techniques, including punches and kicks, that the students were expected to perform. Students enrolled in the class were required to wear a mouth guard and padded gloves.

[*P4] As part of the class, students were required to spar with one another and with the instructor using only “light physical contact.” (Malecki Dep. at 52.) According to Malecki, there was no bodily or facial contact permitted either by the students or the instructor. During the sparring, students practiced guarding themselves using their hands in defensive postures in front of their body. It was not uncommon for students to make mistakes, such as dropping their guard by lowering their hands. When a student would drop his or her guard, the instructor would stop the sparring procedure until the student resumed guarding himself or herself.

[*P5] On October 24, 2012, while appellant was sparring with Malecki, he lost his balance and dropped his guard. When appellant dropped his guard, Malecki punched appellant in the face. According to appellant, Malecki’s palm struck him on the nose. Malecki was not wearing [***3] padded gloves when he struck appellant. Appellant’s nose immediately started bleeding. Malecki and a student employee helped to stop appellant’s bleeding and then filled out an incident report. Appellant later sought medical care and was told that he suffered a nasal fracture.

[*P6] On July 15, 2014, appellant filed a complaint in the Court of Claims asserting claims for negligence and negligent hiring against KSU. On March 31, 2015, appellant filed a motion for partial summary judgment and attorney fees and expenses pursuant to Civ.R. 37(C). On April 17, 2015, KSU filed a motion for summary judgment and a memorandum contra appellant’s motion for partial summary judgment. On April 28, 2015, appellant filed a supplemental brief in support of his motion for attorney fees and expenses. On April 28, 2015, appellant filed a reply brief in support of his motion for summary judgment.

[*P7] On June 19, 2015, the Court of Claims filed an entry granting KSU’s motion for summary judgment and denying appellant’s motion for attorney fees and expenses.

II. Assignments of Error

[*P8] Appellant appeals and assigns the following four assignments of error for our review:

[**1288] [I.] The trial court erred in holding that the broad and general [***4] language contained in the Waiver, which neither Kent State University nor Aaron Morgan intended to apply to academic or physical education classes, effectively released the Appellee from liability resulting from the Appellant being struck in the face by his instructor during a class the Appellant subsequently enrolled in through the University.

[II.] The trial court erred in holding that the Appellant’s claim against Kent State University is barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.

[III.] The trial court erred in failing to grant Plaintiff-Appellant’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, as to the issue of liability.

[IV.] The trial court erred by its failure to rule on Plaintiff-Appellant’s Motion for Attorney Fees and Expenses pursuant to Civ.R. 37(C).

For ease of discussion, we consider appellant’s assignments of error out of order.

III. Discussion

A. Second Assignment of Error

[*P9] In his second assignment of error, appellant asserts the Court of Claims erred in holding that his claim for negligence was barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk.

[*P10] [HN1] “[I]n order to establish actionable negligence, one seeking recovery must show the existence of a duty, the breach of the duty, and injury [***5] resulting proximately therefrom.” Strother v. Hutchinson, 67 Ohio St.2d 282, 285, 423 N.E.2d 467 (1981), citing Feldman v. Howard, 10 Ohio St.2d 189, 193, 226 N.E.2d 564 (1967). “Under the law of negligence, a defendant’s duty to a plaintiff depends on the relationship between the parties and the foreseeability of injury to someone in the plaintiff’s position.” Morgan v. Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ, 10th Dist. No. 11AP-405, 2012-Ohio-453, ¶ 11, citing Simmers v. Bentley Constr. Co., 64 Ohio St.3d 642, 645, 1992 Ohio 42, 597 N.E.2d 504 (1992).

[*P11] [HN2] “Ohio law recognizes three categories of assumption of the risk as defenses to a negligence claim: express, primary, and implied or secondary.” Schnetz v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 195 Ohio App.3d 207, 2011-Ohio-3927, ¶ 21, 959 N.E.2d 554 (10th Dist.), citing Crace v. Kent State Univ., 185 Ohio App.3d 534, 2009-Ohio-6898, ¶ 10, 924 N.E.2d 906 (10th Dist.). Ohio courts have historically applied the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to cases involving sporting events and recreational activities. Crace at ¶ 12, citing Ballinger v. Leaniz Roofing, Ltd., 10th Dist. No. 07AP-696, 2008-Ohio-1421, ¶ 8, citing Anderson v. Ceccardi, 6 Ohio St.3d 110, 114, 6 Ohio B. 170, 451 N.E.2d 780 (1983).

[*P12] [HN3] “Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in the activity unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries.” Morgan at ¶ 13, citing Crace at ¶ 13, citing Santho v. Boy Scouts of Am., 168 Ohio App.3d 27, 2006-Ohio- 3656, ¶ 12, 857 N.E.2d 1255 (10th Dist.). See Marchetti v. Kalish, 53 Ohio St.3d 95, 559 N.E.2d 699 (1990), paragraph one of the syllabus. Underlying the doctrine is the rationale that certain risks are [***6] so inherent in some activities that they cannot be eliminated, and therefore a person participating in such activities tacitly consents to the risks involved. Crace at ¶ 13, citing Collier v. Northland Swim Club, 35 Ohio App.3d 35, 37, 518 N.E.2d 1226 (10th Dist. [**1289] 1987). “The test for applying the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to recreational activities and sporting events requires that ‘(1) the danger is ordinary to the game, (2) it is common knowledge that the danger exists, and (3) the injury occurs as a result of the danger during the course of the game.'” Morgan at ¶ 13, quoting Santho at ¶ 12.

[*P13] “‘To be covered under the [primary-assumption-of-the-risk] doctrine, the risk must be one that is so inherent to the sport or activity that it cannot be eliminated.'” Horvath v. Ish, 134 Ohio St.3d 48, 2012-Ohio-5333, ¶ 19, 979 N.E.2d 1246, quoting Konesky v. Wood Cty. Agricultural Soc., 164 Ohio App.3d 839, 2005-Ohio-7009, ¶ 19, 844 N.E.2d 408 (6th Dist.), citing Westray v. Imperial Pools & Supplies, Inc., 133 Ohio App.3d 426, 432, 728 N.E.2d 431 (6th Dist.1999). “Where the risk at issue is not inherent, then a negligence standard applies.” Id.

[*P14] [HN4] The Supreme Court of Ohio has explained the applicability of the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk and the rationale underlying it as follows:

Acts that would give rise to tort liability for negligence on a city street or in a backyard are not negligent in the context of a game where such an act is foreseeable and within the rules. For instance, a golfer who hits practice balls in his backyard [***7] and inadvertently hits a neighbor who is gardening or mowing the lawn next door must be held to a different standard than a golfer whose drive hits another golfer on a golf course. A principal difference is the golfer’s duty to the one he hit. The neighbor, unlike the other golfer or spectator on the course, has not agreed to participate or watch and cannot be expected to foresee or accept the attendant risk of injury. Conversely, the spectator or participant must accept from a participant conduct associated with that sport. Thus a player who injures another player in the course of a sporting event by conduct that is a foreseeable, customary part of the sport cannot be held liable for negligence because no duty is owed to protect the victim from that conduct. Were we to find such a duty between co-participants in a sport, we might well stifle the rewards of athletic competition.

Thompson v. McNeill, 53 Ohio St.3d 102, 104, 559 N.E.2d 705 (1990), modified on other grounds by Anderson v. Massillon, 134 Ohio St.3d 380, 2012-Ohio-5711, 983 N.E.2d 266. See also Crace at ¶ 14.

[*P15] [HN5] When considering a defense of primary assumption of the risk, “the injured plaintiff’s subjective consent to and appreciation for the inherent risks are immaterial to the analysis.” Crace at ¶ 16, citing Gentry v. Craycraft, 101 Ohio St.3d 141, 2004-Ohio- 379, ¶ 9, 802 N.E.2d 1116, citing Ramos v. Countryside, 137 Ill.App.3d 1028, 1031-32, 485 N.E.2d 418, 92 Ill. Dec. 607 (1985). Thus, even persons “‘entirely ignorant [***8] of the risks of a sport, still assume the risk * * * by participating in a sport or simply by attending the game. The law simply deems certain risks as accepted by plaintiff regardless of actual knowledge or consent.'” (Footnotes omitted.) Gentry at ¶ 12, quoting Susan M. Gilles, From Baseball Parks to the Public Arena: Assumption of the Risk in Tort Law and Constitutional Libel Law, 75 Temple L.Rev. 231, 236 (2002). In accordance with these principles, this court has stated that “‘primary assumption of [the] risk requires an examination of the activity itself and not plaintiff’s conduct. If the activity is one that is inherently dangerous and from which the risks cannot be eliminated, then a finding of primary assumption of [the] risk is appropriate.'” Morgan at ¶ 15, quoting Gehri v. Capital Racing [**1290] Club, Inc., 10th Dist. No. 96APE10-1307, 1997 Ohio App. LEXIS 2527 (June 12, 1997).

[*P16] [HN6] “The affirmative defense of primary assumption of the risk completely negates a negligence claim because the defendant owes no duty to protect the plaintiff against the inherent risks of the recreational activity in which the plaintiff engages.” Id. at ¶ 14, citing Crace at ¶ 15, citing Gentry at ¶ 11, citing Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts, Section 68, at 496 (5th Ed.1984). [***9] “‘Because a successful primary assumption of risk defense means that the duty element of negligence is not established as a matter of law, the defense prevents the plaintiff from even making a prima facie case.'” Wolfe v. Bison Baseball, Inc., 10th Dist. No. 09AP-905, 2010-Ohio-1390, ¶ 21, quoting Gallagher v. Cleveland Browns Football Co., 74 Ohio St.3d 427, 432, 1996 Ohio 320, 659 N.E.2d 1232 (1996). “Because of the great impact a ruling in favor of a defendant on primary assumption of risk grounds carries, a trial court must proceed with caution when contemplating whether primary assumption of risk completely bars a plaintiff’s recovery.” Gallagher at 432.

[*P17] In Crace, this court considered the applicability of the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. In that case, Angela Crace, a student cheerleader at KSU, asserted a claim for negligence against KSU after she was severely injured during a cheerleading practice. On the day Crace was injured, the KSU cheerleading coach assigned members of the cheerleading squad, including Crace, to various positions in a maneuver known as a the “Big K.” The Big K was essentially a human pyramid that consisted of a base, a middle layer/base, and flyers; the pyramid was two and one-half people high. Spotters were positioned on the ground to catch the flyers when they dismounted the [***10] pyramid.

[*P18] Crace and several other members of the KSU cheerleading squad had successfully performed the Big K during the previous season. However, many other members of the team had neither performed nor seen the maneuver. On the day Crace was injured, the coach assigned Crace to the position of flyer. The first two attempts at the mount failed, resulting in Crace falling from about 15 feet in the air. However, the front spotter caught Crace when she fell. Before the third attempt, the coach substituted as the rear spotter a team member who had neither seen nor participated in the Big K. On the third attempt, the substitute rear spotter failed to catch Crace as she fell from approximately 15 feet in the air. As a result, Crace’s fall was unbroken, and she fell to the ground, resulting in immediate paraplegia.

[*P19] At issue in Crace was whether the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applied to relieve KSU of liability based on the conduct of the cheerleading coach. Crace argued that the doctrine applied only to co-participants in a recreational activity. We disagreed, finding that [HN7] the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies to co-participants and non-participants alike. [***11] In so finding, we noted that the analysis of the doctrine focuses exclusively on the activity itself. Thus, if the activity is one that is inherently dangerous and from which risks cannot be eliminated, primary assumption of the risk is applicable. Id. at ¶ 16, citing Gehri. In so finding, we stated:

A holding to the contrary would likely shift the focus of the analysis away from the activity and its inherent risks. The analysis would then unnecessarily focus upon the extent of the defendant’s involvement and the defendant’s classification [**1291] as a participant, nonparticipant, coach, instructor, official, operator, owner, sponsor, provider, or otherwise. Injured participants would frame their allegations sufficiently to cast a liability net just beyond the reach of Marchetti and Thompson, with no regard for the inherent risks of the activity.

Id. at ¶ 25.

[*P20] We thus rejected Crace’s argument that primary assumption of the risk could not relieve a university of liability for negligence based on the conduct of one of its coaches in a cheerleading practice. Having so concluded, we next determined based on the evidence presented at trial that suffering an injury due to a fall is an inherent risk [***12] of cheerleading. Therefore, we found that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applied, and, as such, KSU owed no duty to protect Crace from the inherent risk of injury related to a fall while participating in cheerleading, absent a demonstration of recklessness or intentional misconduct.

[*P21] Here, appellant contends that the trial court erred in applying the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk because “the facts of this case manifestly establish that the injury sustained by [appellant] on October 24, 2012 was * * * not a ‘foreseeable’ consequence of participating in the subject Beginning Karate class.” (Emphasis omitted.) (Appellant’s Brief at 28-29.) Appellant cites the following circumstances in support of his contention: (1) all of the students in the class were “novices in martial arts”; (2) “the students were specifically assured by the instructor that there would be no bodily contact during the class and that facial contact was explicitly prohibited”; (3) “the instructor was required to wear padded, protective gloves as a further safeguard against injury”; and (4) “when a student dropped his or her guard, the instructor was required to stop the session until the [***13] student raised his or her guard.” (Appellant’s Brief at 28.)

[*P22] Appellant suggests the court consider that he had no experience in the martial arts. However, such a suggestion “shift[s] the focus of the analysis away from the activity and its inherent risks.” Crace at ¶ 25. Appellant further suggests the court consider the instructor’s actions. This essentially is a claim that the instructor was reckless. However, appellant’s complaint did not allege reckless or intentional conduct.

[*P23] Therefore, we decline to consider the same and limit our analysis to whether the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies to appellant’s claim for negligence. Thus, we consider whether karate is an inherently dangerous activity from which the risks cannot be eliminated. Morgan at ¶ 15; Crace at ¶ 16.

[*P24] The Court of Claims found that “[t]here is no question that the martial arts class was a sports or recreational activity with an inherent risk of injury.” (Jgmt. Entry at 5.) Furthermore, the Court of Claims found that “[p]hysical contact between participants during karate sparring is simply a foreseeable hazard of the activity.” (Jgmt. Entry at 5.) Other courts have found that participating in martial arts involves inherent risk. Levine v. Gross, 123 Ohio App.3d 326, 330, 704 N.E.2d 262 (9th Dist.1997) (finding that the plaintiff [***14] understood the “kind of risk posed by sparring and grappling in the course of a karate lesson”); Barakat v. Pordash, 164 Ohio App.3d 328, 2005-Ohio-6095, ¶ 12, 842 N.E.2d 120 (8th Dist.) (finding in the context of martial arts that “being injured in the course of a hold or maneuver is a risk that is a foreseeable and customary risk of the sport”).

[*P25] Karate is a recreational activity involving physical contact in the form of punches, kicks, and other techniques as [**1292] detailed in the course outline for the beginning karate course in which appellant was enrolled. Thus, by its very nature, karate, as a martial art, is an inherently dangerous activity from which the risk of harm cannot be eliminated. Indeed, the course outline notes that a “mouthguard; sparring gloves; athletic supporter w/cup” are required. (KSU Mot. for Summ. Jgmt., Ex. D.) As danger is inherent in karate, it is common knowledge that such danger exists, and appellant’s injury occurred during the course of participating in the inherently dangerous activity, we find that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies in this case. Morgan at ¶ 13, citing Santho at ¶ 12. Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, KSU owed no duty to protect appellant from the inherent risks of the activity. Id. at ¶ 27 [***15] . As a result, appellant is precluded from establishing a prima facie case of negligence, and the trial court did not err in granting KSU’s motion for summary judgment. Barakat at ¶ 13, citing Gentry (“Because an inherent risk was involved, recovery is dependent upon whether the defendant’s conduct was either reckless or intentional.”); Wolfe at ¶ 21.

[*P26] Accordingly, appellant’s second assignment of error is overruled.

B. First and Third Assignments of Error

[*P27] In his first assignment of error, appellant asserts that the Court of Claims erred by holding that the waiver signed by appellant released KSU from liability for the incident on October 24, 2012. In his third assignment of error, appellant asserts that the Court of Claims erred by failing to grant appellant’s motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability. Having overruled appellant’s second assignment of error, appellant’s first and third assignments of error are rendered moot.

C. Fourth Assignment of Error

[*P28] In his fourth assignment of error, appellant asserts that the Court of Claims erred by failing to rule on his motion for attorney fees and expenses pursuant to Civ.R. 37(C). We begin by noting that the Court of Claims in its June 19, 2015 judgment entry granting KSU’s motion for summary judgment did in fact rule on appellant’s March 31, 2015 motion for attorney fees and expenses. [***16] Specifically, the court stated: “The court finds that there was either a good reason for [KSU’s] failure to admit or the admissions sought were of no substantial importance. The court further finds that [appellant] has not suffered prejudice regarding the responses at issue. Accordingly, [appellant’s] motion for attorney fees and expenses is denied.” (Emphasis omitted.) (Jgmt. Entry, fn. 1.)

[*P29] Civ.R. 37(C) provides as follows:

Expenses on failure to admit. [HN8] If a party, after being served with a request for admission under Rule 36, fails to admit the genuineness of any documents or the truth of any matter as requested, and if the party requesting the admissions thereafter proves the genuineness of the document or the truth of the matter, he may apply to the court for an order requiring the other party to pay him the reasonable expenses incurred in making that proof, including reasonable attorney’s fees. Unless the request had been held objectionable under Rule 36(A) or the court finds that there was good reason for the failure to admit or that the admission sought was of no substantial importance, the order shall be made.

[*P30] Thus, [HN9] “[a] party may deny a request for admissions, but, upon motion pursuant to Civ.R. 37(C), improper [**1293] denials [***17] may subject the responding party to sanctions.” Salem Med. Arts & Dev. Corp. v. Columbiana Cty. Bd. of Revision, 82 Ohio St.3d 193, 195, 1998 Ohio 248, 694 N.E.2d 1324 (1998). “Whether such denials are subject to Civ.R. 37(C) sanctions depends upon whether the proof at trial contradicts the denial.” Id. The party denying a later-proved matter has the burden of proving that: “(1) the request for admissions was objectionable under Civ.R. 36 (A); (2) there was a good reason for the failure to admit; or (3) the matter was of no substantial importance.” Itskin v. Restaurant Food Supply Co., 7 Ohio App.3d 127, 129, 7 Ohio B. 161, 454 N.E.2d 583 (10th Dist.1982), paragraph one of the syllabus.

[*P31] “The determination of whether to award expenses and the amount thereof, pursuant to Civ.R. 37(C), necessarily involves a matter of discretion and, thus, is a matter lying within the sound discretion of the trial court.” Id. “‘[A]buse of discretion’ connotes more than an error of law or judgment; it implies that the court’s attitude is unreasonable, arbitrary or unconscionable.” Blakemore v. Blakemore, 5 Ohio St.3d 217, 219, 5 Ohio B. 481, 450 N.E.2d 1140 (1983).

[*P32] Here, the Court of Claims found that there was either a good reason for the failure to admit or that the admissions were of no substantial importance. Appellant fails to demonstrate that the Court of Claims abused its discretion by denying the motion. Accordingly, we overrule appellant’s fourth assignment of error.

IV. Conclusion

[*P33] Having overruled appellant’s second and fourth assignments of error [***18] and rendered moot appellant’s first and third assignments of error, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Claims of Ohio.

Judgment affirmed.

BROWN and SADLER, JJ., concur.


Fecke v. The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, 2015 0017 (La.App. 1 Cir. 07/07/15); 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1357

Fecke v. The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University, 2015 0017 (La.App. 1 Cir. 07/07/15); 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1357

Brandy Lynn Fecke, Stephen C. Fecke, and Karen Fecke versus The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College

NO. 2015 CA 0017

COURT OF APPEAL OF LOUISIANA, FIRST CIRCUIT

2015 0017 (La.App. 1 Cir. 07/07/15); 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1357

July 7, 2015, Judgment Rendered

NOTICE:

THIS DECISION IS NOT FINAL UNTIL EXPIRATION OF THE FOURTEEN DAY REHEARING PERIOD.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Rehearing denied by Fecke v. Bd. of Supervisor, 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1644 (La.App. 1 Cir., Sept. 3, 2015)

Rehearing denied by Fecke v. Bd. of Supervisiors, 2015 La. App. LEXIS 1679 (La.App. 1 Cir., Sept. 3, 2015)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] On Appeal from the 19th Judicial District Court. In and for the Parish of East Baton Rouge, State of Louisiana. No. C584652. The Honorable R. Michael Caldwell, Judge Presiding.

DISPOSITION: REVERSED IN PART, AMENDED IN PART, AND AFFIRMED AS AMENDED.

COUNSEL: John Neale deGravelles, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Attorney for Plaintiffs/Appellees, Brandy L. Fecke, Stephen C. Fecke, and Karen Fecke.

James D. “Buddy” Caldwell, Attorney General, Patrick E. Henry, Darrell J. Saltamachia, John L. Dugas, Special Assistant Attorneys General, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and J. Elliott Baker, Special Assistant Attorney General, Covington, Louisiana, Attorneys for Defendant/Appellant, The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College.

JUDGES: BEFORE: GUIDRY, THERIOT, AND DRAKE, JJ. Guidry. J. concurs in the result.

OPINION BY: DRAKE

OPINION

[Pg 2] DRAKE, J.

The Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College (“LSU Board”) appeals a judgment on a jury verdict that awarded damages to the plaintiff for injuries she sustained in an indoor rock wall climbing accident. For the following reasons, we reverse and amend portions of the judgment and affirm as amended.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL [*2] HISTORY

It is undisputed that on the evening of December 3, 2008, Brandy Lynn Fecke sustained injuries when she fell from a bouldering wall located at the LSU Recreation Center (“LSU UREC”) indoor rock climbing wall facility. Ms. Fecke, then a 23-three-year-old senior at LSU, and a fellow classmate, Chad Culotta, visited the indoor rock climbing facility to complete a required assignment for an Outdoor Living Skills Activity course. The indoor rock climbing facility at the LSU UREC is housed in a remodeled racquetball court. LSU converted the court into the rock climbing wall facility, with three rock wall climbing options: (i) a 19′ climbing wall; (ii) a 13′ 1″ bouldering wall located on the rear wall; (iii) and a 13′ 1″ bouldering wall located on a side wall.

After Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta paid for admission to enter the indoor rock climbing wall facility and received a receipt, the LSU UREC employees working the night of the accident signed Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta’s course forms to verify their completion of the rock wall climbing assignment for their Outdoor Living Skills Activity course. Ms. Fecke also executed a Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement, which was provided [*3] to her by the LSU UREC employees. The student workers inquired into their previous experience with rock climbing. Ms. Fecke testified that she climbed a rock wall twice before — once when she was eight years old and a second time when she was ten years old. Ms. Fecke also testified that she had “top lined” previously, that is, that she knew about [Pg 3] climbing a wall wearing a harness and using safety ropes, i.e., belay ropes. The employees proceeded to go through the instructions for the rock wall climbing experience. They explained to Ms. Fecke and her classmate that they could climb the 19′ climbing wall with top ropes while wearing a harness, or they could climb one of the 13′ 1″ bouldering walls. Ms. Fecke wanted to climb the “easiest wall” and opted to climb the rear bouldering wall, which did not require her to wear a harness or climb with belay ropes. Bouldering is when a climber, with a partner standing behind the climber to act as a spotter in case the climber needs assistance, climbs up to a certain point on the wall and then traverses the wall side-to-side, in order to develop proficiency in climbing.

After instruction and a climbing demonstration by one of the employees, [*4] Ms. Fecke’s classmate climbed up and then traversed down the wall. Ms. Fecke then climbed the wall. After reaching the top of the wall, Ms. Fecke began her descent; however, she got stuck while traversing down the wall and was unable to climb down any further. She lost her footing and hung from the wall. When she lost her grip after hanging for a few seconds, she let go of the wall and pushed herself away from the wall. As she fell, Ms. Fecke twirled around, facing away from the wall. Ms. Fecke landed on her left foot and sustained multiple fractures to the talus bone in her left ankle, known as a comminuted talus fracture. Due to the severity of the fractures, Ms. Fecke underwent three surgeries and will require additional surgery, including either a permanent ankle fusion or an ankle replacement.

Ms. Fecke and her parents, Stephen and Karen Fecke, brought suit against the LSU Board for damages Ms. Fecke sustained as a result of the accident. Following a three-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Fecke, Karen Fecke, and Stephen Fecke and against the LSU Board, and awarded damages. The jury allocated 75% of the fault to the LSU Board and 25% of the fault to Ms. [*5] Fecke and awarded damages to Ms. Fecke as follows:

[Pg 4] Physical Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $150,000.00

Mental Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $125,000.00

Loss of Enjoyment of Life: $75,000.00

Permanent Disability and Scarring: $165,000.00

Past Medical Expenses: $60,392.72

Fecke Future Medical Expenses: $1,000,000.00

Loss of Future Earnings: $350,000.00

TOTAL: $1,925,392.72

Additionally, the jury awarded damages to Karen Fecke as follows:

Loss of Consortium and Society: $50,000.00

The jury awarded no damages to Stephen Fecke for loss of consortium and society.

Six months later, the trial court signed a judgment on October 3, 2014, and after adjusting the jury’s damage award based on the fault allocation, awarded damages to Ms. Fecke as follows:

Physical Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $112,500.00

Mental Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $93,750.00

Loss of Enjoyment of Life: $56,250.00

Permanent Disability and Scarring: $123,750.00

Past Medical Expenses: $45,294.54

Fecke Future Medical Expenses: $750,000.00

Loss of Future Earnings: $262,500.00

TOTAL: $1,444,044.54

[Pg 5] The trial court also awarded Ms. Fecke all costs of the proceedings plus 6.0% judicial interest from the date [*6] of judicial demand until paid, pursuant to La. R.S. 13:5112(C). Furthermore, the trial court ordered that after being reduced for attorney’s fees and costs, Ms. Fecke’s future medical care award of $750,000 (plus judicial interest) be placed in a reversionary trust in accordance with La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c).1 Additionally, the trial court awarded damages to Karen Fecke as follows:

Loss of Consortium and Society: $37,500.00

The trial court also awarded Karen Fecke all costs of the proceedings plus 6.0% judicial interest from the date of judicial demand until paid, pursuant to La. R.S. 13:5112(C). Finally, the trial court cast the LSU Board with all costs of court, including but not limited to, the expert witness fees as follows:

Dan Pervorse: $3,500.00

Dr. James Lalonde: $1,400.00

Dr. John F. Loupe: $900.00

Stephanie Chalfin: $1,500.00

Harold Asher: $3,000.00

The LSU Board now appeals the October 3, 2014 final judgment of the trial court, assigning three errors to the trial court’s application of the law pertinent to this case.

1 Although this point will be discussed more thoroughly in the first assignment of error, we note here, for clarification purposes, that the trial court’s judgment names the reversionary trust the “Future Medical Care Trust.” We observe [*7] the label “Future Medical Care Trust” appears nowhere in La. R.S. 13:5106, nor in any other provision in the Louisiana Governmental Claims Act, La. R.S. 13:5101-5113.

LAW AND DISCUSSION

Standard of Review

[HN1] The appellate court’s review of factual findings is governed by the manifest error/clearly wrong standard. The two-part test for the appellate review of a factual finding is: 1) whether there is a reasonable factual basis in the record for the finding of the trial court; and 2) whether the record further establishes that the finding is not manifestly erroneous. Mart v. Hill, 505 So. 2d 1120, 1127 (La. 1987). Thus, if there is no reasonable factual basis in the record for the fact-finder’s finding, no additional inquiry is necessary to conclude there was manifest error. However, if a reasonable factual basis exists, an appellate court may set aside a fact-finder’s factual finding only if, after reviewing the record in its entirety, it determines the finding was clearly wrong. See Stobart v. State, through Dept, of Transp. and Dev., 617 So. 2d 880, 882 (La. 1993).

[HN2] A legal error occurs when a trial court applies incorrect principles of law and such errors are prejudicial. Legal errors are prejudicial when they materially affect the outcome and deprive a party of substantial rights. When such a prejudicial error of law skews [*8] the trial court’s finding as to issues of material fact, the [Pg 6] appellate court is required, if it can, to render judgment on the record by applying the correct law and determining the essential material facts de novo. Evans v. Lungrin, 97-0541 (La. 2/6/98), 708 So. 2d 731, 735. However, the above approach need not be considered when a jury has made some factual findings favorable to each party, and when the legal error affected only one of the findings, but does not interdict the entire fact-finding process. The appellate court should proceed to evaluate each jury finding pertinent to liability in order to determine the applicability of the manifest error rule to each. If only one of the jury’s factual findings is tainted by the application of incorrect principles of law that are prejudicial, the appellate court’s de novo review is limited to the jury finding so affected. Rideau v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 06-0894 (La. App. 1 Cir. 8/29/07), 970 So. 2d 564, 571, writ denied, 07-2228 (La. 1/11/08), 972 So. 2d 1168.

Assignment of Error 1:

In the first assignment of error, the LSU Board contends the trial court erred by ordering that attorney’s fees and costs were payable out of Ms. Fecke’s damage award for her future medical care. The LSU Board further contends that the trial court erred by awarding Ms. Fecke interest on that award. Ms. Fecke counters that she is [*9] entitled by statute to receive interest on her future medical care damage award, and she further argues that the trial court is authorized by statute to award contractual attorney fees from that award prior to establishing the terms and provisions of a reversionary trust, which is to be created for her future medical care expenses. Thus, the first issue before this court is whether any interest, attorney’s fees, or costs are due and collectible by Ms, Fecke and her attorneys on and out of her damage award against LSU for future medical care. [HN3] As the facts in this matter are not in dispute and the issue on this assignment of error is purely one of the statutory interpretation of La. R.S. 13:5106, a section of the Louisiana [Pg 7] Governmental Claims Act, this court will review the matter de novo, without deference to the legal conclusion of the trial court, and determine whether the error was prejudicial to the case. Turner v. Willis Knighton Med. Ctr., 12-0703 (La. 12/4/12), 108 So. 3d 60, 62; Duzon v. Stallworth, 01-1187 (La. App. 1 Cir. 12/11/02), 866 So. 2d 837, 861, writ denied sub nom., Duzon ex rel. Cmty. of Acquets & Gains v. Stallworth, 03-0589 (La. 5/2/03), 842 So. 2d 1101, and writ denied, 03-0605 (La. 5/2/03), 842 So. 2d 1110.

[HN4] Suits against the State of Louisiana, a state agency, or a political subdivision must be brought pursuant to the Louisiana Governmental Claims Act, La. R.S. 13:5101-5113 (“Act”). The Act applies to any suit in contract or for injury to person or property. La. R.S. 13:5101(B). Pursuant [*10] to the Act, the Legislature appropriates certain funds to pay claims against the State, its agencies, and political subdivisions. La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1). The Act caps a claimant’s damages for personal injury at $500,000.00, exclusive of property damage, medical care and related benefits, loss of earnings, and loss of future earnings. La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1).

[HN5] When a trial court determines that a plaintiff in a suit for personal injury against the state or a state agency is entitled to medical care and related benefits2 incurred subsequent to judgment, i.e. future medicals, the provisions of the Future Medical Care Fund (“FMCF”), La. R.S. 39:1533.2, apply to such cases. Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(B)(3)(c) is the controlling statutory authority for personal injury claims against the state or a state agency:

In any suit for personal injury against the state or a state agency wherein the court pursuant to judgment determines that the claimant is entitled to medical care and related benefits that may be incurred [Pg 8] subsequent to judgment, the court shall order that all medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment be paid from the Future Medical Care Fund as provided in R.S. 39:1533.2. Medical care and related benefits shall be paid directly to the provider as they are incurred [*11] . Nothing in this Subparagraph shall be construed to prevent the parties from entering into a settlement or compromise at any time whereby medical care and related benefits shall be provided but with the requirement that they shall be paid in accordance with this Subparagraph. [Emphasis added.]

[HN6] The FMCF is administered by the Office of Risk Management, through the Treasurer of the State of Louisiana. La. R.S. 39:1533.2(B).

2 Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(1) provides that:

[HN7] “Medical care and related benefits” for the purpose of this Section means all reasonable medical, surgical, hospitalization, physical rehabilitation, and custodial services, and includes drugs, prosthetic devices, and other similar materials reasonably necessary in the provision of such services.

In contrast, [HN8] when a trial court determines that a plaintiff in a suit for personal injury against a political subdivision is entitled to medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment, a reversionary trust is established for the benefit of the plaintiff and all future medical care is paid pursuant to the reversionary trust instrument. Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(B)(3)(a)3 is the controlling statutory authority for personal injury claims against political subdivisions:

In any suit for personal injury [*12] against a political subdivision wherein the court, pursuant to judgment, determines that the claimant is entitled to medical care and related benefits that may be incurred subsequent to judgment, the court shall order that a reversionary trust be established for the benefit of the claimant and that all medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment be paid pursuant to the reversionary trust instrument. The reversionary trust instrument shall provide that such medical care and related benefits be paid directly to the provider as they are incurred. Nothing in this Paragraph shall be construed to prevent the parties from entering into a settlement or compromise at any time whereby medical care and related benefits shall be provided, but with the requirement of establishing a reversionary trust. [Emphasis added.]

The Act [HN9] does not limit the rights of a claimant to contract with respect to attorney’s fees and costs when the claimant’s future medical care is paid from a reversionary [Pg 9] trust established by a political subdivision for that claimant’s future medical care. As provided for in Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(3):

[HN10] “Reversionary trust” means a trust established by a political subdivision for [*13] the exclusive benefit of the claimant to pay the medical care and related benefits as they accrue, including without limitation reasonable and necessary amounts for ah diagnosis, cure, mitigation, or treatment of any disease or condition from which the injured person suffers as a result of the injuries, and the sequelae thereof, sustained by the claimant on the date the injury was sustained. The trustee shall have the same fiduciary duties as imposed upon a trustee by the Louisiana Trust Code. Nothing herein shall limit the rights of claimants to contract with respect to attorney fees and costs. [Emphasis added.]

3 Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(B)(3)(a) and (D)(3), [HN11] relative to the creation of reversionary trusts, were added by 1996 La. Acts No. 63, § 1 (effective May 9, 1996). 2000 La. Acts No. 20, § 1 (effective July 1, 2000) amended La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(a) and (D)(3) to provide that the creation of reversionary trusts for the payment of future medical care specifically applies to personal injury claims against political subdivisions.

To ascertain which of the Act’s provisions regarding damage awards apply to Ms. Fecke’s case — either the provision applicable to an award against the state or a state agency, La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c), or the provision applicable to damage awards against [*14] a political subdivision, La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(a) — this court must determine whether the LSU Board is classified as the “state or a state agency” or as a “political subdivision.” The Act defines a “state agency” as “any board, commission, department, agency, special district, authority, or other entity of the state.” La. R.S. 13:5102(A). The Act defines a “political subdivision” as “[a]ny parish, municipality, special district, school board, sheriff, public board, institution, department, commission, district, corporation, agency, authority, or an agency or subdivision of any of these, and other public or governmental body of any kind which is not a state agency.” La. R.S. 13:5102(B)(1).

[HN12] The starting point in the interpretation of any statute is the language of the statute itself. Whitley v. State ex rel. Bd. of Supervisors of Louisiana State Univ. Agr. Mech. College, 11-0040 (La. 7/1/11), 66 So. 3d 470, 474. When the wording of a section of the revised statutes is clear and free of ambiguity, the letter of it shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit. La. C.C. art. 9; La. R.S. 1:4. “Words and phrases shall be read with their context and shall be construed according to the common and approved usage of the language.” La. R.S. 1:3. [Pg 10] Based on the clear language of La. R.S. 13:5102(A) and (B), the LSU Board is a state agency.4 Because the LSU Board is a state agency, the Act’s provision applicable to [*15] awards for future medical care against the state or a state agency – La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c) DMASH applies to the instant case. Thus, the trial court legally erred in applying La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(a) to this case. That legal error became prejudicial when the trial court rendered judgment on the jury’s verdict and ordered that Ms. Fecke’s damage award for her future medical care be placed in a reversionary trust, which the trial court referred to as a “Future Medical Care Trust.”5 We therefore amend the portion of the trial court’s October 3, 2014 final judgment that refers to a “Future Medical Care Trust” to refer to the “Future Medical Care Fund.”

4 We note that there is constitutional and statutory authority for the classification of the LSU Board as a state agency. We also note there is jurisprudence that has previously applied the Act to suits involving the LSU Board. In those instances, courts applied the provisions of the Act applicable to state agencies to the LSU Board. See La. Const, art. VIII, § 7; La. R.S. 13:5102(A): La. R.S. 39:1527(1); Whitley, 66 So. 3d at 476; LeBlanc v. Thomas, 08-2869 (La. 10/20/09), 23 So. 3d 241, 246; Student Govt. Association of Louisiana State Univ. Agr. & Meek College, Main Campus, Baton Rouge v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State Univ. Agr. & Meek College, 262 La. 849, 867-68, 264 So. 2d 916, 922 (1972) (Barham, J., dissenting); Hunter v. Louisiana State Univ. Agr. & Meek College ex rel. Louisiana Health Care Services Center for Univ. Hosp. at New Orleans, 10-1406 (La. App. 4 Cir. 6/8/11), 77 So. 3d 264, 267, reversed on other grounds, 11-2841 (La. 3/9/12), 82 So. 3d 268.

5 The trial court’s judgment ordered that Ms. Fecke’s future medicals be placed in a “Future Medical Care Trust” in accordance with La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c); however, as we have discussed, Section 5106(B)(3)(c) applies [*16] to the state and state agencies and governs the placement of a claimant’s future medicals in the Future Medical Care Fund, not a trust.

In addition to its argument that the trial court legally erred in establishing a reversionary trust for Ms. Fecke’s future medical care instead of ordering that those benefits be paid from the FMCF, the LSU Board further contends that the trial court legally erred when it (i) ordered that costs and judicial interest be paid out of and earned on Ms. Fecke’s damage award for future medicals, and (ii) ordered that attorney’s fees be taken out of that award prior to the establishment of a reversionary trust.

[Pg 11] Section 5106(B)(3)(c), referring to La. R.S. 39:1533.2, [HN13] provides that a claimant’s future medicals are paid from the FMCF “directly to the provider as they are incurred.” The FMCF is established by La. R.S. 39:1533.2, which provides:

[HN14] A. There is hereby established in the state treasury the “Future Medical Care Fund”, hereinafter referred to as the “fund”. The fund shall consist of such monies transferred or appropriated to the fund for the purposes of funding medical care and related benefits that may be incurred subsequent to judgment rendered against the state or a state agency [*17] as provided by R.S. 13:5106 and as more specifically provided in R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c). All costs or expenses of administration of the fund shall be paid from the fund.

B. The fund shall be administered by the treasurer on behalf of the office of risk management for the benefit of claimants suing for personal injury who are entitled to medical care and related benefits that may be incurred subsequent to judgment. Except for costs or expenses of administration, this fund shall be used only for payment of losses associated with such claims. At the close of each fiscal year, the treasurer shall transfer to the Future Medical Care Fund from the Self-Insurance Fund an amount equal to the monies expended from the Future Medical Care Fund during that fiscal year. Monies in the fund shall be invested by the state treasurer in the same manner as monies in the state general fund. Interest earned on investment of monies in the fund shall be deposited in and credited to the fund. All unexpended and unencumbered monies in the fund at the end of the fiscal year shall remain in the fund. [Emphasis added.]

Ms. Fecke is entitled to receive costs and interest on her damage award in accordance with La. R.S. 13:5112 of the Act; however, pursuant to La. R.S. 39:1533.2 (which [*18] the Act refers to in Section 13:5106(B)(3)(c)), any interest specifically earned on the award for Ms. Fecke’s future medical care “shall be deposited in and credited to” the FMCF. Thus, to the extent that the October 3, 2014 judgment of the trial court awards interest directly to Ms. Fecke’s on her future medical care award, that portion of the judgment is hereby vacated.

[HN15] With regard to costs and attorney’s fees, this court notes that when a reversionary trust is established by a political subdivision for the payment of a claimant’s future medical care and related benefits, the statute does not limit the rights of a claimant to contract with respect to attorney fees and costs. La. R.S. 13:5106(D)(3) [Pg 12]. Ms. Fecke argues that this provision of the Act authorizes the trial court to approve her contract with her lawyer for reasonable attorney’s fees which may be deducted from the jury’s damage award for her future medical care, prior to the establishment of the reversionary trust. Ms. Fecke’s contention regarding reversionary trusts is valid, but, as we have previously held, the reversionary trust provisions contained in La, R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(a) and (D)(3) do not apply to her suit for personal injury against the LSU Board.

Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(1) defines “[m]edical [*19] care and related benefits” as “all reasonable medical, surgical, hospitalization, physical rehabilitation, and custodial services, and includes drugs, prosthetic devices, and other similar materials reasonably necessary in the provision of such services.” Thus, the only monies to be paid to a provider from the FMCF for Ms. Fecke’s future medical care are those things defined in Section 13:5106(D)(1). Nowhere in the statutes pertaining to the FMCF does it provide for costs or attorney’s fees to be paid therefrom. Furthermore, costs and attorney’s fees are not “medical care and related benefits” set forth in La. R.S. 13:5106(D)(1). See Starr v. State ex rel. Dept. of Transp. & Dev., 46,226 (La. App. 2 Cir. 6/17/11), 70 So. 3d 128, 144, writs denied, 11-1835 (La. 10/21/11), 73 So. 3d 386, 11-1952 (La. 10/21/11), 73 So. 3d 387, 11-1625 (La. 10/21/11), 73 So. 3d 388 and 12-2146 (La. 10/12/12), 98 So. 3d 877.

We also note that a lump sum is not placed in the FMCF on Ms. Fecke’s behalf, out of which costs and attorney’s fees could be paid directly to her attorneys. As set forth in the statutory scheme, Ms. Fecke’s future medical care will be paid from the FMCF directly to her medical provider as her medical care is incurred.6 La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(3)(c). Therefore, the portions of the October 3, 2014 judgment of the trial court, which ordered that costs and attorney’s fees be [Pg 13] paid out of Ms. Fecke’s damage award for her future medical care, are hereby vacated.

6 The statutory scheme that creates and governs the organization and management of the FMCF is analogous to the statutory scheme that creates and governs the “Patient’s Compensation Fund,” the fund established for the payment of medical malpractice claims. See La. R.S. 40:1299.43-44.

Assignment [*20] of Error 2:

In its second assignment of error, the LSU Board contends that the trial court erred in excluding from trial a one-page Rock Climbing Wall Participation Agreement (“Agreement”) that was provided to Ms. Fecke by the LSU UREC employees, which she executed prior to climbing the wall on the day of her accident. Prior to trial, Ms. Fecke filed a motion in limine to exclude the Agreement, arguing that the document constituted a waiver of liability to release the LSU Board from any and all liability for causing injury to Ms. Fecke. Such exclusion of liability waivers are null under Louisiana law. See La. C.C. art. 2004. The LSU Board opposed the motion. A hearing was held on Ms. Fecke’s motion in limine the day before commencement of the jury trial. The trial court granted the motion excluding the Agreement.

On the second day of the jury trial, the LSU Board moved to re-consider the motion in limine to exclude the Agreement. The LSU Board argued that portions of the Agreement unrelated to the liability waiver, such as certifications regarding Ms. Fecke’s health, mental, and physical condition should be permitted into evidence. The trial court considered entering into evidence a version of the Agreement [*21] that redacted any mention of a waiver of liability; however, the trial court reasoned that a redacted document may cause confusion for the jury who might speculate over the contents of the redacted portions of the Agreement. Recognizing the need to provide the information contained in the “non-waiver of liability” paragraphs of the Agreement to the jury without causing confusion, the trial court opted to instruct the jury that Ms. Fecke certified to the LSU UREC employees that she was in good health and had no mental or physical conditions [Pg 14] that would interfere with her safety or the safety of others. The parties stipulated to the disclosure, and counsel for the LSU Board proffered the Agreement.

On appeal, the LSU Board argues that the Agreement was more than a mere waiver of liability. It argues that the Agreement establishes that Ms. Fecke was sufficiently educated and understood the inherent risk of injury associated with the activity she was about to undertake and that the LSU UREC employees had properly screened Ms. Fecke prior to allowing her to climb the wall. The LSU Board avers that the Agreement constituted Ms. Fecke’s acknowledgment of the risks of climbing the wall, [*22] which is a significant factor in determining her fault, and that this information should have been presented to the jury. Ultimately, the LSU Board contends the Agreement is relevant, highly probative, and its exclusion from evidence materially prejudiced the LSU Board in its ability to defend against Ms. Fecke’s allegations of negligence and the alleged breach of duty owed as the owner of the rock wall climbing facility. Specifically, the LSU Board argues that Ms. Fecke’s acknowledgement regarding the risk of bodily injury, representations regarding her physical and mental capacity and understanding that she alone was to determine whether she was fit to participate in the activity, and her agreement to direct any questions to the climbing wall staff constituted her informed consent and acknowledgement of the risk of climbing the indoor rock wall and are significant factors in determining her fault.

[HN16] All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by law. La. C.E. art. 402. Relevant evidence is evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence. La. C.E. art. 401. The trial [*23] court has great discretion in its consideration of evidentiary matters such as motions in limine. See Heller v. Nobel Insurance Group, 00-0261 (La. 2/2/00), 753 So. 2d 841. Thus on review, an appellate court must determine whether the [Pg 15] trial court abused its great discretion in ruling on a motion in limine. Id. [HN17] Pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 1636, when a trial court rules against the admissibility of any evidence, the court shall either permit the party offering such evidence to make a complete record thereof or permit the party to make a statement setting forth the nature of the evidence. Article 1636 is mandatory, not discretionary. Williams v. Williams, 06-2491 (La. App. 1 Cir. 9/14/07), 970 So. 2d 633, 640. The purpose of requiring a proffer is to preserve excluded evidence so that the testimony or evidence is available for appellate review of a trial court’s erroneous ruling. When legal error has been found and a complete record has been made through a proffer, the appellate court is able to conduct a de novo review of the record, including the proffered evidence, to render a decision on appeal. Id. We now review the proffered Agreement de novo to determine whether the trial court committed legal error in excluding the Agreement and whether that legal error prejudiced the LSU Board’s defense.

The Agreement is a one-page document signed by Ms. Fecke [*24] that contains eight paragraphs. The first three paragraphs provide as follows:

I understand and agree that there is a risk of serious injury to me while utilizing University Recreation facilities, equipment, and programs and recognize every activity has a certain degree of risk, some more than others. By participating, I knowingly and voluntarily assume any and all risk of injuries, regardless of severity, which from time to time may occur as a result of my participation in athletic and other activities through LSU University Recreation.

I hereby certify I have adequate health insurance to cover any injury or damages that I may suffer while participating, or alternatively, agree to bear all costs associated with any such injury or damages myself.

I further certify that I am in good health and have no mental or physical condition or symptoms that could interfere with my safety or the safety of others while participating in any activity using any equipment or facilitates of LSU University Recreation. I understand and agree that I alone am responsible to determine whether I am physically and mentally fit to participate, perform, or utilize the activities, programs, equipment or facilities [*25] available at Louisiana State University, and that I am not relying on any advice from LSU [Pg 16] University Recreation in this regard. To the extent I have any questions or need any information about my physical or mental condition or limitations, I agree to seek professional advice from a qualified physician.

The fourth paragraph of the Agreement provides as follows:

Further, I hereby RELEASE AND HOLD HARMLESS, the State of Louisiana, the Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College, and its respective members, officers, employees, student workers, student interns, volunteers, agents, representatives, institutions, and/or departments from any and all liability, claims, damages, costs, expenses, personal injuries, illnesses, death or loss of personal property resulting, in whole or in part, from my participation in, or use of, any facility, equipment, and/or programs of Louisiana State University.

The remaining paragraphs of the Agreement provide as follows:

I will wear proper protective equipment and I agree to abide by all rules of the sport as mandated by LSU University Recreation.

I, the undersigned, am at least eighteen (18) years of age [*26] or have a parent/legal guardian’s signature, will not use an auto-belay system if weighing less than 90 pounds, am physically fit, have read this participation agreement, and understand its terms and conditions. I agree not to climb onto the top of the structure and stay directly under the rope or belay system I am using. Any certifications, including belay certifications, are good only at the LSU’s Baton Rouge campus, Student Recreation Center, and are not transferable to any other person.

Any questions concerning equipment to be used should be directed to Climbing Wall Staff prior to engaging in this activity. The wall is not designed for rappelling from the top of the tower. Doing so may result in serious physical injury to the participant and/or bystanders.

At various times throughout the semester, University Recreation will be taking digital images, photographs, and/or videotapes of patrons [for] educational, promotional and informational purposes for use in department related print materials and on our Web site. When/if your likeness or image is used in a publication, there will be no identifying information provided. [Emphasis added.]

Louisiana Civil Code article 2004 provides:

[HN18] Any clause is null that, in advance, [*27] excludes or limits the liability of one party for intentional or gross fault that causes damage to the other party.

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury to the other party.

[Pg 17] Based on our review of the proffered Agreement, paragraph four is null pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2004 because it, in advance, excludes the liability of the LSU Board for causing physical injury to Ms. Fecke. The trial court properly excluded that portion of the Agreement from consideration by the jury. The issue then becomes whether a redacted version of the Agreement, with the remaining paragraphs that do not exclude or limit the liability of the LSU Board, should have come into evidence. As per the agreement of the parties, the trial court gave the jury an instruction, instead of providing a redacted version of the Agreement, and disclosed these minimal facts to the jury:

They stipulate that when Brandy Fecke arrived at the LSU Recreational Center on that evening she certified to them that she was in good health and had no mental or physical condition or symptoms that could interfere with her safety or the safety of others while participating in any [*28] activity using any equipment or facilities of LSU University Recreation; further, that she was at least 18 years of age and was physically fit. So that’s again, as I said, a stipulation is the parties agree those are the facts and they don’t need to have witnesses and so forth testify to that.

Despite the trial court’s instruction to the jury, the LSU Board argues that each paragraph of the Agreement is highly probative as to the fault of the parties and that this probative value substantially outweighs any potential confusion or misleading of the jury that could have resulted from the introduction of the Agreement at trial. During the jury trial, a rock climbing expert for the plaintiff, Dan Pervorse, testified regarding the LSU Board’s duty to Ms. Fecke. Mr. Pervorse stated that the LSU Board failed to provide Ms. Fecke with an adequate warning as to the potential for significant physical injury associated with rock climbing. He further stated that the LSU UREC employees failed to properly screen and instruct Ms. Fecke prior to allowing her to climb. Mr. Pervorse further testified that the LSU Board failed to follow proper safety procedures, including the requirement that a climber [*29] who is bouldering must have a spotter standing behind the climber to provide assistance to the climber and help prevent injuries. [Pg 18] The LSU Board argues that had it been allowed to enter the Agreement into evidence and use it during its cross-examination of Mr. Pervorse, his expert testimony would have been significantly diminished and may have resulted in a different allocation of fault to the LSU Board.

[HN19] Louisiana courts have adopted a duty-risk analysis in determining whether to impose liability under the general negligence principles of La. C.C. art 2315. For liability for damages to attach under a duty-risk analysis, a plaintiff must prove five separate elements: (1) the defendant had a duty to conform his or her conduct to a specific standard of care (the duty element); (2) the defendant failed to conform his or her conduct to the appropriate standard of care (the breach of duty element); (3) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a cause in fact of the plaintiffs injuries (the cause in fact element); (4) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a legal cause of the plaintiffs injuries (the scope of protection element); and (5) actual damages (the damage element). Rideau, 970 So. 2d at 573.

[HN20] Rock climbing is a recreational [*30] activity that involves substantial risk. Many other recreational activities such as weight lifting and swimming also involve a substantial degree of risk. The risks associated with these and other physically-challenging sports are well recognized. The duty on the gym operator, when these types of sports are conducted, is one of reasonable care under the circumstances — to provide a sound and secure environment for undertaking a clearly risky form of recreation and not that of removing every element of danger inherent in rock climbing. Ravey v. Rockworks, LLC, 12-1305 (La. App. 3 Cir. 4/10/13), 111 So. 3d 1187, 1192. The LSU Board did not have a duty to warn Ms. Fecke as a climber about the potential effect of gravity. A warning that “if you fall you might get hurt,” is obvious and universally known. See Henshaw v. Audubon Park Com’n., 605 So. 2d 640, 643 (La. App. 4 Cir.) [Pg 19], writ denied, 607 So. 2d 570 (La. 1992).

A gym and its facilities are not the insurers of the lives or safety of its patrons. A gym cannot be expected to foresee or guard against all dangers. Furthermore, the gym must only take reasonable precautions under the circumstances to avoid injury . Ravey, 111 So. 3d at 1190-91. To prove negligence on the part of the LSU Board, Ms. Fecke must show both a failure to provide reasonable training and supervision under the circumstances, as well as [*31] proof of a causal connection between the lack of reasonable training/supervision and the accident. See Ravey, 111 So. 3d at 1191.

The LSU UREC maintains an “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual,” which governs the rules, use, and maintenance of the indoor rock wall climbing facility. The manual requires the following of all employees of the indoor rock wall climbing facility:

1. Full knowledge of facilities and programs ….

2. Ability to seek answers to questions.

3. Provide consistency and continuity.

4. Carry out assigned routine and non-routine tasks.

5. Follow and enforce staff and program policies and procedures.

6. Maintain a safe and enjoyable recreation environment.

Employees are required to know and enforce all climbing wall and LSU UREC rules.

The manual distinguishes between the climbing wall and the bouldering wall. The climbing wall utilizes a safety rope belay system, where a climber climbs the wall while strapped into a harness and is “belayed” via ropes by an LSU UREC employee. Bouldering, as opposed to rope climbing while wearing a harness, does not involve the use of ropes and requires the climber to traverse the boulder wall from side-to-side instead of climbing up the wall. The manual lists the following [*32] rules for bouldering:

[Pg 20] 1. Before bouldering the climber must check in at the desk.

2. The number of climbers at any one time may be limited to ensure proper supervision. When people are using climbing ropes, bouldering on walls behind them, may be stopped. Bouldering may be limited based on climber’ s/belayer’s location on the wall.

3. The climber may not boulder above or below any other climbers and must be sure that pants pockets are empty.

4. A bouldering sequence may be marked with tape.

5. Only the climbing staff may switch holds if necessary.

6. Spotting is required as bouldering can become quite demanding and may involve moves increasing the possibility of the climber coming off the wall in an awkward position. A spotter is required, to provide assistance to prevent injuries. Help all spotters to make sure that they are using proper technique and understand the purpose of spotting.

7. Participants are required to properly use crash pads at all times, a spotter may help to position crash pads.

8. Intentional jumping off the wall is not allowed. Please, climb down.

9. Please remove all hand jewelry and long necklaces. Clean athletic shoes, running shoes, or climbing shoes are the [*33] only shoes permitted. Shirts must be worn at all times. Tie hair back when necessary.

10. Be safe, be creative, have fun! [Emphasis added.]

Furthermore, the LSU UREC employees are required to instruct patrons who intend to climb in accordance with the guidelines contained in a “safety clinic” document. The safety clinic requires the LSU UREC employees to give examples of danger areas and instruct climbers where to fall on crash pads, which must be placed underneath bouldering climbers at all times. The safety clinic requires the LSU UREC employees to give an example of the technique of spotting and have the participating climbers demonstrate spotting. Section 6 of the safety clinic provides:

a. Every climber must request a spotter when applicable, i.e. when climbing at one’s limit or climbing into a situation that could yield a long or awkward fall.

b. Proper spotting techniques:

i. The role of the spotter is to first assist the climber in landing properly on their feet in the upright position. Secondly, to protect the climber’s head from hitting something hard (floor, wall, etc).

ii. Hands up, thumbs in (spoons not forks).

iii. Dominant leg back, to use as a brace.

iv. Do not catch the climber; [*34] help them regain proper balancing while landing.

[Pg 21] The safety clinic also requires the LSU UREC employees to demonstrate how to properly descend the wall, and in the event of a fall, how to properly land on the ground to reduce injuries.

At trial, Ms. Fecke, her friend Mr. Culotta, and the two LSU UREC employees who were working the night of the accident, Emanuel Andrews and Andrew Whitty, testified as to the events.7 Ms. Fecke testified that after having her course form signed and executing the Agreement, Mr. Whitty gave Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta a “few minutes or so” of instruction. She stated that the climbing wall employees made no clear distinction between rope climbing with a harness or bouldering. Mr. Whitty asked if she wanted to wear a harness, but she declined, stating that she and Mr. Culotta wanted to climb “whatever [wall] was easiest,” to which he indicated they could climb the back 13′ 1″ bouldering wall located on the rear wall. Ms. Fecke also testified that Mr. Whitty indicated to her that most people climbed without a harness and that it was “up to her” whether she wanted to climb while wearing a harness. Mr. Culotta suggested that she wear a harness, which Ms. [*35] Fecke took as a joke stating, “[t]he worker at the wall didn’t make me feel like it was necessary and said most people didn’t, so I didn’t think it was something I had to do.”

7 The deposition of Andrew Whitty was read in open court.

Ms. Fecke testified that the employees did not ask her to demonstrate her climbing ability. She further stated that the employees did not explain the technique of climbing with a spotter or that spotting was required in order to climb the boulder wall and that she and Mr. Culotta never spotted each other. In terms of climbing instruction given by the employees, Ms. Fecke testified that “[o]ne of the guys climbed about half the wall quickly and came back down” in about thirty seconds and asked if they had any questions, which she stated she and Mr. Culotta [Pg 22] did not have at the time. Ms. Fecke testified that there wasn’t anything she “didn’t get” in terms of instruction about climbing the wall.

Mr. Culotta testified that he and Ms. Fecke arrived at the indoor rock wall climbing facility about an hour before closing. He stated that after he and Ms. Fecke indicated their relative climbing experience, the employees gave a “few minutes” of “some basic instruction,” [*36] and one of the employees demonstrated climbing up the wall in about thirty seconds. Mr. Culotta stated that he did not remember any discussion of the spotting technique during the instruction by the climbing wall employees. Mr. Culotta further testified that he never spotted Ms. Fecke.

Andrew Whitty, one of the climbing wall employees working the night of Ms. Fecke’s accident, testified that he went over the rules and regulations of the climbing facility with Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta since they were both new climbers. Mr. Whitty testified that if a patron was new to the climbing wall, the employees would have to give a “brief sort of instruction” during which the employees would go over certain things,” such as the difference between climbing with a rope and bouldering. Mr. Whitty stated that since Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta opted to climb the boulder wall since it was more convenient, he went over spotting techniques. Mr. Whitty testified that Mr. Culotta was spotting Ms. Fecke at the time of her fall. Mr. Whitty stated that he could not recall if there was a policy in place at the LSU UREC that required a spotter for a climber on the bouldering wall. He also could not recall whether [*37] there was policy or procedures manual for the climbing wall, and if there was, he stated he did not refer to it often. Mr. Whitty testified that climbers were not tested for proficiency prior to climbing.

Emanuel Andrews, the other employee working the night of Ms. Fecke’s accident, witnessed Ms. Fecke as she fell from the wall. Mr. Andrews was standing approximately twenty feet from where Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta were [Pg 23] climbing, in the middle of the room, Mr. Andrews testified that while Ms. Fecke climbed the wall, Mr. Culotta was standing in the correct position to spot her, but that as she fell, Mr. Culotta moved away from the wall and out of the spotting position.

We also note that the plaintiff’s expert on rock wall climbing, Mr. Pervorse, testified that the spotting technique, which should be used any time a climber traverses a bouldering wall, involves “having a good stance, one foot forward, one foot back, slightly wider than shoulder width so that you have a good support base and, then your hands up.” He further stated that the purpose of spotting is to “slow [the climbers] fall, to keep them upright, keep them from falling over and hurting their self further by potentially [*38] falling off a mat and hitting their head, to help steadying them when they do land.”

After our de novo review of the testimony and evidence presented at trial, we conclude that the LSU UREC employees failed to properly instruct, demonstrate, and certify that Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta understood the proper techniques for climbing the bouldering wall in accordance with their duties as described in the LSU UREC “Indoor Climbing Wall Manual” and the safety clinic document. While the employees may have explained the spotting technique, Ms. Fecke and Mr. Culotta both testified that neither spotted the other as they climbed. Despite the LSU Board’s contention that the Agreement represents Ms. Fecke’s acknowledgment of the risks involved in rock wall climbing, as stated above, those risks are well-known. The only portion of the excluded Agreement that might have prejudiced the LSU Board’s case is the portion in paragraph five wherein Ms. Fecke certified that she “agree[d] to abide by all rules of the sport as mandated by LSU University Recreation.” As discussed above, however, instruction as to those “rules” was not provided to Ms. Fecke by the LSU UREC employees nor was she properly screened or supervised [*39] as she climbed the bouldering wall.

[Pg 24] Paragraph four of the Agreement is null because it, in advance, excludes the liability of the LSU Board for causing physical injury to Ms. Fecke, but the remaining paragraphs of the Agreement are not illegal waivers of liability. Thus, we find that the trial court legally erred in excluding a redacted version of the Agreement; however, we hold that the trial court’s error was not prejudicial. The inclusion of the remainder of the Agreement at trial could not have permissibly changed the jury’s verdict based on our de novo review of the record.

Assignment of Error 3:

In the third and final assignment of error, the LSU Board asserts that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on the award of damages for the “loss of future earnings” when the trial court should have instructed the jury on damages for the “loss of future earning capacity.” It is undisputed that at the time of Ms. Fecke’s accident, she was an unemployed senior college student at LSU. Ms. Fecke later graduated from LSU with a degree in kinesiology and obtained a secondary degree as a physical therapy assistant. At the time of trial, she was employed as a physical therapy assistant, [*40] but testified that she had recently taken on a less strenuous, and lower paid, physical therapy assistant job due to her injuries. The LSU Board argues that because Ms. Fecke was unemployed at the time of her accident, she suffered no loss of earning or loss of future earnings, but rather suffered a loss of future earning capacity.

The distinction between a damage award for the loss of future earnings and the loss of future earning capacity is crucial in this case because as a state agency, the LSU Board’s liability for damages for an award of loss of future earning capacity is included in the $500,000.00 cap on damages pursuant to La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1). In contrast, damages for a loss of future earnings, as was awarded by the jury to Ms. Fecke based on the instruction given by the trial court, are excluded from the $500,000.00 damages cap, La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1); see also [Pg 25] Cooper v. Public Belt R.R., 03-2116 (La. App. 4 Cir. 10/6/04), 886 So. 2d 531, 539, writ denied, 04-2748 (La. 1/28/05), 893 So. 2d 75 (the $500,000.00 cap on damages in actions against governmental units applied to damages for loss of future earning capacity; loss of future earning capacity was not the same as a loss of future earnings, and thus, it did not fall within an exception to the cap). It therefore behooves this court to determine whether or not the jury [*41] instruction given by the trial court on a loss of future earnings was proper.

Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1792(B) [HN21] requires a district judge to instruct the jury on the law applicable to the case submitted to them. The trial court is responsible for reducing the possibility of confusing the jury and may exercise the right to decide what law is applicable and what law the trial court deems inappropriate. Wooley v. Lucksinger, 09-0571 (La. 4/1/11), 61 So. 3d 507, 573. The question here is whether the district judge adequately instructed the jury, as that concept has been defined in the jurisprudence:

[HN22] Adequate jury instructions are those which fairly and reasonably point out the issues and which provide correct principles of law for the jury to apply to those issues. The trial judge is under no obligation to give any specific jury instructions that may be submitted by either party; the judge must, however, correctly charge the jury. If the trial court omits an applicable, essential legal principle, its instruction does not adequately set forth the issues to be decided by the jury and may constitute reversible error.

Wooley, 61 So. 3d at 574 (citing Adams v. Rhodia, Inc., 07-2110 (La. 5/21/08), 983 So. 2d 798, 804.).

Generally, the giving of an allegedly erroneous jury instruction will not constitute grounds for reversal unless the instruction is erroneous and the complaining [*42] party has been injured or prejudiced thereby. In fact, Louisiana jurisprudence is well established that a reviewing court must exercise great restraint before it reverses a jury verdict due to an erroneous jury instruction. Wooley, 61 So. 3d at 574. When a reviewing court finds the jury was erroneously instructed and the error probably [Pg 26] contributed to the verdict, an appellate court must set aside the verdict. Wooley, 61 So. 3d at 574.

[HN23] In order to determine whether an erroneous jury instruction was given, reviewing courts must assess the targeted portion of the instruction in the context of the entire jury charge to determine if the charges adequately panicle the correct principles of law as applied to the issues framed in the pleadings and the evidence and whether the charges adequately guided the jury in its determination. The ultimate inquiry on appeal is whether the jury instructions misled the jury to such an extent that the jurors were prevented from dispensing justice. The law is clear the review function is not complete once error is found. Prejudice to the complaining party cannot automatically be assumed from the mere fact of an error. Instead, the reviewing court must then compare the degree of the error with the [*43] adequacy of the jury instructions as a whole and the circumstances of the case. Wooley, 61 So. 3d at 574.

Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(2) [HN24] defines “loss of future earnings” as “any form of economic loss which the claimant will sustain after the trial as a result of the injury … which forms the basis of the claim.” In contrast, loss of earning capacity is not the same as lost earnings. Rather, earning capacity refers to a person’s potential. Batiste v New Hampshire Ins. Co., 94-1467 (La. App. 3 Cir. 5/3/95), 657 So. 2d 168, 170, writ denied, 95-1413 (La. 9/22/95), 660 So. 2d 472. The Louisiana Supreme Court has held that damages for a loss of earning capacity should be estimated on the injured person’s ability to earn money, rather than what he actually earned before the injury. Earning capacity in itself is not necessarily determined by actual loss. Hobgood v. Aucoin, 574 So. 2d 344, 346 (La. 1990); Folse v. Fakouri, 371 So. 2d 1120, 1124 (La. 1979). The claimant need not be working or even in a certain profession to recover an award for loss of future earning capacity. Brandao v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 35,368 (La, App. 2 Cir. 12/19/01), 803 So. 2d 1039, 1043 [Pg 27], writ denied, 02-0493 (La. 4/26/02), 814 So. 2d 558. Damages may be assessed for the deprivation of what the injured plaintiff could have earned despite the fact that he may never have seen fit to take advantage of that capacity. The theory is that the injury done him has deprived him of a capacity he would have been entitled to enjoy even though he [*44] never profited from it monetarily. Hobgood, 574 So 2d at 346; Folse, 371 So. 2d at 1124.

[HN25] An award for loss of earning capacity is inherently speculative and cannot be calculated with absolute certainty. The most the courts can do is exercise sound discretion and make an award that in light of all facts and circumstances is fair to both parties while not being unduly oppressive to either. In determining whether a personal injury plaintiff is entitled to recover for the loss of earning capacity, the trial court should consider whether and how much plaintiffs current condition disadvantages her in the work force. Henry v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 542 So. 2d 102, 107, writ denied, 544 So. 2d 405 (La. 1989) and 544 So. 2d 405 (La. 1989). Factors to be considered in fixing awards for loss of earning capacity include: age, life expectancy, work life expectancy, past work record, appropriate discount rate, the annual wage rate increase or productivity increase, prospects for rehabilitation, probable future earning capacity, loss of earning ability, and the inflation factor or decreasing purchasing power of the applicable currency. Henry, 542 So. 2d at 107; Brandao, 803 So. 2d at 1043.

Experts at trial testified that Ms. Fecke would likely have to change career paths — from a [Pg 28] physical therapy assistant to a job in a more sedentary position — at some undetermined point [*45] in the future due to her injuries. Stephanie Chalfin, a vocational rehabilitation expert, presented options for potential new careers for Ms. Fecke. Harold Asher, a certified public accountant and an expert in the projection of economic loss testified as to Ms. Fecke’s potential maximum salary as a physical therapy assistant (which was provided by Ms. Chalfin). Mr. Asher then calculated the difference between the hypothetical salary and Ms. Fecke’s potential earning capacity under three scenarios: Ms. Fecke remaining in her field as a physical therapy assistant, obtaining employment as a social worker, or obtaining employment as a rehabilitation counselor. Mr. Asher projected his figures over the anticipated work life of Ms. Fecke and considered a number of factors including her age, how long he expected her to continue working, her motivation to work, growth rate, and wages anticipated each year of her work life.

The jury instructions were lengthy, and this is the only reference therein to a damage award for “loss of future earnings”:

Under the loss of future earnings component of damages, the plaintiff is entitled to recover damages for the deprivation of what she should have earned [*46] but for the injury. Such damages are calculated on the plaintiff’s ability to earn money in her chosen career compared to what she can now earn because of her injury. In determining such an award, you may consider plaintiff’s physical condition and mental status before and after this incident, her work record, her earnings in prior years, the probability or improbability that she would have earned similar amounts in the remainder of her work life, and similar factors. And since, if you make an award, plaintiff would be receiving today sums of money that otherwise she would only receive over a number of years in the future, the law requires that you discount or reduce it to its present value, which is what the experts in this case have already done.

The LSU Board objected to the jury instruction given by the trial court regarding damages for “loss of future earnings.” The trial court, after citing to the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Cooper, 886 So. 2d 531, and the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in Folse, 371 So. 2d 1120, stated:

The cases dealing with loss of future earnings dealt with cases where the injured plaintiff was already in a certain career or profession or job description and they could not continue on in that same [*47] job. The evidence in this case was that Ms. Fecke was, despite her injury, able to qualify and go into her chosen profession of physical therapy assistant, but because of her injury will not be able to continue in that type of employment and must therefore seek other employment which may or may not pay less, as indicated by the experts who testified.

[Pg 29] So for that reason, I felt that this was more loss of future earnings as opposed to loss of earning capacity. So that’s why I gave that charge as opposed to a future earning capacity charge or a future earning capacity entry on the verdict form.

Unlike the trial court’s reasoning, [HN26] the Louisiana Supreme Court has drawn a distinction between “pecuniary loss” and a “loss of earning capacity.” The supreme court explained the rationale behind the concept of loss of future earning capacity as opposed to loss of future earnings by stating that “the theory is that the injury done him has deprived him of a capacity he would have been entitled to enjoy even though he never profited from it monetarily.” Folse, 371 So. 2d at 1123. Further, by noting that proof of loss of future earning capacity does not require proof of future monetary loss, the supreme court reinforces [*48] the conclusion that loss of future earning capacity is not an “economic loss” within the intendment of La. R.S. 13:5106(D)(2). See Folse, 371 So. 2d at 1123. Therefore, like the Fourth Circuit in Cooper, we hold that “pecuniary loss,” as used in Folse by the supreme court, is synonymous with “economic loss” as employed in La. R.S. 13:5106(D)(2). See Cooper, 886 So. 2d at 539. Thus, Ms. Fecke suffered a loss of future earning capacity as a result of her injury. It is impossible for her to receive an award for loss of earnings or loss of future earnings because she suffered no economic loss as a result of her accident since she was unemployed at the time.

The jury awarded damages estimated on Ms. Fecke’s potential to earn money in the future, which is her future earning capacity. Based on the law, the expert testimony, and the evidence introduced at trial, we find that the trial court’s instruction regarding loss of future earnings was erroneous. Furthermore, we find that the error was prejudicial to the LSU Board, particularly with regard to the $500,000.00 liability cap, pursuant to La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1), on a damage award for a loss of future earning capacity. The error resulted in an award to Ms. Fecke that was a larger amount than she was statutorily entitled to receive. The judgment [Pg 30] warrants [*49] amendment based on the degree of this error combined with the adequacy of the jury instructions as a whole and the circumstances of this case. Therefore, we amend the portion of the October 3, 2014 judgment of the trial court, which awarded Ms. Fecke damages for loss of future earnings, to award Ms. Fecke those damages as her loss of future earning capacity. We furthermore amend the judgment to cap Ms. Fecke’s damages, exclusive of her medical care and related benefits, at $500,000.00 in accordance with La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1).

We further note that the modification of Ms. Fecke’s damages award extinguishes the loss of consortium award to Karen Fecke. Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5106(D)(4) [HN27] provides that “‘[d]erivative claims’ include but are not limited to claims for survival or loss of consortium.” A claim for loss of consortium pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2315(B) is a derivative claim, derived from damages to the primary plaintiff. An award of general damages in the maximum amount of $500,000.00 as allowed by statute in actions against state agencies and/or political subdivisions of the state serves to legally extinguish any derivative awards for loss of consortium, services, and society. See Jenkins v. State ex rel. Dept. of Transp, & Dev., 06-1804 (La. App. 1 Cir. 8/19/08), 993 So. 2d 749, 778, writ denied, 08-2471 (La. 12/19/08), 996 So. 2d 1133. We therefore reverse the trial court’s judgment in part and vacate [*50] the award of damages for loss of consortium to Karen Fecke.

DECREE

We amend the portion of the trial court’s October 3, 2014 final judgment, which orders that Ms. Fecke’s award of $750,000.00 for medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment be placed in a reversionary “Future Medical Care Trust,” to order that Ms. Fecke’s award of $750,000,00 for medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment be paid from the Future Medical Care Fund in accordance with La. R.S. 39:1533.2. The portions of the [Pg 31] judgment awarding interest directly to Ms. Fecke and ordering that attorney’s fees and costs be paid out of Ms. Fecke’s damage award for her medical care and related benefits incurred subsequent to judgment are hereby reversed. Furthermore, the portion of the October 3, 2014 judgment of the trial court, which awarded Ms. Fecke damages in the following amounts:

Physical Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $112,500.00

Mental Pain and Suffering, Past and Future: $93,750.00

Loss of Enjoyment of Life: $56,250.00

Permanent Disability and Scarring: $123,750.00

Loss of Future Earnings: $262,500.00

TOTAL (exclusive of medical care and related benefits) $648,750.00

is hereby amended [*51] to cap the total amount of damages, exclusive of medical care and related benefits, to $500,000.00 as mandated by La. R.S. 13:5106(B)(1). We reverse and vacate the trial court’s award for loss of consortium to Karen Fecke. The remainder of the judgment is affirmed,

REVERSED IN PART, AMENDED IN PART, AND AFFIRMED AS AMENDED.


University climbing wall release along with Texas Recreational Use Act and Texas Tort Claims Act defeat injured climber’s lawsuit

Court looks at whether a release will defeat a claim for gross negligence but does not decide the case on that issue. Case is confusing, because court discussed defenses that were not applicable. Plaintiff waived all but the gross negligence claims.

Benavidez v. The University of Texas — Pan American, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 11940

State: Texas, Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Rolando Benavidez

Defendant: The University of Texas — Pan American

Plaintiff Claims: failure to properly use the climbing equipment and properly supervise [Benavidez] during the climb, Under the theory of respondeat superior, Benavidez claimed that his injuries were caused by the negligence and gross negligence of UTPA (University of Texas– Pan American), negligent use of tangible personal property in that UTPA breached its “legal duty to [Benavidez] to provide supervision of [Benavidez], use safe equipment with [Benavidez], and to properly secure [Benavidez’s] harness prior to climbing.” negligent use or condition of real property in that UTPA breached its duty to provide a safe climbing wall for Benavidez and failed to use ordinary care to protect Benavidez from an unreasonably dangerous condition. UTPA had subjective awareness of a high degree of risk and acted with “conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of [Benavidez] or others similarly situated.

Defendant Defenses: Release, Recreational Use Statute and the Texas Tort Claims Act

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2014

The plaintiff was climbing at the university’s climbing wall. He signed a release to climb. On the back of the release was a set of rules about climbing that the plaintiff also had to sign. i.e. Two legal documents on one sheet of paper.

The plaintiff argued the rules on the backside of the agreement were part of the contract. Because the climbing wall had not followed the rules, the release was no longer valid and the defendant had acted negligently and gross negligently.

While climbing the plaintiff reached the top of the wall and was told to lean back while he was lowered. The plaintiff fell 33’ suffering injuries. Based on witness statements of other employees of the wall, it appeared the figure 8 (knot) used to tie the plaintiff’s harness to the rope had been tied incorrectly.

The trial court dismissed the case, awarded costs against the plaintiff based on the Texas Tort Claims Act, and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The court first looked at the Texas Tort Claim Act and its application to the case.

As a governmental unit, UTPA is immune from both suit and liability unless the Tort Claims Act has waived that immunity. Section 101.021 of the Tort Claims Act has been interpreted as waiving sovereign immunity in three general areas: “use of publicly owned automobiles, premises defects, and injuries arising out of conditions or use of property.”

The court then brought in the Texas Recreational Use Statute. Under the Texas Recreational Use Statute, a state landowner (governmental entity) can only be liable for gross negligence.

When injury or death results on state-owned, recreational land, the recreational use statute limits the state’s duty even further to that owed by a landowner to a trespasser, which means that the State only waives immunity for conduct that rises to the level of gross negligence.

The university is state land, and the climbing wall is on the land. It was used for recreation and probably as a student for free, although this was not discussed in the case. Consequently, the Texas Recreational Use Act protected the university from negligence claims.

With the ordinary negligence claims gone, the court turned to the gross negligence claims and looked at the release. Under Texas law to be valid, a release must:

(1) provide fair notice by being conspicuous, and (2) comply with the express negligence doctrine. To be conspicuous, a release must be written, displayed, or presented such that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have noticed it. A release satisfies the express negligence doctrine if it expresses the intent of the parties to exculpate a party for its own negligence.

The burden is on the defendant, the person relying on the defense of release, to prove the validity of the release and the requirements set forth by the court.

The court then looked at whether the release then barred the claim for gross negligence. The court reviewed several Texas cases; however, the court did not decide whether a release in this situation barred a claim for gross negligence. The court found the gross negligence claim was not raised on the appeal.

For a legal argument to be argued in the court, there are two basic components that must be met before any argument can be made. The argument must be made in the trial court and in many cases an objection to the court’s ruling made. Second the issue must be argued in the statements (pleadings) at the appellate court also. Here, although argued in the trial court the issue was not argued or probably raised at the appellate court.

The court then went back to the release to see if the release was still valid. The plaintiff claimed the defendant violated the release because it failed to follow the rules on the reverse side of the release. Because the rules were on the document called the release the plaintiff argued they were part of the release. Those rules set forth how the climbers and allegedly the gym was supposed to act. One of the rules required all knots to be checked by specific persons at the gym, which was not done in this case, and allegedly not done at all until after the plaintiff’s injury.

Arguing the rules and release were one document, the plaintiff stated the failure to follow the rules was a material breach of the contract. A material breach or avoidance of the contract voids it.

Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written expression of the parties’ intent. This court is bound to read all parts of a contract together to ascertain the agreement of the parties. The contract must be considered as a whole. Moreover, each part of the contract should be given full effect.

A prior material breach one that occurs before the execution of the contract discharges the parties from the contractual obligations. “Under the theory of prior material breach, a party is discharged from its contractual obligations based on the other party’s material breach of the contract.”

Execution of the contract means the contract by its terms has not been completed. Meaning there is part so the contract that have not been complied with by one or more parties. Here the failure of the gym to check the plaintiff’s knot was prior to the climbing of the plaintiff. “Under the theory of prior material breach, a party is discharged from its contractual obligations based on the other party’s material breach of the contract.”

Under Texas law for a court to determine if a prior material breach to occur the court must determine the following:

(1) the extent to which the injured party will be deprived of the benefit which he reasonably expected;

(2) the extent to which the injured party can be adequately compensated for the part of that benefit of which he will be deprived;

(3) the extent to which the party failing to perform or to offer performance will suffer forfeiture;

(4) the likelihood that the party failing to perform or to offer to perform will cure his failure, taking account of all the circumstances including any reasonable assurances; and

(5) the extent to which the behavior of the party failing to perform or to offer to perform comports with standards of good faith and fair dealing.

This court also examined whether or not checking the knot was a condition precedent. A condition precedent requires one thing to occur before the rest of the contract must be done.

Alternatively, a condition precedent is an event that must occur or act that must be per-formed before rights can accrue to enforce an obligation. Ordinarily, terms such as “if,” “provided that,” “on condition that,” or similar conditional language indicate the intent to create a condition precedent. Conditions precedent, which can cause forfeiture of a contractual right, are not favored under the law, and we will not construe a contract provision as a condition precedent unless we are compelled to do so by language that may be construed in no other way.

However, the court found that the language of the safety rules did not relate to the language of the release. The safety rules, overall, were simply rules the plaintiff was to follow and was not part of the contract. “…the safety policy’s side of the document, by its clear language, does not indicate that UTPA promised to comply with the policies or that compliance with the policies by UTPA…

However, reading the safety policies document as a whole, we find that the language of the agreement placed the sole responsibility on the climber to ensure that the procedures in the safety polices were followed.

Because we find that, by its clear language, the waiver and release form did not express the intent of either party to condition the release from liability on any performance by UTPA and did not include a promise by UTPA to follow the safety policies as consideration for the contract, we conclude that UTPA did not breach or fail to satisfy a condition of the release contract.

The remaining issues before the court were dismissed because without a negligence claim, they were also decided. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims and the award of costs under the Texas rules of civil procedure.

Costs are not attorney fees. Costs are the cost of going to trial, the filing fee, witness fees, possibly deposition costs, etc. Most states allow the winning side to recover costs of a trial.

So Now What?

This was close. It was obvious by the amount of time the court spend discussing the issue of a material breach that the language on the back of the release was an issue for the court. Always remember a release is a contract. You don’t buy a house with a laundry list on the back. You don’t rent an apartment with state driving laws on the back. Releases are contracts, and you need to make sure there is no issue that the document you are having your guests sign. A Release must be a contract and nothing else.

The university, because it was a state college was subject to broader and more protective statutes that provided defenses, than a private commercial gym or a private college. A state’s tort claims act provides a broad range for protection.

Whether or not a state’s recreational use statute provides protection for governmental agencies is different in each state. If you are in this position, you should check with counsel to see what protection any state statutes may provide.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss

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