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California decision imposes three specific requirements for a release to be valid. On requirement is a release must be understood by a person untrained in the law.

Lawsuit filed by family of deceased runner who died of cardiac arrest after crossing the finish line of a race. Release and assumption of the risk blocked all claims except the claim for gross negligence.

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four

Plaintiff: Eden Gonzalez Hass et al

Defendant: Rhodyco Productions

Plaintiff Claims: negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.

Defendant Defenses: Release and Primary Assumption of the Risk

Holding: Split decision, however case to continue on issue of gross negligence

Year: 2018

Summary

This California Appellate decision added some new requirements for releases to be valid in California. Two of those new requirements stem from the requirements of the California wrongful death statute. The other two are simple.

Under California law, inherent is a limiting word when it is used to describe the risks in a release, and a release must be understandable by a non-lawyer.

Facts

The deceased, Peter Hass, crossed the finish line of the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed and died. His wife and his two children, referred to as the Hess Family in the opinion, sued the event organizer for negligence.

Before entering the race, the deceased signed a release online.

Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event

The race organizer had been putting on events for twenty-five year. This even had approval from the city which approval required providing an emergency management plan. The plan stated that a medical team and ambulance would be at the finish line and stationed on the course. The medical team the family argued was inadequate.

Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances.

The Hess family sued. Initially, the trial court granted the defendant RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment based on the release and assumption of the risk. The family objected and argued in a hearing they should have the right to amend their complaint and bring additional claims. After the hearing, the trial court agreed and granted the Hess family’s motion for a new trial.

Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.

The defendant RhodyCo filed a notice of appeal, and the Hess family filed a notice of cross appeal bringing the matter to the California Court of Appeals, which issued the opinion here.

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

The appellate court first looked at the wrongful-death claim of the plaintiff Hess family. Under California law, a wrongful-death claim is not a derivative claim. Meaning the claim does not arise from a superior claim of the plaintiff. It is a claim, in and of itself, and not a claim of the deceased by a claim of the deceased’s family.

In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful-death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedents “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful-death action.

Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.

The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'” “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a subsequent wrongful death cause of action

For a release to block a wrongful-death claim, the language in the release, not the law of releases. Looking at the entire document, is it clear the parties expressed the intent to assume the risk, thus blocking the wrongful-death claim.

Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.

…in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.

The plaintiff Hess family argued the assumption of the risk language was insufficient to make that claim because the release used the term “inherent” to describe the risks. As such the risks that killed the deceased were not covered in the release.

The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks.

Again, the release used terms that limited the scope of the risks the deceased was to assume, which limited the breath of the release.

Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.

The court found that the language in other parts of the release were broad enough to cover the risks the deceased undertook and thus assumed.

Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence.

California also has a requirement that the “release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law.” This requirement was argued stated twice in the decision.

A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.

The Hess family then argued the release was void because it violated public policy. The Hess Family claimed the defendants were negligent in providing the medical care that responded, and medical care is a necessity and as such should not be protected by a release.

The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”

California Civil code § 1668 does not allow a release to be sued to stop a claim if the service or the nature of the contract is based on public policy.

All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.

There is a six-part test to determine if the agreement is one affecting the public interest. Not all six of the requirements must be met.

“‘[1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'”

However, courts in California have declined to find releases used for recreational activities as violating the statute and thus being void because of the public interest argument.

Most recreational activities may require first aid or greater medical services. However, people do not engage in the sport or activity because of the first aid or medical issues. The first aid and medical issues are ancillary to the activity and as such not the main purpose for the activity or the release.

Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way.

The next issue was the issues of pleading the claim for gross negligence. California like most, if not all, other states do not allow a release to stop a gross negligence claim. If the Hess family is able to argue to the trier of fact that the actions of the defendant, RhodyCo rose to the level of gross negligence the release is not a defense.

Under California law, gross negligence is a want of even scant care.

…”‘[g]ross negligence’ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.'” In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'”

Normally, to appeal an issue or even argue an issue at the trial court level, you must first include the claim in your complaint or amend your complaint to bring a new issue in. The Hass family did not include any claim in their complaint for gross negligence.

However, the court found that there was no need in California to specifically plead gross negligence as it was part of negligence, sort of. The court never specifically stated why it was reviewing the gross negligence claim, only that other courts had found that it was not necessary to specifically plead gross negligence.

The court then found the plaintiff’s complaint, and arguments had raised enough issues that the plaintiffs might have a claim for gross negligence.

In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context.

Primary assumption of the risk was the final issue reviewed by the court. Primary assumption of the risk is a complete bar to negligence claims, including gross negligence claims because it removes any duty on the part of the defendant to the plaintiff. Meaning, the defendant cannot be negligent because they have not duty to the plaintiff.

Specifically, our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the risk—”those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is ‘no duty’ on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk”—and secondary assumption of risk—”those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.”

When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.”

Primary assumption of risk arose out of sports and recreational activities so that the activities could be played with the intensity and vigor so that the reason, and sport of the game was not lost.

The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.”

The issue then becomes what duty is owed by the defendant to the plaintiff that was not assumed by the plaintiff to the extent that it was then breached by the defendant.

Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family.

The court then stated that the organizer of the even does not have a duty to decrease the risk of any activity or event. However, there is a duty to minimize extrinsic risks.

While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm.

The court reasoned this was a necessary departure from the encompassing defense provided by assumption of the risk to keep owners and organizers from avoiding “accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it.”

The court did not point out specific facts or risks that created the issue that the defendant RhodyCo had been grossly negligent.

The case was sent back to trial on the sole issue on whether or not the actions of the defendant were grossly negligent.

So Now What?

At the end of the decision, the court awarded costs to the Hess family. Costs on appeal are awarded to the winner of the appeal, in terms of overall and in terms of the number of claims. The defendant won all but one of the issues on appeal in this case. The only claim the defendant did not win was the plaintiffs did not plead gross negligence in their complaint, so they cannot argue it now.

Yet the court still awarded costs to the plaintiffs. It is only a guess, but does this indicate leaning in favor of the plaintiff’s in this case?

There are three specific takeaways from this decision affecting the law of California and releases.

1.    Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.

2.    Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.

3.    Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.

4.    A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.

The final issue to come out of this decision a new back door to defeating the primary assumption of the risk claim. Now if the risk is not enumerated in the release, the plaintiff is going to argue it is extrinsic and therefore, not covered by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to defeat the defense.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions

Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four

August 13, 2018, Opinion Filed

2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710 *; 2018 WL 3830002

EDEN GONZALEZ HASS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. RHODYCO PRODUCTIONS, Defendant and Appellant.

Prior History:  [*1] Superior Court of San Francisco of City and County, No. CGC-12-520492, A. James Robertson II, Judge.

Counsel: Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, Jeffry A. Miller, Lann G. McIntyre, Shawn A. Toliver, Helen L. Greenberg for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Law Office of Gerald Clausen, Gerald Clausen, Abramson Smith Waldsmith LLP, Robert J. Waldsmith, Jeffrey R. Smith for Defendant and Respondent.

Judges: Opinion by Reardon, J., with Streeter, Acting P. J., and Smith, J.*, concurring.

Opinion by: Reardon, J.

Opinion

REARDON, J.—After crossing the finish line at the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, Peter Hass (Hass) tragically suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed, and died. Hass’s wife, Eden Gonzalez Hass, and his two minor children (collectively, the Hass Family) consequently filed this wrongful death action, alleging that numerous race-affiliated individuals and entities—including event organizer David Rhody, individually and doing business as RhodyCo Productions (RhodyCo)—were negligent in the organization and management of the race, particularly with respect to the provision of emergency medical services.1 The trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion in this matter, concluding that the instant action was barred [*2]  under theories of primary assumption of the risk and express waiver. However, after the Hass Family filed a motion for new trial, the trial court reversed itself. Specifically, the court found that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend their complaint to plead gross negligence, conduct falling outside of the scope of the written waiver and release. On appeal, RhodyCo argues that the trial court’s initial grant of summary judgment was correct, even if the issue of gross negligence is considered on its merits. The Hass Family, in contrast, generally champions the court’s new trial order, but argues that the express release in this case was invalid on additional grounds rejected by the trial court and that the court should have concluded on the evidence before it that a triable issue of material fact exists as to RhodyCo’s gross negligence. We agree with the trial court that summary judgment was not warranted in this case based on primary assumption of the risk. However, we believe the trial court erred in requiring amendment of the complaint to plead gross negligence and determine, [*3]  based on our independent review of the record before us, that a triable issue of material fact exists on this issue. We therefore affirm in part and reverse in part, with instructions to enter a denial of RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The annual Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon & 5K Run in Golden Gate Park (Half Marathon) consists of two different events—a 13.1-mile half marathon and a five-kilometer run. In 2011, the anticipated attendance for the two races was estimated to include 10,000 participants and 600 volunteers. RhodyCo provided event management and production services for the Half Marathon from 2006 through 2011. In order to obtain the necessary temporary street closure permit for the event, RhodyCo was required to submit an emergency medical services plan (EMS Plan) to the City and County of San Francisco (City) for review and approval by the City’s emergency medical services agency (Agency).

The approved EMS Plan for 2011 stated, as it had in previous years, that the medical personnel at the Half Marathon would be provided by Palmer College of Chiropractic-West (PCCW) and American Medical Response (AMR). More specifically, [*4]  it asserted that PCCW would “‘provide event trained Medical Personnel for the event, (students are all CPR certified and have taken emergency response class). Med Teams will be located at key areas (Start Line, Finish Lines, Postrace Medical Tent, and mobile units on the course). The head clinician event day, Dr. Hal Rosenberg [phone number], will be onsite at the Postrace Medical Tent. AMR will provide an [emergency medical technician] who will be posted with PCCW Med Team in the postrace Medical Tent at the Finish of the race—AMR is also providing an ALS ambulance to respond [to] medical emergencies—the standby will be posted on Lincoln at the Great Hwy … . The Standby and Medical Team will be equipped with cellphone active Nextel radios with direct communication to the Event Coordinator and each other.'” Other portions of the approved EMS Plan, however, indicated that one M.D., 6+ EMTs, and one automatic external defibrillator (AED) would be located at the finish line.

Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” [*5]  based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event,” Hass participated in the Half Marathon on February 6, 2011. Almost immediately after crossing the finish line at 10:05:34 a.m., Hass suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and collapsed. Another runner, Dr. Charles Whitehill, crossed the finish line 13 seconds after Hass and heard him fall. Dr. Whitehill—who had significant experience in providing and overseeing resuscitation efforts for patients—began to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Hass within 30 to 60 seconds of arriving at Hass’s side. Dr. Whitehill was involved in CPR efforts for five to eight minutes, after which CPR was continued by another bystander who identified himself as an off-duty paramedic. Approximately 11 minutes after Hass collapsed a third bystander brought the AED from the postrace tent, which was located somewhere between 100 and 200 yards beyond the finish line. When the AED was applied, it showed that Hass had no shockable heart rhythm. CPR efforts were then continued until paramedics from the City’s fire department arrived at approximately 10:31 a.m. and took over treatment. Unfortunately, Hass was pronounced dead shortly thereafter [*6]  at 10:49 a.m. RhodyCo has provided event management and production services for over 25 years, including at least 400 running, walking, and other events involving over 1.5 million participants. Hass’s tragic death was the only fatality ever experienced at a RhodyCo-managed event.

On May 3, 2012, the Hass Family filed this wrongful death action (Complaint), alleging, among other things, that RhodyCo had negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.” In particular, the Hass Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances. RhodyCo answered, generally denying the Complaint allegations and asserting several affirmative defenses, including primary assumption of the risk and express contractual assumption of the risk and release of liability.

RhodyCo then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing [*7]  that the Hass Family’s wrongful death action was completely barred based on the two aforementioned affirmative defenses. Specifically, RhodyCo claimed that Hass had agreed to be bound by the Release when he registered for the Half Marathon, which included a waiver of liability and assumption of the risk agreement that was binding on his heirs. In addition, RhodyCo asserted that sudden cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of long-distance running and that it had done nothing to increase this risk. Under these circumstances, RhodyCo opined, the Hass Family’s action was barred under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine.

In opposition to the summary judgment motion, the Hass Family argued with respect to the Release that it was void to the extent it purported to cover emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest; that it was not a clear and unambiguous waiver of future liability for a wrongful death claim; and that it was ineffective to exempt RhodyCo from liability for gross negligence. With respect to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, the Hass Family agreed that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of long-distance running, but argued that [*8]  a sponsoring entity is nevertheless obligated to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks to the extent it is able to do so without altering the nature of the sport. They further maintained that RhodyCo had increased the risk of death beyond that inherent in the sport by failing to comply with the EMS Plan.

On the issue of negligence, the Hass Family presented evidence indicating that medical emergencies (including cardiac arrests) are more likely to occur near the finish line of a race because runners tend to push themselves to improve their times, causing an adrenaline rush and an arrhythmia. Moreover, as the City, itself, has recognized: “[C]losing off several major streets at the same time to accommodate a race often causes … potential interference with emergency services.” (San Francisco Transportation Code, § 6.11, subd. (a).) The Hass Family argued that, although RhodyCo’s EMS Plan for the Half Marathon properly identified the finish line as a “‘key area'” and indicated numerous resources would be stationed there—including a medical doctor, AED, and “6+” EMTs—the only medical personnel assigned to the finish line were Dr. Rosenberg (a chiropractor) and the event coordinator (a chiropractic [*9]  student), neither of whom were actually at the finish line when Hass collapsed. They further claimed that the AED was in the medical tent located approximately 200 yards away, in the postrace expo area; that no event medical personnel arrived at the scene until 10 minutes after Hass collapsed; and that, when a bystander arrived with the AED at the 11-minute mark, it was too late to help Hass. The Hass Family also found fault with the communications equipment provided by RhodyCo for the Half Marathon. Although the EMS Plan represented that “all event safety personnel” would have “cell phone active radios,” the Hass Family averred that only six or seven radios were provided to the medical team; that no radio was provided to the ambulance or to either chiropractic doctor onsite; and that there was no radio in the medical tent. Finally, the Hass Family presented declarations from several experts indicating that the standard of care for an event like the Half Marathon is to have a competent medical director who is a medical doctor and to follow the medical plan. Moreover, according to one of the Hass Family’s experts, because races like the Half Marathon can disrupt the local 911 system, [*10]  the standard of care additionally requires enough onsite ambulances (and/or backfilling of ambulances) to provide for rapid medical care for runners who collapse due to sudden cardiac arrest, particularly near the finish line.2

As stated above, the trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion, concluding that the Hass Family’s wrongful death action was barred under theories of primary assumption of the risk and express waiver. The Hass Family then filed a motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court had erred in its legal analysis of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. In addition, they asserted that all of the trial court’s conclusions with respect to the Release were erroneous. In particular, they argued that they were not required to plead gross negligence in the Complaint and that, in any event, it was an abuse of discretion to deny their request to amend the Complaint to cure any such perceived defect. The Hass Family also provided new evidence that they alleged supported finding a triable issue with respect to gross negligence—the deposition testimony of Dr. Brown, the head of the Agency, stating that nothing in the EMS Plan indicated [*11]  that chiropractic students would be substituted for EMTs at the finish line and that his discussions with RhodyCo regarding the use of chiropractic students was limited to their use on the mobile teams. Dr. Brown also testified that he had never discussed with RhodyCo the propriety of substituting a chiropractic doctor for a medical doctor as race supervisor. RhodyCo opposed the motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court’s initial decision was correct under the law; that Dr. Brown’s deposition testimony should not be considered as the Hass Family had not acted with diligence in producing it; and that, regardless, the statements from the deposition highlighted by the Hass Family were undercut by other deposition testimony.

After hearing, the trial court granted the Hass Family’s new trial motion. Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did [*12]  reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.

RhodyCo’s notice of appeal and the Hass Family’s notice of cross-appeal now bring the matter before this court.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

CA(1)[] (1) As described above, the procedural posture of this case is somewhat convoluted. Although the trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion, it subsequently reversed itself on one ground (primary assumption of the risk) and then deferred ruling on another ground it had previously rejected (gross negligence) pending amendment of the Complaint, effectively granting a new trial on both issues. HN1[] Such an order is appealable. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 858 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493] (Aguilar) [noting, in finding appealability under similar circumstances, that it “makes no difference” that an order granting a new trial following an order granting summary judgment “may operate like an order denying summary judgment, which is nonappealable”].) Further, HN2[] although orders granting a new trial are generally examined for abuse of discretion, any determination underlying the new trial order is scrutinized using “the test appropriate for that determination.” (Douglas v. Fidelity National Ins. Co. (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 392, 407 [177 Cal. Rptr. 3d 271]; see also Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 859–860.)

Here, then, [*13]  the trial court’s conclusions with respect to the appropriateness of summary judgment are subject to our de novo review. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 860; In re Automobile Antitrust Cases I & II (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 127, 150 [204 Cal. Rptr. 3d 330] (Automobile Antitrust Cases).) In this regard, we review the trial court’s ruling; not its rationale. (Automobile Antitrust Cases, supra, 1 Cal.App.5th at p. 150.) “Thus, ‘[t]he sole question properly before us on review of the summary judgment [order] is whether the judge reached the right result … whatever path he [or she] might have taken to get there.'” (Id. at pp. 150–151.)

CA(2)[] (2) Moreover, HN3[] the underlying issues implicated by RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion are also subject to our independent review. For instance, HN4[] “‘[c]ontract principles apply when interpreting a release, and “normally the meaning of contract language, including a release, is a legal question.” [Citation.] “Where, as here, no conflicting parol evidence is introduced concerning the interpretation of the document, ‘construction of the instrument is a question of law, and the appellate court will independently construe the writing.'”‘” (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1483 [72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471] (Cohen); see also Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754–755 [29 Cal. Rptr. 2d 177] (Paralift).) CA(3)[] (3) Similarly, it has long been recognized that HN5[] application of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine is a legal question, to be determined by the courts as a matter of law. (See Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1003–1004; see also Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 251, 257 [179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473] [“‘[T]he legal question of duty, [*14]  and specifically the question of whether a particular risk is an inherent part of a sport, “is necessarily reached from the common knowledge of judges, and not the opinions of experts”‘”].) In our resolution of this matter, then, we are writing on what is essentially a clean slate, bearing in mind that HN6[] we should resolve any evidentiary doubts in the Hass Family’s favor, given that they are the party opposing summary judgment. (Automobile Antitrust Cases, supra, 1 Cal.App.5th at p. 151 [“In undertaking our analysis, we ‘”accept as true the facts … in the evidence of the party opposing summary judgment and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them.”‘”].)

B. Express Waiver

During the online registration process for the Half Marathon, Hass was presented with the following warning regarding his need to execute the Release: “Please read any waiver carefully. It includes a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and deprives you of the ability to sue certain parties. Do not agree to this document unless you have read and understood it in its entirety. By agreeing electronically, you acknowledge that you have both read and understood all text presented to you as part of the registration process. You also understand and agree [*15]  that events carry certain inherent dangers and risks which may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage, or death. Your ability to participate in the event(s) is/are subject to your agreement to the waiver and by agreeing herein, you accept and agree to the terms of the waiver and release agreement.” (Italics added.) The document referenced in this warning—which could either be printed out or read in its entirety online—is entitled “Waivers” and reads in pertinent part as follows: “I understand that by registering I have accepted and agreed to the waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me during registration and that these documents include a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and deprive me of the right to sue certain parties. By agreeing electronically, I have acknowledged that I have both read and understand any waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me as part of the registration process and accept the inherent dangers and risks which may or may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage or death that arise from participation in the event. [¶] In consideration [*16]  of your accepting this entry … , I, intending to be legally bound, do hereby for myself, my heirs, executors, and/or administrators, waive and release any and all claims for damages I may accrue against … RhodyCo … any and all contractors, their employees, representatives, agents and heirs from any and all injuries that may be suffered by me at or enroute to or from this event. I attest that I am physically fit and sufficiently trained for this strenuous competition. I will assume my own medical and emergency expenses in the event of an accident or other incapacity or injury resulting from or occurring in my participation. …” (Italics added.)3

As stated above, RhodyCo argued in its summary judgment motion that the Release signed by Hass acted as a complete bar to the instant action. The trial court initially agreed, rejecting the Hass Family’s arguments that the wording of the Release was insufficient to exempt RhodyCo from wrongful death claims and that the Release was void on public policy grounds. In addition, because gross negligence was not specifically alleged in the Complaint, the court refused to consider the Hass Family’s third argument—that RhodyCo [*17]  had engaged in gross negligence falling outside of the scope of the Release. However, the trial court later granted a new trial on this issue, stating it would allow the Hass Family to amend its Complaint to cure this defect. The court declined to determine whether a triable issue as to RhodyCo’s alleged gross negligence existed, pending the filing of the amendment. In this appeal and cross-appeal, the parties raise all three of these issues involving the impact of the executed Release as potential grounds either supporting or undermining the trial court’s summary judgment decision. We therefore address each contention in turn.

1. Waiver of Wrongful Death Claim

CA(4)[] (4) Our high court has explained that HN7[] wrongful death claims “are not derivative claims but are independent actions accruing to a decedent’s heirs.” (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 841 [114 Cal. Rptr. 3d 263, 237 P.3d 584]; see also Madison v. Superior Court (1988) 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 596 [250 Cal. Rptr. 299] (Madison) [“‘The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'”].) “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a [*18]  subsequent wrongful death cause of action … .” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 725 [183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234].) Rather, a distinction is made in these circumstances “between the legal ineffectiveness of a decedent’s preinjury release of his [or her] heirs'[] subsequent wrongful death action and the legal effectiveness of an express release of negligence by a decedent which provides a defendant with ‘a complete defense.‘” (Madison, supra, 203 Cal.App.3d at p. 597.) In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedent’s “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful death action. (Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc. (1990) 226 Cal.App.3d 758, 763–764 [276 Cal. Rptr. 672] (Saenz); see also Ruiz, supra, 50 Cal.4th at pp. 851–852 [“although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his [or her] heirs’ wrongful death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk”].) Under such circumstances, the releasor is essentially agreeing not to expect the other party to act carefully, thus eliminating that person’s duty of care. (Coates v. Newhall Land & Farming, Inc. (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 1, 7 [236 Cal. Rptr. 181] (Coates).)

As an example, in Coates, supra, 191 Cal.App.3d 1, the decedent, a dirtbike rider, signed a release before using the defendant’s motorcycle park. (Id. at pp. 3–4.) After [*19]  the decedent was fatally injured, his heirs sued, arguing that the defendant had been negligent in the design and maintenance of the trail on which the decedent was hurt. (Ibid.) The appellate court agreed with the trial court that the decedent’s release barred the subsequent wrongful death action. Specifically, the court noted that, in the first half of the release, the decedent “expressly waived liability for injuries or death which might result from respondents’ ordinary negligence in the future. In the second half, he expressly assumed all risk of injury from dangers inherent in dirtbike riding on respondents’ premises.” (Id. at p. 7; see also id. at p. 4 & fn. 2.) The court concluded that this express assumption of the risk also bound the decedent’s heirs. (Id. at p. 8.) The court additionally opined that whether or not the decedent had “sufficient knowledge of the particular risk which resulted in his death” was irrelevant under the circumstances of the case because “knowledge of a particular risk is unnecessary when there is an express agreement to assume all risk.” (Id. at pp. 8–9.)

CA(5)[] (5) Our own decision in Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d 758 is in accord. There, the decedent fell out of a raft on a white-water rafting trip hosted by Whitewater, a commercial rafting [*20]  company, and drowned. (Id. at pp. 759, 762.) Prior to this fatal incident, the decedent had signed a release, stating: “‘I am aware that certain risks and dangers may occur on any river trip with Whitewater … . These risks include, but are not limited to, hazards of and injury to person and property while traveling in rafts on the river, accident or illness in remote places without medical facilities, the forces of nature … . [¶] … I hereby assume all of the above risks and, except in the case of gross negligence, will hold Whitewater … harmless from any and all liability, actions, causes of action, debts, claims, and demands of every kind and nature whatsoever which I now have or which may arise out of or in connection with my trip or participation in any activities with Whitewater … .’ The agreement further stated it operated as a release and assumption of risk for his heirs.” (Id. at p. 763, fn. 7, italics added.) Noting that “drafting a legally valid release is no easy task,” we opined that HN8[] “‘[t]o be effective, a release need not achieve perfection … . It suffices that a release be clear, unambiguous, and explicit, and that it express an agreement not to hold the released party liable for negligence.'” [*21]  (Id. at p. 765.) Given that the plain language of the Saenz release indicated that the decedent consented to assume the risks associated with white-water rafting and release Whitewater from any and all liability arising out of the trip, the fact that the exculpatory sentence did not explicitly state that it covered Whitewater’s negligence and did not specifically mention death or drowning was insufficient to invalidate the otherwise clear release. (Id. at pp. 765–766; see also Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485 [“‘If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant.'” (italics added)].)

Indeed, generally speaking, “‘[w]hether a release bars recovery against a negligent party “turns primarily on contractual interpretation, and it is the intent of the parties as expressed in the agreement that should control.”‘” (Sanchez v. Bally’s Total Fitness Corp. (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 62, 66–67 [79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 902].) Moreover, in this regard, “‘[o]ur analysis is not based on the mechanical application of some formula. The presence or absence of the words “negligence” or “bodily injury” is not dispositive. We look instead to the intention of the parties as it appears in the release forms before the court.'” (Id. at p. 67; see also Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1488
[noting that release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law].) By [*22]  signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.

The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks. They further contend that the release language contained in the next sentence of the Release is similarly ineffectual in the wrongful death context because it is limited to “any and all claims for damages I [i.e., Hass] may accrue,” thus excluding claims accrued by his heirs. We are not persuaded.

HN9[] CA(6)[] (6) “With [*23]  respect to the question of express waiver, the legal issue is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1484.) Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence. In particular, and as we remarked in Saenz (also a wrongful death action), we believe that the juxtaposition of the assumption of risk language and the blanket release language conveys the message that Hass assumed all risks related to participation in the Half Marathon while excusing RhodyCo from any liability arising from the race. (See Paralift, supra, 23 Cal.App.4th at pp. 756–757 [considering broad release language as well as assumption language in upholding release in wrongful death action]; Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 765 [same]; Coates, supra, 191 Cal.App.3d at pp. 7, 9 & fn. 2 [release valid where decedent waived all liability for injury or death and assumed risk of injury from dangers inherent in riding dirt bike on premises]; see also National & Internat. Brotherhood of Street Racers, Inc. v. Superior Court (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 934, 937–938, 940 [264 Cal. Rptr. 44] (Street Racers) [in case claiming lack of competent medical [*24]  attention/rescue equipment, release is valid even though it included an assumption of “‘all risk inherent in racing'” because it also released “in unqualified terms … all claims arising from plaintiff’s participation in the race”].)4

We similarly reject the Hass Family’s assertion that the assumption of risk language used in the Release—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—is ambiguous as “accept” in this context could reasonably mean “understand” as well as “assume.” (See Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485 [an ambiguity in a release exists when a party can identify an alternative, semantically reasonable, candidate of meaning; an ambiguity “‘should normally be construed against the drafter'” of the release].) The complete sentence at issue reads: “By agreeing electronically, I have acknowledged that I have both read and understand any waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me as part of the registration process and accept the inherent dangers and risks which may or may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage or death that arise from [*25]  participation in the event.” (Italics added.) Since the signator, in the first part of the sentence, has already acknowledged understanding the contents of the waiver—which includes the statement that there are risks inherent in participating—it seems unlikely that he or she would be asked to acknowledge such an understanding a second time in the latter part of the sentence. Rather, the much more reasonable interpretation of this second clause is that the signator is agreeing to shoulder—i.e., take on or otherwise assume—the dangers and risks inherent in the activity.

Finally, in construing the Release, we are cognizant of the fact that “[i]n cases arising from hazardous recreational pursuits, to permit released claims to be brought to trial defeats the purpose for which releases are requested and given, regardless of which party ultimately wins the verdict. Defense costs are devastating. Unless courts are willing to dismiss such actions without trial, many popular and lawful recreational activities are destined for extinction.” (Street Racers, supra, 215 Cal.App.3d at p. 938.) While certainly imperfect, we believe that the Release was intended to be, and was accepted as, a comprehensive assumption of all risks associated [*26]  with race participation. We therefore agree with the trial court that the Release constitutes a complete defense to a wrongful death action based on ordinary negligence.

2. Public Policy

CA(7)[] (7) The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”
HN10[] A contractual provision exculpating a party from liability is invalid under this statute if it “affects the public interest.” (Tunkl v. Regents of University of California (1963) 60 Cal.2d 92, 96, 98 [32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441] (Tunkl).)

CA(8)[] (8) In Tunkl, supra, 60 Cal.2d 92, HN11[] our high court identified six characteristics typical of contracts affecting the public interest: “‘[1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often [*27]  a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'” (Id. at pp. 98–101, fns. omitted.) Not all of these factors need to be present for an exculpatory contract to be voided as affecting the public interest. (Id. at p. 98.) However, in Tunkl, the Supreme Court found all six factors were implicated and, on that basis, concluded that a release from liability [*28]  for future negligence imposed as a condition for admission to a charitable research hospital affected the public interest and was thus invalid. (Id. at pp. 94, 101–102.) In making this determination, our high court found “hardly open to question” the fact that “the services of the hospital to those members of the public who are in special need of the particular skill of its staff and facilities constitute a practical and crucial necessity.” (Id. at p. 101.)

In contrast, California courts have consistently declined to apply the Tunkl factors to invalidate exculpatory agreements in the recreational sports context. (See Street Racers, supra, 215 Cal.App.3d 934 [upholding release in case claiming lack of competent medical attention/rescue equipment]; see also Platzer v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1253, 1259 [128 Cal. Rptr. 2d 885] [fall from chairlift during ski lesson]; Randas v. YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 158, 161–162 [21 Cal. Rptr. 2d 245] [swim class]; Paralift, supra, 23 Cal.App.4th at p. 756 [skydiving]; Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 764 [commercial river rafting]; Madison, supra, 203 Cal.App.3d at pp. 593, 597–599 [scuba diving]; Okura v. United States Cycling Federation (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 1462, 1464, 1466–1468 [231 Cal. Rptr. 429] [bicycle race].) Although they acknowledge the current state of California law, the Hass Family invites us to revisit the issue based on an analysis of the Tunkl factors by the Washington Supreme Court in Vodopest v. MacGregor (1996) 128 Wn.2d 840 [913 P.2d 779] (Vodopest). In that case, the plaintiff agreed to join a mountain trek that was designed as a research trip to test the efficacy of a breathing technique used to eliminate high altitude [*29]  sickness. (Id. at pp. 843–844.) Portions of the research proposal were submitted to the University of Washington Human Subjects Review Committee (University) for approval. (Id. at p. 845.) Prior to the trek, the plaintiff executed a broad release in researcher MacGregor’s favor. (Ibid.) A similar release which included the University was rejected by the University as invalid because “releases from liability for negligence are not allowed as a part of any approved study, as the federal government does not allow exculpatory language in human subject experimentation.” (Id. at p. 846.) Ultimately, the plaintiff suffered a cerebral edema from altitude sickness on the trek and sued MacGregor for negligence and gross negligence. (Id. at p. 847.)

The sole issue on appeal in Vodopest was whether the release signed by the plaintiff violated public policy and was thus unenforceable. (Vodopest, supra, 128 Wn.2d at p. 848.) The court noted that medical research was a significant component of the trek and that the “critical question” in the case was “whether the alleged conduct giving rise to the cause of action for negligence occurred in the context of the mountain trekking or within the scope of the research project.” (Id. at pp. 850, 852–853.) It concluded—after consideration of the six Tunkl factors—that to [*30]  the extent MacGregor attempted to use the release “to release herself as a researcher from negligent acts performed in the furtherance of medical research,” it was unenforceable as violative of public policy. (Id. at p. 853; see id. at pp. 853–862.) In particular, the court opined that “there are critical public policy reasons to maintain the usual standard of care in settings where one person is using another as a medical research subject.” (Id. at p. 856.)

CA(9)[] (9) Vodopest is obviously distinguishable on its facts and we reject the Hass Family’s invitation to depart from long-existing California precedent based on this Washington decision. HN12[] Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way. (Cf. Okura, supra, 186 Cal.App.3d at p. 1468 [bicycle race participant retains complete control and can drop out of the race or [*31]  adjust his pace at any time; organizers have no control over how the participant approaches the race].) The Tunkl court, itself, made clear that such private, voluntary exculpatory contracts are permissible: “While obviously no public policy opposes private, voluntary transactions in which one party, for a consideration, agrees to shoulder a risk which the law would otherwise have placed upon the other party, the above circumstances [admission to research hospital] pose a different situation. In this situation the releasing party does not really acquiesce voluntarily in the contractual shifting of the risk, nor can we be reasonably certain that he receives an adequate consideration for the transfer.” (Tunkl, supra, 60 Cal.2d at p. 101.) Here, Hass was permitted to make the voluntary decision, in return for being allowed to participate in the race, to shoulder the risk of RhodyCo’s potential negligence. “‘”‘The power of the courts to declare a contract void for being in contravention of sound public policy is a very delicate and undefined power, and … should be exercised only in cases free from doubt.'”‘” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777, fn. 53 [62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095] (Santa Barbara).) We decline to exercise it here.

3. Gross Negligence

CA(10)[] (10) The final issue with respect to the impact [*32]  of the Release in this matter is whether the Hass Family has raised a triable issue of material fact as to whether RhodyCo acted with gross negligence in its management of the Half Marathon. Even if the Release was sufficient to block a claim for ordinary negligence—as we have held—HN13[] it is insufficient, as a matter of public policy, to preclude liability for gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 751 [“an agreement made in the context of sports or recreational programs or services, purporting to release liability for future gross negligence, generally is unenforceable as a matter of public policy”].) For purposes of this distinction, ordinary negligence “consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.” (Id. at pp. 753–754.) “‘[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,'” amounts to ordinary negligence. (Frittelli, Inc. v. 350 North Canon Drive, LP (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 35, 48 [135 Cal.Rptr. 761].) In contrast, “‘[g]ross negligence‘ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 754.) “‘“[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, [*33]  and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.‘” (Gore v. Board of Medical Quality Assurance (1980) 110 Cal.App.3d 184, 197 [167 Cal. Rptr. 881]; see also Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 867, 881 [208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 792].) In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'” (Gore, supra, 110 Cal.App.3d at p. 198.)

CA(11)[] (11) In the present case, we agree with both parties that the trial court erred by refusing to consider the Hass Family’s claim of gross negligence because they had not pled gross negligence in their Complaint. Several appellate courts have opined that California does not recognize a separate cause of action for gross negligence. (Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 766, fn. 9; Ordway v. Superior Court (1988) 198 Cal.App.3d 98, 108, fn. 5 [243 Cal. Rptr. 536], disapproved on other grounds in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 306–309 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696] (Knight).) In Santa Barbara, the Supreme Court did not definitively resolve this issue, commenting only that it did not view its holding invalidating releases for future gross negligence “as recognizing a cause of action for gross negligence.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 779–780.) Instead, as is more relevant here, the high court went on to declare: “Our holding simply imposes a limitation on the defense that is provided by a release. HN14[] A plaintiff is not required to anticipate such a defense [citation]; [*34]  instead, the defendant bears the burden of raising the defense and establishing the validity of a release as applied to the case at hand.” (Id. at 780, fn. 58.) Thus, regardless of whether gross negligence can be a separate cause of action, and/or the Hass Family could have alleged gross negligence in the Complaint in anticipation of RhodyCo’s likely defense, they were not required to do so. The consequences of this pleading decision in the context of a summary judgment motion were summarized in Westlye v. Look Sports, Inc. (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 1715 [22 Cal.Rptr.2d 781]—which involved alleged negligence by a ski rental company in the adjustment of ski bindings—as follows: “Had plaintiff anticipated the defense of the release agreement in his complaint and alleged facts suggesting [its invalidity], the matter would have been a material issue which defendants would have had to refute in order to obtain summary adjudication.” (Id. at pp. 1723–1724, 1739–1740; see also id. at p. 1740 [“‘If … the plaintiff pleads several theories or anticipates affirmative defenses by a show of excusing events or conditions, the challenge to the opponent is made by the complaint, requiring the moving defendant to affirmatively react to each theory and excusing or justifying event, or condition which supports a theory, if the motion is [*35]  to be successful'”].) In contrast, “[s]ince plaintiff’s complaint said nothing about the agreement, the matter of [its validity] was not a material issue for purposes of defendants’ initial showing on its motion for summary adjudication. [The defendant] met its initial burden by adducing evidence of the … agreement and plaintiff’s execution. The burden thereafter shifted to plaintiff to raise a triable issue of material fact.” (Id. at p. 1740.)

Similarly, here, although the Hass Family set forth certain facts in the Complaint which could be viewed as supporting a claim of gross negligence, it cannot be said that the Complaint—which does not even mention the Release—anticipated the Release defense or raised gross negligence as a material issue which RhodyCo was required to refute in order to succeed on summary judgment. Instead, RhodyCo met its initial burden by producing evidence of the existence of the Release and its execution by Hass. The burden then shifted to the Hass Family to raise a triable issue of material fact as to gross negligence.

CA(12)[] (12) Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Hass Family, we believe they have met their burden in this case, making summary judgment inappropriate. [*36] 5
It is true that HN15[] summary judgment on the issue of gross negligence may be warranted where the facts fail to establish an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care as a matter of law. However, “[g]enerally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence.” (Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358 [257 Cal. Rptr. 356].) In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context. We conclude only that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to them, it is possible that the Hass Family could establish that, despite the potential for grave risk of harm in the sport of long-distance running, RhodyCo failed to implement the EMS Plan in several [*37]  material ways and that its management of the Half Marathon—in particular with respect to the allocation of medical resources to the finish line and communication among race personnel—constituted an extreme departure from the standard of care for events of its type. This is sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact with respect to gross negligence.
6

In sum, we have concluded that the Release is not void on public policy grounds and that it is adequate to bar the Hass Family’s action for ordinary negligence. However, since we have additionally determined that a triable issue of material fact exists as to whether RhodyCo’s provision of emergency medical services was grossly negligent, the trial court’s new trial order reversing its initial grant of summary judgment was appropriate, unless the Hass Family’s negligence action is completely barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. We therefore turn finally to that question.

C. Primary Assumption of the Risk

CA(13)[] (13) In Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296, the Supreme Court considered the continued applicability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in light of the court’s prior adoption of comparative fault principles. (Id. at pp. 299–300.) Specifically, [*38]  HN16[] our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the risk—”those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is ‘no duty’ on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk”—and secondary assumption of
risk—”those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.” (Id. at p. 308.) When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.” (Id. at p. 315.) In contrast, secondary assumption of the risk “is merged into the comparative fault scheme, and the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibility of the parties.” (Ibid.; id. at p. 314 [“a jury in a ‘secondary assumption of risk’ case would be entitled to take into consideration a plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport … in determining whether the plaintiff properly should bear some share of responsibility for the injuries he or she suffered”]; see also Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1003 [in a secondary assumption [*39]  of the risk case, “the plaintiff’s knowing and voluntary acceptance of the risk functions as a form of contributory negligence“].)

CA(14)[] (14) The Supreme Court further concluded in Knight that HN17[] “the question whether the defendant owed a legal duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk of harm … [turns] on the nature of the activity or sport in which the defendant is engaged and the relationship of the defendant and the plaintiff to that activity or sport.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309.) Although Knight dealt with the duty owed by a coparticipant in recreational activity (an informal touch football game on Super Bowl Sunday), it also discussed the potential liability here at issue, that of operators and organizers of recreational events. (Id. at pp. 300–301, 315–317.) For instance, the Knight court opined: “In the sports setting … conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself. Thus, although moguls on a ski run pose a risk of harm to skiers that might not exist were these configurations removed, the challenge and risks posed by the moguls are part of the sport of skiing, and a ski resort has no duty to eliminate them. [Citation.] … [¶] Although defendants generally [*40]  have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself, it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport. Thus, although a ski resort has no duty to remove moguls from a ski run, it clearly does have a duty to use due care to maintain its towropes in a safe, working condition so as not to expose skiers to an increased risk of harm. The cases establish that the latter type of risk, posed by a ski resort’s negligence, clearly is not a risk (inherent in the sport) that is assumed by a participant.” (Id. at pp. 315–316, italics added.) The high court also cited with approval a case involving an injury from a thrown baseball bat in which the jury returned a verdict in favor of the baseball player (since throwing bats is inherent in the game), but implicitly recognized “the duty of the stadium owner to provide a reasonably safe stadium with regard to the relatively common (but particularly dangerous) hazard of a thrown bat.” (Id. at p. 317.) Finally, Knight acknowledged a line of cases in which the duty of an operator is defined “by reference to the steps the [*41]  sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.” (Id. at p. 317.)

CA(15)[] (15) Twenty years later, in Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148 [150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158] (Nalwa), the Supreme Court revisited the scope of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine in the specific context of the duty owed by an operator/organizer. The Nalwa court summarized the doctrine as follows: HN18[] “‘Although persons generally owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a)), some activities—and, specifically, many sports—are inherently dangerous. Imposing a duty to mitigate those inherent dangers could alter the nature of the activity or inhibit vigorous participation.’ [Citation.] The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. [Citations.] Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.” (Id. at p. 1154.) Applying this analytical framework to the case at hand, the high court concluded that the operator of a bumper car ride at an amusement park had [*42]  no duty to protect the plaintiff from the collision which fractured her wrist. (Id. at pp. 1152, 1157–1158, 1162–1163.) Rather, “[l]ow-speed collisions between the padded, independently operated cars are inherent in—are the whole point of—a bumper car ride.” (Id. at p. 1157.) Thus, “‘[i]mposing liability would have the likely effect of the amusement park either eliminating the ride altogether or altering its character to such a degree—by, for example, significantly decreasing the speed at which the minicars could operate—that the fun of bumping would be eliminated, thereby discouraging patrons from riding.'” (Id. at pp. 1157–1158.)

Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family. In particular, according to RhodyCo—under the test articulated in Nalwa—it had no duty to minimize Hass’s risk of death from cardiac arrest. Or, put another way, it had no duty to [*43]  reduce the natural consequences of Hass’s cardiac arrest or increase his chances of recovery.

In taking this position, RhodyCo acknowledges that the appellate court in Saffro v. Elite Racing, Inc. (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 173 [119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 497] (Saffro) held that a race producer has a duty to conduct a “reasonably safe event,” which “requires it to take reasonable steps to ‘minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.'” (Id. at p. 175.) In Saffro, a marathon runner suffered a grand mal seizure after a race and was diagnosed with severe hyponatremia, likely caused by his inability to consume adequate amounts of water and fluids containing electrolytes (such as Gatorade) during the race. (Id. at p. 176.) Although the race organizer sent written materials to participants prior to the event indicating that such liquids would be provided in sufficient quantities, the evidence suggested that they were not. (Id. at pp. 176–177.) The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the race organizer, concluding that hyponatremia is an inherent risk of running a marathon. (Id. at pp. 177–178.) The appellate court reversed, stating that a race organizer’s duty to conduct a reasonably safe event includes “the obligation to minimize the risks of dehydration and hyponatremia by providing adequate water and electrolyte [*44]  fluids,” especially where the race organizer had made representations to the participants that such fluids would be available. (Id. at p. 179.) Since Saffro had presented sufficient evidence to create a triable issue of fact as to whether the race organizer had breached this duty, summary judgment was improper. (Id. at pp. 179–181; see also Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 1079, 1082–1083 [although collisions with coparticipants are an inherent risk of motocross, operator of a motocross track has a duty to minimize this risk without altering the nature of the sport by providing a warning system, such as caution flaggers; triable issue of fact existed as to whether failure to provide a caution flagger constituted gross negligence].) RhodyCo claims that Saffro is inapplicable both because it is a secondary assumption of the risk case and because the “duty to minimize risk” language from Knight that Saffro and other cases have “latched onto” is dictum which has been abrogated by the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in Nalwa.

We disagree with RhodyCo that the Nalwa court’s formulation of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine somehow supplanted the high court’s earlier discussion of the matter in Knight, particularly with respect to the Supreme Court’s statements [*45]  regarding an organizer/operator’s duty “to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317.) Rather, Nalwa—far from disagreeing with Knight—referenced it as the “seminal decision explicating and applying primary assumption of risk in the recreational context.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1155.) Moreover, Nalwa‘s formulation of the limited duty existing in a primary assumption of the risk case—”the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity”—comes directly from Knight. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 1154–1155, 1162–1163.) Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, Nalwa did not reject cases such as Saffro and Rosencrans which concluded, based on language found in Knight, that operators/organizers have a duty to minimize risks without altering the nature of the sport. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163 & fn. 7.) Instead, it characterized them as “decisions addressing the duty to reduce extrinsic risks of an activity” and found them distinguishable in that particular case because it concluded that the risk of injury from bumping—at any angle—was not an extrinsic risk, but was instead a risk inherent to riding bumper cars. (Id. at pp. 1157–1158, 1163.)

CA(16)[] (16) Indeed, Nalwa expressly states that “[t]he operator of a bumper car ride might violate its ‘duty to use due care not to [*46]  increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent’ in the activity (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 316) by failing to provide routine safety measures such as seatbelts, functioning bumpers and appropriate speed control.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163.) Thus, Nalwa actually reaffirms Knight‘s conclusions regarding the duties owed to participants by operators/organizers of recreational activities. In short, HN19[] such operators and organizers have two distinct duties: the limited duty not to increase the inherent risks of an activity under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine and the ordinary duty of due care with respect to the extrinsic risks of the activity, which should reasonably be minimized to the extent possible without altering the nature of the activity. Nalwa explains the interplay between these two types of duties by confirming that an operator’s or organizer’s negligence with respect to extrinsic risks “might violate its ‘duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent’ in the activity.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163.)

In the present case, both parties acknowledge that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of the sport of long-distance running. Further, it is not suggested on these facts that RhodyCo did [*47]  anything that increased the risk that Hass would have a heart attack.7 Moreover, requiring runners to slow down or take breaks in order to decrease this inherent risk would alter the character of racing to such a degree that it would likely discourage runners from participating. However, as both Knight and Nalwa teach us, this is not the end of the inquiry. While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163 [while risk of injury from bumping bumper cars is generally low, an operator could violate its duty not to increase this inherent risk by failing to provide routine safety measures]; Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 315–316 [negligent maintenance of towropes by ski resort could violate duty not to expose skiers to increased risk of harm]; Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc. (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 1283, 1297–1302 [222 Cal. Rptr. 3d 633] [crash landings caused by failure to safely pilot a hot air balloon are an inherent risk of hot air ballooning, but an operator has a duty not to increase that risk by failing to instruct participants on safe landing procedures, a customary practice in the ballooning industry]; Jimenez v. Roseville City School Dist. (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 594, 610–611 [202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 536] [although [*48]  contact with the floor is an inherent risk in dancing, school may have increased student’s risk of harm through failure to properly disseminate its no-flip policy]; Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1083–1086 [negligent failure to provide collision warning system in motocross]; Saffro, supra, 98 Cal.App.4th at pp. 175, 179–181 [duty not to increase risk of dehydration and hyponatremia by unreasonably failing to provide adequate fluids]; Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 364–367 [114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 265] [although falling is an inherent risk of skiing, failure to mark off race area containing jumps which an ordinary skier would not expect to encounter may breach duty not to increase inherent risk]; Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127 [40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 249] [although being hit by a golf ball is an inherent risk of golfing, golf course owner had a duty to design course to minimize the risk of being hit where possible without altering the nature of golf].) As the Fourth District recently opined in Grotheer, “[w]hat the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do … is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 317–318.) As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so.” (Grotheer, supra, 14 Cal.App.5th at p. 1300.) And, in Solis, the appellate court succinctly [*49]  illustrated the issue raised by these cases as follows: “[F]alling off a horse is an inherent risk of horseback riding. But if a person put a barrel in the middle of the Churchill Downs racetrack, causing a collision and fall, we would not say that person owed no duty to the injured riders, because falling is an inherent risk of horseback riding.” (Solis, supra, 94 Cal.App.4th at p. 365.)

When viewed under this analytical framework, Rotolo v. San Jose Sports & Entertainment, LLC (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 307 [59 Cal. Rptr. 3d 770], disapproved on another ground as stated in Verdugo v. Target Corp. (2014) 59 Cal.4th 312, 327 [173 Cal. Rptr. 3d 662, 327 P.3d 774], and Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8 [45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855]—two cases relied upon by RhodyCo—are not inconsistent. In Rotolo, parents of a teenager who died as a result of sudden cardiac arrest while playing ice hockey sued the ice hockey facility for wrongful death, claiming that the facility had a duty to notify facility users of the existence and location of the facility’s AED. (Rotolo, supra, 151 Cal.App.4th at p. 313.) The appellate court disagreed, noting that sudden cardiac arrest is a risk inherent in playing strenuous sports and that the facility had done nothing to increase this risk. (Id. at p. 334.) During the course of its analysis, the Rotolo court stated: “We have found no authority for the proposition that a sports facility operator has a duty to reduce the effects of an injury that is an inherent risk in the sport, or to increase [*50]  the chances of full recovery of a participant who has suffered such a sports-related injury, or to give notice regarding any first aid equipment that may be available for such a purpose.” (Id. at pp. 334–335.) In making this determination, however, the Rotolo court searched exhaustively for a duty that the facility could have breached in this context and could not find one. (Id. at pp. 319–339.) In particular, it noted that the facility had not breached its duties to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition or to summon emergency medical aid.8 (Rotolo, at pp. 316–317, 332–334.) Since the sports facility had not acted negligently with respect to any risks extrinsic to the sport of hockey, thereby increasing its inherent risks, the primary assumption of the risk doctrine barred recovery. (Id. at pp. 334–335.) Similarly, in Connelly, the plaintiff argued that the ski resort had insufficiently padded a ski lift tower, thereby causing him serious injury when he collided with it. (Connelly, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at pp. 10–11.) The appellate court concluded that colliding with a ski lift tower is an inherent risk of skiing and that the ski resort had done nothing to increase this risk by padding the towers, which the resort had no duty to do in the first place. (Id. at pp. 12–13.) In essence, the court concluded that the ski [*51]  resort had not breached its underlying duty to provide a reasonably safe ski resort and thus the primary assumption of the risk doctrine barred the plaintiff’s negligence action. (See id. at pp. 11–14.)

CA(17)[] (17) It is undisputed in this case that RhodyCo has provided event management and production services for “high profile” running and walking events for over 25 years and that, while these events involved over 1.5 million participants, Hass was the first fatality. Thus, while death from cardiac arrest is undeniably a risk associated with long-distance running, it appears from RhodyCo’s own facts to be a slight one. The question therefore remains whether RhodyCo, as the organizer of the Half Marathon, acted negligently in its provision of emergency medical services—a risk extrinsic to the sport of long-distance running—in such a way that it exposed Hass to an increased risk of harm over and above that generally inherent in the activity itself. Since we have previously concluded that the Hass Family has raised a triable issue of fact as to whether RhodyCo was grossly negligent in this regard, the primary assumption of the risk doctrine does not act as a complete bar to the present negligence action. [*52] 9 The trial court’s decision to reverse itself on this ground and allow the case to continue was therefore not error.

CA(18)[] (18) As a final matter, we note that HN20[] imposing a duty of due care with respect to “extrinsic” risks for operators and organizers of recreational activities makes sense based on the policies underlying the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. As stated above and as articulated in Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pages 1156–1157: “The primary assumption of risk doctrine rests on a straightforward policy foundation: the need to avoid chilling vigorous participation in or sponsorship of recreational activities by imposing a tort duty to eliminate or reduce the risks of harm inherent in those activities. It operates on the premise that imposing such a legal duty ‘would work a basic alteration—or cause abandonment’ of the activity. … [¶] … Allowing voluntary participants in an active recreational pursuit to sue other participants or sponsors for failing to eliminate or mitigate the activity’s inherent risks would threaten the activity’s very existence and nature.” (Id. at pp. 1156–1157.) Moreover, “active recreation, because it involves physical activity and is not essential to daily life, is particularly vulnerable to the chilling effects [*53]  of potential tort liability for ordinary negligence.” (Id. at p. 1157.) The Nalwa court counseled that the doctrine’s parameters should be drawn according to this underlying policy goal. (Ibid.) Obviously, requiring an operator or organizer of recreational activities to provide a reasonably safe event, reasonably maintained attractions, and/or customary safety warnings—far from chilling vigorous participation in such activities—would almost certainly increase their attractiveness to potential participants. Moreover, an owner or event organizer is still protected from liability with respect to the inherent risks of these activities. And, given that participation in these recreational pursuits is almost always contingent on the signing of a release, such owners and organizers are generally also relieved of the consequences of their ordinary negligence. Allowing owners and organizers to avoid accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 750–751; see also id. at pp. 767–776 [rejecting as unsupported by empirical evidence the assertion that refusing to uphold agreements releasing liability for future gross negligence [*54]  will lead to the extinction of many popular and lawful recreational activities].)

III. DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the matter remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. In particular, the trial court is instructed to enter an order denying RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment. The Hass Family is entitled to its costs on appeal.

REARDON, J.

We concur:

STREETER, Acting P. J.

SMITH, J.*


Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English

An outfitter must follow industry norms when dealing with guests. If the rest of the industry gives guests a safety talk, then you better give guests a safety talk. The problem arises when your guest cannot understand what you are saying.

Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., 14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two 

Plaintiff: Erika Grotheer 

Defendant: Escape Adventures, Inc., the pilot and Escape’s agent, Peter Gallagher, and Wilson Creek Vineyards, Inc.,

Plaintiff Claims: negligently or recklessly operated the balloon by (1) failing to properly slow its descent during landing and (2) failing to give the passengers safe landing instructions before the launch. Grotheer alleged the hot air  balloon company is a common carrier, and as such, owed its passengers a heightened duty of care 

Defendant Defenses: Plaintiff could not satisfy the elements of a negligence claim and, even if she could, she had waived the right to assert such a claim by signing Escape’s liability waiver.

Holding: For the Defendant 

Year: 2017 

Summary

Being labeled a common carrier means you owe a higher degree of care to your guests than normal. However, a hot-air balloon ride is not classified as a common carrier because the analysis used under California law, whether the operator has control over the activity, is not met in ballooning. A balloon pilot can only control the ascent and descent of the balloon, all else is left to Mother Nature.

Assumption of risk under California law eliminates a duty that might be owed by the outfitter or in this case the balloon operator. However, not giving a safety talk before the ride is not an inherent risk assumed by the plaintiff. Since the industry, the ballooning industry, gives safety talks, then there is a duty on a balloon operator to give a safety talk to its guests.

However, if no safety talk was given, that still does not mean the outfitter is liable if the injury the plaintiff received was not proximately caused by the failure to give a safety talk.

Facts

The plaintiff is German and does not speak English. Her son signed her up for a balloon flight in the California wine country. The ride crash landed, as most balloon flights do and the plaintiff suffered a broken leg.

The three defendants were the balloon company, the balloon pilot and the winery where the launch and crash occurred. 

The plaintiff sued alleging negligence and because the defendant was a common carrier, the defendant owed the plaintiff a higher duty of care. 

A common carrier in most states is a business operating moving people from one place to another for a fee. The transportation company owes a higher degree of care to its passengers because the passenger has no control over the way the transportation is provided or how the transportation is maintained. 

A good example of this is a commercial airline. You have no idea if the plane is maintained, and you cannot fly the plane. Consequently, your life is totally in the hands of a commercial airline.

The other component of a common carrier is usually the movement is from point A to point B and the main reason is the passenger needs to get from point A to point B. In California the movement is not as important as it is in the other states.  In California, the decided factor is the control factor. California’s definition of a common carrier is much broader and  encompasses many more types of transportation, including transportation for recreation or thrills, not necessarily for getting from one place to the next. 

However, in California the analysis is not who has control but who has what control. 

For additional articles about common carriers see Zip line accused of being a common carrier who makes releases unenforceable. Issue still not decided, however, in all states common carriers cannot use a release as a defense and California case examines the relationship between a common carrier and public policy when applied to a ski area chair lift

The plaintiff based her claim on failing to instruct her in the risks of ballooning and what to do if the balloon were to crash. The balloonists met at the winery and then drove to the launch site. All but the plaintiff rode with the balloon company where the defendants claim they gave a safety speech. The plaintiff rode with her son to the launch site and did not hear the speech. 

More importantly, the plaintiff did not speak or understand English so even if she would have heard the safety talk, whether or not she could have understood it would be a question. 

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims find the plaintiff could not prove the element of duty; One of the four requirements to prove negligence. The trial court also found the plaintiff had assumed the risk and as such the defendants did not owe her any duty of care. The plaintiff appealed. 

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

The court started with the Common Carrier analysis.  

California law imposes a heightened duty of care on operators of transportation who qualify as “common carriers” to be as diligent as possible to protect the safety of their passengers. A carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.

The court defined common carrier by statute as “A common carrier of persons is anyone “who offers to the public to carry persons.” This higher degree of care only applies to carriers who hold themselves out to the public for hire.

A carrier of persons without reward must use ordinary care and diligence for their safe carriage.” (Civ. Code, § 2096.) But “[c]arriers of persons for reward have long been subject to a heightened duty of care.” Such carriers “must use the utmost care and diligence for [passengers’] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill. 

The level of care is not absolute; common carriers are not insurers of the safety of their passengers. However, they are required to do all that “human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.” This heightened duty originated in England, prior to the US becoming a country and was based on: 

This duty originated in English common law and is “based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care towards their customers. 

In California, the common carrier status started with stage coaches. Since then the application of the term and the heightened duty has evolved and broadened to include recreational transportation, “scenic airplane and railway tours, ski lifts, and roller coasters “have all been deemed common carriers under California law.”

In California, the degree of care is defined more by the control the passenger has over the transportation. Roller Coasters are common carriers because the passenger has no control over the speed of the coaster or the maintenance on the coaster. At the same time, bumper cars are not common carriers because the passenger is able to steer and control the speed and direction of the bumper car. 

In California, the “inquiry in the common carrier analysis is whether passengers expect the transportation to be safe because the operator is reasonably capable of controlling the risk of injury.”

The court found the hot-air balloon was not a common carrier. Although the passenger has little if any control over the flight of the balloon, neither does the pilot of the balloon. The only control the pilot has is changing the altitude of the balloon. 

…balloon pilots do not maintain direct and precise control over the speed and direction of the balloon. A pilot directly controls only the balloon’s altitude, by monitoring the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. A pilot has no direct control over the balloon’s latitude, which is determined by the wind’s speed and direction. A balloon’s lack of power and steering poses risks of midair collisions and crash landings, making ballooning a risky activity.

The analysis the court applied then turned on how much control the operator of the transportation had, not how little the passenger had. 

But there is a significant difference between the dangers of riding those conveyances and the dangers involved in ballooning. The former can be virtually eliminated through engineering design and operator skill, whereas the latter cannot be mitigated without altering the fundamental nature of a balloon. 

Thus a balloon pilot does not owe his or her customer a heightened duty of care. 

Assumption of the risk was the next defense the court examined. Under California law if the plaintiff assumes the risk, then the defendant does not owe the plaintiff any duty of care. 

Under California law, a balloon operator does not owe his or her passengers a duty of care for the inherent risks of the activity. “The doctrine applies to any activity “done for enjoyment or thrill … [that] involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.”

Because the pilot of a hot-air balloon can only control the ascent and descent of the balloon and no other control of the balloon, the passenger must assume the risk of all things ballooning. 

We therefore hold the doctrine applies to crash landings caused by the failure to safely steer a hot air balloon. We further hold Grotheer’s claim of pilot error falls under the primary assumption of risk doctrine because the claim goes to the core of what makes balloon landings inherently risky–the challenge of adjusting the balloon’s vertical movement to compensate for the unexpected changes in horizontal movement. As a result, Escape had no legal duty to protect Grotheer from crash landings caused by its pilot’s failure to safely manage the balloon’s descent. 

Consequently, the pilot and the balloon company owed no duty to the plaintiff. The inherent risks of ballooning include crashing. 

The court then looked at the issue of whether or not the plaintiff received any safety instructions prior to the flight. A guide, outfitter or operator of a balloon which is an inherently dangerous activity still owes a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize the inherent risks. However, those steps must not fundamentality alter the activity. “The primary assumption of risk doctrine is limited to those steps or safety measures that would have a deleterious effect on recreational activities that are, by nature, inherently dangerous.” 

What the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do, however, is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity  without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so. 

The issue then becomes whether or not the balloon operator owes a duty to provide safety instructions. 

Courts consider several factors in determining the existence and scope of a duty of care, including the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the policy of preventing future harm, and the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing the duty.

Foreseeability is a primary factor in determining whether a duty exists. In this case, the court concluded that providing a safety briefing was custom in the industry. Nor would giving a safety lecture be overly burdensome to the balloon operator or pilot.

The duty we recognize here does not compel anything so lengthy or complex as commercial airlines’ preflight instructions. It requires
only that a commercial balloon operator provide a brief set of safe landing procedures, which Escape’s pilot said is already his custom. Safety instructions are a common practice among operators of recreational activities, and we do not believe requiring balloon operators to set aside a few moments before launch to advise passengers how to position themselves in the basket and what to do in the event of a rough landing will have a negative impact on the ballooning industry. 

So the balloon operator did owe the plaintiff a duty to provide her with a safety instruction. However, that was not the end of the analysis. To prove negligence you must prove a duty, a breach of the duty an injury that was proximately caused by the breach of the duty and damages. In this case, the failure to provide a safety breeching was not the reason why the plaintiff broke her leg, or at least, the plaintiff could not prove the proximate causation. 

Examined another way, for the injury of the plaintiff to be proximately caused by the breach of duty of the defendant, the acts of the defendant must be a substantial factor in that injury. 

To be considered a proximate cause of an injury, the acts of the defendant must have been a “substantial factor” in contributing to the injury. Generally, a defendant’s conduct is a substantial factor if the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct. If the injury “‘would have happened anyway, whether the defendant was negligent or not, then his or her negligence was not a cause in fact, and of course cannot be the legal or responsible cause.”

The balloon landing was called a jarring and violent crash by all witnesses. The plaintiff was on the bottom of the pile of people when the basket stopped moving, lying on its side. Any safety talk probably would not have helped the plaintiff prevent her leg from breaking in such a landing. “The accounts of the crash satisfied defendants’ burden of demonstrating the violence of the crash, not any lack of instructions, was the proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury.” 

Consequently, although the balloon operator breached his duty of care to the plaintiff, the injury that occurred to the plaintiff was due to the crash of the balloon which was a violent event rather than the plaintiff being able to deal with a normal landing properly.

So Now What? 

The safety instruction duty is troublesome. How is an outfitter supposed to provide a safety instruction if the customer  cannot comprehend what is being said. In this case, there might have been a way around it if the son could translate for  the plaintiff. However, in many cases a family from a foreign country with little or no English shows up for a recreational  activity with little or no understanding of the activity or the risks. The outfitter has no way of making sure the customer  understands the safety briefing if the outfitter does not speak the customer’s language. 

In California, if you have a customer who does not understand what you are saying, you must probably turn them away.

 What do you think? Leave a comment. 

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Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., 14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764

Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., 14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764

Erika Grotheer, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., Defendants and Respondents.

E063449

Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two

14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764

August 31, 2017, Opinion Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] APPEAL from the Superior Court of Riverside County, No. RIC1216581, John W. Vineyard, Judge.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

COUNSEL: The Law Office of Robert J. Pecora and Robert J. Pecora for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Agajanian, McFall, Weiss, Tetreault & Crist and Paul L. Tetreault for Defendants and Respondents.

JUDGES: Opinion by Slough, J., with Ramirez, P. J., and Codrington, J., concurring.

OPINION BY: Slough, J.

OPINION

SLOUGH, J.–Plaintiff and appellant Erika Grotheer is a non-English speaking German citizen who took a hot air balloon ride in the Temecula [*1288] wine country and suffered a fractured leg when the basket carrying her and seven or eight others crash-landed into a fence. Grotheer sued three defendants for her injuries: the balloon tour company, Escape Adventures, Inc. (Escape), the pilot and Escape’s agent, Peter Gallagher (Gallagher), and Wilson Creek Vineyards, Inc. (Wilson Creek) (collectively, defendants or respondents). Grotheer alleged Escape and Gallagher negligently or recklessly operated the balloon by (1) failing to properly slow its descent during landing and (2) failing to give the passengers safe landing instructions before the launch. Grotheer alleged the hot air balloon company is a common carrier, and as such, owed [**2] its passengers a heightened duty of care. (Civ. Code, § 2100.) Grotheer also alleged Wilson Creek was vicariously liable for Escape and Gallagher’s conduct because the vineyard shared a special relationship with the balloon company.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer could not satisfy the elements of a negligence claim and, even if she could, she had waived the right to assert such a claim by signing Escape’s liability waiver before the flight. The trial court agreed Grotheer could not establish the element of duty, finding Grotheer had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine and, as a result, Escape and Gallagher owed her no duty of care whatsoever. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696] (Knight).) The trial court entered judgment in favor of defendants, and Grotheer appealed.

Grotheer contends the trial court erred in concluding her claim was barred by primary assumption of risk and reasserts on appeal that Escape is a common carrier. We affirm the judgment, but on a different ground than relied on by the trial court. We hold: (1) a balloon tour company like Escape is not a common carrier subject to a heightened duty of care; (2) the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars [**3] Grotheer’s claim that Gallagher negligently failed to slow the balloon’s descent to avoid a crash landing; and (3) Escape does have a duty to provide safe landing instructions to its passengers, but the undisputed evidence regarding the crash demonstrates that any failure on Escape’s part to provide such instructions was not the cause of Grotheer’s injury.

I

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Preflight

Grotheer’s son, Thorsten, purchased his mother a ticket for a hot air balloon tour with Escape during her visit to California, as a present for her [*1289] 78th birthday. On the morning of the tour, Grotheer and Thorsten met with the Escape crew and the other passengers in the parking lot of the vineyard owned by Wilson Creek, near the field where Escape launched its balloons. Thorsten later testified at his deposition that when they arrived to check in, he tried to explain his mother’s language barrier to the flight crew so Escape could ensure she understood any safety instructions. Thorsten said Gallagher, the pilot, responded by waving him away and saying, “Everything is going to be fine.” Thorsten tried telling two more Escape employees his mother could not understand English, but they appeared to be in [**4] a rush and told him he could not be in the immediate launch vicinity if he had not purchased a ticket. At some point during this check-in activity, Grotheer signed Escape’s liability waiver, which purported to release the company and its agents from claims based on “ordinary negligence.”

Gallagher then drove the passengers to the nearby launchsite. Grotheer drove over separately, with Thorsten. In his declaration, Gallagher said he gave the passengers safety instructions during the drive, as is his custom. He said the instructions covered what to do during landing: “I described to my passengers what to expect in terms of lifting off … and landing … I told them to bend their knees and hold on upon landing, and not to exit the basket until told to do so.”

According to passengers Boyd and Kristi Roberts, however, neither Escape nor Gallagher provided safety instructions. Boyd declared he sat in the front passenger seat next to Gallagher during the drive, which lasted a little over a minute and during which Gallagher described his credentials and years of experience. Boyd remembered receiving “a very general informational talk … about what to expect on [the] flight,” but said [**5] “[t]here was no mention of safety issues or proper techniques for take-off and landing.” Boyd’s wife, Kristi, also rode to the launchsite with Gallagher and said she never heard him give instructions, “other than to hold on as we took off.”

B. The Crash

The tour proceeded without incident until the landing. According to the four accounts in the record, as the balloon descended at a high rate of speed, the basket crashed into a fence then crashed into the ground and bounced and skidded for about 40 yards before finally coming to a stop, on its side. By all accounts, the event was forceful and caused the passengers to be tossed about the basket.

Boyd Roberts described the crash landing as follows: “The balloon was being pushed at a good clip by the wind and we were travelling in a horizontal direction as we were also descending. We were going sideways, [*1290] and … [b]efore we landed, we actually crashed into and took out several sections of [a] 3 rail fence.” After the basket collided with the fence, it hit the ground “with a hard bump and a bounce.” The passengers were “taken for a wild ride as [the basket] was getting dragged downwind [by the balloon].” The basket “became more and more horizontal” as [**6] it was being dragged. “We easily skipped 30 or 40 yards, with a couple of hard impacts along the way.” When the basket finally came to rest, it was “on its side, not its bottom,” with Grotheer’s section on the bottom and Boyd’s on top. He recalled that Grotheer was below him “lying on what was the side of the [basket] which was now the floor.”

Kristi Roberts’s account of the crash landing matches Boyd’s. She said, “we were going pretty fast towards the ground and it looked like we might hit the fence. We did hit the fence, as the [basket] crashed in the top of the three rails, and knocked it right apart.” After that, the basket “hit the ground hard.” Kristi recalled, “I was holding on as tight as I could to the [b]asket, but we were all standing up and it was hard to keep from falling over when we crashed into the ground.”

Gallagher described the landing similarly, though not in as much detail. He said the balloon had been “descending more quickly than anticipated” and the “passenger compartment of the balloon made a hard landing, first on a fence, then on the ground.” He believed the balloon’s descent had been hastened by a “false lift,” which he described as a condition where the wind travels [**7] faster over the top of the balloon than the rest of the balloon. The faster wind creates lift, but when the wind slows the aircraft can quickly lose altitude unless the pilot adds more heat to the balloon’s envelope. In his declaration, Gallagher said he “applied as much heat as possible to the envelope to add buoyancy,” but the additional heat was not sufficient to arrest the descent before the balloon hit the fence.

In her deposition, Grotheer said the balloon basket experienced two forceful impacts, first with the fence, then with the ground. She recalled she had been holding on to the metal rod in the basket when it hit the fence, but despite holding on, she was “still sliding.” She believed her leg broke upon the second impact–when the balloon hit the ground after the collision with the fence. She described her injury as follows: “The people in the balloon, they were all holding. It was hard. It hit the ground hard. And one woman just came like this (indicating).” Grotheer added, “[a]nd the lady is innocent because even her, she was pushed. She was pushed around by the other people in the basket.” Grotheer did not think anyone collided with her after that initial impact with the ground. [**8] She explained, “I just got myself real quick together. [The injury] was just at the beginning.” [*1291]

James Kitchel, Grotheer’s expert who has piloted balloons for over 25 years, concluded the cause of the crash landing was Gallagher’s “failure to maintain safe control over the ‘delta’ temperature[,] anticipate changing pressure differentials[,] and counterbalance the effects on the rate of descent.” He disagreed with Gallagher’s false lift theory, opining instead the balloon had likely simply experienced a wind shear. He believed all Gallagher had to do “to avoid this crash entirely” was add “sufficient heat” to the envelope “before the Balloon was already about to crash.”

Kitchel explained that many people perceive ballooning as a gentle, peaceful experience, but in reality, balloon rides “can be violent, high speed events with tragic results.” What makes a balloon a risky conveyance is the pilot’s inability to directly control the balloon’s movement. A pilot can directly control only the balloon’s altitude, which is done by managing the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. The direction and speed of the wind determines lateral movement. Kitchel stated, “There is no way of steering [**9] a Balloon, such as by having a rudder. … [A] Balloon pilot never truly knows where the Balloon is going to land. He is at the mercy of the wind speed and direction.”

Kitchel also opined that the industry standard of care requires a commercial balloon operator to give “at the very least, one detailed safety presentation.” According to Kitchel, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Balloon Flying Handbook (FAA Handbook) suggests the following safety instructions to prepare passengers for a “firm impact” upon landing: (1) “Stand in the appropriate area of the basket”; (2) “Face the direction of travel”; (3) “Place feet and knees together, with knees bent”; (4) “‘Hold on tight’ in two places”; and (5) “Stay in the basket.” Kitchel did not believe any one particular set of instructions was required and he described the FAA Handbook’s safe landing procedures as a “good minimum standard.”

C. The Complaint

Grotheer’s complaint against defendants alleged she was injured when the balloon “crash land[ed] into a fence located on WILSON CREEK property.” She alleged her injury was a result of negligent piloting and failure to provide safety instructions. She also alleged Escape is a common carrier and [**10] has a duty to ensure the safety of its passengers.

D. The Summary Judgment Motion

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer’s negligence claim failed as a matter of law because she had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine. Defendants also [*1292] sought summary judgment on their liability waiver affirmative defense, claiming Grotheer had expressly waived her right to assert a negligence claim. In opposition, Grotheer argued: (1) the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not apply to common carriers like Escape; (2) the doctrine did not relieve Escape and Gallagher of a duty to avoid the crash landing and to provide safety instructions; and (3) the liability waiver was invalid because Escape knew she did not speak English and could not understand it. Grotheer also argued Wilson Creek was vicariously liable for Escape’s breach because the two companies were in a “symbiotic business relationship.”

After a hearing, the court concluded it was undisputed hot air ballooning is a risky activity that can involve crash landings, Grotheer assumed the risk of injury from a crash landing by voluntarily riding in the balloon, and defendants [**11] owed no duty whatsoever to protect her from her injury. The court also concluded Wilson Creek was not vicariously liable for Escape and Gallagher’s conduct. However, the court denied the motion for summary judgment on the liability waiver defense, stating, “there is at least an arguable duress in being separated from her son who was her translator at the time and not understanding the circumstances based on the language. I think that’s a triable issue of fact.” Based on its finding of no duty, the court concluded Grotheer’s negligence claim failed as a matter of law, and it entered judgment in favor of defendants.

II

DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

[HN1] A trial court properly grants summary judgment when there are no triable issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) “The purpose of the law of summary judgment is to provide courts with a mechanism to cut through the parties’ pleadings in order to determine whether, despite their allegations, trial is in fact necessary to resolve their dispute.” (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 843 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493] (Aguilar).)

[HN2] A defendant who moves for summary judgment bears the initial burden to show the action has no merit–that is, “one or more elements of the [**12] cause of action, even if not separately pleaded, cannot be established, or that there is a complete defense to [that] cause of action.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subds. (a), (p)(2).) Once the defendant meets this initial burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of [*1293] material fact. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 850-851.) “From commencement to conclusion, the moving party defendant bears the burden of persuasion that there is no triable issue of material fact and that the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Laabs v. Southern California Edison Co. (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 1260, 1268-1269 [97 Cal. Rptr. 3d 241].) [HN3] We review the trial court’s ruling on a summary judgment motion de novo, liberally construing the evidence in favor of the party opposing the motion and resolving all doubts about the evidence in favor of the opponent. (Miller v. Department of Corrections (2005) 36 Cal.4th 446, 460 [30 Cal. Rptr. 3d 797, 115 P.3d 77].) We consider all of the evidence the parties offered in connection with the motion, except that which the court properly excluded.1 (Merrill v. Navegar, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 465, 476 [110 Cal. Rptr. 2d 370, 28 P.3d 116].)

1 Without supporting argument, Grotheer claims the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to consider her objections to defendants’ evidence, and her responses to defendants’ objections to her evidence, on the ground they were untimely filed on the day of the hearing. We will not consider this claim, however, because Grotheer has not explained why any of her objections or responses had merit, or how she was prejudiced by the court’s failure to consider them. (City of Santa Maria v. Adam (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 266, 287 [149 Cal. Rptr. 3d 491] [“we may disregard conclusory arguments that … fail to disclose [appellant’s] reasoning”].)

B. Escape Is Not a Common Carrier and Did Not Owe Grotheer a Heightened Duty To Ensure Her Safe Carriage

Grotheer claims Escape is a common carrier and therefore owed its passengers a heightened duty of care to ensure their safe carriage during the balloon tour. We conclude a hot air balloon operator like Escape is not a common [**13] carrier as a matter of law.

[HN4] (1) In general, every person owes a duty to exercise “reasonable care for the safety of others,” however, California law imposes a heightened duty of care on operators of transportation who qualify as “common carriers” to be as diligent as possible to protect the safety of their passengers. (See Civ. Code, §§ 1714, subd. (a), 2100, 2168.) “A carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.” (Civ. Code, § 2100.) Contrary to Escape’s contention, it is necessary to resolve whether Escape is a common carrier because the heightened duty of care in Civil Code section 2100 precludes the application of the primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148, 1161 [150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158] (Nalwa).) [*1294]

Whether a hot air balloon operator is a common carrier is an issue of first impression in California.2 It is also a question of law, as the material facts regarding Escape’s operations are not in dispute.3 (Huang v. The Bicycle Casino, Inc. (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 329, 339 [208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 591] (Huang).)

2 The only published case addressing the issue is Balloons Over the Rainbow, Inc. v. Director of Revenue (Mo. 2014) 427 S.W.3d 815, where a hot air balloon operator argued it was a common carrier under Missouri law for tax purposes. The Supreme Court of Missouri upheld the administrative hearing commissioner’s determination the operator was not a common carrier because it exercised discretion regarding which passengers to fly and therefore did not “carry all people indifferently,” as the statutory definition required. (Id. at pp. 825-827.)

3 Escape claims it stipulated to being a common carrier in its motion for summary judgment. Actually, Escape stated was it was not “controvert[ing] at [that] time the assertion that it is a common carrier.” But even if it had so stipulated, [HN5] we are not bound by agreements that amount to conclusions of law. (E.g., People v. Singh (1932) 121 Cal.App. 107, 111 [8 P.2d 898].)

[HN6] (2) A common carrier of persons is anyone “who offers to the public to carry persons.” (Civ. Code, § 2168.) The Civil Code treats common carriers differently depending on whether they act gratuitously or for reward. (Gomez v. Superior Court (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1125, 1130 [29 Cal. Rptr. 3d 352, 113 P.3d 41] (Gomez).) “A carrier of persons without [**14] reward must use ordinary care and diligence for their safe carriage.” (Civ. Code, § 2096.) But “[c]arriers of persons for reward have long been subject to a heightened duty of care.” (Gomez, at p. 1128.) Such carriers “must use the utmost care and diligence for [passengers’] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.” (Civ. Code, § 2100; accord, Gomez, at p. 1130.) While common carriers are not insurers of their passengers’ safety, they are required “‘to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.'” (Squaw Valley Ski Corp. v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1499, 1507 [3 Cal. Rptr. 2d 897].) This duty originated in English common law and is “based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care towards their customers.” (Ibid.)

Common carrier status emerged in California in the mid-19th century as a narrow concept involving stagecoaches hired purely for transportation. (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1131.) Over time, however, the concept expanded to include a wide array of recreational transport like scenic airplane and railway tours, ski lifts, and roller coasters. (Id. at pp. 1131-1136.) This expansion reflects the policy determination [**15] that a passenger’s purpose, be it recreation, thrill-seeking, or simply conveyance from point A to B, should not control whether the operator should bear a higher duty to protect the passenger. (Id. at p. 1136.)

In Gomez, the California Supreme Court concluded roller coasters are common carriers, despite their purely recreational purpose, because they are [*1295] “‘operated in the expectation that thousands of patrons, many of them children, will occupy their seats'” and are “held out to the public to be safe.” (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136.) As with other recreational transportation like ski lifts, airplanes, and trains, “‘the lives and safety of large numbers of human beings'” are entrusted to the roller coaster operator’s “‘diligence and fidelity.'” (Ibid., quoting Treadwell v. Whittier (1889) 80 Cal. 574, 591 [22 P. 266].)

Despite the consistent trend toward broadening the common carrier definition to include recreational vehicles, almost a decade after Gomez the California Supreme Court refused to apply the heightened duty of care to operators of bumper cars, finding them “dissimilar to roller coasters in ways that disqualify their operators as common carriers.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161.) Crucial to the analysis in Nalwa was that bumper car riders “‘exercise independent control over the steering and acceleration,'” [**16] whereas roller coaster riders “‘ha[ve] no control over the elements of thrill of the ride; the amusement park predetermines any ascents, drops, accelerations, decelerations, turns or twists of the ride.'” (Ibid.) This difference in control convinced the court that “[t]he rationale for holding the operator of a roller coaster to the duties of a common carrier for reward–that riders, having delivered themselves into the control of the operator, are owed the highest degree of care for their safety–simply does not apply to bumper car riders’ safety from the risks inherent in bumping.” (Ibid., italics added.)

(3) This precedent teaches that [HN7] the key inquiry in the common carrier analysis is whether passengers expect the transportation to be safe because the operator is reasonably capable of controlling the risk of injury. (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136; Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161.) While a bumper car rider maintains a large degree of control over the car’s speed and direction, a roller coaster rider recognizes the thrills and unpredictability of the ride are manufactured for his amusement by an operator who in reality maintains direct control over the coaster’s speed and direction at all times. (Gomez, at p. 1136.) As our high court explained, the roller coaster rider “expects [**17] to be surprised and perhaps even frightened, but not hurt.” (Ibid.)

It is in this critical regard we find a hot air balloon differs from those recreational vehicles held to a common carrier’s heightened duty of care. Unlike operators of roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains, balloon pilots do not maintain direct and precise control over the speed and direction of the balloon. A pilot directly controls only the balloon’s altitude, by monitoring the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. A pilot has no direct control over the balloon’s latitude, which is determined by the wind’s speed and direction. A balloon’s lack of power and steering poses risks of midair collisions and crash landings, making ballooning a risky activity. (See [*1296] Hulsey v. Elsinore Parachute Center (1985) 168 Cal.App.3d 333, 345-346 [214 Cal. Rptr. 194] [hot air ballooning “involve[s] a risk of harm to persons or property” because pilots cannot “direct their paths of travel … [or] land in small, targeted areas”]; Note, Negligence in the [Thin] Air: Understanding the Legal Relationship Between Outfitters and Participants in High Risk Expeditions Through Analysis of the 1996 Mount Everest Tragedy (2008) 40 Conn. L.Rev. 769, 772 [“hot air ballooning” is a “high-risk activity”].) As Kitchel, Grotheer’s expert, [**18] put it, a balloon pilot “is at the mercy of the wind speed and direction.” (See Note, On a Wind and a Prayer (1997) 83 A.B.A. J. 94, 95 [“winds … can transform a wondrous journey into a life-or-death struggle”].)

[HN8] (4) The mere existence of risk is not sufficient to disqualify a vehicle as a common carrier, however. Roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains all pose “‘inherent dangers owing to speed or mechanical complexities.'” (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136.) But there is a significant difference between the dangers of riding those conveyances and the dangers involved in ballooning. The former can be virtually eliminated through engineering design and operator skill, whereas the latter cannot be mitigated without altering the fundamental nature of a balloon.

Operators of roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains can take steps to make their conveyances safer for passengers without significantly altering the transportation experience. For example, roller coaster operators can invest in state-of-the-art construction materials and control devices or task engineers with designing a ride that provides optimal thrills without sacrificing passenger safety. With a balloon, on the other hand, safety measures and pilot training [**19] go only so far toward mitigating the risk of midair collisions and crash landings. The only way to truly eliminate those risks is by adding power and steering to the balloon, thereby rendering vestigial the very aspect of the aircraft that makes it unique and desirable to passengers.

(5) Because no amount of pilot skill can completely counterbalance a hot air balloon’s limited steerability, ratcheting up the degree of care a tour company must exercise to keep its passengers safe would require significant changes to the aircraft and have a severe negative impact on the ballooning industry. For that reason, we conclude [HN9] Escape is not a common carrier as a matter of law.

C. The Trial Court Incorrectly Determined Escape Owed Grotheer No Duty of Care

Having concluded a hot air balloon company does not owe its passengers a heightened duty of care, we must decide whether Escape owed Grotheer any [*1297] duty of care to protect her from her injury. Grotheer claims Escape and Gallagher had a duty to safely pilot the balloon and to provide safety instructions. Escape contends it owed neither duty under the primary assumption of risk doctrine. We analyze each separately.

1. Balloon piloting and primary assumption [**20] of risk

Grotheer alleges her injury was caused in part by Gallagher’s subpar piloting. Her expert opined the cause of the crash was Gallagher’s failure to control the speed and direction of the balloon’s descent by anticipating changing pressure differentials and maintaining the proper amount of heat in the balloon’s envelope. According to Kitchel, Gallagher could have avoided the crash entirely by “adding sufficient heat … in a timely manner.”

[HN10] (6) “‘Although persons generally owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others … , some activities … are inherently dangerous,'” such that “‘[i]mposing a duty to mitigate those inherent dangers could alter the nature of the activity or inhibit vigorous participation.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1154, citation omitted.) Primary assumption of risk is a doctrine of limited duty “developed to avoid such a chilling effect.” (Ibid.) If it applies, the operator is not obligated to protect its customers from the “inherent risks” of the activity. (Id. at p. 1162.)

“‘Primary assumption of risk is merely another way of saying no duty of care is owed as to risks inherent in a given sport or activity. The overriding consideration in the application of this principle is to avoid imposing a duty [**21] which might chill vigorous participation in the sport and thereby alter its fundamental nature.'” (Jimenez v. Roseville City School Dist. (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 594, 601 [202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 536].) “Although the doctrine is often applied as between sports coparticipants, it defines the duty owed as between persons engaged in any activity involving inherent risks.” (Ibid.) The doctrine applies to any activity “done for enjoyment or thrill … [that] involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.” (Record v. Reason (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 472, 482 [86 Cal. Rptr. 2d 547]; see Beninati v. Black Rock City, LLC (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 650, 658 [96 Cal. Rptr. 3d 105] [by attending Burning Man festival plaintiff assumed risk of being burned during ritual burning of eponymous effigy].)

The test is whether the activity “‘involv[es] an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants … where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1156.) As we concluded above in the section on common carriers, a balloon’s limited steerability creates risks of midair collisions and crash landings. Moreover, those risks cannot be mitigated except by adding power [*1298] and steering, which would fundamentally alter the free-floating nature of a balloon, turning it into a dirigible.4 “‘[T]he excitement of [ballooning] is that you never know exactly where you’re going to land. [¶] … [¶] … It’s taking something that is unsteerable [**22] and trying to steer it. That’s the challenge.'” (Note, On a Wind and a Prayer, supra, 83 A.B.A. J. at pp. 95, 94; cf. Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 1157-1158 [refusing to impose liability on bumper car operators for injuries caused in collisions as doing so would have the effect of “‘decreasing the speed'”–and ultimately the fun–of the ride].)

4 The term “dirigible” literally means “steerable.” It comes from the Latin verb dirigere, meaning “to direct,” and refers to lighter-than-air aircraft capable of being steered, like blimps and zeppelins. (Webster’s 3d New Internat. Dict. (1993) p. 642.)

(7) We therefore hold [HN11] the doctrine applies to crash landings caused by the failure to safely steer a hot air balloon. We further hold Grotheer’s claim of pilot error falls under the primary assumption of risk doctrine because the claim goes to the core of what makes balloon landings inherently risky–the challenge of adjusting the balloon’s vertical movement to compensate for the unexpected changes in horizontal movement. As a result, Escape had no legal duty to protect Grotheer from crash landings caused by its pilot’s failure to safely manage the balloon’s descent.

(8) To avoid this outcome, Grotheer alleged Gallagher’s piloting was not only negligent, but grossly negligent, thereby increasing the inherent risk of crash landing. Grotheer is correct [HN12] the primary assumption of risk does not eliminate an operator’s duty to refrain from engaging in reckless conduct that “unreasonably increase[s] the risks of injury beyond those inherent in the activity.” ( [**23] Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1162.) However, she has provided no evidence Gallagher’s piloting fell so outside the range of ordinary it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of crash landing.

Gross negligence is a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 754 [62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095].) In this context, such extreme conduct might be, for example, launching without sufficient fuel, in bad weather, or near electrical towers; using unsafe or broken equipment; or overloading the passenger basket. In the absence of evidence of such conduct, we hold the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars Grotheer’s piloting claim.

Grotheer compares Gallagher’s piloting to the conduct of the skier defendant in Mammoth Mountain Ski Area v. Graham (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1367 [38 Cal. Rptr. 3d 422] (Mammoth Mountain), but the analogy is inapt. In Mammoth Mountain, a snowboarding instructor was injured when he collided with a skier who had stopped midslope to throw snowballs at his brother. The [*1299] court reversed summary judgment granted on the basis of primary assumption of risk, concluding there was a factual issue as to whether the skier’s behavior was so “outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport of snowboarding” that it increased the inherent risk of colliding with others on the slope. [**24] (Id. at pp. 1373-1374.) Gallagher’s alleged failure to control the balloon’s descent is nothing like the skier’s conduct in Mammoth Mountain. Skiing does not entail throwing snowballs, whereas managing speed and direction in the face of changing wind conditions is the principal challenge in ballooning. As a result, the failure to surmount that challenge falls squarely within the range of ordinary activity for ballooning.

2. Safety instructions and the duty to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks

(9) Grotheer also claims her injury was caused, at least in part, by Escape’s failure to give safety instructions. The trial court rejected this theory of liability when it concluded ballooning was an inherently risky activity and, as a result, Escape owed Grotheer no duty at all to protect her from injury. We conclude that ruling was too broad. Under Knight, [HN13] even an operator of an inherently risky activity owes a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize those inherent risks, if doing so would not fundamentally alter the activity. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317.) As we explain, instructing passengers on safe landing procedures takes little time and effort, and can minimize the risk of passenger injury in the event of a rough landing. [**25]

The primary assumption of risk doctrine is limited to those steps or safety measures that would have a deleterious effect on recreational activities that are, by nature, inherently dangerous. (Record v. Reason, supra, 73 Cal.App.4th at pp. 484-485; Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1162 [“The primary assumption of risk doctrine helps ensure that the threat of litigation and liability does not cause such recreational activities to be abandoned or fundamentally altered in an effort to eliminate or minimize inherent risks of injury”].) For example, an obligation to reduce a bumper car’s speed or the rider’s steering autonomy would impede the most appealing aspect of the ride–the ability to collide with others. (Id. at pp. 1157-1158.) “‘Indeed, who would want to ride a tapper car at an amusement park?'” (Id. at p. 1158.) Similarly, in the context of white water rafting, an obligation to design the rafts to minimize the “risk of striking objects both inside and outside the raft,” would transform the activity into “a trip down the giant slide at Waterworld.” (Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 248, 256 [38 Cal. Rptr. 2d 65].) Safety is important, but so is the freedom to engage in recreation and challenge one’s limits. The primary assumption of risk doctrine balances these competing concerns by absolving operators of activities with inherent risks from an obligation to protect [**26] their customers from those risks. [*1300]

(10) What the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do, however, is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 317-318.) As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so. As the court explained in Knight, “in the sports setting, as elsewhere, the nature of the applicable duty or standard of care frequently varies with the role of the defendant whose conduct is at issue in a given case.” (Knight, at p. 318.) [HN14] When the defendant is the operator of an inherently risky sport or activity (as opposed to a coparticipant), there are “steps the sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport [or activity].” (Id. at p. 317.)

Even before Knight, tort law imposed on operators a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize the inherent risks of their activity. (See Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317, citing Quinn v. Recreation Park Assn. (1935) 3 Cal.2d 725, 728-729 [46 P.2d 144]; Shurman v. Fresno Ice Rink (1949) 91 Cal.App.2d 469, 474-477 [205 P.2d 77].) Within our own appellate district we find precedent for imposing on hot air balloon operators and their pilots a duty of care to instruct passengers [**27] on how to position themselves for landing.

In Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127 [40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 249] (Morgan), Division One of our appellate district held a golf course owner had a duty to design its course to minimize the risk of being hit by a golf ball, despite the fact such a risk is inherent to golfing, because doing so was possible “‘without altering the nature of [golf].'” (Id. at p. 134.) Our colleagues explained this duty stemmed from the fact the defendant was the golf course owner. If, on the other hand, the plaintiff had sued the golfer who had hit the errant ball, the action would have been barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Id. at pp. 133-134.)

Nearly a decade after Morgan, the same court held a race organizer had a duty to minimize the risks of dehydration and hyponatremia5–risks inherent to marathons–by “providing adequate water and electrolyte fluids along the 26-mile course” because “[s]uch steps are reasonable and do not alter the nature of the sport [of marathon running].” (Saffro v. Elite Racing, Inc. (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 173, 179 [119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 497].) Faced with a similar situation in Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072 [122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22], this court held an owner of a motocross track had a duty to provide a system for signaling when riders have fallen in order to minimize the risk of collisions. (Id. at p. 1084.) Track owners could satisfy this duty by employing “caution flaggers,” [**28] or some similar device, which [*1301] would be relatively easy to implement and would not alter the nature of motocross. (Ibid.) As these cases demonstrate, the primary assumption of risk doctrine has never relieved an operator of its duty to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks without altering the nature of the activity.

5 A condition which occurs as a result of decreased sodium concentration in the blood.

(11) Having determined the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not absolve Escape of a duty to exercise reasonable care in all aspects of its operations, we turn to the existence and scope of the duty at issue here–safety instructions. (Castaneda v. Olsher (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1205, 1213 [63 Cal. Rptr. 3d 99, 162 P.3d 610] [HN15] [the existence and scope of a duty of care are questions of law for the trial court to determine in the first instance and the appellate court to independently review].) [HN16] Courts consider several factors in determining the existence and scope of a duty of care, including the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the policy of preventing future harm, and the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing the duty. (See, e.g., Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993) 6 Cal.4th 666, 675, fn. 5 [25 Cal. Rptr. 2d 137, 863 P.2d 207].)

[HN17] (12) Foreseeability is the primary factor in the duty analysis. (Pedeferri v. Seidner Enterprises (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 359, 366 [163 Cal. Rptr. 3d 55].) Our task in evaluating foreseeability “‘is not to decide whether a particular plaintiff’s injury was reasonably foreseeable [**29] in light of a particular defendant’s conduct, but rather to evaluate more generally whether the category of negligent conduct at issue is sufficiently likely to result in the kind of harm experienced that liability may appropriately be imposed.'” (Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (2011) 51 Cal.4th 764, 772 [122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 313, 248 P.3d 1170].) The existence and scope of a duty of care “is to be made on a more general basis suitable to the formulation of a legal rule” to be applied in a broad category of cases. (Id. at p. 773; see Huang, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at pp. 342-343.)

In this case, the evidence is undisputed that giving passengers a brief presentation on safe landing procedures (such as the instructions Grotheer’s expert cites from the FAA Handbook) is a customary and standard practice in the ballooning industry. To paraphrase Grotheer’s expert, these safe landing procedures are: (1) stand in the appropriate area of the basket; (2) face toward or away from the direction of travel, but not sideways (to minimize the risk of a side-impact injury to the hips or knees); (3) place the feet and knees together, and bend the knees; (4) hold on tightly to the rope, handles, or other stabilizing device, and (5) stay inside the basket. Gallagher himself agreed safety instructions are crucial. He said he always explains what passengers can [**30] expect during launch and landing. In preparation for landing, he tells them to hold on to the handles, bend their knees, and not to exit the basket until told to do so. [*1302]

As to foreseeability, undisputed evidence in the record tells us that rough landings are a risk of ballooning and instructing passengers on proper landing positioning can reduce, though not eliminate, the likelihood of injury in the event the landing does not go smoothly. Additionally, we see no public policy reason why balloon operators should not be required to give safe landing instructions. (Huang, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 342.) As Kitchel, an experienced balloon pilot, owner, and operator, explained, “[a] detailed safety briefing takes no more than 5 minutes and is time well spent.” While “[m]any balloon landings are gentle, stand-up landings … the pilot should always prepare passengers for the possibility of a firm impact,” as rough landings can result in severe injuries.

(13) Escape contends the duty to provide safe landing instructions will be overly burdensome to balloon operators, citing the complexity of the preflight instructions operators of passenger-carrying airplanes are required to give under federal regulation. (See 14 C.F.R. § 121.571 (2017).) We find the concern misplaced. [**31] [HN18] The duty we recognize here does not compel anything so lengthy or complex as commercial airlines’ preflight instructions. It requires only that a commercial balloon operator provide a brief set of safe landing procedures, which Escape’s pilot said is already his custom. Safety instructions are a common practice among operators of recreational activities, and we do not believe requiring balloon operators to set aside a few moments before launch to advise passengers how to position themselves in the basket and what to do in the event of a rough landing will have a negative impact on the ballooning industry. (Cf. Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161 [noting bumper car operator “enforce[d] various riding instructions and safety rules” before giving control of the car’s speed and steering to riders]; Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories, supra, 32 Cal.App.4th at p. 251 [operator of white water rafting tour gave plaintiff “safety instructions,” such as “where to sit, that it was necessary to hold onto the raft while navigating rapids and where to hold on, and how to react if thrown out of the raft into the water”].) Because the evidence supports Grotheer’s allegation Escape failed to give safety instructions of any kind to any of its passengers, we need not go into precisely what warnings are required, [**32] including whether a commercial balloon operator must ensure passengers with known language barriers understand the safety instructions.

We therefore conclude the court incorrectly applied the primary assumption of risk doctrine to absolve Escape of a duty to provide safe landing procedures. However, this conclusion does not end our analysis. We must also consider whether Grotheer’s negligence claim fails as a matter of law because she has not demonstrated the existence of a triable issue of fact on causation. (Coral Construction, Inc. v. City and County of San Francisco (2010) 50 Cal.4th 315, 336 [113 Cal. Rptr. 3d 279, 235 P.3d 947] [“‘[i]t is axiomatic that [HN19] we review the trial court’s rulings and not its reasoning'” and [*1303] “[t]hus, a reviewing court may affirm a trial court’s decision granting summary judgment for an erroneous reason”].)

D. Any Lack of Safety Instructions Was Not a Substantial Factor in Causing Grotheer’s Injury

[HN20] (14) “The elements of actionable negligence, in addition to a duty to use due care, [are] breach of that duty and a proximate or legal causal connection between the breach and plaintiff’s injuries.” (Onciano v. Golden Palace Restaurant, Inc. (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 385, 394 [268 Cal. Rptr. 96] (Onciano).) [HN21] (15) To be considered a proximate cause of an injury, the acts of the defendant must have been a “substantial factor” in contributing to the injury. (Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, 969 [67 Cal. Rptr. 2d 16, 941 P.2d 1203].) Generally, a defendant’s conduct is a substantial [**33] factor if the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct. (Ibid.) If the injury “‘would have happened anyway, whether the defendant was negligent or not, then his or her negligence was not a cause in fact, and of course cannot be the legal or responsible cause.'” (Toste v. CalPortland Construction (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 362, 370 [199 Cal. Rptr. 3d 522], quoting 6 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (10th ed. 2005) Torts, § 1185, p. 552.) As our high court has explained, “‘a force which plays only an “infinitesimal” or “theoretical” part in bringing about injury, damage, or loss is not a substantial factor.'” (Bockrath v. Aldrich Chemical Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 71, 79 [86 Cal. Rptr. 2d 846, 980 P.2d 398].)

[HN22] While proximate cause ordinarily is a question of fact, it may be decided as a question of law if “‘”‘under the undisputed facts, there is no room for a reasonable difference of opinion.'”‘” (Onciano, supra, 219 Cal.App.3d at p. 395.) As noted, once a defendant claiming the plaintiff cannot satisfy an element of his or her claim meets the initial burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a triable issue of fact. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 850-851.) When the evidence supports only one reasonable inference as to the cause of the plaintiff’s injury, courts should not engage in “unreasonable speculation that other contradictory evidence exists but was not adduced in the summary judgment proceedings.” (Constance B. v. State of California (1986) 178 Cal.App.3d 200, 211 [223 Cal. Rptr. 645] [dismissal [**34] of negligence claim was proper because no reasonable fact finder could find a causal nexus between defendant store owner’s improper lighting and the assault on plaintiff based on the evidence presented during the summary judgment proceedings].)

As explained in the previous part, the purpose of the safety instructions is to reduce injury in the event of rough landings. Here, however, the undisputed descriptions of the landing establish it was not merely rough, but rather [*1304] was a forceful and violent event–a crash. According to Boyd and Kristi Roberts, whose uncontested descriptions are the most detailed, the basket was descending “pretty fast” when it hit the fence with such force it “knocked it right apart,” taking out several fence sections. The basket then hit the ground “hard” and skidded for about 40 yards, becoming more and more horizontal as it was dragged, before coming to a stop on its side with Grotheer’s section on the bottom. Gallagher, the pilot, said the balloon had been descending more quickly than he had anticipated when the basket made a “hard landing, first on the fence and then on the ground.” Grotheer too described both impacts as “hard.” Both Grotheer and Kristi [**35] said they had been holding on to the handles (Kristi as tightly as she could) but were unable to keep from slipping or falling.

From these descriptions, we gather the crash landing was a jarring and violent experience, a “wild ride” so forceful that several passengers fell–even one who had tried desperately not to fall by gripping the basket handles as tightly as possible. (See Endicott v. Nissan Motor Corp. (1977) 73 Cal.App.3d 917, 926 [141 Cal. Rptr. 95] [“If the violence of a crash is the effective efficient cause of plaintiff’s injuries to the extent that it supersedes other factors … and makes them immaterial, plaintiff cannot recover”].) The accounts of the crash satisfied defendants’ burden of demonstrating the violence of the crash, not any lack of instructions, was the proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury. The burden then shifted to Grotheer to explain how things may have played out differently had everyone been instructed on proper body positioning during landing. She produced no such evidence. Instead, she said at her deposition she believed everyone had in fact been holding on to the basket handles during the descent. While one could speculate that Kristi had been the only passenger holding the handles correctly and the woman who fell into Grotheer [**36] had employed an improper grip (say, using only one hand or not holding “tight,” as the FAA Handbook instructs), Grotheer presented no evidence to support such a theory. As a result, she did not meet her burden of demonstrating an evidentiary dispute about whether the provision of instructions would have produced a different outcome.

(16) We conclude any failure to instruct on Escape’s part was not a proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury, and we affirm the grant of summary judgment on that ground. Given our holding that defendants are not liable for negligence, it is unnecessary to review the trial court’s ruling on Wilson Creek’s vicarious liability or its ruling on defendants’ liability waiver defense.6

6 Defendants asked us to review the ruling on their affirmative defense in the event we reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, citing Code of Civil Procedure section 906, which allows a respondent, without appealing from a judgment, to seek appellate review (at the court’s discretion) of any ruling that “substantially affects the rights of a party,” for “the purpose of determining whether or not the appellant was prejudiced by the error … upon which he relies for reversal.” Because we do not reverse the grant of summary judgment, we need not reach the issue of defendants’ affirmative defense.

[*1305]

III

DISPOSITION

We affirm the judgment. The parties shall bear their costs on appeal.

Ramirez, P. J., and Codrington, J., concurred.