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 deathPosted: December 12, 2016
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.
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
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.
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Doctrine of Primary Assumption of Risk precludes a student for suing for injuries in a for credit college karate classPosted: November 28, 2016
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.
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
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.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Aaron S. Morgan, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Kent State University et al., Defendants-Appellees.
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
[**1287] (REGULAR CALENDAR)
[*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.
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.
[*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.
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 1357Posted: September 26, 2015
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
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
[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
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
[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.
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 lawsuitPosted: December 4, 2014
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.
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
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.
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Bad news, the post-accident investigation proved the college was negligent according to the court.
Plaintiff: Stephanie Foster, et al.
Defendant: Alex Kosseff, et al.
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence: Plaintiff was the intended beneficiary of the defendant’s work;
Defendant Defenses: No duty owed to the plaintiff
Holding: For the defendant
This is a follow-up to the article, I wrote Bad luck or about time, however, you look at this decision, you will change the way you work in the Outdoor Recreation Industry. The original article was about a motion to dismiss which the defendant safety audit company lost.
This article is the result of a motion for summary judgment filed on behalf of the defendant auditor which the court granted.
The plaintiff was a student at the defendant college, Whitman College and also worked in the Outdoor Program at the college. While working the plaintiff was asked to bring down the ropes still on the climbing wall. She climbed up to a platform next to the wall and removed the ropes. She then “hooked” into the remaining rope intending to rappel suffering severe and injuries to her spine.
The initial report prepared by the defendant auditors (meaning the individuals and the company the individual(s) worked for) was titled “Draft Risk Management Audit.” The report included extensive language about what the audit would and would not do and was quoted by the court.
The college hired the same auditor to investigate the accident. (Can you say conflict of interest?) The auditor submitted a report on his investigation into the accident. The report stated that the plaintiff had climbed above the Super Shut anchors which released the rope causing her to fall.
The court reviewed the accident report prepared by the defendant and made the following statement.
Thus, Kosseff concluded that both Whitman College and Ms. Foster were negligent in using the Super Shut anchors for a purpose for which they were not designed.
Summary of the case
The first argument the court reviewed was whether the plaintiff was an intended beneficiary of the work with the defendant auditor. The court quickly found that to be true. The Draft Audit stated the audit was being down for the college, employees and students. The college hired the audit for the benefit to the college, students and employees.
The second issue discussed was the scope of an audit. The court first went through the elements to prove negligence and what makes up the first part of the element’s duty, under Washington’s law.
There are four elements in a common law negligence claim in Washington: duty, breach, causation and damages. As to the first element, a duty of care is defined as “an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.” Whether a duty of care exists is a matter of law to be decided by the court rather than by a jury. This is a “threshold question” which involves three separate inquiries: “Does an obligation exist? What is the measure of care required? To whom and with respect to what risks is the obligation owed?”
Under Washington’s law, someone who inspects the premises of another does not become the insurer of anyone injured by the negligence of the inspection. In most states, an inspecting party is only “liable for undiscovered hazards which he or she undertook to discover in the first place.” Meaning, you are only liable for what you say you are going to discover and don’t.
Consequently, the defendant could not be liable, unless he had agreed to inspect the elements of the wall. The audit was directed at procedures and programs not equipment. On top of that, even if the audit looked at equipment, it did not look at how that equipment was used or in this case, misused.
Because the audit was not directed at the equipment which caused the accident, the defendant auditor was dismissed from the suit.
So Now What?
1. If you are a college, with a climbing wall, it needs to be inspected by engineers.
2. If you are a college, do not create a conflict of interest by hiring the company that gave you a review to investigate an accident which the review might have missed. Again, can you say Conflict of Interest?
3. If you are any business do not have an accident investigated by anyone other than who your attorney or insurance company hires. Here, the defendant with the conflict of interest nailed the defendant college to the judgment wall with its report.
Because the report was not done by legal counsel, the report can be used by the plaintiff to prove the defendant negligent. That, however, will not be too difficult since the court in this decision already came to that conclusions based upon the accident report. However, a report that was protected by privilege would not have hung the defendant.
Although the plaintiff is probably upset that one defendant was dismissed, they have to be happy with the decision because of this issue.
The initial outcome of this case is good; the company being paid to review the college was dismissed from the case. However, the long-term effects are multiple.
· Initially, the one defendant won, but only by sinking its co-defendants.
· Long term, colleges are going to be hesitant to build climbing walls because this case is going to settle or go to trial for a large amount of money. Spinal cord injuries are multimillion dollar cases.
· The entire industry has to wise up. Contracts that are created by legitimate risk management firms will be signed in advance and have tons of disclaimer and indemnification language. However, the issue is not who can sue or defend who, but what are you getting for your money?
As a side note, this part of the Draft Audit was quoted by the court.
If an accident does occur, participation in this voluntary program can protect the organization’s reputation and serve, if necessary, as part of a legal defense.
Instead of a defense, it created a legal claim and proof of negligence…….
Other Cases concerning Climbing Walls:
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Foster, et al., v. Alex Kosseff, et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40566 (E.D. Wash. 2013)
Stephanie Foster, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Alex Kosseff, et al., Defendants.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON
2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40566
March 22, 2013, Decided
March 22, 2013, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: Foster v. Kosseff, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5380 (E.D. Wash., Jan. 14, 2013)
COUNSEL: [*1] For Stephanie Foster, Gary Foster, Susan Foster, Plaintiffs: Allen M Ressler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Ressler and Tesh PLLC, Seattle, WA; William S Finger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Frank & Finger PC, Evergreen, CO.
For Alex Kosseff, Adventure Safety International LLC, Defendants: Heather C Yakely, LEAD ATTORNEY, Evans Craven & Lackie PS – SPO, Spokane, WA.
JUDGES: THOMAS O. RICE, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: THOMAS O. RICE
ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT ALEX KOSSEFF’S AND DEFENDANT ADVENTURE SAFETY INTERNATIONAL’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
BEFORE THE COURT is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Alex Kosseff and Adventure Safety International (ECF No. 80). This matter was heard with oral argument on March 22, 2013. William S. Finger appeared on behalf of the Plaintiffs. Heather C. Yakely appeared on behalf of Defendants Alex Kosseff and Adventure Safety International. The Court has reviewed the briefing and the record and files herein, and is fully informed.
Defendants Alex Kosseff (“Kosseff”) and Adventure Safety International LLC (“ASI”) have moved for summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ negligence claims. Defendants assert that these claims fail as a matter of law because neither Kosseff nor ASI [*2] owed Plaintiff Stephanie Foster (“Ms. Foster”) a duty of care to identify the dangerous condition which caused her to fall from the Whitman College climbing wall on April 28, 2008.
Ms. Foster enrolled as a freshman at Whitman College in the fall of 2007. During the 2007-2008 academic year, Plaintiff enrolled in several rock climbing classes offered through the Whitman College Outdoor Program (“Outdoor Program”). She also accepted a paid position as a student climbing instructor for the Outdoor Program. As a result of this coursework and employment, Plaintiff participated in several climbing sessions on a sport climbing wall located on the Whitman College campus.
On April 28, 2008, Ms. Foster was summoned to the climbing wall by her supervisor, Brien Sheedy (“Sheedy”) to assist in removing several climbing ropes that were hanging from the top of the wall. At Sheedy’s direction, Ms. Foster ascended the wall, climbed atop a platform adjacent to the wall, and removed all but one of the ropes. Having completed her task, Ms. Foster lowered herself back onto the climbing wall with the intention of rappelling down the wall using the remaining rope. Shortly after beginning her descent, however, [*3] the remaining rope became unhooked from two “Super Shut” anchors located near the top of the wall. The release of the rope caused Ms. Foster to free fall approximately 35 feet to the ground, resulting in serious permanent injury to her spine.
In April of 2007, one year prior to Ms. Foster’s fall, Whitman College hired ASI to perform a “risk management audit” of the Outdoor Program. The purpose and scope of this audit are central to the outcome of this case. Unfortunately, the terms of the agreement between Whitman College and ASI were never reduced to writing. In any event, it is undisputed that the audit was conducted by Defendant Alex Kosseff (“Kosseff”) over the course of four days on the Whitman College campus. It is further undisputed that Whitman College paid $3,000 for the audit.
During the course of the audit, Kosseff met with several students and administrators who were involved with the Outdoor Program. He also observed several regularly-scheduled activities, including an open climbing wall session, a pool session offered to students in a kayaking class, a climbing wall session offered to students in a rock climbing class, a training session for an upcoming climbing competition, [*4] and a debriefing session for a glacier mountaineering course. ECF No. 153-5 at 7.
After completing his site visit, Kosseff prepared and submitted a written report of his findings and recommendations to Whitman College. The authenticity of this document, which bears the title, “Draft Risk Management Audit,” (hereafter “audit report”) is undisputed. 1 The audit report contains several passages which are relevant to the issues raised in the instant motion. One such passage, under the heading “Audit Process Introduction” reads as follows:
The ASI Risk Management Audit program is a voluntary program aimed at improving risk management practices in outdoor education and recreation. This program has been designed by ASI and the audit process is handled by one of our experienced staff members. We recognize that each program is unique and that one standardized risk management plan will not work for every organization. With this in mind, the ASI Risk Management audit process does not prescribe specific approaches, but rather aims to assess that different aspects [of] risk management are being addressed.
ASI’s audit program is designed as an accessible step for organizations that want to reduce the [*5] risk of an accident taking place. It gives organizational management, clients/students, and others confidence that prudent steps are being taken to manage hazards. If an accident does occur, participation in this voluntary program can protect the organization’s reputation and serve, if necessary, as part of a legal defense. ASI’s audit program focuses exclusively on risk management and safety concerns and does not address educational, marketing, business and financial management, or other issues.
ECF No. 153-5 at 5.
1 ASI apparently contemplated issuing a final draft after Whitman College had reviewed and implemented its recommendations, but no final draft was ever issued. ECF No. 84-1 at Tr. 35-36.
In another passage, under the heading “Audit Program Disclaimer,” the audit report states:
The nature of Adventure Safety International Risk Management Audit is to gain a general understanding of the risk management practices at the time of the review. This is done primarily through review of the self assessment responses supplied by the management of the program being accredited. This is supplemented with onsite observation and interviews, which occur during a brief site visit.
The major aim [*6] of this voluntary audit is to benchmark the program against the risk management guidelines that ASI believes will promote good risk management practice. The benchmarks have been established, at three levels, in many (but not all) areas of risk management planning. The intent is to identify and share good practice amongst outdoor programs and over time to raise the level of risk management practice.
The audit cannot provide any guarantee that future operations will be free of safety incidents. Rather the audit documents that at the time of the review risk management practices met or exceeded risk management guidelines established by ASI and based on current industry practices.
ECF No. 153-5 at 6.
Finally, the audit report documents ASI’s substantive findings and recommendations across 27 different program evaluation criteria. These criteria vary widely, ranging from training and oversight of activity leaders to safety of passenger vans and drivers. Included among these criteria are ratings for “Equipment” and “Facilities.” ECF No. 153-5 at 30, 35. The audit report assigns the Outdoor Program the highest rating in both categories, noting that the quality of the program’s equipment was “exceptional,” [*7] and that those responsible for the program routinely inspect facilities for potential safety hazards. ECF No. 153-5 at 30, 35.
Shortly after Ms. Foster’s fall on April 28, 2008, Whitman College hired ASI to investigate the cause of the accident. ASI assigned Kosseff to conduct the investigation. Kosseff ultimately concluded that the accident occurred as a result of Plaintiff climbing above the Super Shut anchors and subsequently descending below them. According to Kosseff, the Super Shut anchors were not designed to accommodate a person climbing above them; rather, the anchors were designed for use only at “dead end” locations on a sport climbing wall. Kosseff further noted that the manufacturer of the anchors had issued warnings against climbing above them, noting that the risk of a climbing rope becoming disengaged from an anchor in this situation was about “50/50.” Thus, Kosseff concluded that both Whitman College and Ms. Foster were negligent in using the Super Shut anchors for a purpose for which they were not designed.
In the instant lawsuit, Plaintiffs assign fault to Kosseff for failing to identify the risks posed by the Super Shut anchors during the ASI’s risk management audit. [*8] Had Kosseff identified these risks and reported them to Whitman College, Plaintiffs assert, the problem could have been corrected before Ms. Foster was injured. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that ASI’s duty of care arising from the risk management audit did not extend to identifying the risk posed by improper use of the Super Shut anchors.
The Court may grant summary judgment in favor of a moving party who demonstrates “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing the absence of any genuine issues of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The burden then shifts to the non-moving party to identify specific genuine issues of material fact which must be decided by a jury. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff’s position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Id. at 252.
For [*9] purposes of summary judgment, a fact is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. at 248. A dispute as to any such fact is “genuine” only where the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find in favor of the non-moving party. Id. In ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must construe the facts, as well as all rational inferences therefrom, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). Finally, the court may only consider evidence that would be admissible at trial. Orr v. Bank of America, NT & SA, 285 F.3d 764 (9th Cir. 2002).
A. Plaintiff Was an Intended Beneficiary of the Risk Management Audit
In its prior order denying Defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Court remarked that, in its view, the viability of Plaintiffs’ negligence claim hinged on their ability to establish that Ms. Foster was an intended third-party beneficiary of the contract between ASI and Whitman College. ECF No. 72 at 10 (citing Burg v. Shannon & Wilson, Inc., 110 Wash. App. 798, 807-08, 43 P.3d 526 (2002)). Specifically, the Court commented that, in order to avoid summary dismissal of this claim, Plaintiff would need to establish, [*10] as a threshold matter, that “ASI agreed to undertake the risk management audit for the benefit of the college’s employees and students rather than for the benefit of the college itself.” ECF No. 72 at 10.
Having reviewed the record on summary judgment, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have established a triable question of fact on this issue. First, the Draft Risk Management Audit indicates that ASI’s audit program is designed to “give organizational management, clients/students, and others confidence that prudent steps are being taken to manage hazards.” ECF No. 153-5 at 5 (emphasis added). Second, the Director of the Outdoor Program, Brien Sheedy, testified during his deposition that the risk management audit was designed to minimize risks to “all users” of the Outdoor Program, including students and employees. ECF No. 153-10 at 34-35. Third, Whitman College’s chief financial officer, Peter Harvey, testified that the college typically takes an “across the board” approach to risk management by attempting to mitigate risks to students, employees and faculty. ECF No. 153-8 at 25. Finally, Whitman College’s president, George Bridges, testified that he would expect any risk management [*11] audit commissioned by the college “to protect the school and the employees and the students.” ECF No. 153-9 at 44. A rational jury could find from this evidence that Ms. Foster, as an employee and student of Whitman College, was an intended beneficiary of the contract for the risk management audit.
B. The Danger Posed by Misuse of the Super Shut Anchors Was Beyond the Scope of ASI’s Risk Management Audit
There are four elements to a common law negligence claim in Washington: duty, breach, causation and damages. Michaels v. CH2M Hill, Inc., 171 Wn.2d 587, 605, 257 P.3d 532 (2011). As to the first element, a duty of care is defined as “an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.” Affiliated FM Ins. Co. v. LTK Consulting Servs., Inc., 170 Wash.2d 442, 449, 243 P.3d 521 (2010) (internal quotation and citation omitted). Whether a duty of care exists is a matter of law to be decided by the court rather than by a jury. Osborn v. Mason Cnty., 157 Wash.2d 18, 23, 134 P.3d 197 (2006). This is a “threshold question” which involves three separate inquiries: “Does an obligation exist? What is the measure of care required? To whom and with respect to what [*12] risks is the obligation owed?” Affiliated FM Ins. Co., 170 Wash.2d at 449. In deciding whether the law imposes a duty of care, a court must balance “considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.” Id. at 450 (internal quotations and citations omitted).
Here, Defendants contend that they did not owe Ms. Foster a duty of care to discover the danger posed by misuse of the Super Shut anchors. The Court agrees. In Washington, a private party who inspects another’s premises for safety hazards may be liable to third parties for injuries caused by the inspecting party’s negligence. See Sheridan v. Aetna Cas. & Surety Co., 3 Wash.2d 423, 439-40, 100 P.2d 1024 (1940); (liability insurer which inspected cargo elevator for safety hazards liable to third party who was injured as a result of insurer’s failure to discover dangerous condition); Nielson v. Wolfkill Corp., 47 Wash. App. 352, 359-60, 734 P.2d 961 (1987) (injured worker’s cause of action for negligent safety inspection performed by Department of Labor and Industries inspector barred by Washington Industrial Insurance Act); see also Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A(b) (1965) (“One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render [*13] services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person.”).
Nevertheless, the act of inspecting another’s premises for safety hazards does not transform the inspecting party into a de facto insurer against any and all risks. Although the Court has not located any cases directly on-point in the State of Washington, courts in other jurisdictions have held that an inspecting party is only liable for undiscovered hazards which he or she undertook to discover in the first place. See, e.g., Procter & Gamble Co. v. Staples, 551 So.2d 949, 955-56 (Ala. 1989) (“In defining the nature of the duty undertaken by a voluntary [safety] inspection, two aspects must be considered–the physical scope of the undertaking and the degree of scrutiny and action mandated by conditions observed or reasonably observable.”) (quotation and citation omitted); Winslett v. Twin City Fire Ins. Co., 141 Ga. App. 143, 232 S.E.2d 638, 639 (Ga. App. 1977) (no liability [*14] to third party for failing to discover dangerous condition on construction crane where “evidence was uncontradicted that no detailed inspections of machinery or equipment were contemplated or made”); Lavazzi v. McDonald’s Corp., 239 Ill. App. 3d 403, 606 N.E.2d 845, 849-50, 179 Ill. Dec. 1013 (Ill. App. 1992) (inspectors hired by restaurant to perform food safety inspections at supplier’s plant not liable for negligent inspection where inspectors “did not specifically focus any attention . . . on the piece of equipment involved in the injury”). In other words, the weight of authority from other jurisdictions counsels that an inspecting party’s liability for negligent inspection must be circumscribed by the scope of the inspection actually performed.
The Court concludes that “considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent” support adoption of this rule. See Affiliated FM Ins. Co., 170 Wash.2d at 450. Contrary to Plaintiffs’ assertions, an inspecting party’s duty of care is not synonymous with the foreseeability of a particular injury occurring. As Defendants correctly note, this argument improperly collapses the duty of care and causation elements of a negligence claim. In Washington, a negligence plaintiff [*15] must make a “threshold showing” that the defendant owed her a duty of care before proceeding to the issues of whether the defendant breached its duty and whether the breach was a foreseeable cause of the plaintiff’s injury. See Munich v. Skagit Emergency Commc’ns Ctr., 175 Wn.2d 871, 877, 288 P.3d 328 (2012). While foreseeability can sometimes inform the scope of a duty owed, it cannot create the duty of care in the first instance. Michaels, 171 Wn.2d at 608. Indeed, equating duty with foreseeability in the context of a safety inspection would lead to a perverse result: an inspector would be legally obligated to report each and every manner in which a person might conceivably be injured–regardless of how obvious, inherent or attenuated the danger might be. This result would effectively transform safety inspectors into de facto insurers against all risks. As a matter of logic and public policy, the better approach is to define an inspector’s duty of care according to the types of hazards that were actually targeted by his or her inspection.
Applying this rule to the instant case, the Court finds that the hazard which caused Ms. Foster’s fall–misuse of the Super Shut anchors–was simply beyond [*16] the scope of the risk management audit that ASI performed. As a threshold matter, Plaintiffs have failed to establish that ASI undertook to inspect any individual pieces of equipment maintained by the Outdoor Program. In his deposition, Kosseff testified unequivocally that the Outdoor Program’s equipment was beyond the scope of ASI’s audit:
There were hundreds and hundreds of pieces of equipment within this program. Each of those pieces of equipment, especially the climbing [equipment], have specific ways in which they’re used. There — I was not looking at how this equipment would be utilized in this situation. I was looking at how the college conducted their systems for managing risk.
ECF No. 84-1 at Tr. 94. Similarly, Brien Sheedy states in his declaration that he “understood and expected that the [audit] would not review specific equipment utilized in the Outdoor Program, for example the Fixe Super Shut anchors, as that type of inspection was not envisioned by the audit process based upon the information [he] learned from [Kosseff]” prior to hiring ASI. ECF No. 82 at ¶ 6. Although this testimony is somewhat self-serving, Plaintiffs have not rebutted it.
Moreover, even assuming for [*17] the sake of argument that ASI was charged with inspecting individual pieces of equipment, it could not reasonably have been expected to identify hazards stemming from potential misuse of the equipment. As Defendants correctly note, the Super Shut anchors which Ms. Foster was using at the time of the accident did not truly “fail.” Rather, the anchors did something that they were designed to do–i.e., release a climbing rope–when Ms. Foster used them for an unsupported application.
To whatever extent Kosseff understood the danger of the Super Shuts releasing a rope in this scenario, he was not obligated to address it with Whitman College. ASI did not contract with Whitman College to address dangers caused by misuse of the Outdoor Program’s equipment. While there is no written contract evidencing the scope of work that ASI agreed to perform, the audit report prepared by Kosseff is highly informative. Having reviewed the audit report in its entirety, the Court finds that the purpose of the risk management audit was to improve Whitman College’s safety practices rather than to identify and catalog specific safety hazards. Indeed, there is no evidence that ASI agreed to perform a detailed “safety [*18] inspection” of specific outdoor equipment, buildings, vehicles, etc. Nor is there any evidence that Kosseff actually undertook to perform an inspection at that minute level of detail.
In the final analysis, there is simply no evidence that ASI agreed or undertook to examine the virtually countless ways in which the Outdoor Program’s climbing equipment could have been dangerously misused. Accordingly, Plaintiffs have not met their burden of establishing that ASI owed Ms. Foster a duty of care to discover and report the danger posed by misuse of the Super Shut anchors. In the absence of a duty of care, Plaintiffs cannot prevail on their negligence claim. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted.
ACCORDINGLY, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED:
1. The motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Alex Kosseff and Adventure Safety International (ECF No. 80) is GRANTED. Plaintiffs’ claims against these Defendants are DISMISSED with prejudice.
2. Plaintiffs’ claim against Defendant Fixe Industry, which has never been served in this action, is DISMISSED without prejudice.
3. All pending motions are DENIED as moot.
The District Court Executive is hereby directed to enter this Order and a judgment [*19] accordingly, provide copies to counsel, and CLOSE the file.
DATED March 22, 2013.
/s/ Thomas O. Rice
THOMAS O. RICE
United States District Judge