A Parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue in New Jersey, however, a parent can agree to arbitrate the minor’s claims.

Another trampoline park case where the plaintiffs are required to arbitrate their claim even though the release which included the arbitration clause was not enforceable in New Jersey.

Johnson v. Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2021)

State: New Jersey

Plaintiff: David Johnson, an infant by his guardian ad litem, Shalonda Johnson, and Shalonda Johnson, individually

Defendant: Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield, Sky Zone, LLC, Sky Zone Franchise Group, LLC, and Go Ahead and Jump 4, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release required arbitration of the claims

Holding: For the defendants, claims must be arbitrated

Year: 2021

Summary

The New Jersey Supreme Court held Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323 (2006), that a parent could not sign away a minor’s right to sue. See However, in Hojnowski the court stated a parent could agree to arbitrate a minor’s claims. This decision of the injuries received at a trampoline park held the same decision. When signing the release, the mother agreed to arbitration of any claims.

Facts

On July 14, 2018, ten-year-old David and his mother visited the Park. Before they were permitted entry, however, a Park employee apprised Johnson she was required to sign a “Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” (the Agreement) on an electronic tablet. On August 15, 2018, plaintiffs again visited the Park and, while jumping on a trampoline, David seriously injured his leg. The appellate record did not include evidence of whether Johnson executed a second waiver.

The Agreement is presented to the patrons at a kiosk in the form of an electronic document. The patrons are expected to read it and acknowledge their consent to be bound by the terms contained therein by placing an electronic “checkmark” and entering certain personally identifying information. Defendants argue David’s mother placed an electronic checkmark where indicated, and thus acknowledged she understood and agreed “to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and waived “[her] right, and the right(s) of [her] minor child(ren) . . . to maintain a lawsuit against [defendants] . . . for any and all claims covered by this Agreement.”

The mother filed a lawsuit for herself and her son. The defendant argued the arbitration clause in the release should apply. That would remove the litigation from the state court system and have a neutral arbitrator decide the case. Normally arbitrators do not hand out damages to the extend a jury would. The court agreed, leading to this appeal.

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

The argument was quite simple. The plaintiff argued that since the New Jersey Supreme Court had decided that a parent could not sign away a minor’s right to sue, that the release, including the arbitration clause should be thrown out.

The plaintiff first argued there was no real notice because the plaintiff had checked a box on the electronic form and that was not enough notice required to alert the plaintiff that she was going to have to arbitrate any claim. The defense countered that the plaintiff has completed the form giving the defendant a lot of contact information.

In response, defense counsel argued Johnson did a great deal more than merely place a checkmark on a section of an electronic document. “We don’t just have the electronic signatures. We have her name, her address, her phone number, her date of birth . . . it’s not merely that you have [Janay’s] certification.

The plaintiff then argued the arbitration clause was ambiguous and unenforceable as a matter of law.

As a matter of public policy, our Supreme Court has upheld arbitration as a “favored means of dispute resolution.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. The Court has consistently endorsed a “strong preference to enforce arbitration agreements, both at the state and federal level.” In determining whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, we will apply “state contract-law principles.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. Guided by these principles, “[a]n arbitration agreement is valid only if the parties intended to arbitrate because parties are not required ‘to arbitrate when they have not agreed to do so.

The statement that the arbitration clause is only valid if the parties intended to arbitrate is good for arbitration clauses and contracts. The court also found the language requiring arbitration was not ambiguous or unenforceable.

Mutuality of assent is the hallmark of an enforceable contract. Thus, the initial inquiry is whether the parties actually and knowingly agreed to arbitrate their dispute. To reflect mutual assent to arbitrate, the terms of an arbitration provision must be “sufficiently clear to place a consumer on notice that he or she is waiving a constitutional or statutory right . . . .” “No particular form of words is necessary to accomplish a clear and unambiguous waiver of rights.” If, “at least in some general and sufficiently broad way,” the language of the clause conveys arbitration is a waiver of the right to bring suit in a judicial forum, the clause will be enforced.

The court went further to state:

The language in the arbitration clause states plaintiffs were “agreeing to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and were “waiving [their] right . . . to maintain a lawsuit.” It sets forth, “[b]y agreeing to arbitrate, [plaintiffs] understand that [they] will NOT have the right to have [their] claim[s] determined by a jury.” This language clearly and unambiguously puts plaintiffs on notice that they are waiving the right to a jury trial and the right to pursue their claims in a court of law. This part of the Agreement is therefore enforceable.

The plaintiff then argued that forcing her to sign an exculpatory contract of adhesion right before a birthday party was a violation of the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability.

We next address plaintiffs’ arguments attacking the enforcement of the arbitration clause based on the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability. In essence, plaintiffs argue requiring Johnson to read and sign an ambiguous contract of adhesion immediately before a birthday party left her with no other choice but to assent.

In New Jersey there is a four-part test to determine if an agreement is a contract of adhesion.

[I]n determining whether to enforce the terms of a contract of adhesion, [a court] look[s] not only to the take-it-or-leave-it nature or the standardized form of the document but also to [(1)] the subject matter of the contract, [(2)] the parties’ relative bargaining positions, [(3)] the degree of economic compulsion motivating the “adhering” party, and [(4)] the public interests affected by the contract.

The court’s response was they could not find anything in the agreement that rose to the level that the contract was a contract of adhesion under New Jersey law.

Although the case is not over, any damages will probably significantly reduce by requiring arbitration.

So Now What?

This is the second decision that is almost identical to this one. Can a release in New Jersey at a trampoline park require the parent to arbitrate the minor’s claim. See New Jersey does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue so a binding arbitration agreement is a good idea, if it is written correctly. This decision does not mention the decision is Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206 which is almost identical in the facts.

There are two ways to limit damages in a state that does not allow a parent to sign a release giving up a minor’s right to sue. Assumption of the risk agreements and the defense of assumption of the risk. Did the parent AND the minor knowingly and voluntarily enter into the risk that caused the injury. This is only valid if you can prove the minor knew or you provided the minor with the education or knowledge to knowingly and voluntarily assume the risk. Voluntary is the easy part proving the minor knew of the risk is difficult.

Arbitration then is the next defense in this ladder to reduce damages. Most states do not allow an arbitrator to award more than the basic damages. Punitive damages cannot be awarded by arbitrators. Also, arbitrators are not over come by emotion or other factors that would influence them into awarding large damages.

Before putting an arbitration clause in your agreement, you need to determine two things.

  1. Is arbitration better than the court system in your state. If your state supports the use of a release, a release gets you out of a case without any damages. Even though arbitration will generally not give the plaintiff large awards, they usually award something.
  2. Are there benefits to arbitration in your state that outweigh other means of resolving the dispute.

In those states that do not support a parent signing away a minor’s right to sue, arbitration is probably a good result. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Johnson v. Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2021)

Johnson v. Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2021)

DAVID JOHNSON, an infant by his guardian ad litem, SHALONDA JOHNSON, and SHALONDA JOHNSON, individually, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
SKY ZONE INDOOR TRAMPOLINE PARK IN SPRINGFIELD, SKY ZONE, LLC, SKY ZONE FRANCHISE GROUP, LLC, and GO AHEAD AND JUMP 4, LLC, Defendants-Respondents.

No. A-2489-20

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

December 6, 2021

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued November 10, 2021

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-5446-20.

Edward M. Colligan argued the cause for appellants (Colligan & Colligan attorneys; Edward M. Colligan, on the brief).

Kelly A. Waters argued the cause for respondents (Wood Smith Henning & Berman, attorneys; Kelly A. Waters, of counsel and on the brief; Jill A. Mucerino and Sean P. Shoolbraid, on the brief).

Before Judges Fuentes, Gilson, and Gooden Brown.

PER CURIAM

David Johnson, a child under the age of eighteen, was injured while visiting a trampoline park owned and operated by Sky Zone, LLC, Sky Zone Franchise Group, LLC and Go Ahead and Jump 4, LLC (collectively, Park or defendants). Shalonda Johnson, individually and as guardian ad litem of her minor son (collectively, plaintiffs), [1] filed a civil action against defendants in the Superior Court, Law Division, in Union County, seeking compensatory damages. In lieu of filing a responsive pleading, defendants moved before the Law Division to enforce an arbitration clause contained in an electronic document Johnson signed as a condition of being permitted to enter the Park. After considering the arguments of counsel and the exhibits submitted, the Law Division judge assigned to the case granted defendants’ motion to enforce the arbitration clause and dismissed the case with prejudice in an order entered on March 24, 2021.

In this appeal, plaintiffs argue the arbitration clause contained in this electronic general liability release contract is unenforceable. After reviewing the record presented to the Law Division judge, we affirm the part of the order enforcing the arbitration clause, vacate the dismissal of plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice, and remand for the court to stay judicial proceedings related to this case pending the outcome of the arbitration.[2]

I.

A.

On July 14, 2018, ten-year-old David and his mother visited the Park. Before they were permitted entry, however, a Park employee apprised Johnson she was required to sign a “Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” (the Agreement) on an electronic tablet. On August 15, 2018, plaintiffs again visited the Park and, while jumping on a trampoline, David seriously injured his leg.[3] The appellate record did not include evidence of whether Johnson executed a second waiver.

The Agreement contains a general release provision “intended to release and provide other benefits, legal protections and consideration” to defendants. For example, it contains an “acknowledgement of potential injuries” provision, which places patrons on notice that “participating in trampoline and other activities is inherently and obviously dangerous.” The Agreement also includes a “voluntary assumption of risk acknowledgment” provision, which informs patrons that they “are participating voluntarily at [their] own risk” and could suffer “significant bodily injuries” or “die or become paralyzed, partially or fully, through their use of the Sky Zone facility and participation in Sky Zone activities.”

Finally, the Agreement contains a “release of liability” section, which requires patrons to “forever, irrevocably and unconditionally release, waive, relinquish, discharge from liability and covenant not to sue [Sky Zone]” for

any and all claims . . . of whatever kind or nature, in law, equity or otherwise, . . . related to or arising, directly or indirectly, from [their] access to and/or use of the Sky Zone [f]acility, . . . including, without limitation, any claim for negligence, failure to warn or other omission, . . . personal injury, . . . [or] bodily harm . . . .

The enforceability of these exculpatory provisions are not part of this appeal. We express no opinion as to whether these exculpatory provisions are enforceable under our State’s common law, as expressed by our Supreme Court in Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), and Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323 (2006).

The dispositive issue in this appeal concerns the enforceability of the section in the Agreement entitled, in part, “arbitration of disputes.” The Agreement is presented to the patrons at a kiosk in the form of an electronic document. The patrons are expected to read it and acknowledge their consent to be bound by the terms contained therein by placing an electronic “checkmark” and entering certain personally identifying information. Defendants argue David’s mother placed an electronic checkmark where indicated, and thus acknowledged she understood and agreed “to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and waived “[her] right, and the right(s) of [her] minor child(ren) . . . to maintain a lawsuit against [defendants] . . . for any and all claims covered by this Agreement.” This section also provides the following recitation of the rights plaintiffs agreed to waive as a precondition to enter the Park and participate in the activities available therein:

By agreeing to arbitrate, I understand that I will NOT have the right to have my claim determined by a jury, and the minor child(ren) above will NOT have the right to have claim(s) determined by a jury. Reciprocally, [the Sky Zone defendants] waive their right to maintain a lawsuit against [plaintiff] . . . for any and all claims covered by this [a]greement, and they will not have the right to have their claim(s) determined by a jury. ANY DISPUTE, CLAIM OR CONTROVERSY ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO MY OR THE CHILD’S ACCESS TO AND/OR USE OF THE SKY ZONE PREMISES AND/OR ITS EQUIPMENT, INCLUDING THE DETERMINATION OF THE SCOPE OR APPLICABILITY OF THIS AGREEMENT TO ARBITRATE, SHALL BE BROUGHT WITHIN ONE YEAR OF ITS ACCRUAL (i.e., the date of the alleged injury) FOR AN ADULT AND WITHIN THE APPLICABLE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS FOR A MINOR AND BE DETERMINED BY ARBITRATION IN THE COUNTY OF THE SKY ZONE FACILITY . . . BEFORE ONE ARBITRATOR. THE ARBITRATION SHALL BE ADMINISTERED BY [JUDICIAL ARBITRATION AND MEDIATION SERVICES (JAMS)] PURSUANT TO ITS RULE 16.1 EXPEDITED ARBITRATION RULES AND PROCEDURES. JUDGMENT ON THE AWARD MAY BE ENTERED IN ANY COURT HAVING JURISDICTION. THIS CLAUSE SHALL NOT PRECLUDE PARTIES FROM SEEKING PROVISIONAL REMEDIES IN AID OF ARBITRATION FROM A COURT OF APPROPRIATE JURISDICTION. This [a]greement shall be governed by, construed and interpreted in accordance with the laws of the State of New Jersey, without regard to choice of law principles. Notwithstanding the provision with respect to the applicable substantive law, any arbitration conducted pursuant to the terms of this [a]greement shall be governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C., Sec. 1-16). I understand and acknowledge that the JAMS Arbitration Rules to which I agree are available online for my review at jamsadr.com, and include JAMS Comprehensive Arbitration Rules & Procedures; Rule 16.1 Expedited Procedures; and, Policy On Consumer Minimum Standards Of Procedural Fairness.

[(Emphasis in original).]

The Agreement also contained a merger and a severability clause, in which Johnson acknowledged: “I have had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document. I have read and understood and voluntarily agree to be bound by its terms.” The clause further provided:

This [a]greement constitutes and contains the entire agreement between [Sky Zone] and [plaintiffs] relating to the . . . use of the Sky Zone Facility. There are no other agreements, oral, written, or implied, with respect to such matters. . . . If any term or provision of this [agreement] shall be held illegal, unenforceable, or in conflict with any law governing this [agreement] the validity of the remaining portions shall not be affected thereby. B.

Plaintiffs filed their personal injury complaint against defendants on August 13, 2020. The Law Division entered default against defendants on December 28, 2020, for failure to file a timely responsive pleading. On January 8, 2021, defendants’ counsel notified plaintiffs’ counsel he intended to file a motion to dismiss the complaint in lieu of an answer pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(e), based on plaintiffs’ failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The attorneys thereafter entered into a Consent Agreement, stating in relevant part:

This matter having come before the [c]ourt upon the Consent of the parties, whereby the parties consent, stipulate, and agree that the default entered against Defendants, SKY ZONE FRANCHISE GROUP, LLC and GO AHEAD AND JUMP 4, LLC, be vacated and the time for Defendant to Answer or Otherwise Plead be extended until January 30, 2021 . . . .

[(Strikethrough in original).]

Plaintiff’s counsel unilaterally struck “or Otherwise Plead” from the Consent Order. On February 2, 2021, the Law Division accepted the Consent Agreement and vacated the default. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and compel arbitration on January 30, 2021. Defendants’ motion came for oral argument before the Law Division on March 24, 2021. Plaintiffs’ counsel argued the arbitration clause presented to Johnson was unenforceable based on both the obscure, technical language used in the document, and by presenting it as part of an electronic document in a kiosk located outside the Park’s entrance. Plaintiff’s counsel also emphasized the circumstances under which Johnson allegedly waived her son’s constitutional right to a jury trial: “[M]y client went in July [2018] to be a guest at a birthday party. The . . . defense . . . alleges that she signed this Agreement at that time and at that time, they’re saying that she signed an agreement that was good forever.”

In response, defense counsel argued Johnson did a great deal more than merely place a checkmark on a section of an electronic document. “We don’t just have the electronic signatures. We have her name, her address, her phone number, her date of birth . . . it’s not merely that you have [Janay’s] certification. You have identifiers that Skyzone would not have gotten without the plaintiff.” The reference made by defense counsel to “Janay’s certification” relates to Michael Janay, the Managing Member of defendant Go Ahead and Jump 4, LLC., who averred:

As a matter of business practice, all patrons who enter the Park for the first time are required to electronically sign a Participant Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk . . . at a kiosk, or online, as a pre-condition to entry. Patrons are not permitted entry into the Park unless a Participation Agreement has been executed on their behalf and there are signs throughout the Park indicating the same. . . . [A]ll patrons who enter the Park are required to provide a valid email address when electronically signing the Participation Agreement.

. . . [O]nce the Participation Agreement is electronically signed, a copy of the executed Participation Agreement is sent to the email address provided by the patron.

. . . .

Based on the information provided, a copy of this Participation Agreement was sent to Shalonda Johnson’s email following Shalonda Johnson’s execution of the Participation Agreement at the Park on July 14, 2018. As indicated, Shalonda Johnson listed her son David Johnson[, ] who is the Minor[-]Plaintiff, and another minor Kevin Johnson. On that basis, Shalonda Johnson, David Johnson, and Kevin Johnson were permitted entry into the Park on July 14, 2018.

After considering the arguments of counsel, the motion judge granted defendants’ motion on March 24, 2021. The judge explained the basis of his decision in a Statement of Reasons attached to the order.

II.

Against this factual backdrop, plaintiffs argue the arbitration agreement is ambiguous and unenforceable as a matter of law. We reject these arguments and affirm the part of the Law Division’s Order upholding the enforceability of the arbitration clause. Because the Law Division’s decision to enforce this arbitration provision is purely a question of law, our standard of review is de novo. Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc., 244 N.J. 119, 131 (2020); see also Kernahan v. Home Warranty Adm’r of Fla., Inc., 236 N.J. 301, 316 (2019) (“Whether a contractual arbitration provision is enforceable is a question of law, and we need not defer to the interpretative analysis of the trial . . . court[] unless we find it persuasive.”).

As a matter of public policy, our Supreme Court has upheld arbitration as a “favored means of dispute resolution.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. The Court has consistently endorsed a “strong preference to enforce arbitration agreements, both at the state and federal level.” Hirsch v. Amper Fin. Servs., LLC, 215 N.J. 174, 186 (2013). In determining whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, we will apply “state contract-law principles.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. Guided by these principles, “[a]n arbitration agreement is valid only if the parties intended to arbitrate because parties are not required ‘to arbitrate when they have not agreed to do so.'” Kernahan, 236 N.J. at 317 (quoting Volt Info. Scis., Inc. v. Bd. of Trs. of Leland Stanford Junior Univ., 489 U.S. 468, 478 (1989)).

Mutuality of assent is the hallmark of an enforceable contract. Thus, the initial inquiry is whether the parties actually and knowingly agreed to arbitrate their dispute. To reflect mutual assent to arbitrate, the terms of an arbitration provision must be “sufficiently clear to place a consumer on notice that he or she is waiving a constitutional or statutory right . . . .” Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp., L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 443 (2014). “No particular form of words is necessary to accomplish a clear and unambiguous waiver of rights.” Id. at 444. If, “at least in some general and sufficiently broad way,” the language of the clause conveys arbitration is a waiver of the right to bring suit in a judicial forum, the clause will be enforced. Id. at 447. “The key . . . is clarity.” Barr v. Bishop Rosen & Co., 442 N.J.Super. 599, 607 (App. Div. 2015).

Here, plaintiffs claim the arbitration clause is ambiguous and therefore unenforceable because it contains “void, inaccurate, misleading and ambiguous language . . . .” and “confusing lower[-]case passages and all upper[-]case bold passages.” Plaintiffs argue Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 327, “prohibits a parent of a minor child from releasing the child’s potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility.” According to plaintiffs, JAMS, the named forum in the arbitration provision, is “not permitted to conduct arbitration in New Jersey” and thus the agreement should fail. We disagree.

The language in the arbitration clause states plaintiffs were “agreeing to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and were “waiving [their] right . . . to maintain a lawsuit.” It sets forth, “[b]y agreeing to arbitrate, [plaintiffs] understand that [they] will NOT have the right to have [their] claim[s] determined by a jury.” This language clearly and unambiguously puts plaintiffs on notice that they are waiving the right to a jury trial and the right to pursue their claims in a court of law. This part of the Agreement is therefore enforceable. See Flanzman, 244 N.J. at 137-38 (citing Atalese, 219 N.J. at 444-45).

Plaintiffs’ reliance on Hojnowski is misplaced. Writing for a unanimous Court, then Justice Zazzali[4] made clear “permitting arbitration of a minor’s claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children.” 187 N.J. at 343. Here, plaintiff’s mother signed the Agreement that included an arbitration clause.

The unavailability of JAMS does not render the arbitration clause unenforceable. Although the parties agree JAMS is not available to arbitrate this case, the Agreement contains a severability clause that states: “If any term or provision of this [agreement] shall be held illegal, unenforceable, or in conflict with any law governing this [agreement] the validity of the remaining portions shall not be affected thereby.” Severability clauses “are indicative of the parties’ intent that the agreement as a whole survives the excision of an unenforceable provision.” Arafa v. Health Express Corp., 243 N.J. 147, 169 n.2 (2020). As the Supreme Court explained in Flanzman:

No New Jersey statutory provision or prior decision has elevated the selection of an “arbitral institution” or the designation of a “general process for selecting an arbitration mechanism or setting” to the status of essential contract terms, without which an arbitration agreement must fail.

To the contrary, the [New Jersey Arbitration Act (NJAA)] makes clear that its default provision for the selection of an arbitrator may operate in the absence of contractual terms prescribing such procedures. See N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-11(a). The NJAA reflects the Legislature’s intent that the parties’ omission of an arbitrator or arbitral organization, or their failure to set forth the method by which they will choose an arbitrator in the event of a dispute, will not preclude the enforcement of their agreement. Ibid.

[244 N.J. at 139.]

The arbitration clause at issue here must be interpreted in accordance with New Jersey law and the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The FAA and the NJAA provide for a court-appointed arbitrator if the designated arbitrator is unavailable. Id. at 141. The arbitration clause enables the parties to seek from a court “provisional remedies in aid of arbitration.” The language in the Agreement does not show the parties intended to forego arbitration if JAMS is unavailable. The designation of JAMS was not integral to the enforcement of the arbitration clause. Thus, the unavailability of JAMS does not invalidate the arbitration clause.

We next address plaintiffs’ arguments attacking the enforcement of the arbitration clause based on the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability. In essence, plaintiffs argue requiring Johnson to read and sign an ambiguous contract of adhesion immediately before a birthday party left her with no other choice but to assent. Our Supreme Court has described the factors that constitute the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability:

The defense of unconscionability, specifically, calls for a fact-sensitive analysis in each case, even when a contract of adhesion is involved. [The] Court has recognized that contracts of adhesion necessarily involve indicia of procedural unconscionability. [The Court has] identified, therefore, four factors as deserving of attention when a court is asked to declare a contract of adhesion unenforceable.

[I]n determining whether to enforce the terms of a contract of adhesion, [a court] look[s] not only to the take-it-or-leave-it nature or the standardized form of the document but also to [(1)] the subject matter of the contract, [(2)] the parties’ relative bargaining positions, [(3)] the degree of economic compulsion motivating the “adhering” party, and [(4)] the public interests affected by the contract. [Delta Funding Corp. v. Harris, 189 N.J. 28, 39-40 (2006) (internal citations omitted) (quoting Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 356 (1992)).]

Here, plaintiffs merely recycle their arguments relying on the Agreement’s alleged ambiguity without applying or analyzing the factors established by the Court in Delta Funding. We discern no basis, in fact or in law, to conclude this arbitration provision is substantively unconscionable. Finally, plaintiffs’ allegations that defendants acted intentionally and recklessly have no basis in fact and are not worthy of further comment by this court. Plaintiffs’ remaining argument lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written decision. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).

The order of the Law Division upholding the enforceability of defendants’ arbitration clause is affirmed. However, we vacate the part of the order that dismisses plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice and remand the matter to the Law Division to stay any judicial proceedings related to this case pending the outcome of the arbitration. GMAC, 205 N.J. at 584 n.7; N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-7(g).

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction. ———

Notes:

[1] In the interest of clarity, we will occasionally also refer to plaintiffs by their names; we will refer to the child by his first name and his mother by her last name. No disrespect is intended.

[2] Although an order entered by the Law Division compelling or denying arbitration is appealable to this court as of right, pursuant to Rule 2:2-3(a)(3), the trial court must stay any judicial proceeding pending the outcome of the arbitration. The court may also limit the stay to arbitrable claims if other claims are severable. GMAC v. Pittella, 205 N.J. 572, 584 n.7 (2011) (citing N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-7(g)).

[3] In a certification submitted to the motion judge, Johnson averred the injury damaged “the growth plate in my son’s leg . . . and his leg did not continue to grow properly. He has undergone surgery to shorten the opposite leg and may need additional treatment in the future.”

[4] In October 2006, Governor Jon Corzine appointed Justice Zazzali to succeed Deborah T. Poritz as Chief Justice. Chief Justice Zazzali served in this capacity until June 17, 2007, when he reached the mandatory retirement age for all members of the New Jersey Judiciary.

———


Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323; 901 A.2d 381; 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1080

Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323; 901 A.2d 381; 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1080

Andrew Hojnowski, a Minor, through his Parents and Guardians Ad Litem, Jerry Hojnowski and Anastasia Hojnowski and Jerry Hojnowski and Anastasia Hojnowski, in their own right, Plaintiffs-Respondents and Cross-Appellants, v. Vans Skate Park, Defendant-Appellant and Cross-Respondent, and Mccown Deleeuw Company, John Doe(s) Skate Park Owner (a fictitious name) and Jane Doe(s) Insurance Company (for med pay only), Defendants.

A-17/A-45 September Term 2005

SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY

187 N.J. 323; 901 A.2d 381; 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1080

January 30, 2006, Argued

July 17, 2006, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: [***1] On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 375 N.J. Super. 568, 868 A.2d 1087 (2005).

Hojnowski ex rel. Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 375 N.J. Super. 568, 868 A.2d 1087, 2005 N.J. Super. LEXIS 79 (App.Div., 2005)

CASE SUMMARY:

PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Plaintiffs, a minor and his parents, sued defendant skate park for negligence. The park moved to compel arbitration; the trial court granted the park summary judgment and dismissed the suit. Plaintiffs appealed; the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, affirmed the grant of summary judgment but held that the waiver of liability contained in a pre-injury release signed by a parent was void. Plaintiffs sought further review.

OVERVIEW: Plaintiffs alleged the minor fractured his femur when an aggressive skateboarder, about whom his parents had complained to the park, forced him off a skateboard ramp. One parent had executed a release on the minor’s behalf that provided for mandatory arbitration of claims against the park and limited its liability. Plaintiffs moved to invalidate the release; the trial court did not rule on the validity of the limitation of liability, leaving this issue for the arbitrators to decide. The intermediate appellate court held that the arbitration provision was valid, that the trial court should have ruled on the validity of the liability waiver, and that it was invalid. The high court agreed. Under the parens patriae doctrine, the public policy of New Jersey prohibited a parent of a minor child from releasing the child’s potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility. But under the public policy expressed in the New Jersey Arbitration Act, former N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2A:24-1 to -11, a parent’s agreement to arbitrate was enforceable against any tort claims asserted on the minor’s behalf, in the absence of fraud, duress, unconscionability, or ambiguity.

OUTCOME: The high court affirmed the judgment of the intermediate appellate court and referred the matter to the arbitrator for further proceedings.

CORE TERMS: arbitration, pre-injury, minor child, public policy, exculpatory, parental, settlement, bind, post-injury, tort claims, arbitration agreements, agreement to arbitrate, recreational, enforceable, arbitrator, arbitrate, arbitration provision, unenforceable, public interest, inherent risks, reasonableness, guardian, waive, commercial enterprise, recreational facility, best interests, cause of action, invalidate, implicate, patriae

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Andrew Hojnowski, a minor v. Vans Skate Park, et als. (A-17/45-05)

Argued January 30, 2006 — Decided July 17, 2006

ZAZZALI, J., writing for the Court.

The issue before the Court is whether a parent can bind a minor child to either a pre-injury waiver of liability or an agreement to arbitrate.

In January 2003, twelve-year-old Andrew Hojnowski was injured while skateboarding at a facility operated by Vans, Inc. (Vans). On a previous visit to the facility, Andrew’s mother had executed a release on Andrew’s behalf, which was required in order for Andrew to enter the skate park. The exculpatory release contained a clause agreeing to submit any claims against Vans to arbitration, as well as provisions limiting Vans’ liability for injury.

[***2] In August 2003, Andrew, acting through his parents as guardians ad litem, and his parents, in their own right, filed suit against Vans. Their complaint alleges, among other things, negligent supervision and failure to warn, and negligent failure to provide a safe place. Vans responded by filing a demand for commercial arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. The Hojnowskis then moved to enjoin the arbitration and invalidate the pre-injury release signed by Andrew’s mother and Vans cross-moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted Vans’ motion, dismissing the Hojnowskis’ complaint without prejudice and ordering arbitration. The trial court did not rule on the validity of the liability release, finding the issue for the arbitrators to determine.

On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in respect of the validity of the arbitration provision. In addition, the panel found that because the issue presented a question of public policy, the trial court should have ruled on the validity of the waiver. The panel was divided in its resolution of that question. The majority determined that a pre-injury release [***3] of liability executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violates public policy and is, therefore, unenforceable. The dissent argued that the court should have deferred to the parent’s decision to enter into the agreement and, hence, should have enforced the waiver.

Vans appealed to the Supreme Court as of right on the issue of the validity of the pre-injury release of liability. The Court granted certification on the question of whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitration.

HELD: Although a parent may agree to bind a minor child to an arbitration provision, which in essence constitutes a choice of forum, a parent may not bind a minor child to a pre-injury release of a minor’s prospective tort claims resulting from the minor’s use of a commercial recreational facility.

1. Because exculpatory agreements can encourage a lack of care, courts closely scrutinize liability releases and invalidate them if they violate public policy. The relevant public policy implicated in this case is the protection of the best interests of the child under the parens patriae doctrine, which refers to the State’s capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care [***4] for themselves. In keeping with that doctrine, the Legislature and the courts have historically afforded considerable protections to claims of minor children. The most significant of those protections concerns the compromise or release of a minor’s post-injury claims, requiring the parent to obtain statutory or judicial approval to dispose of the minor’s existing cause of action. The purpose underlying the post-injury settlement rule also applies in the pre-injury context. (Pp. 9-15)

2. Business owners owe invitees a duty of reasonable or due care to provide a safe environment because it is the business owners who are in the best position to control the risk of harm. In this case, the risk of loss should fall on the party best suited to avert injury. The operator of a commercial recreational enterprise can inspect the premises for unsafe conditions, train staff in respect of the facility’s proper operation, and regulate the types of activities permitted to occur. The business operator can also obtain insurance and spread the costs of insurance among its customers. Children are not in a position to discover hazardous conditions or insure against risks. In addition, the expectation [***5] that a commercial facility will be reasonably safe is especially important where the patron’s are minors. To permit waivers of liability would remove a significant incentive for operators of these types of facilities that attract children to take reasonable steps to protect their safety. The overwhelming majority of jurisdictions are in accord with the decision to invalidate such waivers. (Pp. 15-19)

3. In view of the protections that New Jersey historically has afforded to a minor’s claims and the need to discourage negligent activity on the part of commercial enterprises attracting children, a parent’s execution of a pre-injury release of a minor’s future tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility is unenforceable. (P.19)

4. Vans’ remaining contentions are unconvincing. Van’s argument that allowing a pre-injury release of a minor’s potential tort claim is no different than a parent’s decision never to bring suit on the child’s behalf ignores the tolling provisions enabling a minor to retain the right to sue for most personal injuries for two years after reaching the age of majority. Nor does the Court accept the argument that the parental release [***6] implicates the parent’s fundamental right to direct the upbringing of the child. Nor is the Court persuaded by the argument that such releases are necessary to ensure the continued validity of businesses offering sports activities to minors. Tort liability is not an unreasonable economic restraint on the ability of business owners to operate commercial recreational facilities. (Pp. 19-23)

5. Federal policy has favored the enforcement of arbitration agreements for many years. In New Jersey, arbitration is also a favored means of dispute resolution. An agreement to arbitrate generally will be valid under State law unless it violates public policy. Allowing a parent to bind a minor child to arbitrate future tort claims is not contrary to the Court’s duty as parens patriae to protect the best interests of the child. A pre-injury agreement to arbitrate does not require the minor to give up any substantive rights; rather, it specifies only the forum in which those rights are redressed. Furthermore, permitting arbitration of a minor’s claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children. Case law [***7] from other jurisdictions reinforces this conclusion. (Pp. 23-31)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED and the matter is referred to an arbitrator for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins, is in full agreement with that portion of the majority’s decision that affirms the enforcement of the parties’ agreement to subject their dispute to arbitration. Justice LaVecchia dissents from the majority’s invalidation of the waiver of liability that the parties executed as a condition of the minor’s use of Van’s property to skateboard. Because the type of waiver entered into in this case generally would be enforceable as against an adult, there is no reason why this Court should prevent a parent from ratifying such a waiver on behalf of the minor, provided that a court or arbitrator determines that the release is reasonable.

COUNSEL: Richard C. Wischusen argued the cause for appellant and cross-respondent (Reilly, Supple & Wischusen, attorneys; Alex W. Raybould, on the briefs).

Robert A. Porter argued the cause for respondents and cross-appellants (Bafundo, [***8] Porter, Borbi & Clancy, attorneys).

David G. Evans submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae, Pacific Legal Foundation.

JUDGES: Justice ZAZZALI delivered the opinion of the Court. Justice LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice RIVERA-SOTO joins in this opinion. Chief Justice PORITZ and Justices LONG, ZAZZALI, ALBIN and WALLACE. Justices LaVECCHIA and RIVERA-SOTO. CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI’s opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins.

OPINION BY: ZAZZALI

OPINION

[*327] [**383] Justice ZAZZALI delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this appeal, we must determine whether a parent can bind a minor child to either a pre-injury waiver of liability or an agreement to arbitrate. In January 2003, twelve-year old Andrew Hojnowski was injured while skateboarding at a skate park facility operated by defendant Vans, Inc. (Vans). On a previous visit to the facility, Andrew’s mother had executed a release on Andrew’s behalf. That release contained a clause agreeing to submit any claims against Vans to arbitration, as well as a provision limiting Vans’ liability. After Andrew and his parents (plaintiffs) brought suit seeking recovery for Andrew’s injuries, Vans filed for commercial arbitration. Plaintiffs then moved to enjoin arbitration and to invalidate the [***9] liability release signed by Andrew’s mother.

The trial court found that plaintiffs were bound by the arbitration provision and dismissed their complaint without prejudice. The court declined to rule on whether the liability release was valid, concluding that that issue should be determined by the arbitrator. On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously voted to uphold the arbitration provision but divided on the validity of the liability release. The majority determined that a pre-injury release of liability executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable. The dissent argued that the court should have deferred to the parent’s decision to enter into the agreement and enforced the waiver. We affirm the majority and hold that although a parent may agree to bind a minor child to an arbitration provision, which in essence constitutes a choice of forum, a parent may not bind a minor child to a pre-injury release of a minor’s prospective tort claims resulting from the minor’s use of a commercial recreational facility. Pursuant to our parens patriae duty to protect the best interests [*328] of the child, we will not enforce such a release [***10] in the context of this case.

I.

In January 2003, twelve-year old Andrew Hojnowski and his mother, Anastasia Hojnowski, visited a Vans Store in Moorestown, New Jersey. Defendant Vans operated the retail store that sold skateboards and related merchandise and maintained a recreational skateboard facility. To enter the skate park, Vans required Andrew’s mother to sign an exculpatory release. It appears that Andrew’s mother did not execute a release on the date in question but had executed a release in December 2002, which Vans had kept on file.

The release, entitled “RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILTY AND JURY TRIAL WITH INDEMNITY (FOR ALL VANS SKATEPARKS, STORES AND FACILITIES (COLLECTIVELY, ‘PARKS’) IN NEW JERSEY),” begins by stating:

Please read this document. It affects Your legal rights against Vans, Inc. if you are injured. Do not sign this document unless you understand it. If You are a minor, Your parent or guardian is required to sign this legal document.

The document then provides, in relevant part:

2. Can You Make A Claim For Money If You Are Injured?

If you are injured and want to make a claim, you must file a demand before the American Arbitration [***11] Association (the “AAA”). . . . You agree that any dispute between You and Vans will be decided by the AAA. Vans, Inc. will pay all costs of the arbitration for You. . . .

[**384] 3. Vans Is Asking You To Give Up Legal Rights in Order to Enter This Park

Because using Vans’ Park, or even entering the Park as a spectator may increase your risk of harm, Vans is asking you to give up certain valuable legal rights. Here are the rights you are giving up when you sign this document:

(a) You give up your right to sue Vans in a court of law.

(b) You give up your right to a trial by jury.

(c) You give up the right to claim money from Vans if you are injured unless Vans intentionally failed to prevent or correct a hazard caused by unsafe equipment or devices.

(d) You give up the right to claim money from Vans if you wait more than one year from the injury in order to make a claim.

[*329] (e) You give up the right to claim money from Vans, Inc. if you are injured by another person.

(f) You give up the right to recover damages to punish or make an example of Vans, Inc.

4. Rights You Do Not Give Up

You do not give up the right:

(a) To have safe equipment, [***12] structures and devices at the Park for Your intended use.

(b) To claim compensation for Your injury from Vans, Inc. if you are hurt because the equipment, structures and devices at the Park are not safe for Your intended use.

. . . .

(e) To make a claim if Vans, Inc. or anyone working for Vans, Inc. intentionally hurts you.

5. Who Is Bound By This Document?

You are bound by this document. Anyone who has or can obtain Your rights is also bound by this document, such as Your family, relatives, guardians, executors or anyone responsible for You. . . .

6. Other Information Important For You To Know

You have the right to demand money if You believe Vans, Inc. intentionally caused You harm. If parts of this document are determined to be invalid, then that portion will be unenforceable and the remainder of the document will continue in full legal force and effect. . . .

Following those provisions, Andrew’s mother answered “Yes” to the question: “Do You understand that You are giving up rights by signing this document if You are hurt?” The document also informed customers that “[b]y signing this document You agree that Vans, Inc. may rely [***13] on Your answers.” Andrew’s mother signed the release on Andrew’s behalf in the space provided beneath that provision.

Plaintiffs claim that, during his use of Vans’ facility in January 2003, Andrew suffered a fractured femur when an aggressive skateboarder, about whom his parents had complained to Vans, forced him off a skateboard ramp. Consequently, in August 2003, Andrew, acting through his parents as guardians ad litem, and his parents, in their own right, filed suit against Vans. Their complaint alleges that Vans “negligently fail[ed] to supervise the activities at the skate park, negligently failed to control activities of aggressive skateboarders, negligently failed to warn Plaintiffs’ parents that [*330] the activities of aggressive skateboarders would not be monitored, and negligently failed to provide a safe place to skateboard.” Plaintiffs also filed suit against an unnamed corporate owner and insurance company. Vans responded by filing a demand for commercial arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. [**385] Plaintiffs then moved to enjoin the arbitration and to invalidate the pre-injury release signed by Andrew’s mother, and Vans cross-moved for summary judgment. The [***14] trial court granted Vans’ motion, dismissing plaintiffs’ complaint without prejudice and ordering arbitration. The trial court, however, did not rule on the validity of the liability release, finding that the issue is “for the arbitrators to determine.”

On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment concerning the validity of the arbitration provision. Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 375 N.J. Super. 568, 574-75, 868 A.2d 1087 (App.Div.2005). The panel held that “a parent can enter into an enforceable contract, binding on the parent’s minor child, that waives the right to trial by jury of the minor’s bodily injury claims and requires submission of ‘any dispute’ to arbitration.” Ibid. The panel also found that because the validity of a pre-injury liability waiver presents a question of public policy, the trial court should have ruled on the waiver’s validity and not referred that question to the arbitrator. Id. at 581-82, 868 A.2d 1087. The panel then divided on the resolution of that issue.

The majority concluded that, under the circumstances of this matter, a parent lacks the authority “to sign a pre-tort [***15] agreement limiting the liability of a tortfeasor to exclude negligent conduct” and therefore voided the release. Id. at 583, 868 A.2d 1087. The majority reasoned that “the judiciary must stand as guardians of the State’s children” and that

[w]ere [the court] to decide otherwise, [it] would be relieving an alleged wrongdoer from its traditional legal responsibility to provide compensation for injuries caused by its negligence and shifting the economic burden to families, public welfare agencies and private charities without any concomitant benefit to either an injured child or his parents.

[*331] [Id. at 590, 868 A.2d 1087.]

Judge Fisher dissented, arguing that the court should have enforced the liability waiver and deferred to a parent’s decision regarding such matters. Id. at 591-92, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). In his view, “in the absence of parental unfitness, courts should not overrule parental decisions but should instead defer to a parent’s own weighing of the benefits and risks when entering into agreements that relate to the activities of their children.” Id. at 592, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring [***16] in part and dissenting in part).

Vans appealed to this Court as of right on the issue of the validity of the pre-injury release of liability. R. 2:2-1(a)(2). We also permitted the Pacific Legal Foundation to submit a brief as amicus curiae on that issue and granted plaintiffs’ petition for certification on the question whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitration. 1 185 N.J. 36, 878 A.2d 853 (2005).

1 On appeal, plaintiffs did not raise the issue of the enforceability of the arbitration provision or the pre-injury liability release against the parents in their own right. Accordingly, our analysis is limited to a determination of the enforceability of those provisions against the minor child. Because the issue is not before us, we neither express nor imply an opinion concerning whether a waiver-of-rights provision of the nature entered into by the parties would be enforceable as against an adult.

II.

We first address whether New Jersey’s public policy permits [***17] a parent to release a minor child’s potential tort claims arising out of the minor’s use of a commercial recreational facility. Plaintiffs argue that [**386] a parent may not waive a minor child’s right to sue for negligence. Relying on Fitzgerald v. Newark Morning Ledger Co., 111 N.J. Super. 104, 267 A.2d 557 (Law Div.1970), and numerous out-of-state decisions, plaintiffs claim that the vast majority of states have held that a parent’s attempt to waive a child’s prospective cause of action is void as a matter of public policy. Plaintiffs assert that public policy disfavors pre-injury waivers of liability [*332] because they encourage tortious conduct by absolving a commercial enterprise of its ordinary duty to exercise due care. Plaintiffs also maintain that because a parent is not permitted to settle a child’s post-injury tort claim without judicial approval, a parent should not be allowed to waive a child’s potential claim before an injury occurs.

Defendant recognizes that the enforcement of parental liability waivers has been “treated in varied fashions by different states.” However, defendant asserts that “[t]he more substantial and well-considered decisions favor enforcement [***18] of exculpatory agreements based on the fundamental right of parents to raise their children as they decide.” Defendant further contends that it is “erroneous” to equate pre-tort releases of liability with post-tort releases because “[t]he conflict of interest and potential for harm to befall a minor are far different in the context of a release of an accrued tort claim where settlement funds are present and may be misappropriated.” Finally, defendant claims that “[w]ithout enforceable [r]eleases many activities available to children may be forced to close due to liability concerns.”

A.

We begin our analysis of that issue by noting that there is ambiguity in the pre-injury release concerning whether the agreement extinguishes or merely limits plaintiffs’ ability to recover against defendant for negligence. For example, although paragraph 3(c) provides that plaintiffs have “give[n] up the right to claim money from [defendant] unless [defendant] intentionally failed to prevent or correct a hazard caused by unsafe equipment or devices,” paragraph 4(b) states that plaintiffs have not “give[n] up the right to claim compensation [if] the equipment, structures and devices [***19] at the Park are not safe for [their] intended use.” We need not determine the precise scope and meaning of those terms, however, because we hold that the public policy of New Jersey prohibits a parent of a minor child from releasing a minor child’s [*333] potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility.

B.

[HN1] Exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored in the law because they encourage a lack of care. See, e.g., Gershon v. Regency Diving Ctr., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 247, 845 A.2d 720 (App.Div.2004); Ultimate Computer Servs., Inc. v. Biltmore Realty Co., 183 N.J. Super. 144, 151, 443 A.2d 723 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 91 N.J. 184, 450 A.2d 522 (1982). For that reason, courts closely scrutinize liability releases and invalidate them if they violate public policy. See, e.g., Lucier v. Williams, 366 N.J. Super. 485, 491, 841 A.2d 907 (App.Div.2004) (“[C]ourts have not hesitated to strike limited liability clauses that are unconscionable or in violation of public policy.”). It is well settled that to contract in advance to release tort liability resulting from intentional or reckless conduct [***20] violates public policy, Kuzmiak v. Brookchester, Inc., 33 N.J. Super. 575, 580, 111 A.2d 425 (App.Div.1955); Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 (1981), as does a contract that releases liability from a statutorily-imposed duty, [**387] McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 542, 226 A.2d 713 (1967). Further, courts have found that exculpatory agreements for negligence claims violate public policy in a variety of settings, such as in residential leases, Cardona v. Eden Realty Co., 118 N.J. Super. 381, 384, 288 A.2d 34 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 60 N.J. 354, 289 A.2d 799 (1972), or in connection with rendering professional services, Lucier, supra, 366 N.J. Super. at 495, 841 A.2d 907; Erlich v. First National Bank, 208 N.J. Super. 264, 287, 505 A.2d 220 (Law Div.1984).

The relevant public policy implicated in this matter is the protection of the best interests of the child under the parens patriae doctrine. [HN2] Parens patriae refers to “the state in its capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care for themselves.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1144 (8th ed.2004). [***21] In keeping with that policy, the Legislature and the courts historically [*334] have afforded considerable protections to claims of minor children. The most significant of those protections concerns the compromise or release of a minor’s post-injury claims. Under Rule 4:44, after a minor has suffered a tortious injury, a minor’s parent or guardian may not dispose of a minor’s existing cause of action without statutory or judicial approval. See
Moscatello ex rel. Moscatello v. Univ. of Med. & Dentistry of N.J., 342 N.J. Super. 351, 361, 776 A.2d 874 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 170 N.J. 207, 785 A.2d 435 (2001); Riemer v. St. Clare’s Riverside Med. Ctr., 300 N.J. Super. 101, 110-11, 691 A.2d 1384 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 152 N.J. 188, 704 A.2d 18 (1997); Colfer v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 214 N.J. Super. 374, 377, 519 A.2d 893 (App.Div.1986). That Rule applies regardless of whether suit has been filed on the minor’s behalf, see, e.g., Moscatello, supra, 342 N.J. Super. at 361, 776 A.2d 874, and its purpose is “to guard a minor against an improvident compromise [and] to secure the minor against dissipation of [***22] the proceeds,” Colfer, supra, 214 N.J. Super. at 377, 519 A.2d 893.

Although the Rule governing post-injury settlements is not dispositive of our treatment of pre-injury releases, we find that the purposes underlying the post-injury settlement rule also apply in the present context. First, children deserve as much protection from the improvident compromise of their rights before an injury occurs as Rule 4:44 affords them after the injury. Moreover, at the time a parent decides to release the potential tort claims of his or her child, the parent may not fully understand the consequences of that action and may not have even read the waiver before signing. As the Utah Supreme Court has noted:

These clauses are . . . routinely imposed in a unilateral manner without any genuine bargaining or opportunity to pay a fee for insurance. The party demanding adherence to an exculpatory clause simply evades the necessity of liability coverage and then shifts the full burden of risk of harm to the other party. Compromise of an existing claim, however, relates to negligence that has already taken place and is subject to measurable damages. Such releases involve actual negotiations [***23] concerning ascertained rights and liabilities. Thus, if anything, the policies relating to restrictions on a parent’s right to compromise an existing claim apply with even greater force in the preinjury, exculpatory clause scenario. [Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, 37 P.3d 1062, 1066 (2001) (emphasis added).]

[*335] Further, in both the pre- and post-injury context, it is necessary to ensure that children retain the ability to seek compensation for an injury. When a parent signs a pre-injury release of liability and the child is later injured, the parent is [**388] left to provide for the child’s injuries while the negligent party suffers no liability. If a parent is unable to finance the child’s injuries, the child may be left with no resources to obtain much needed care or support. See
Cooper v. Aspen Skiing Co., 48 P.3d 1229, 1235 (Colo.2002) (“[T]o allow a parent to release a child’s possible future claims for injury caused by negligence may as a practical matter leave the minor in an unacceptably precarious position with no recourse, no parental support, and no method to support himself or care for his injury.” (footnote omitted)); Scott v. Pac. W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 12 (1992) [***24] (“[W]here parents are unwilling or unable to provide for a seriously injured child, the child would have no recourse against a negligent party to acquire resources needed for care.”).

Those concerns are even more acute in the context of commercial premises liability. [HN3] In New Jersey, “[b]usiness owners owe to invitees a duty of reasonable or due care to provide a safe environment for doing that which is in the scope of the invitation.” Nisivoccia v. Glass Gardens, Inc., 175 N.J. 559, 563, 818 A.2d 314 (2003). That is because business owners “are in the best position to control the risk of harm. Ownership or control of the premises, for example, enables a party to prevent the harm.” Kuzmicz v. Ivy Hill Park Apartments, Inc., 147 N.J. 510, 517, 688 A.2d 1018 (1997) (citations omitted). It follows that in this case the risk of loss should fall on the party best suited to avert injury. See
Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 447, 625 A.2d 1110 (1993) (recognizing “salutary effect of shifting the risk of loss . . . to those who should be able and are best able to bear them”). The operator of a commercial recreational enterprise [***25] can inspect the premises for unsafe conditions, train his or her employees with regard to the facility’s proper operation, and regulate the types of activities permitted to occur. Such an operator also can obtain [*336] insurance and spread the costs of insurance among its customers. Children, on the other hand, are not in a position to discover hazardous conditions or insure against risks. Moreover, the expectation that a commercial facility will be reasonably safe to do that which is within the scope of the invitation, see
Nisivoccia, supra, 175 N.J. at 563, 818 A.2d 314, is especially important where the facility’s patrons are minor children. If we were to permit waivers of liability, we would remove a significant incentive for operators of commercial enterprises that attract children to take reasonable precautions to protect their safety.

In finding that the exculpatory provision in this matter is invalid, we are in agreement not only with our own State’s case law, but also with the overwhelming majority of other jurisdictions. See, e.g., Fitzgerald, supra, 111 N.J. Super. at 108, 267 A.2d 557 (invalidating exculpatory agreement executed by parent on behalf of minor [***26] child that released defendant from liability to child for future injuries and required parent to indemnify defendant for any claims brought by minor); In re Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., 403 F. Supp. 2d 1168, 1172-73 (S.D.Fla.2005) (stating that where “a release of liability is signed on behalf of a minor child for an activity run by a for-profit business, outside of a school or community setting, the release is typically unenforceable against the minor”); Simmons v. Parkette Nat’l Gymnastic Training Ctr., 670 F. Supp. 140, 144 (E.D.Pa.1987) (concluding that parent’s execution of pre-injury release did not exculpate third party from potential claims of minor child); Apicella v. Valley Forge Military Acad. & Junior Coll., 630 F. Supp. 20, 24 (E.D.Pa.1985) (“Under Pennsylvania law, parents do not possess the authority to release . . . potential claims of a minor [**389] child merely because of the parental relationship.”); Cooper, supra, 48 P.3d at 1233-35 (holding that Colorado’s public policy prohibits parents from contractually releasing child’s future claims for injury caused by negligence); Meyer v. Naperville Manner, Inc., 262 Ill. App. 3d 141, 634 N.E.2d 411, 415, 199 Ill. Dec. 572 (1994) [***27] (concluding that because “parent’s waiver of liability was not authorized by any statute or judicial approval, it had no effect to bar the minor child’s (future) [*337] cause of action”); Santangelo v. City of New York, 66 A.D.2d 880, 411 N.Y.S.2d 666, 667 (1978) (holding that minor was not bound by exculpatory release executed by parent on minor’s behalf); Munoz v. II Jaz, Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207, 209-10 (Tex.Ct.App.1990) (concluding that allowing parent to waive child’s right to sue for personal injury “would be against the public policy to protect minor children”); Scott, supra, 834 P.2d at 12 (“To the extent a parent’s release of a third party’s liability for negligence purports to bar a child’s own cause of action, it violates public policy and is unenforceable.”); Hawkins, supra, 37 P.3d at 1065-66 (concluding that “a parent does not have the authority to release a child’s claims before an injury”); see also
Auto. Workers v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 499 U.S. 187, 213, 111 S. Ct. 1196, 1211, 113 L. Ed. 2d 158, 183 (1991) (White, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment) [***28] (stating that “the general rule is that parents cannot waive causes of action on behalf of their children”); Doyle v. Bowdoin Coll., 403 A.2d 1206, 1208 n.3 (Me.1979) (stating in dicta that parent cannot release child’s cause of action); Williams v. Patton, 821 S.W.2d 141, 147 n.8, 35 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 65 (Tex.1991) (Doggett, J., concurring) (stating that parental releases of minor’s potential tort claims are “outrightly disfavored”).

Although we recognize that jurisdictions are not uniform on the question of waiver, our research discloses that the only published decisions in which such agreements have been upheld are in connection with non-commercial ventures, such as volunteer-run or non-profit organizations. See, e.g., Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal. App. 3d 1559, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647, 648-50 (1990) (upholding parental agreement releasing any claims of minor child resulting from child’s participation in school-sponsored event); Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So. 2d 1067, 1067 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.2004) (upholding parental liability release in context of “community or school supported activities”); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201, 207 (1998) [***29] (holding that parent may bind minor child to provision releasing volunteers and sponsors of non-profit sports activity from liability for negligence); Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 [*338] N.E.2d 738, 741, 745 (2002) (concluding that parent had authority to bind minor child to exculpatory release as condition of child’s participation in public-school extracurricular sports activities). Without expressing an opinion on the validity of parental liability releases in such settings, it suffices to note that volunteer, community, and non-profit organizations involve different policy considerations than those associated with commercial enterprises. Such a distinction is buttressed by the fact that the Legislature has afforded civil immunity from negligence to certain volunteer athletic coaches, managers, officials, and sponsors of non-profit sports teams, see, e.g., N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6 to -6.2, while not providing similar immunities from negligence in the commercial realm.

Accordingly, [HN4] in view of the protections that our State historically has afforded to a minor’s claims and the need to discourage negligent activity on the part [***30] of commercial enterprises attracting children, we hold that a parent’s execution of a pre-injury [**390] release of a minor’s future tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility is unenforceable.

C.

In so holding, we find that defendant’s remaining contentions and those of the dissent below are unconvincing. First, we are not persuaded by the argument that we should allow for parental liability releases because a pre-injury release of a minor’s potential tort claims is no different than a parent’s decision not to bring suit on a minor’s behalf. That argument ignores the fact that, under the tolling provisions of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21, a minor retains the right to sue for most personal injuries for two years after reaching the age of majority, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2. One of the rationales behind the tolling provision is that a child should not “be penalized for the ignorance or neglect of his parents or guardian in failing to assert [his or her legal] rights.” O’Connor v. Altus, 67 N.J. 106, 131-32, 335 A.2d 545 (1975) (Pashman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Consequently, although [***31] a parent may control a minor’s right to seek tort compensation [*339] until the age of majority–either by choosing not to sue or by neglecting to do so–a minor’s claim is not eliminated by the parent’s decision; it merely is delayed. Were we to uphold the challenged pre-injury release, however, we would permanently bar the minor’s tort claim, a far more draconian effect.

Nor do we accept the argument that a parental release of liability on behalf of a minor child implicates a parent’s fundamental right to direct the upbringing of his or her child. [HN5] Although parents undoubtedly have a fundamental liberty interest “in the care, custody, and control of their children,” Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65, 120 S. Ct. 2054, 2060, 147 L. Ed. 2d 49, 56 (2000), the question whether a parent may release a minor’s future tort claims implicates wider public policy concerns and the parens patriae duty to protect the best interests of children. See
Cooper, supra, 48 P.3d at 1235 n.11 (concluding that parental release of child’s right to sue for negligence is “not of the same character and quality as those rights recognized as implicating parents’ fundamental [***32] liberty interest in the ‘care, custody and control’ of their children”). As the majority opinion below noted, “[w]ere it otherwise, existing restrictions on parental conduct in the context of litigation involving minors would long ago have been abrogated in New Jersey.” Hojnowski, supra, 375 N.J. Super. at 585, 868 A.2d 1087. Indeed, the post-injury settlement rule is but one example of such restrictions. Moreover, nothing in our analysis interferes with the constitutionally protected right of a parent “to permit or deny a child’s participation in any or all of the recreational activities that may be available.” Id. at 597, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

We also reject defendant’s argument that enforcing parental releases of liability is necessary to ensure the continued viability of businesses offering sports activities to minors. We do not view tort liability as an unreasonable economic restraint on the ability of business owners to operate commercial recreational facilities. See
Scott, supra, 834 P.2d at 12 (finding “[n]o legally sound reason . . . for removing children’s athletics from the normal tort system”). [***33] [*340] Indeed, by invalidating pre-injury releases of liability executed by a parent on a minor’s behalf, we are not altering the landscape of common-law tort liability principles by which commercial enterprises typically must abide. Rather, we are preserving the traditional duties owed by business owners to their invitees. Further, as noted, because such facilities [**391] derive economic benefit from their operation, they are better able to assume the costs associated with proper maintenance and the prevention of injury than are the children to whom they cater.

Finally, the dissent below argued that invalidating parental releases of liability “is at odds with our Legislature’s willingness to render participants solely responsible for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of similar activities.” Hojnowski, supra, 375 N.J. Super. at 593, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). That argument refers to legislative acts in the areas of skiing, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11; roller skating, N.J.S.A. 5:14-1 to -7; and equestrian activities, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 to -12, which place the [***34] responsibility for injuries resulting from “inherent risks” of the sport on the participant. However, those statutes do not absolve an operator of a facility from liability for its own negligence. Instead, the statutes apply only to inherent risks, which, by their very nature, are those “that cannot be removed through the exercise of due care if the sport is to be enjoyed.” Brett v. Great Am. Recreation, Inc., 144 N.J. 479, 499, 677 A.2d 705 (1996); see also
Pietruska v. Craigmeur Ski Area, 259 N.J. Super. 532, 537, 614 A.2d 639 (Law Div.1992) (finding that “[i]mproper operation of a ski lift is not an inherent risk of skiing since, with due care, it can be eliminated”). As such, inherent risks need not be the subject of waiver because “the general law of negligence has long recognized that a defendant has no duty with regard to such risks.” Brett, supra, 144 N.J. at 499, 677 A.2d 705; see also
Meistrich v. Casino Arena Attractions, Inc., 31 N.J. 44, 49, 155 A.2d 90 (1959) (stating that assumption of inherent risk “is an alternate expression for the proposition that defendant was not negligent”). Thus, a commercial enterprise [***35] is [*341] not liable for injuries sustained as a result of an activity’s inherent risks so long as that enterprise has acted in accordance with “the ordinary duty owed to business invitees, including exercise of care commensurate with the nature of the risk, foreseeability of injury, and fairness in the circumstances.” Rosania v. Carmona, 308 N.J. Super. 365, 374, 706 A.2d 191 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 609, 713 A.2d 500 (1998).

III.

The second issue that we must decide is whether a parent can bind a minor child to an agreement to arbitrate future disputes arising out of a commercial recreation contract. Plaintiffs contend that “[although] arbitration is an approved alternative to a jury trial, an unsophisticated parent, about to have [his or her] child enter a recreational facility, should not be permitted to bind [his or her] child to a waiver of a trial by jury.” Defendant counters that this Court should enforce the parent’s agreement to submit the minor’s claims to arbitration because the Appellate Division previously upheld such an agreement in Allgor v. Travelers Insurance Co., 280 N.J. Super. 254, 654 A.2d 1375 (App.Div.1995). [***36] Defendant also argues that plaintiffs should be bound to arbitrate the present matter because public policy favors the arbitration of disputes. We agree and find that a parent’s agreement to arbitrate a minor’s potential tort claims is not contrary to public policy.

A.

[HN6] Federal policy has favored the enforcement of arbitration agreements for many years. In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C.A. §§ 1-16, to reverse then existing judicial hostility to arbitration agreements and “to place arbitration agreements upon [**392] the same footing as other contracts.” Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 24, 111 S. Ct. 1647, 1651, 114 L. Ed. 2d 26, 36 (1991). To that end, § 2 of the FAA provides:

[HN7] [*342] A written provision in any . . . contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such a contract or transaction . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract. [Emphasis added.]

[HN8] Although the FAA applies to both state [***37] and federal judicial proceedings, state contract-law principles generally govern a determination whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists. See, e.g., First Options of Chi., Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944, 115 S. Ct. 1920, 1924, 131 L. Ed. 2d 985, 993 (1995) (“When deciding whether the parties agreed to arbitrate a certain matter (including arbitrability), courts generally . . . should apply ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts.”). However, “a state cannot subject an arbitration agreement to more burdensome requirements than those governing the formation of other contracts.” Leodori v. CIGNA Corp., 175 N.J. 293, 302, 814 A.2d 1098, cert. denied, 540 U.S. 938, 124 S. Ct. 74, 157 L. Ed. 2d 250 (2003).

[HN9] In New Jersey, arbitration also is a favored means of dispute resolution. See, e.g., Martindale v. Sandvik, Inc., 173 N.J. 76, 84-85, 800 A.2d 872 (2002); Garfinkel v. Morristown Obstetrics & Gynecology Assocs., 168 N.J. 124, 131, 773 A.2d 665 (2001); Marchak v. Claridge Commons Inc., 134 N.J. 275, 281, 633 A.2d 531 (1993). Our Legislature [***38] codified its endorsement of arbitration agreements in the Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:24-1 to -11, which, like its federal counterpart, provides that agreements to arbitrate shall be valid save for “such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of a contract,” N.J.S.A. 2A:24-1. 2 In accordance with those principles, an agreement to arbitrate generally will be valid under state law unless it violates public policy. See, e.g., Marchak, supra, 134 N.J. at 281-82, 633 A.2d [*343] 531 (“Honoring an agreement to submit a matter to arbitration is consistent with the premise that, as long as the agreement does not violate public policy, parties may bargain freely.”); Faherty v. Faherty, 97 N.J. 99, 105, 477 A.2d 1257 (1984) (“A court generally will enforce an arbitration agreement unless it violates public policy.”).

2 N.J.S.A. 2A:24-1 to -11 was superseded by a modified version of the Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 to -32, effective January 1, 2003, and applicable to agreements entered into on or after that date, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-3a. Because the arbitration agreement at issue in this appeal was executed prior to that date, this matter is governed by the former statute.

[***39] B.

In light of the strong public policy favoring the settlement of disputes through arbitration, we conclude that allowing a parent to bind a minor child to arbitrate future tort claims is not contrary to our duty as parens patriae to protect the best interests of the child. As opposed to a pre-injury release of liability, a pre-injury agreement to arbitrate does not require a minor to forego any substantive rights. Rather, such an agreement specifies only the forum in which those rights are vindicated. See, e.g., Global Travel Mktg., Inc. v. Shea, 908 So. 2d 392, 403 (Fla.2005) (stating that distinction between waiver of forum in which claim is presented and outright waiver of legal claim “is a crucial consideration in determining whether state’s interest in protecting children renders [**393] the waiver unenforceable”); Cross v. Carnes, 132 Ohio App. 3d 157, 724 N.E.2d 828, 836 (1998) (stating that “parent’s consent and release to arbitration only specifies the forum for resolution of the child’s claim; it does not extinguish the claim”). In that respect, our Appellate Division has observed that

[t]he ancient practice of [***40] arbitration “[i]n its broad sense, . . . is a substitution, by consent of the parties, of another tribunal for the tribunal provided by the ordinary processes of law. The object of arbitration is the final disposition, in a speedy, inexpensive, expeditious, and perhaps less formal manner, of the controversial differences between the parties.”

[Carpenter v. Bloomer, 54 N.J. Super. 157, 162, 148 A.2d 497 (App.Div.1959) (quoting E. Eng’g Co. v. City of Ocean City, 11 N.J. Misc. 508, 510-11, 167 A. 522 (Sup.Ct.1933)).]

Further, although this Court previously has not ruled on the issue, permitting arbitration of a minor’s claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children. For example, in [*344] Allgor, supra, the Appellate Division concluded that a father’s contractual agreement to submit to arbitration disputes arising under his underinsured motorist policy also bound his minor son who filed a claim under that policy. 280 N.J. Super. at 262-65, 654 A.2d 1375. The court rejected the contention that “arbitration is not appropriate when the best interests [***41] of a child are at stake.” Id. at 261, 654 A.2d 1375. Our decision in Faherty also supports enforcement of the arbitration provision at issue. In that case, we held that public policy permits spouses to include provisions in their separation agreements for arbitration of child support disputes, subject only to heightened judicial review of the arbitrator’s award. Faherty, supra, 97 N.J. at 108-09, 477 A.2d 1257. We reasoned that

[w]e do not agree with those who fear that by allowing parents to agree to arbitrate child support, we are interfering with the judicial protection of the best interests of the child. We see no valid reason why the arbitration process should not be available in the area of child support; the advantages of arbitration in domestic disputes outweigh any disadvantages.

[Id. at 109, 477 A.2d 1257 (emphasis added).]

Finally, a review of case law from other jurisdictions reinforces our conclusion that a parent should be permitted to bind a minor child to arbitration. In Global Travel Marketing, supra, the Florida Supreme Court recently reversed a Florida Court of Appeals ruling, upon which plaintiffs relied, [***42] which held that parents lack authority to bind a minor child to arbitrate prospective claims arising out of a commercial travel contract for an African safari. 908 So. 2d at 394-95. In finding that such agreements are “not contrary to the public policy of protecting children,” id. at 405, the court recognized a “crucial” distinction between an outright waiver of a minor’s legal claims and a waiver of the forum in which the claims are presented, id. at 403.

The Ohio Court of Appeals reached a similar conclusion in Cross, supra, 724 N.E.2d 828. There, the producers of a television show sought to enforce an arbitration agreement signed by a parent on behalf of a child who sued the show for fraud and defamation after the show allegedly portrayed [*345] the child as a bully. Id. at 830-31. The court upheld that agreement and found that “a parent has the authority to bind his or her child to a resolution of the child’s claims [**394] through arbitration.” Id. at 836. The court reasoned that the Ohio Supreme Court previously had upheld a liability waiver executed by a parent on behalf of a minor participating in a recreational [***43] activity sponsored by a non-profit organization. Ibid. (citing Zivich, supra, 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 696 N.E.2d 201). In relying on Zivich, however, the court noted that

[a] parent’s consent and release to arbitration only specifies the forum for resolution of the child’s claim; it does not extinguish the claim. Logically, if a parent has the authority to bring and conduct a lawsuit on behalf of the child, he or she has the same authority to choose arbitration as the litigation forum.

[Ibid.]

See also
Doyle v. Giuliucci, 62 Cal. 2d 606, 401 P.2d 1, 3, 43 Cal. Rptr. 697 (1965) (stating that arbitration provision in contract for medical services signed by parent on minor’s behalf “is a reasonable restriction, for it does no more than specify a forum for the settlement of disputes”); accord
Leong v. Kaiser Found. Hosps., 71 Haw. 240, 788 P.2d 164, 169 (1990) (concurring with reasoning of Doyle and holding that minor was bound by arbitration provision in contract for medical services signed by father).

Although we recognize that certain cases from other jurisdictions have found a minor’s claims to be non-arbitrable, [***44] those cases are distinguishable because they were decided solely on the basis of the individual contracts at issue in those appeals. They did not directly rule on the larger issue presented by this appeal–whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitrate future disputes. Fleetwood Enters. Inc. v. Gaskamp, 280 F.3d 1069, 1077, reh’g denied, 303 F.3d 570 (5th Cir.2002) (holding that minor children were not bound to arbitrate injuries suffered as result of formaldehyde inhalation because children were neither signatories to mobile-home sales contract signed by their parents nor third-party beneficiaries of that contract); Billieson v. City of New Orleans, 863 So. 2d 557, 562-63 (La.Ct.App.2003) (concluding that children’s claims for lead poisoning were not precluded by [*346] arbitration agreement between city housing authority and property management company because children were not third-party beneficiaries of agreement); see also
Lewis v. Cedu Educ. Servs., 135 Idaho 139, 15 P.3d 1147, 1152 (2000) (concluding that child was not bound to arbitrate based on language of contract and expressly declining to determine [***45] whether “minors should or should not be bound to arbitrate disputes arising out of contracts entered into on their behalf by their parents”); Accomazzo v. Cedu Educ. Servs., Inc., 135 Idaho 145, 15 P.3d 1153, 1156 (2000) (same). Therefore, [HN10] in the absence of any allegations relating to fraud, duress, or unconscionability in the signing of the contract or that the agreement to arbitrate was not written in clear and unambiguous terms, we conclude that a parent’s agreement to arbitrate is valid and enforceable against any tort claims asserted on a minor’s behalf.

IV.

We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division and refer this matter to the arbitrator for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI’s opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins.

CONCUR BY: LaVECCHIA (In Part)

DISSENT BY: LaVECCHIA (In Part)

DISSENT

Justice LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

I am in full agreement with that portion of the majority’s decision that affirms enforcement of the parties’ agreement to subject [***46] their dispute to arbitration. I part company from my colleagues, however, in so far as they have chosen to invalidate the [**395] waiver of liability that the parties to this appeal executed as a condition of the minor Andrew’s use of defendant’s property to skateboard. In that respect, I am in substantial agreement with the Appellate Division dissent that was penned by Judge Fisher. Essentially, because a waiver of rights of the type entered into by these parties generally would be enforceable as against an adult, I see no reason why this Court should prevent a parent from ratifying such a waiver on behalf of a child, provided that a court or arbitrator determines that the release is reasonable.

[*347] Although the majority declines to express any view on whether the waiver would be invalid if enforced against an adult, it is noteworthy that the waiver does not appear to involve any of the grounds that New Jersey courts have heretofore invoked to invalidate an exculpatory waiver. For example, the waiver does not exempt defendant from liability for a “future intentional tort or willful act or gross negligence.” Kuzmiak v. Brookchester, Inc., 33 N.J. Super. 575, 580, 111 A.2d 425 (App.Div.1955). [***47] Nor does the waiver seek a release from any statutorily imposed duty. McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 542, 226 A.2d 713 (1967). Furthermore, although the majority notes that “[e]xculpatory agreements have long been disfavored in the law,” that proposition has been invoked not to invalidate a waiver, as the Court does here, but rather to explain that such waivers should be narrowly construed:

Contracts of this nature are not favored by the law. They are strictly construed against the party relying on them and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from such a liability.

[McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 87 N.J. Super. 442, 450, 209 A.2d 668 (Law Div.1965), aff’d, 90 N.J. Super. 574, 218 A.2d 871 (App.Div.1966), aff’d, 48 N.J. 539, 226 A.2d 713 (1967).]

See also
Gershon v. Regency Diving Ctr., Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 247, 845 A.2d 720 (App.Div.2004) (stating more recently that because “the law does not favor exculpatory agreements,” “[a]ny doubts or ambiguities as to the scope of the exculpatory language must be resolved against the drafter”).

The fact that exculpatory waivers receive [***48] narrow construction from courts does not render such waivers unenforceable. Previously, we have stated that “[w]here [exculpatory agreements] do not adversely affect the public interest, exculpatory clauses in private agreements are generally sustained.” Mayfair Fabrics v. Henley, 48 N.J. 483, 487, 226 A.2d 602 (1967). Such clauses most commonly are used and enforced in a “commercial context,” Chem. Bank, N.A. v. Bailey, 296 N.J. Super. 515, 527, 687 A.2d 316 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 150 N.J. 28, 695 A.2d 671 (1997), and generally are valid and enforceable against individuals so long as the particular exculpatory clause does not involve a matter of [*348] public interest. McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543, 226 A.2d 713 (1967) (citing Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44, 46 (1953)). Many states also look to the notion of “public interest,” or other related concepts, when determining whether to uphold the validity of an exculpatory waiver. The California Supreme Court’s decision in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33 (1963), [***49] provides arguably the most widely accepted test applied to exculpatory agreements. Tunkl set forth six factors, one of which is whether “[t]he 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 [**396] members of the public.” Id. at 33, 383 P.2d at 445.

In my view, recreational activities such as skateboarding do not implicate the “public interest.” 1 The majority apparently does not assert otherwise, lodging no objection to the content of the waiver. Rather, the majority focuses on the fact that defendant is attempting to enforce this particular waiver of rights against a minor.

1 That conclusion is in accord with the majority of jurisdictions that have addressed the subject; they have concluded that recreational activities do not implicate the public interest. See, e.g.
Chauvlier v. Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., 109 Wn. App. 334, 35 P.3d 383, 388 (2001) (stating that “skiing is not a ‘service of great importance to the public,’ much less a service of ‘practical necessity.'”). Courts have upheld liability waivers in the context of the following recreational activities: automobile racing, being a spectator at an automobile race, scuba diving, horseback riding, roller skating, skydiving, mountain biking, recreational sumo wrestling, weightlifting at a fitness center, motorcycle racing, go-cart racing, bicycling, and ski racing. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, 752-53 (2005) (Norcott, J., dissenting) (collecting cases). On the other hand, a minority of states have found that snow-tubing and skiing activities do implicate the public interest. See
Hanks, supra, 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (majority opinion); Spencer v. Killington, Ltd., 167 Vt. 137, 702 A.2d 35 (Vt. 1997); Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt. 329, 670 A.2d 795 (1995). I find those cases unpersuasive. To find that recreational activities implicate the “public interest,” would strip that term of meaningful content.

[***50] Invoking the “best interests” of children under the parens patriae doctrine, the majority holds that the waiver is invalid as [*349] against public policy, and analogizes the instant situation to the requirement under Rule 4:44 that parental settlement of a minor’s post-injury claims receive judicial approval. There is an important difference between the present pre-injury waiver and the circumstances Rule 4:44 seeks to address. “Our rules for friendly settlements, R. 4:44-1 et seq., are intended to minimize or prevent conflicts of interest from occurring and to assure the reasonableness of settlements.” Zukerman v. Piper Pools, 232 N.J. Super. 74, 90, 556 A.2d 775 (App.Div.1989). See also
Colfer v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 214 N.J. Super. 374, 377, 519 A.2d 893 (App.Div.1986) (noting that “[t]he purpose of the rule is not only to guard a minor against an improvident compromise but also to secure the minor against dissipation of the proceeds.”). Because the pre-injury setting does not involve the specter of a potential monetary settlement that looms over post-injury settlements, conflicts are of little [***51] concern in the pre-injury setting. See
Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 747 n.10 (2002); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201, 206 (1998); Angeline Purdy, Note, Scott v. Pacific West Mountain Resort: Erroneously Invalidating Parental Releases of a Minor’s Future Claim, 68 Wash. L. Rev. 457 (1993).

Assuming, nonetheless, that a pre-injury contractual setting is similar to a post-injury setting, that does not support the conclusion that all waivers entered into on behalf of minors are unenforceable, a conclusion that simply goes too far. Rule 4:44 does not bar parental settlements. Rather, the rule requires judicial scrutiny “to ensure the reasonableness of settlements.” Zukerman, supra, 232 N.J. Super. at 90, 556 A.2d 775. If Rule 4:44 provides an appropriate analogy, then the standard of reasonableness that applies to post-injury settlements should apply to the review of pre-injury waivers.

I acknowledge that as a general rule, minors can, before they reach the age of majority, disaffirm contracts into which they enter. [**397] Mechanics Fin. Co. v. Paolino, 29 N.J. Super. 449, 453, 102 A.2d 784 (App.Div.1954) [***52] (stating that “[i]t is generally true that an [*350] infant may avoid his contract.”); Boyce v. Doyle, 113 N.J Super. 240, 241, 273 A.2d 408 (Law Div.1971) (stating that “[t]here can be no doubt but that contracts not of necessity may be voided by an infant either before or a reasonable time after he obtains his majority.”); Restatement (Second) of Contracts §§ 12, 14 (1981); 7 Corbin on Contracts § 27.2 (Perillo rev.2002); 5 Williston on Contracts § 9.5 (Lord ed., 4th ed.1993). That general rule is not altered by a parent’s signing of the contract on behalf of a minor. See 42 Am. Jur. 2d Infants § 46 (2000) (stating that “[a]s a general rule, an infant’s right to avoid his contract is not defeated by the fact that the contract was made by the infant and his or her parent, was made with the approval of his or her parent [or] was approved and ratified by his or her guardian”); Del Bosco v. U.S. Ski Ass’n, 839 F. Supp. 1470, 1474 n.2 (D.Colo.1993) (noting that “[c]ourts that have decided the issue have determined that the signature of a parent does not validate [***53] an infant’s contract.”).

However, contracts entered into by minors can be enforceable if the contract is approved by a court. Indeed, as noted, Rule 4:44 allows settlement agreements involving minors to be enforced so long as a reviewing court determines that the agreement is “reasonable.” Zukerman, supra, 232 N.J. Super. at 90, 556 A.2d 775. Beyond the settlement context, other states have enacted statutory schemes that bar minors from disaffirming certain contracts that have received judicial approval. See, e.g., Cal. Fam. Code § 6750-53 (2006) (covering entertainers and athletes); Cal. Lab. Code § 1700.37 (2006) (covering contracts between a minor and a talent agency); N.Y. Arts & Cult. Affr. Law § 35.03 (2006) (covering entertainers and athletes).

Although our Legislature has not yet enacted similar legislation, freedom of contract principles lead me to the conclusion that a pre-tort waiver entered into by a minor, or ratified by a parent on behalf of a minor, should be enforceable when a reviewing court or arbitrator determines that the waiver was reasonable and not [***54] based on unequal bargaining positions. See
Simmons v. Parkette Nat’l Gymnastic Training Ctr., 670 F. Supp. 140, 144 (E.D.Pa. [*351] 1987) (invalidating minor’s pre-injury waiver and relying, in part, on the fact that “there was no court involvement in the transaction”). If the reasonableness of the waiver is approved, then a minor should be barred from disaffirming the contract, an approach that is consistent with Rule 4:44. It differs somewhat from Rule 4:44 in that I would allow a trial court to review the “reasonableness” of a pre-tort waiver when a defendant, post-injury, raises the waiver as a defense to a suit brought by an injured party.
2

2 Under Rule 4:44 litigants must obtain court approval at the time of entry into the settlement agreement. Requiring judicial approval at the time that a minor enters into a pre-injury waiver would be impractical and inefficient. Review would have to be limited to situations when an injury actually occurs. The reviewing court, of course, would have to view the “reasonableness” of the waiver as of the time that the waiver was executed.

[***55] Post-injury review of pre-injury waivers eliminates the certainty that is provided by Rule 4:44 or, for example, the process established by statute in California and New York, all of which mandate that courts review contracts at the time they are executed. Potential defendants may, however, wish to bear the risk of such uncertainty given the benefits of any waiver ultimately upheld as reasonable. Absent action by the Legislature, I would permit court or arbitrator review and approval, as described, to validate a minor’s [**398] contract in respect of the type of pre-injury liability waivers presented herein. In so stating, I offer no judgment about what forms of liability defendant purported to waive by this exculpatory release. I would have allowed the arbitrator to sort out the reasonableness and the reach of the waiver executed by the parties.

Accordingly, I would affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand the matter for further proceedings.

Justice RIVERA-SOTO joins in this opinion. [*352]


New York court shreds Tough Mudder online release and arbitration clause because the reader could assent to the release without reading the release.

The clauses in the release were not clearly identified and could be avoided by plaintiff. Release was found to be void because if violated New York General Obligations Law § 5-326

Scotti v Tough Mudder Inc., 63 Misc. 3d 843, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 2019 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1525, 2019 NY Slip Op 29098, 2019 WL 1511142

State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

Plaintiff: Richard E. Scotti et al. (Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo)

Defendant: Tough Mudder Incorporated et al. (Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated)

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Arbitration Clause & Release

Holding: for the Plaintiffs

Year: 2019

Summary

Tough Mudder has been having a tough time in court. This was another court that found several ways to void the release. Tough Mudder was attempting to compel arbitration; however, the arbitration clause in the release did not meet the legal requirements of New York Law. The release itself failed because if violated New York General Obligations Law § 5-326 which voids releases for recreation.

Facts

This personal injury action stems from an accident which occurred on July 23, 2016, when the plaintiffs Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo participated in the “Tough Mudder,” a physically challenging obstacle course event (hereinafter the TM event), which took place at 1303 Round Swamp Road, Old Bethpage, New York. Defendants Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated (collectively, Tough Mudder) are the business entities that organized the TM event. Plaintiffs commenced the within action on or about November 17, 2017, against Tough Mudder alleging that they each sustained injuries as a result of defendants’ negligent operation of an activity at the event, referred to as the “salmon ladder.” Tough Mudder joined issue on or about December 20, 2017, with the service of a verified answer. In their answer, Tough Mudder denied all material allegations and asserted various affirmative defenses, including that the plaintiffs’ action is barred by the participation/registration agreement, which included an arbitration clause.

Tough Mudder now moves, pursuant to CPLR 7501 and 7503, to compel arbitration, arguing that the plaintiffs are barred from pursuing the instant action in this court because they each waived the right to sue by virtue of agreeing to arbitrate any “disputes, controversies, or claims” arising out of their participation in the TM event. Tough Mudder claims that the plaintiffs each entered into an agreement to arbitrate all claims related to their participation in the TM event when they completed an online Internet registration form. In support of this contention, Tough Mudder has submitted the sworn affidavit of Jenna Best, the manager of customer relations for Tough Mudder Incorporated. Best avers that she is fully familiar with the TM event online registration process as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM event at issue. Tough Mudder has submitted copies of the online registration forms that the plaintiffs allegedly completed for the TM event (Cash affirmation, exhibit D). Best states that, during the online registration process, the plaintiffs were required to scroll down to a section containing the “Participant Waiver and Course Rules” (hereinafter PWCR), a document version of which has been submitted herein She contends that the full text of the PWCR was contained in a box on the screen, which could be read by scrolling down in the text box. Best contends that the initial visible content of the scrollable box, which preceded the full PWCR document, which could be read in its entirety by scrolling down…

Below the box containing the scrollable PWCR was another box next to the statement: “I agree to the above waiver.” Best avers that it was necessary for the plaintiffs, or any other registrant, to click on the box to indicate his or her consent to the PWCR in order for the registrant to complete his or her registration for the TM event. According to Best, the Internet registration form cannot proceed to the payment page, and registration cannot be completed, until the registrant checks the box indicating his or her consent to the PWCR She further avers that both plaintiffs did in fact click on the box indicating their consent to the PWCR, as otherwise they would not have been able to participate in the TM event. Based upon the foregoing, Tough Mudder contends that the plaintiffs agreed to the terms of the online waiver, which included the arbitration clause, and, therefore, are barred from pursuing the instant action.

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

The court looked at the plaintiff’s arguments first.

In opposition, plaintiffs argue that the arbitration provision at issue is unenforceable because Tough Mudder has failed to establish that they actually agreed to it. In this regard, plaintiffs point out that the webpage where the PWCR was located contained a text box that did not show the entire document. In order to read the full PWCR, including the arbitration provision, plaintiffs contend it would have been necessary to scroll down through many screens of text using the arrows on the right-hand side of the text box. The PWCR fills seven single-spaced pages of text.

On top of that, the court stated the evidence presented by the defendant Tough Mudder was not sufficient to prove that either plaintiff checked the box or agreed to the terms of the contract.

Plaintiffs further argue that Tough Mudder has failed to proffer any evidence that either plaintiff actually signed/checked the consent box, or any evidence identifying the computers or electronic devices from which their respective registrations were completed.

The burden was on Tough Mudder to prove the plaintiffs signed the agreement which contained the arbitration clause.

It is well settled that “[a] party to an agreement may not be compelled to arbitrate its dispute with another unless the evidence establishes the parties’ clear, explicit and unequivocal agreement to arbitrate” When one party seeks to compel the other to arbitrate any disputes between them, the court must first determine whether the parties made a valid arbitration agreement. The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists

To prove the existence of the contract and the agreement to the arbitration clause the courts look for evidence that the website user had actual or constructive knowledge of clauses in the contract.

The question of whether there is agreement to accept the terms of an online contract turns on the particular facts and circumstances. Courts generally look for evidence that a website user had actual or constructive notice of the terms by using the website. Where the person’s alleged consent is solely online, courts seek to determine whether a reasonably prudent person would be put on notice of the provision in the contract, and whether the terms of the agreement were reasonably communicated to the user. In Specht v Netscape Communications Corp, the court emphasized that “[r]easonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent to those terms by consumers are essential if electronic bargaining is to have integrity and credibility”

The seven-page agreement had no headings, no italics, no bold print, nothing to indicate the agreement covered more issues than were identified in the heading. The heading stated:

“ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT “PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS.”

No where in the heading was a mention of a mandatory arbitration clause. (Ambush by small print was eliminated by the courts in the 70’s, this lawsuit was in 2019; someone should have realized that by now.)

The court the defined the agreement as one of four types of agreements found online “the four “general types of online consumer contracts [are identified as] (a) browsewrap; (b) clickwrap; (c) scrollwrap; and (d) sign-in-wrap.”

Based on the evidence presented by the defendants the court found the agreement was a “clickwrap” agreement.

Here, the PWCR at issue appears to be a click-wrap agreement as identified in Berkson in that the clickable box is located directly below the scrollable text box that allegedly contained the full text of the agreement. Only by scrolling down in the text box would the user see all of the terms of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue.

The court then held that you could agree to the agreement without scrolling through the agreement; therefore, you could sign the agreement without knowing what was in the agreement.

However, the user could proceed to complete the registration process without necessarily scrolling down through the text box to view the full document, thereby rendering it a click-wrap agreement.

The plaintiff could be bound by a clickwrap agreement, but only if they were given sufficient opportunity to read the agreement and agree to it. There must also be a way to decline a click-wrap agreement.

A party may be bound to a click-wrap agreement by clicking a button declaring assent, so long as the party is given a “sufficient opportunity to read the . . . agreement, and assents thereto after being provided with an unambiguous method of accepting or declining the offer.”

Then the court closed the door on the defendants attempt to compel arbitration.

…[a] court cannot presume that a person who clicks on a box that appears on a . . . screen has notice of all contents not only of that page but of other content that requires further action (scrolling, following a link, etc.). The presentation of the online agreement matters: Whether there was notice of the existence of additional contract terms presented on a webpage depends heavily on whether the design and content of that webpage rendered the existence of terms reasonably conspicuous. Clarity and conspicuousness of arbitration terms are important in securing informed assent.” (Internal quotation marks and citations omitted.)

Understand, the court did not say the contract was invalid; the court was only looking at the issue of the arbitration clause. Under New York law for the arbitration clause to be valid, the plaintiff had to “had actual or constructive notice of the terms….” Since there was no notice of arbitration in the heading, and you could agree to the agreement without reading it, the agreement failed the heightened requirements to prove an arbitration clause existed between the parties.

Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, a valid agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous, and manifestation of assent is unambiguous as a matter of law. Therefore, the issue herein is whether Tough Mudder’s website registration screen put a reasonably prudent user on inquiry notice of the relevant terms of the PWCR, particularly the arbitration clause at issue.

Then the court jumped on the issue that the evidence in front of the court did not prove their argument. Black-and-white copies were provided to the court rather than color copies. The font size was small and barely legible.

In addition, the court notes that the purported copies of the plaintiffs’ respective online registration forms (screenshots) submitted by Tough Mudder are black and white copies of poor quality, the text of which is in an extremely small font size and is barely legible. Tough Mudder has not proffered any color copies of any screenshots depicting its online registration process. In addition, the full text of the PWCR, as provided by Tough Mudder, is not a screenshot but a black and white document, consisting of seven pages of single-spaced language, all in the same font and size, with no underlined, hyperlinked or bolded terms.

The court then attacked how the document would have been presented online from the evidence in front of it.

In order to view the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, the plaintiffs, by using the arrows inside the text box, needed to scroll down significantly beyond what is initially visible, to page four of the seven-page single-spaced PWCR document. The court additionally notes that, as with the entire document, the arbitration provision is neither underlined, bolded nor hyperlinked. Further, since this court has only been provided with a black and white document, not screenshots, it is unable to discern how the subject arbitration clause actually appeared to the user. Indeed, “[i]n the context of web-based contracts, [courts] look to the design and content of the relevant interface to determine if the contract terms were presented to the offeree in a way that would put her [or him] on inquiry notice of such terms

It is laughable that in 2019 you read a case where the court complains about the type being too small to read.

The court found that based on the evidence in front of it, there was not an arbitration clause between the parties.

The court then looked at the release.

New York General Obligations Law § 5-32 voids releases for recreation activities where a fee is paid.

That statute protects consumers from the effect of form releases printed on membership applications and similar documents when such releases are offered in connection with the use of a “place of amusement or recreation” for which a fee is paid

The court found New York General Obligations Law § 5-32 voided the release.

The terms of this statute apply to the plaintiffs herein, who paid a fee to use Tough Mudder’s obstacle course, which, contrary to Tough Mudder’s assertion, is a place of recreation. Indeed, the nature of the TM event as described by Tough Mudder—a rigorous, athletic competition requiring proper training—is comparable to the other activities, such as horseback riding, auto racing, cycling and skiing, which have been held to be covered by General Obligations Law § 5-326.

The final issue was the agreement had a severability clause. This is a clause that states if a portion of the contract is found unenforceable or void by the court it does not void the entire document. Only the portions the court finds void, are severed from the document, and the document without those clauses can be used as evidence in court.

However, as Tough Mudder correctly argues, the unenforceable provisions of the PWCR do not nullify the entire agreement. Where an agreement consists partially of an unlawful objective, the “court may sever the illegal aspects . . . and enforce the legal ones, so long as the illegal aspects are incidental to the legal aspects and are not the main objective of the agreement.

Which is exactly what the court did.

Here, the waiver of liability provision in the PWCR releasing Tough Mudder from liability, as well as the arbitration clause, are severable from the remainder of the PWCR agreement on the ground that the unenforceable provisions are incidental to the legal aspects and not the main objective of the agreement. Further, the severability provision in the PWCR reflects the intent of the parties that the legal provisions of the agreement be severed from any provisions determined to be void and unenforceable.

So, hopefully the seven-page document had language that could be used to prove assumption of the risk by the defendants.

So Now What?

On paper, this release might have survived. However, there are more issues with online releases. This is the second case where the court found the proof offered by the defense to prove the release was signed was found to be lacking because of poor copies of the website. That is just stupid. With color printers now days, computers and monitors that can be brought into court or linked to in a document you should be able to have anyone see what the document actually looked and how the software performed.

When you have several different issues in a contract, it is common to identify the new issues with a heading or bold type. In this case not only where there are new issues in the release besides release language there was an arbitration agreement. New York, as most states, have specific language in how an arbitration agreement should be written. This release failed that test.

The arbitration agreement was an attempt to lose the value of the entire release because releases for recreation where a person pays money to recreation are void. New York General Obligations Law § 5-32

§ 5-326.  Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

The big issue the court seemed to be pushing was the game of hide and seek that Tough Mudder plays both with its courses and with the release. Contestants never know what they will encounter when competing in a Tough Mudder event. Consequently, you eliminate a lot of the defense of assumption of the risk. You can’t assume a risk you don’t know about.

Tough Mudder then tried that game with its release (or did not have an attorney write its release) and tried to slide the arbitration clause past the participants. It failed because the court held it must meet New York law and be written and visible in a way that the signor understands they are signing an arbitration agreement. That is a bigger burden then just signing a release.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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New Jersey does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue so a binding arbitration agreement is a good idea, if it is written correctly.

The arbitration agreement in this case did not state how long the agreement was valid for, so the court held it was only valid for the day it was signed.

Citation: Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206

State: New Jersey: Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

Plaintiff: Lorianne Weed and Scott Trefero as parents and natural guardians of A.M., a minor,

Defendant: Sky NJ, LLC a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone Moorestown and/or a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone and David R. Agger

Plaintiff Claims: Contract failed to compel arbitration

Defendant Defenses: Arbitration

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2018

Summary

When a parent cannot sign a release for a minor, because the states don’t enforce them, one option may be a binding arbitration agreement. Arbitration usually does not allow massive damages, is cheaper and quicker than going to trial.

However, your arbitration agreement, like a release, must be written in a way to make sure it is effective. This one was not, and the plaintiff can proceed to trial.

Facts

Plaintiff visited the trampoline facility in July 2016. Entrance to the park is conditioned on all participants signing a “Conditional Access Agreement, Pre-Injury Waiver of Liability, and Agreement to Indemnity, Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate” (the Agreement). Weed executed the agreement on behalf of her son in July 2016.

Plaintiff returned to the facility with a friend in November 2016, and was injured while using the trampolines during a “Glow” event, which plaintiff submits used different and less lighting than was present at his earlier visit. Plaintiff entered the facility in November with an agreement signed by his friend’s mother on behalf of both her daughter and A.M.[2] In an affidavit submitted by Weed in opposition to the motion, she stated that she was unaware that her son was going to the facility at the time of the November visit.

After Weed filed suit on behalf of her son, defendants moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the agreement. Defendants argued that the agreements contained “straightforward, clear, and unequivocal” language that a participant was waiving their right to present claims before a jury in exchange for conditional access to the facility. They asserted that the first agreement signed by Weed remained in effect at the time of plaintiff’s subsequent visit in November as there was no indication that it was only valid for the one day of entry in July. Finally, defendants contended that any dispute as to a term of the agreement should be resolved in arbitration.

Plaintiff opposed the motion, asserting that nothing in the first agreement alerted Weed that it would remain in effect for either a certain or an indefinite period of time. To the contrary, defendants’ policy of requiring a new agreement to be signed each time a participant entered the park belied its argument that a prior agreement remained valid for a period of time.

On May 19, 2017, Judge Joseph L. Marczyk conducted oral argument and denied the motion in an oral decision issued the same day. The judge determined that the first agreement did not apply to the November visit because it did not contain any language that it would remain valid and applicable to all future visits. Therefore, there was no notice to the signor of the agreement that it would be in effect beyond that specific day of entry, and no “meeting of the minds” that the waiver and agreement to arbitrate pertained to all claims for any future injury.

As for the second agreement, the judge found that there was no precedent to support defendants’ contention that an unrelated person could bind plaintiff to an arbitration clause. This appeal followed.

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

In a state where there are no defenses except assumption of the risk for claims by minor’s arbitration can be a good way to speed up the process and limit damages. Each state has laws that encourage arbitration and, in most cases, create limits on what an arbitration panel (the people hearing the case) can award in damages. In man states, arbitration judges cannot award punitive damages.

You need to check your state laws on what if any benefits arbitration provides.

However, if you can use a release, the release is the best way to go because it cuts off all damages. Many times, in arbitration damages are awarded, they are just less.

To determine which states do not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue see States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

The best way of dealing with minor claims is the defense of assumption of the risk. However, this takes more time on the front end in making sure the minor participants understand the risk before embarking on the activity.

There were two issues before the appellate court: Whether the first agreement signed by the mother of the injured plaintiff extended beyond the day it was signed. The second issue was whether a second agreement signed by a friend, not a parent, legal guardian or someone acting under a power of attorney had any legal validity.

The first agreement was silent as to how long it was valid. There was no termination date, (which is a good thing) and nothing to indicate the agreement was good for a day or a lifetime. Because the contract was blank as to when the agreement was valid, the court ruled against the creator of the contract.

There is no evidence in the record before us to support defendants’ argument as the agreements are silent as to any period of validity. Defendants drafted these agreements and required a signature from all participants waiving certain claims and requiring submission to arbitration prior to permitting access to the facility. Any ambiguity in the contract must be construed against defendants.

When a contract is written any issues are held against the writer of the agreement. Here because the contract had no end date or did not say it was good forever, there was a gap in the agreement that was held against the defendant as the writer of the agreement.

So, the court ruled the agreement signed by the mother was only valid on the day it was signed and was not valid the second time when the minor came in and was injured.

The second argument made by the defendant was the friend who signed for the minor on the second visit signed an agreement that should be enforced and compel arbitration.

The court laughed that one out the door.

We further find that defendants’ argument regarding the November agreement lacks merit. The signor of that agreement was neither a parent, a legal guardian, nor the holder of a power of attorney needed to bind the minor plaintiff to the arbitration agreement. Defendants’ reliance on Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, is misplaced. While the Court found that a parent had the authority to waive their own child’s rights under an arbitration agreement in Hojnowski, there is no suggestion that such authority would extend to a non-legal guardian. Not only would such a holding bind the minor to an arbitration agreement, it would also serve to bind the minor’s parents, waiving their rights to bring a claim on behalf of their child. We decline to so hold.

So Now What?

New Jersey law is quite clear. A parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue, Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park. Consequently, arbitration was probably the way to go. In this case, one little slip up made the arbitration agreement worthless.

The one flaw in using an arbitration agreement is you could use a release to stop the claims for a parent. So, you should write a release that stops the claims of the parents/legal guardians and compels arbitration of the minor’s claims. Those get tricky.

And as far as another adult signing for a minor who is not their child, that is always a problem. A parent can sign for a minor, to some extent, and a spouse can sign for another spouse in certain situations. An officer of a corporation or a manager of a limited liability company can sign for the corporation or company. The trustee can sign for a trust, and any partner can sign for a partnership. But only you can sign for you.

The issue that outdoor businesses see all day long is a volunteer youth leader take groups of kids to parks, amusement rides and climbing walls, etc. Neighbors take the neighborhood kids to the zoo, and friends grab their kids’ friends to take on vacation. Unless the adult has a power of attorney saying they have the right to enter agreements on behalf of the minor child, their signature only has value if they are a celebrity or sports personality.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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

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Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206

Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206

Lorianne Weed and Scott Trefero as parents and natural guardians of A.M., a minor, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. Sky NJ, LLC a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone Moorestown and/or a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone and David R. Agger, Defendants-Appellants.

No. A-4589-16T1

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

February 22, 2018

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued January 18, 2018

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Docket No. L-2790-16.

Marco P. DiFlorio argued the cause for appellants (Salmon, Ricchezza, Singer & Turchi LLP, attorneys; Joseph A. Ricchezza and Marco P. DiFlorio, on the briefs).

Iddo Harel argued the cause for respondents (Ross Feller Casey, LLP, attorneys; Joel J. Feller and Iddo Harel, on the brief).

Before Judges Currier and Geiger.

PER CURIAM

Defendants Sky NJ, LLC a/k/a/ Sky Zone Moorestown and David Agger (defendants) appeal from the May 19, 2017 order denying their motion to compel arbitration in this personal injury suit brought by plaintiffs after A.M.[1] suffered severe injuries while jumping on a trampoline at defendants’ facility. After a review of the presented arguments in light of the record before us and applicable principles of law, we affirm.

Plaintiff visited the trampoline facility in July 2016. Entrance to the park is conditioned on all participants signing a “Conditional Access Agreement, Pre-Injury Waiver of Liability, and Agreement to Indemnity, Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate” (the Agreement). Weed executed the agreement on behalf of her son in July 2016.

Plaintiff returned to the facility with a friend in November 2016, and was injured while using the trampolines during a “Glow” event, which plaintiff submits used different and less lighting than was present at his earlier visit. Plaintiff entered the facility in November with an agreement signed by his friend’s mother on behalf of both her daughter and A.M.[2] In an affidavit submitted by Weed in opposition to the motion, she stated that she was unaware that her son was going to the facility at the time of the November visit.

Both agreements required the submission of all claims to binding arbitration and contained the following pertinent language:

I understand that this Agreement waives certain rights that I have in exchange for permission to gain access to the [l]ocation. I agree and acknowledge that the rights I am waiving in exchange for permission to gain access to the [l]ocation include but may not be limited to the following:

a. the right to sue [defendants] in a court of law;

b. the right to a trial by judge or jury;

c. the right to claim money from [defendants] for accidents causing injury within the scope of the risk assumed by myself;

d. the right to claim money from [defendants] for accidents causing injury unless [defendants] committed acts of gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct; and

e. the right to file a claim against [defendants] if I wait more than one year from . . . the date of this Agreement.

Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate

IF I AM INJURED AND WANT TO MAKE A CLAIM AND/OR IF THERE ARE ANY DISPUTES REGARDING THIS AGREEMENT, I HEREBY WAIVE ANY RIGHT I HAVE TO A TRIAL IN A COURT OF LAW BEFORE A JUDGE AND JURY. I AGREE THAT SUCH DISPUTE SHALL BE BROUGHT WITHIN ONE YEAR OF THE DATE OF THIS AGREEMENT AND WILL BE DETERMINED BY BINDING ARBITRATION BEFORE ONE ARBITRATOR TO BE ADMINISTERED BY JAMS[3] PURSUANT TO ITS COMPREHENSIVE ARBITRATIONRULES AND PROCEDURES.I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of New Jersey and that the substantive law of New Jersey shall apply. I acknowledge that if I want to make a claim against [defendants], I must file a demand before JAMS. … To the extent that any claim I have against [defendants] has not been released or waived by this Agreement, I acknowledge that I have agreed that my sole remedy is to arbitrat[e] such claim, and that such claim may only be brought against [defendants] in accordance with the above Waiver of Trial and Agreement to Arbitrate.

After Weed filed suit on behalf of her son, defendants moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the agreement. Defendants argued that the agreements contained “straightforward, clear, and unequivocal” language that a participant was waiving their right to present claims before a jury in exchange for conditional access to the facility. They asserted that the first agreement signed by Weed remained in effect at the time of plaintiff’s subsequent visit in November as there was no indication that it was only valid for the one day of entry in July. Finally, defendants contended that any dispute as to a term of the agreement should be resolved in arbitration.

Plaintiff opposed the motion, asserting that nothing in the first agreement alerted Weed that it would remain in effect for either a certain or an indefinite period of time. To the contrary, defendants’ policy of requiring a new agreement to be signed each time a participant entered the park belied its argument that a prior agreement remained valid for a period of time.

On May 19, 2017, Judge Joseph L. Marczyk conducted oral argument and denied the motion in an oral decision issued the same day. The judge determined that the first agreement did not apply to the November visit because it did not contain any language that it would remain valid and applicable to all future visits. Therefore, there was no notice to the signor of the agreement that it would be in effect beyond that specific day of entry, and no “meeting of the minds” that the waiver and agreement to arbitrate pertained to all claims for any future injury.

As for the second agreement, the judge found that there was no precedent to support defendants’ contention that an unrelated person could bind plaintiff to an arbitration clause. This appeal followed.

“[O]rders compelling or denying arbitration are deemed final and appealable as of right as of the date entered.” GMAC v. Pittella, 205 N.J. 572, 587 (2011). We review the judge’s decision to compel arbitration de novo. Frumer v. Nat’1 Home Ins. Co., 420 N.J.Super. 7, 13 (App. Div. 2011). The question of whether an arbitration clause is enforceable is an issue of law, which we also review de novo. Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Group, L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 445-46 (2014). We owe no deference to the trial court’s “interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts.” Manalapan Realty v. Twp. Comm., 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

Defendants argue that the trial court erred when it determined that the first arbitration agreement signed by Weed four months before plaintiff’s injury was no longer binding on the parties at the time of plaintiff’s injury. We disagree.

While we are mindful that arbitration is a favored means of dispute resolution in New Jersey, the threshold issue before us is whether Weed’s signature on the July agreement would be binding on plaintiff for all subsequent visits. We apply well-established contract principles, and ascertain the parties’ intent from a consideration of all of the surrounding circumstances. James Talcott, Inc. v. H. Corenzwit & Co., 76 N.J. 305, 312 (1978). “An agreement must be construed in the context of the circumstances under which it was entered into and it must be accorded a rational meaning in keeping with the express general purpose.” Tessmar v. Grosner, 23 N.J. 193, 201 (1957).

It is undisputed that neither agreement contains any reference to a term of validity. The parties submitted conflicting affidavits in support of their respective positions. Weed stated there was nothing in the agreement she signed to apprise a participant that the agreement was in effect for longer than the day of entry. Defendants contend that plaintiff did not need a second agreement signed for the November visit as the initial agreement remained in effect.

There is no evidence in the record before us to support defendants’ argument as the agreements are silent as to any period of validity. Defendants drafted these agreements and required a signature from all participants waiving certain claims and requiring submission to arbitration prior to permitting access to the facility. Any ambiguity in the contract must be construed against defendants. See Moscowitz v. Middlesex Borough Bldq. & Luan Ass’n, 14 N.J.Super. 515, 522 (App. Div. 1951) (holding that where a contract is ambiguous, it will be construed against the drafting party). We are satisfied that Judge Marczyk’s ruling declining enforcement of the July agreement was supported by the credible evidence in the record.

We further find that defendants’ argument regarding the November agreement lacks merit. The signor of that agreement was neither a parent, a legal guardian, nor the holder of a power of attorney needed to bind the minor plaintiff to the arbitration agreement. Defendants’ reliance on Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 346 (2006) is misplaced. While the Court found that a parent had the authority to waive their own child’s rights under an arbitration agreement in Hojnowski, there is no suggestion that such authority would extend to a non-legal guardian. Not only would such a holding bind the minor to an arbitration agreement, it would also serve to bind the minor’s parents, waiving their rights to bring a claim on behalf of their child. We decline to so hold. See Moore v. Woman to Woman Obstetrics & Gynecology, LLC, 416 N.J.Super. 30, 45 (App. Div. 2010) (holding there is no legal theory that would permit one spouse to bind another to an agreement waiving the right to trial without securing consent to the agreement).

As we have concluded the threshold issue that neither the July nor the November agreement is enforceable as to the minor plaintiff, we do not reach the issue of whether the arbitration provision contained within the agreement accords with our legal standards and case law. Judge Marczyk’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration was supported by the evidence in the record.

Affirmed.

Notes:

[1] Lorianne Weed is A.M.’s mother. Because A.M. is a minor, we use initials in respect of his privacy and we refer to him hereafter as plaintiff.

[2] The agreement required the adult to “certify that [she was] the parent or legal guardian of the child(ren) listed [on the agreement] or that [she had] been granted power of attorney to sign [the] Agreement on behalf of the parent or legal guardian of the child(ren) listed.” There were no proofs presented that the adult met any of these requirements.

[3] JAMS is an organization that provides alternative dispute resolution services, including mediation and arbitration.

 


Each state had its landmines on how releases are to be written

In several states, New York as in this case, the land mines might be too many and other options should be explored.

A Tough Mudder event used a release in NY that required arbitration. The Release was thrown out by the court, consequently the requirement for arbitration was thrown out.

Arbitration works to reduce damages; however, you should only use an arbitration clause when you can’t win because you don’t have a release. In every other state other than NY, the arbitration clause might have been a worse decision.

Isha v. Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4883; 2018 NY Slip Op 32743(U)

State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

Plaintiff: Isha

Defendant: Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Contract

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2018

Facts

The plaintiff was injured in an Urban Mudder event, which appears to be something like a Tough Mudder but in a city? Other than that, there are no facts in the decision.

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

The defendant motioned to have the dispute arbitrated because the contract, the release, required arbitration.

Defendant contends that this dispute should be arbitrated pursuant to the contract be-tween the parties. Typically, arbitration clauses in contracts are regularly enforced and encouraged as a matter of public policy

The plaintiff argued that arbitration was invalid because a NY statute prohibits arbitration of consumer contracts.

Plaintiff further argues that the contract cannot be admitted into evidence pursuant to CPLR 4544 because it involves a consumer transaction and the text of the contract is less than 8-point font. In support of this argument, plaintiff submits the affidavit of Vadim Shtulboym, a paralegal in plaintiff counsel’s office. Mr. Shtulboym states that, based on his work experience, he has determined, with the aid of a scanner and Abobe Acrobat Reader DC, that the contract between the parties is 7-point font. Mr. Shtulboym explains that he came to this conclusion by typing words in 8-point font and 6-point font, and comparing them to the text of the contract, the size of which appeared to be in between the two fonts.

Plaintiff also argued the contract was void because it violated NY Gen. Oblig Law § 5-326.

§ 5-326. Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

The court found contract violated NY Gen. Oblig Law § 5-326 and was thrown out by the court. Once the agreement was thrown out in its entirety, the arbitration clause was also thrown out.

Two different statutes took the only defenses outside of assumption of the risk and through them out the door.

The court found because there was a dispute, a triable issue of fact, the motion to dismiss failed and the parties would proceed to trial on this fact alone. The size of the type font on the agreement was enough to throw the defendant into the courtroom.

So Now What?

When you have a release, in a state where releases are valid, arbitration clauses usually create a better position for the plaintiff. Most arbitrations do not allow the award of punitive damages or any special damages unless specifically allowed in a statute. However, most arbitrations split the middle and award damages to the plaintiff.

A well written release in a state where releases are upheld the plaintiff gets nothing, or less.

However, in a state like New York or the other states that do not support the use of a release, (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release), you must use an assumption of risk clause. Assumption of the risk is a defense in most states, again, for sporting and recreational activities. An assumption of the risk agreement does not run afoul of any statute that I have discovered or been made aware of and also works for minors who can understand the agreement and the risk.

Assumption of risk clauses can also contain arbitration clauses. When faced with a situation where you do not have the option of using a release, an assumption of the risk clause with an arbitration clause is your best defense position.

Typeface? If the judge can’t read it, your typeface is too small. Always use typeface in your release that is at least 10 pt. and may be larger. Small type face has been a joke for decades in dealing with the fine print in contracts. It is not a reality.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Isha v. Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4883; 2018 NY Slip Op 32743(U)

Isha v. Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4883; 2018 NY Slip Op 32743(U)

[**1] Isha, Plaintiff, against Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder, Defendant. Index Number 512947/2016

512947/2016

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY

2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4883; 2018 NY Slip Op 32743(U)

September 21, 2018, Decided

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

JUDGES: [*1] DEVIN P. COHEN, Acting Justice, Supreme Court.

OPINION BY: DEVIN P. COHEN

OPINION

DECISION/ORDER

Upon the foregoing papers, defendant’s motion to compel arbitration and plaintiff’s cross-motion for an order denying defendant’s motion and invalidating the Waiver Agreement between the parties, is decided as follows:

Plaintiff brings this action against defendant seeking damages for injuries she sustained when she participated in defendant’s “Urban Mudder” event. Defendant contends that this dispute should be arbitrated pursuant to the contract between the parties. Typically, arbitration clauses in contracts are regularly enforced and encouraged as a matter of public policy (159 MP Corp. v Redbridge Bedford, LLC, 160 AD3d 176, 205, 71 N.Y.S.3d 87 [2d Dept 2018]). Defendant provides a copy of the contract, which states that all disputes between the parties shall be submitted to binding arbitration with the American Arbitration Association.

Plaintiff argues the arbitration contract is invalid pursuant to GBL § 399-c, which prohibits mandatory arbitration in consumer contracts. Defendant contends that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts GBL § 399-c because defendant’s business is involved in interstate commerce (Marino v Salzman, 51 Misc 3d 131[A], 36 N.Y.S.3d 48, 2016 NY Slip Op 50410[U], *1 [App Term, 2d Dept 2016] [**2] ; Ayzenberg v Bronx House Emanuel Campus, Inc. (93 AD3d 607, 608, 941 N.Y.S.2d 106 [1st Dept 2012]). However, defendant provides no evidence from someone with personal knowledge [*2] of this factual claim (cf Marino, 51 Misc 3d 131[A], 36 N.Y.S.3d 48, 2016 NY Slip Op 50410[U], *1 [holding that the FAA preempted GBL § 399-c in that case because an employee of defendant submitted an affidavit wherein he stated that defendant was a multi-state company with business in several states]). Accordingly, defendant has not established that the FAA applies and, as a result, whether the arbitration provision is enforceable here.

Plaintiff further argues that the contract cannot be admitted into evidence pursuant to CPLR 4544 because it involves a consumer transaction and the text of the contract is less than 8-point font. In support of this argument, plaintiff submits the affidavit of Vadim Shtulboym, a paralegal in plaintiff counsel’s office. Mr. Shtulboym states that, based on his work experience, he has determined, with the aid of a scanner and Abobe Acrobat Reader DC, that the contract between the parties is 7-point font. Mr. Shtulboym explains that he came to this conclusion by typing words in 8-point font and 6-point font, and comparing them to the text of the contract, the size of which appeared to be in between the two fonts.

In opposition, defendant submits the affidavit of Johnny Little, the Director of Course and Construction with defendant, who states [*3] that the font used in the contract was 8-point, Times New Roman. Mr. Rosen further states that defendant forwarded a draft of the contract, in Microsoft Word format, to be professionally printed for the event, without any reduction in font size. Accordingly, there is a triable issue of fact as to whether the document is 8-point font.

Finally, plaintiff argues that the waiver of liability clause in her contract with defendant is void because violates N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326, which prohibits contracts between the “owner or operator of [**3] any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities” from exempting such owner or operator from “liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment”. Plaintiff does not object to the substance of any other portion of the contract.

Defendant contends that the Urban Mudder event is not a place of amusement or recreation. While the statute does not define these terms, courts have applied them to a range of activities, such as rock climbing (Lee v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 AD3d 689, 690, 67 N.Y.S.3d 67 [2d Dept 2017]), motocross (Sisino v Is. Motocross of New York, Inc., 41 AD3d 462, 463, 841 N.Y.S.2d 308 [2d Dept 2007]), automobile racing (Knight v Holland, 148 AD3d 1726, 1727, 51 N.Y.S.3d 749 [4th Dept 2017]), sky diving (Nutley v SkyDive the Ranch, 65 AD3d 443, 444, 883 N.Y.S.2d 530 [1st Dept 2009]), spa activities (Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 250, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170 [1st Dept 2007]), and horseback riding (Filson v Cold Riv. Trail Rides Inc., 242 AD2d 775, 776, 661 N.Y.S.2d 841 [3d Dept 1997]).

Defendant’s attempt [*4] to distinguish the Urban Mudder event from these activities is unavailing. As an initial matter, defendant counsel’s description of the event holds no evidentiary value, as counsel does not establish his personal knowledge of these events. Secondly, even if this court were to accept counsel’s description, the event’s “rigorous” and “athletic” nature is no different than the other activities listed above. Furthermore, counsel’s assertion that these other applicable activities did not require “physical preparation” is simply baseless. Accordingly, this court finds that the contract’s waiver of negligence liability violates N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326.

[**4] For the foregoing reasons, defendant’s motion to compel arbitration is denied and plaintiff’s cross-motion is granted to the extent that the contract’s waiver of negligence liability is deemed void.

This constitutes the decision and order of the court.

September 21, 2018

DATE

/s/ Devin P. Cohen

DEVIN P. COHEN

Acting Justice, Supreme Court


Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016-0818 (La. 10/19/16); 2016 La. LEXIS 2089

Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016-0818 (La. 10/19/16); 2016 La. LEXIS 2089

James Duhon versus Activelaf, LLC, D/B/A Skyzone Lafayette and Underwriters at Lloyds, London

No. 2016-CC-0818

SUPREME COURT OF LOUISIANA

2016-0818 (La. 10/19/16); 2016 La. LEXIS 2089

October 19, 2016, Decided

NOTICE:

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

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Rehearing denied by Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016 La. LEXIS 2483 (La., Dec. 6, 2016)

US Supreme Court certiorari denied by ActiveLAF, LLC v. Duhon, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 4039 (U.S., June 19, 2017)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FIRST CIRCUIT, PARISH OF EAST BATON ROUGE.

Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016 La. App. LEXIS 629 (La.App. 1 Cir., Apr. 5, 2016)

DISPOSITION: REVERSED AND REMANDED TO THE DISTRICT COURT FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-Where plaintiff patron sued defendant trampoline park, alleging he was injured due to its negligence, the provision of an agreement he signed waiving his right to trial and compelling arbitration was adhesionary and thus unenforceable due to the lack of mutuality of obligations together with the obscure placement of the arbitration language in the agreement; [2]-As the high court applied Louisiana law applicable to contracts generally, not just to arbitration agreements, its ruling was consistent with the savings clauses in 9 U.S.C.S. § 2 of the FAA and La. Rev. Stat. § 9:4201.

OUTCOME: The judgment of the intermediate appellate court was reversed.

CORE TERMS: arbitration clause, arbitration, arbitration agreement, adhesionary, box, mutuality, patron’s, arbitration provision, contract of adhesion, unenforceable, auction, standard form, enforceable, bargaining positions, enforceability, weaker, ren, bargaining power, unequal, print, state law, physical characteristics, invalidate, arbitrate, consented, printed, real estate, distinguishing features, non-drafting, recreational

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

Civil Procedure > Appeals > Standards of Review > De Novo Review

Civil Procedure > Appeals > Standards of Review > Fact & Law Issues

[HN1] Where a case involves legal questions, the appellate court reviews the matter de novo.

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Validity of ADR Methods

Governments > Legislation > Interpretation

Constitutional Law > Supremacy Clause > Federal Preemption

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Arbitration Clauses

[HN2] Louisiana and federal law explicitly favor the enforcement of arbitration clauses in written contracts. Louisiana Binding Arbitration Law (LBAL) is set forth in La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 9:4201 et seq. and expresses a strong legislative policy favoring arbitration. § 9:4201. Such favorable treatment echoes the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C.S. § 1 et seq. The LBAL is virtually identical to the FAA, and determinations regarding the viability and scope of arbitration clauses are the same under either law; thus, federal jurisprudence interpreting the FAA may be considered in construing the LBAL. Further, to the extent that federal and state law differ, the FAA preempts state law as to any written arbitration agreement in a contract involving interstate commerce.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Arbitration Clauses

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Contracts Law > Formation

Civil Procedure > Federal & State Interrelationships > Choice of Law

[HN3] The Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C.S. § 1 et seq., makes arbitration agreements valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contact. 9 U.S.C.S. § 2. This provision reflects both a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration, and the fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract. In line with these principles, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts. Despite this policy favoring enforcement of arbitration agreements, the U.S. Supreme Court has also recognized that, under the savings clause in § 2, general state contract principles still apply to assess whether those agreements to arbitrate are valid and enforceable, just as they would to any other contract dispute arising under state law. Accordingly, ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts are applied when deciding whether the parties agreed to arbitration. Importantly, the savings clause in § 2 does not permit courts to invalidate an arbitration agreement under a state law applicable only to arbitration provisions.

Contracts Law > Formation > Execution

Computer & Internet Law > Internet Business > Contracts > Electronic Contracts

Computer & Internet Law > Internet Business > Contracts > Digital Signatures

[HN4] Louisiana law gives legal effect to both electronic contracts and signatures. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 9:2607. The court interprets and analyzes the terms of an electronic agreement using the same rules that it would apply to oral and written contracts.

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

Contracts Law > Formation > Meeting of Minds

[HN5] Broadly defined, a contract of adhesion is a standard contract, usually in printed form, prepared by a party of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party. Often in small print, these contracts sometimes raise a question as to whether or not the weaker party actually consented to the terms. Although a contract of adhesion is a contract executed in a standard form in the vast majority of instances, not every contract in standard form may be regarded as a contract of adhesion. Therefore, the Louisiana Supreme Court is not willing to declare all standard form contracts adhesionary; rather, it finds standard form serves merely as a possible indicator of adhesion. The real issue in a contract of adhesion analysis is not the standard form of the contract, but rather whether a party truly consented to all the printed terms. Thus, the issue is one of consent.

Contracts Law > Formation > Meeting of Minds

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

[HN6] In determining if a contract is adhesionary, consent is called into question by the standard form, small print, and most especially the disadvantageous position of the accepting party, which is further emphasized by the potentially unequal bargaining positions of the parties. An unequal bargaining position is evident when the contract unduly burdens one party in comparison to the burdens imposed upon the drafting party and the advantages allowed to that party. Once consent is called into question, the party seeking to invalidate the contract as adhesionary must then demonstrate the non-drafting party either did not consent to the terms in dispute or his consent was vitiated by error, which in turn, renders the contract or provision unenforceable. A contract is one of adhesion when either its form, print, or unequal terms call into question the consent of the non-drafting party and it is demonstrated that the contract is unenforceable, due to lack of consent or error, which vitiates consent. Accordingly, even if a contract is standard in form and printed in small font, if it does not call into question the non-drafting party’s consent and if it is not demonstrated that the non-drafting party did not consent or his consent is vitiated by error, the contract is not a contract of adhesion.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Arbitration Clauses

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Validity of ADR Methods

Evidence > Procedural Considerations > Burdens of Proof > Allocation

[HN7] The party seeking to enforce an arbitration provision has the burden of showing the existence of a valid contract to arbitrate.

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Constitutional Law > Supremacy Clause > Federal Preemption

Contracts Law > Defenses

[HN8] The U.S. Supreme Court has admonished that, under the doctrine of preemption, state courts cannot adopt defenses that apply only to arbitration or that derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue. Nor can courts apply state law rules that stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the objectives of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C.S. § 1 et seq. Setting forth a legal requirement relative to a particular form or method of distinguishing or highlighting arbitration clauses, or requiring term-for-term mutuality in an arbitration clause could risk running afoul of the FAA. However, the Supreme Court has made it clear that state courts may apply standard state law contract defenses to arbitration agreements.

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Arbitration Agreements

Contracts Law > Formation > Meeting of Minds

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Constitutional Law > Supremacy Clause > Federal Preemption

[HN9] Consideration of enforceability of contracts of adhesion is an issue of consent, and determining whether a party truly consented to the contract terms. Consideration of consent is not limited to arbitration clauses; courts consider the issue of consent in any contract. Lack of consent is a generally applicable contract defense. La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 1927. The factors discussed in Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp. simply provide a template for considering consent to an arbitration clause contained in a standard contract. Aguillard did not create a per se rule that any degree of non-mutuality in an arbitration agreement renders it unenforceable, nor did Aguillard prescribe a definitive rule that arbitration agreements must be delineated a particular way to be enforceable.

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Arbitration Agreements

[HN10] The determination of whether an arbitration clause in a standard form contract is adhesionary is necessarily made on a case by case basis.

COUNSEL: WILLIAMSON, FONTENOT, CAMPBELL & WHITTINGTON, LLC, Christopher Lee Whittington; For Applicant.

TAYLOR, PORTER, BROOKS & PHILLIPS, LLP, Tom Samuel Easterly; For Respondent.

JUDGES: JOHNSON CHIEF JUSTICE. WEIMER J. dissenting. GUIDRY J. dissents and assigns reasons. CRICHTON J. additionally concurs and assigns reasons. CLARK J. concurring. Hughes J. concurring.

OPINION BY: JOHNSON

OPINION

[Pg 1] JOHNSON, CHIEF JUSTICE

Patrons of Sky Zone Lafayette, an indoor trampoline park, are required to complete a “Participant Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” document (“Agreement”) prior to entering the facility. The Agreement contains a clause waiving the participant’s right to trial and compelling arbitration. Plaintiff, James Duhon, was a patron at Sky Zone and was injured in the course of participating in the park’s activities. After Mr. Duhon filed suit seeking damages, Sky Zone filed an exception of prematurity seeking to compel arbitration pursuant to the Agreement. The district court overruled Sky Zone’s exception, but the court of appeal reversed, finding the arbitration provision should be enforced.

For the following reasons, we reverse the ruling of the court of appeal, holding the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone agreement [*2] is adhesionary and therefore unenforceable.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On April 19, 2015, James Duhon, accompanied by three minors, went to Sky Zone in Lafayette. Upon entering the facility, Mr. Duhon was directed by Sky Zone staff to a computer screen to check himself and the minors into the facility. Check-in [Pg 2] required all participants to complete a Participation Agreement which requested names and dates of birth for all participants, required participants to check three boxes next to certain terms of the Agreement, and required participants to digitally sign the Agreement.

The Agreement provided that in consideration for gaining access to Sky Zone Lafayette and engaging in the services, patrons agreed:

[ ] I acknowledge that my participation in [Sky Zone] trampoline games or activities entails known and unanticipated risks that could result in physical or emotional injury including, but not limited to broken bones, sprained or torn ligaments, paralysis, death, or other bodily injury or property damage to myself my children, or to third parties. I understand that such risks simply cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential qualities of the activity. I expressly agree [*3] and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity. My and/or my children’s participation in this activity is purely voluntary and I elect to participate, or allow my children to participate in spite of the risks. If I and/or my children are injured, I acknowledge that I or my children may require medical assistance, which I acknowledge will be at my own expense or the expense of my personal insurers. I hereby represent and affirm that I have adequate and appropriate insurance to provide coverage for such medical expense.

[ ] In consideration for allowing me and the minor child(ren) identified herein to participate in the [Sky Zone] activities and use the [Sky Zone] facility, I expressly and voluntarily agree to forever release, acquit, indemnify and discharge [Sky Zone] and agree to hold [Sky Zone] harmless on behalf of myself, my spouse, my children, my parents, my guardians, and my heirs, assigns, personal representative and estate, and any and all other persons and entities who could in any way represent me, or the minor children identified herein or act on our respective halves, from any and all actions or omissions, cause and causes of action, suits, debts, [*4] damages, judgments, costs, including, but not limited to attorney’s fees, and claims and demands whatsoever, in law or in equity, for any personal injury, death, or property damages that I and/or the minor children’s use of [Sky Zone] activities, [Sky Zone] premises or at offsite and camp activities related to [Sky Zone]. This waiver is intended to be a complete release of any and all responsibility or duties owed by [Sky Zone] as indemnitees for personal injuries, death and/or property loss/damage sustained by myself or any minor children identified herein while on the [Sky Zone] premises, or with respect to [Sky Zone] activities, whether using [Sky Zone] equipment or not, even if such injury or damage results from [Sky Zone] negligence, [Sky Zone] employee [Pg 3] negligence, improper supervision, improper maintenance of [Sky Zone] equipment or premises or negligence by other [Sky Zone] guests.

[ ] I certify that I and/or my child(ren) are physically able to participate in all activities at the Location without aid or assistance. I further certify that I am willing to assume the risk of any medical or physical condition that I and/or my child(ren) may have. I acknowledge that I have [*5] read the rules, (the “Sky Zone Rules”) governing my and/or my child(ren)’s participation in any activities at the Location. I certify that I have explained the [Sky Zone] Rules to the child(ren) identified herein. I understand that the [Sky Zone] Rules have been implemented for the safety of all guests at the Location. I agree that if any portion of this Agreement is found to be void and unenforceable, the remaining portions shall remain in full force and effect. If there are any disputes regarding this agreement, I on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) hereby waive any right I and/or my child(ren) may have to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be brought within one year of the date of this Agreement and will be determined by binding arbitration before one arbitrator to be administered by JAMS pursuant to its Comprehensive Arbitration Rules and Procedures. I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of Louisiana and that the substantive law of Louisiana shall apply. If, despite the representations made in this agreement, I or anyone on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) file or otherwise initiate a lawsuit against [Sky Zone], in addition to [*6] my agreement to defend and indemnify [Sky Zone], I agree to pay within 60 days liquidated damages in the amount of $5,000 to [Sky Zone]. Should I fail to pay this liquidated damages amount within the 60 day time period provided by this Agreement, I further agree to pay interest on the $5,000 amount calculated at 12% per annum.

I further grant [Sky Zone] the right, without reservation or limitation, to videotape, and/or record me and/or my children on closed circuit television.

I further grant [Sky Zone] the right, without reservation or limitation, to photograph, videotape, and/or record me and/or my children and to use my or my children’s name, face, likeness, voice and appearance in connection with exhibitions, publicity, advertising and promotional materials.

I would like to receive free email promotions and discounts to the email address provided below. I may unsubscribe from emails from Sky Zone at any time.

By signing this document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or property is damaged during my participation in this activity, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit [Pg 4] against [Sky Zone] on the basis of any claim from which I have [*7] released them herein. I have had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document. I understand this Agreement and I voluntarily agree to be bound by its terms.

I further certify that I am the parent or legal guardian of the children listed above on this Agreement or that I have been granted power of attorney to sign this Agreement on behalf of the parent or legal guardian of the children listed above.

Mr. Duhon electronically completed the Agreement on behalf of himself and the minors by checking the three boxes provided in the agreement, furnishing the relevant personal identifying information, and clicking on an “accept” button. Mr. Duhon and the minors then entered the facility.

Mr. Duhon asserts he was injured at the facility due to Sky Zone’s negligence. On August 12, 2015, Mr. Duhon filed suit against Activelaf, L.L.C., d/b/a Sky Zone Lafayette and its insurer (“Sky Zone”). In response, Sky Zone filed several exceptions, including an exception of prematurity. Sky Zone alleged that the Agreement contained a mandatory arbitration clause, thereby rendering Mr. Duhon’s suit premature. Mr. Duhon asserted he did not knowingly consent to arbitration, and argued the Agreement was adhesionary [*8] and ambiguous.

Following a hearing, the district court determined there was a lack of mutuality in the Agreement relative to the arbitration clause because only Mr. Duhon was bound to arbitrate claims. Thus, relying on this court’s decision in Aguillard Auction Management Corp., 04-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So. 2d 1 and the Third Circuit’s opinion in Sutton Steel & Supply, Inc. v. Bellsouth Mobility, Inc., 07-146 (La. App. 3 Cir. 12/12/07), 971 So. 2d 1257, the district court refused to enforce the arbitration agreement and overruled Sky Zone’s exception of prematurity.

The court of appeal granted Sky Zone’s writ and reversed the district court’s ruling:

There is a strong presumption favoring the enforceability of arbitration [Pg 5] clauses. The weight of this presumption is heavy and arbitration should not be denied unless it can be said with positive assurance that an arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that could cover the dispute at issue. Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 2004-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So. 2d 1. We find that plaintiff failed to establish that this arbitration provision is adhesionary, and accordingly, the arbitration provision should be enforced.

Judge Theriot dissented without reasons, stating he would deny the writ application. Duhon v. ActiveLaf, LLC, 16-0167, 2016 La. App. LEXIS 629 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/5/16) (unpublished).

On Mr. Duhon’s application, we granted certiorari to review the correctness of the court of appeal’s ruling. Duhon v. ActiveLaf, LLC, 16-0818 (La. 6/17/16), 192 So. 3d 762.

DISCUSSION

This [HN1] case involves the legal [*9] questions of whether the court of appeal erred in its “contract of adhesion” analysis of the arbitration clause in the Agreement, and whether the arbitration clause is unenforceable on general contract principles of consent or adhesion. Thus, we review the matter de novo. See Aguillard, 908 So. 2d at 3; Prasad v. Bullard, 10-291 (La. App. 5 Cir. 10/12/10), 51 So. 3d 35, 39; Horseshoe Entertainment v. Lepinski, 40,753 (La. App. 2 Cir. 3/8/06), 923 So. 2d 929, 934, writ denied, 06-792 (La. 6/2/06), 929 So. 2d 1259.

[HN2] Louisiana and federal law explicitly favor the enforcement of arbitration clauses in written contracts. Aguillard, 908 So. 2d at 7. Louisiana Binding Arbitration Law (“LBAL”) is set forth in La. R.S. 9:4201 et seq. and expresses a strong legislative policy favoring arbitration. La. R.S. 9:4201 provides:

A provision in any written contract to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of the contract, or out of the refusal to perform the whole or any part thereof, or an agreement in writing between two or more persons to submit to arbitration any controversy existing between them at the time of the agreement to submit, shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.

As this court recognized in Aguillard, “[s]uch favorable treatment echos the Federal [Pg 6] Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq.” 908 So. 2d at 7. We noted the LBAL is virtually identical to the FAA, and determinations regarding [*10] the viability and scope of arbitration clauses are the same under either law, thus federal jurisprudence interpreting the FAA may be considered in construing the LBAL. Id. at 18. Further, to the extent that federal and state law differ, the FAA preempts state law as to any written arbitration agreement in a contract involving interstate commerce. Hodges v. Reasonover, 12-0043 (La. 7/2/12), 103 So. 3d 1069, 1072; FIA Card Services, N.A. v. Weaver, 10-1372 (La. 3/15/11), 62 So. 3d 709, 712; Collins v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America, 99-1423 (La. 1/19/00), 752 So. 2d 825, 827.

[HN3] The FAA makes arbitration agreements “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contact.” 9 U.S.C. §2 (emphasis added). The United States Supreme Court has explained that this provision reflects both a “liberal federal policy favoring arbitration,” and the “fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract.” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 339, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1745, 179 L.Ed. 2d 742 (2011) (citing Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24, 103 S.Ct. 927, 74 L.Ed. 2d 765 (1983) and Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U.S. 63, 67, 130 S.Ct. 2772, 2776, 177 L.Ed. 2d 403 (2010)). The Supreme Court has instructed that in line with these principles, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts. Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 339 (citing Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. 440, 443, 126 S.Ct. 1204, 163 L.Ed. 2d 1038 (2006)). Despite this policy favoring enforcement of arbitration agreements, the Supreme Court has also recognized that, under the savings clause in §2, general state contract principles still apply to assess whether those agreements to arbitrate are valid and enforceable, just as they would to any other [*11] contract dispute arising under state law.[Pg 7] Doctor’s Associates, Inc. v. Casarotto, 517 U.S. 681, 686-87, 116 S.Ct. 1652, 1656, 134 L. Ed. 2d 902 (1996). Accordingly, ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts are applied when deciding whether the parties agreed to arbitration. First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944, 115 S.Ct. 1920, 1924, 131 L.Ed. 2d 985 (1995). Importantly, the savings clause in § 2 does not permit courts to invalidate an arbitration agreement under a state law applicable only to arbitration provisions. Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 339; Aguillard, 908 So. 2d at 8.

With these principles in mind, we consider whether the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement should be invalided under Louisiana law. As an initial matter, we note the electronic nature of the Agreement in this case is of no legal consequence and does not fundamentally change the principles of contract. [HN4] Louisiana law gives legal effect to both electronic contracts and signatures. See La. R.S. 9:2607. We interpret and analyze the terms of the Agreement using the same rules that we would apply to oral and written contracts.

Aguillard is the seminal case from this court addressing the validity of an arbitration agreement in a standard form contract. In Aguillard, the winning bidder at a real estate auction brought suit to enforce the auction sales agreement. This court, pursuant to its authority under La. R.S. 9:4201 and 9 U.S.C. § 2, applied a “contract [*12] of adhesion” analysis to determine the enforceability and validity of an arbitration agreement in the auction contract. In discussing the “contract of adhesion” doctrine, we explained: [HN5] “Broadly defined, a contract of adhesion is a standard contract, usually in printed form, prepared by a party of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party. Often in small print, these contracts sometimes raise a question as to whether or not the weaker party actually consented to the terms.” 908 So. 2d at 10. This court further stated that “although a contract of adhesion is a contract executed in a standard form in the vast majority of instances, not every [Pg 8] contract in standard form may be regarded as a contract of adhesion. Therefore, we are not willing to declare all standard form contracts adhesionary; rather, we find standard form serves merely as a possible indicator of adhesion.” Id. (Internal citations removed). We made clear that the “real issue in a contract of adhesion analysis is not the standard form of the contract, but rather whether a party truly consented to all the printed terms. Thus, the issue is one of consent.” Id. (Internal citations removed). The court explained: [*13]

[HN6] Consent is called into question by the standard form, small print, and most especially the disadvantageous position of the accepting party, which is further emphasized by the potentially unequal bargaining positions of the parties. An unequal bargaining position is evident when the contract unduly burdens one party in comparison to the burdens imposed upon the drafting party and the advantages allowed to that party. Once consent is called into question, the party seeking to invalidate the contract as adhesionary must then demonstrate the non-drafting party either did not consent to the terms in dispute or his consent was vitiated by error, which in turn, renders the contract or provision unenforceable.

In summation, a contract is one of adhesion when either its form, print, or unequal terms call into question the consent of the non-drafting party and it is demonstrated that the contract is unenforceable, due to lack of consent or error, which vitiates consent. Accordingly, even if a contract is standard in form and printed in small font, if it does not call into question the non-drafting party’s consent and if it is not demonstrated that the non-drafting party did not consent or his [*14] consent is vitiated by error, the contract is not a contract of adhesion.

Id. at 10-11. Thus, the question we consider is whether Mr. Duhon truly consented to the arbitration provision in the Agreement.

In concluding the arbitration provision in Aguillard was not adhesionary, we noted (1) the arbitration provision was contained in a short, two-page document and was contained in a single sentence paragraph; (2) the arbitration provision was not concealed; (3) the contract did not lack mutuality because defendants did not reserve their right to litigate issues arising from the contract; and (4) the parties did not have a significant difference in bargaining power because a real estate auction is not a [Pg 9] necessary transaction that plaintiff was compelled to enter. Id. Thus, while not declaring a definitive test, this court effectively established a framework for examining the validity of an arbitration clause within a standard form contract by generally describing the characteristics of an unenforceable adhesionary agreement. Finding our analysis in Aguillard instructive, we consider the following factors to determine the enforceability of the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement: (1) [*15] the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause, (2) the distinguishing features of the arbitration clause, (3) the mutuality of the arbitration clause, and (4) the relative bargaining strength of the parties. After our review of the Agreement in light of the above factors, we hold the arbitration clause is adhesionary and not enforceable because of its placement in the Agreement and its lack of mutuality.

Examining the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause, we observe the arbitration language is consistent in size and font with the other provisions in the Agreement. However, the lack of distinguishing features and the specific placement of the arbitration clause serve to conceal the arbitration language from Sky Zone patrons. The Agreement is structured with check boxes next to the first three paragraphs, followed by five additional paragraphs without corresponding check boxes. The first check box is placed next to a single, six-sentence paragraph generally discussing participants’ risks of injuries and assumption of those risks. The second check box is placed next to a single paragraph containing two long sentences purporting to release Sky Zone from any liability. [*16] The third check box is placed next to one long paragraph discussing multiple topics. Specifically, the arbitration language is located starting in the eleventh line of this third paragraph, following provisions regarding patrons’ physical ability to participate in the activities, assumption of the risks, certification that Sky Zone’s rules have been explained to any children, and expressing agreement to follow those rules.

[Pg 10] In Aguillard, we noted “the arbitration provision, although not distinguished, was not concealed in any way, but rather was contained in a single sentence paragraph separated from the preceding and following paragraphs by double spacing.” 908 So. 2d at 16. Sky Zone argues the paragraph containing the arbitration clause was sufficiently distinguished and brought to patrons’ attention through the use of the check box feature. We disagree. Although patrons are required to check a box adjacent to the top of the third paragraph, significantly no check box was placed next to the arbitration language. In contrast, the other two check boxes in the Agreement were placed next to paragraphs limited to one subject matter. The Agreement also contains five additional paragraphs following [*17] the third paragraph that do not include corresponding check boxes. Each of these are short one-topic paragraphs addressing such items as Sky Zone’s right to videotape and record patrons and to use recordings for promotional materials. Thus, looking at the Agreement as a whole, the arbitration language appears to be the only specific provision not relegated to a separate paragraph or set apart in some explicit way. Here, the two-sentence provision mandating arbitration is camouflaged within the confines of an eleven sentence paragraph, nine of which do not discuss arbitration. The effect of the placement of the arbitration language is to cloak it within a blanket of boilerplate language regarding rules and risks of participating in the Sky Zone activities. Thus, although it is undisputed that Mr. Duhon electronically signed the Agreement, purportedly demonstrating an acceptance of its terms, under Louisiana contract law, we find Mr. Duhon did not truly consent to the arbitration provision.

Additionally, the lack of mutuality in the arbitration clause fortifies our finding that it is adhesionary. The arbitration provision requires only Sky Zone patrons to submit their claims to arbitration. [*18] The entire contract, including the arbitration clause, repeatedly includes “I acknowledge” and “I agree” language, with the “I” referencing [Pg 11] the “applicant” – here, Mr. Duhon. Specifically, the Agreement provides if there are any disputes regarding this agreement “I … hereby waive any right … to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be … determined by binding arbitration …” Although Sky Zone does not expressly reserve itself the right to pursue litigation, nowhere in the Agreement are “the parties” or Sky Zone particularly bound to arbitration. This is in stark contrast to the arbitration clause in Aguillard which clearly applied to both parties by providing: “Any controversy or claim arising from or relating to this agreement or any breach of such agreement shall be settled by arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association under is [sic] rules, and judgment on the award rendered by the arbitrator may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof.” 908 So. 2d at 4. Thus, in Aguillard, we found the arbitration clause did not lack sufficient mutuality to invalidate the clause as adhesionary because the arbitration clause severely limited both the defendants’ [*19] and the plaintiff’s right to litigate, and the defendants did not reserve their right to litigate in the document. Id. at 16. Even more troublesome in this case is the punitive provision compelling patrons to pay Sky Zone liquidated damages of $5,000 within sixty days should the patron file suit, with legal interest added at 12% per year. Sky Zone has no mutual obligation in the Agreement.

[HN7] The party seeking to enforce an arbitration provision has the burden of showing the existence of a valid contract to arbitrate. FIA Card Services, 62 So. 3d at 719. Sky Zone has failed to meet this burden. Considering the lack of mutuality together with the obscure placement of the arbitration language in the Agreement, and in comparison to the contract in Aguillard, we are compelled to find the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement is adhesionary and unenforceable.

In finding this arbitration clause invalid, we have carefully considered [HN8] the Supreme Court’s admonition that, under the doctrine of preemption, state courts [Pg 12] cannot adopt defenses that apply only to arbitration or that derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue. See, e.g., Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 339; Casarotto, 517 U.S. at 687. Nor can we apply state law rules that stand as an obstacle [*20] to the accomplishment of the FAA’s objectives. Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 343. We are mindful that setting forth a legal requirement relative to a particular form or method of distinguishing or highlighting arbitration clauses, or requiring term-for-term mutuality in an arbitration clause could risk running afoul of the FAA. However, the Supreme Court has made it clear that state courts may apply standard state law contract defenses to arbitration agreements. Id. at 339. Our application of Louisiana contract law to invalidate the arbitration provision in the instant case is consistent with § 2 of the FAA, and we find no conflict between our holding today and Supreme Court decisions discussing preemption.

As explained earlier, [HN9] consideration of enforceability of contracts of adhesion is an issue of consent, and determining whether a party truly consented to the contract terms. Consideration of consent is not limited to arbitration clauses; we consider the issue of consent in any contract. Lack of consent is a generally applicable contract defense. See La. C.C. art. 1927. The factors discussed in Aguillard simply provided a template for considering consent to an arbitration clause contained in a standard contract. Aguillard did not create a per se rule that any [*21] degree of non-mutuality in an arbitration agreement renders it unenforceable, nor did Aguillard prescribe a definitive rule that arbitration agreements must be delineated a particular way to be enforceable. Considering the Aguillard analysis in its entirety, it is clear we viewed the arbitration provision in the context of the overall contract and the surrounding circumstances, and our determination was based on weighing several factors. Were we not to consider factors relative to consent when examining the validity of an arbitration agreement, we would be operating in contravention to the mandate of the Supreme Court by [Pg 13] treating arbitration agreements differently from other contracts. Thus, we find our application of Louisiana contract law to invalidate the arbitration provision in this case is consistent with the savings clauses in § 2 of the FAA and La. R.S. 9:4201.

CONCLUSION

[HN10] The determination of whether an arbitration clause in a standard form contract is adhesionary is necessarily made on a case by case basis. Based on the facts of this case, the concealment of the arbitration clause and the lack of mutuality compels us to find the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement is adhesionary and unenforceable. [*22] Accordingly, we find the court of appeal erred in reversing the district court’s ruling on Sky Zone’s exception of prematurity.1 Therefore, the ruling of the court of appeal is reversed, and the ruling of the district court is reinstated.

1 Because we hold the arbitration clause is adhesionary and unenforceable based on consideration of the factors set forth in Aguillard, we pretermit discussion of Mr. Duhon’s additional arguments relative to ambiguity of the Agreement or whether the scope of the arbitration clause covers personal injury.

DECREE

REVERSED AND REMANDED TO THE DISTRICT COURT FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.

CONCUR BY: CRICHTON; CLARK

CONCUR

[Pg 1] CRICHTON, J., additionally concurs and assigns reasons.

I agree with the majority decision, and write separately to emphasize that I do not view this decision as a rejection of arbitration agreements. To the contrary, Louisiana law favors the enforcement of arbitration agreements. See La. R.S. 9:4201 (Validity of arbitration agreements). Consistent with the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), arbitration agreements must be placed “upon the same footing” as other types of contracts.” Scherk v. Alberto-Culver Co., 417 U.S. 506, 511, 94 S. Ct. 2449, 41 L. Ed. 2d 270 (1974); see also 9 U.S.C. § 2. But just as Louisiana law should not create obstacles to the enforceability of arbitration [*23] agreements, see AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 179 L. Ed. 2d 742 (2011) (applying the FAA to preempt a state law condition to the enforceability of an arbitration agreement), neither should Louisiana law create exceptions for arbitration agreements that do not exist for other types of contracts.

Without question, arbitration can be a waiver of the traditional access to our judicial system. And so, applying Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 04-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So. 2d 1, this waiver must be in accord with Louisiana contract law, otherwise a party’s consent may be called into question. Thus, a [Pg 2] business entity or individual seeking to draft a contract that includes an arbitration agreement must meet all of the elements of an enforceable contract.

By concealing the existence of the arbitration agreement, this agreement deprives a party of redress in the justice system. To make a bad situation worse, this agreement does not bind Sky Zone to arbitration, yet it penalizes a Sky Zone patron–but not Sky Zone–for seeking to initiate a lawsuit. These blatant asymmetries exhibit a stunning lack of draftsmanship and fail to adhere to the principles set forth in Aguillard. Accordingly, in my view, this Court is bound to deem this agreement unenforceable.

CLARK, J., concurring.

I find that the contract at issue [*24] lacks mutuality to such an extent that the contract is adhesionary. Not only does the contract bind only patrons to arbitration, the contract stipulates that if a patron files a lawsuit against Sky Zone, the patron is liable for $5,000 in liquidated damages. At the same time, Sky Zone is free to file a lawsuit against the patron without any penalty.

[Pg 1] Hughes, J., concurring.

Although I do not agree that the arbitration language was hidden, I concur that it lacked mutuality, and thus with the result.

DISSENT BY: WEIMER; GUIDRY

DISSENT

[Pg 1] WEIMER, J., dissenting.

I agree with the majority’s assessment that the factors outlined in Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 04-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So.2d 1, are an appropriate starting point for analyzing the issue presented in this matter.1 See Duhon v. ActiveLaf, LLC, 16-0818, slip op. at 7 (La. 10/ /16). However, I respectfully disagree with the majority’s conclusion that analysis of the Sky Zone Agreement using Aguillard’s four-factor “framework” supports a finding that the arbitration clause is adhesionary and not enforceable. To the contrary, I find the arbitration clause to be valid and enforceable. I also find that analysis of the clause using Aguillard’s factors, viewed in light of the strong and, as Aguillard describes it, “heavy” [*25] presumption in favor of arbitration, dictates that finding of enforceability. Aguillard, 04-2804 at 25, 908 So.2d at 18.

1 While I dissented in Aguillard, I did so solely on grounds that there was a threshold legal question that I believed needed to be resolved before reaching the issue of the enforceability of the arbitration clause: whether the arbitration clause at issue even applied in light of the fact that the Auction Agreement for the Purchase and Sale of Real Estate had been completed. Aguillard, 04-2804 at 1, 980 So.2d at 20-21 (Weimer, J., dissenting.).

As the majority recognizes, a contract of adhesion is broadly defined as “a standard contract, usually in printed form, [often in small print,] prepared by a party [Pg 2] of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party.” Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 7-8 (quoting Aguillard, 04-2804 at 9, 908 So.2d at 8-9.) (Emphasis added.) Pursuant to this definition, a predicate factor to consider in determining whether a contract is adhesionary is the existence of unequal bargaining power. Indeed, this is one of the four factors delineated in the Aguillard analysis. Yet, the majority opinion does not mention, much less weigh, this factor in conducting its analysis-this, despite [*26] the fact that there must be unequal bargaining power for the contract to meet the definitional hurdle of a contract of adhesion in the first instance.

In this case, it is clear that, as in Aguillard, there was not “such a difference in bargaining positions between the parties so as to justify the application of the principle of contract of adhesion to the arbitration clause.” Aguillard, 04-2804 at 22, 908 So.2d at 16-17. As Aguillard explained in defining a contract of adhesion, “[o]wing to the necessities of modern life a particular kind of contract has been developed where one of the parties is not free to bargain.” Id., 04-2804 at 10, 908 So.2d at 9 (quoting Saul Litvinoff, Consent Revisited: Offer, Acceptance, Option, Right of First Refusal, and Contracts of Adhesion in the Revision of the Louisiana Law of Obligations, 47 La.L.Rev. 699, 757-59 (1986-1987)). Such a lack of bargaining power exists where “[t]he party in the weaker position is left with no other choice than to adhere to the terms proposed by the other.” Id. (Emphasis added.) Typical examples of such contracts include those entered into with “airlines, public utilities, railroad or insurance companies.” Id.

In Aguillard, this court recognized that the relative bargaining positions of the real estate auctioneer and the [*27] individual auction participant involved in that case were not so unequal as to justify invalidating the arbitration clause on grounds of adhesion, [Pg 3] reasoning that, although the participant was required to sign the agreement containing the arbitration clause in order to participate in the auction, “the underlying transaction, the real estate auction, [was] not … such a necessary transaction” that the participant “was compelled to enter it.” Id., 04-2804 at 22-23, 908 So.2d at 16-17. Indeed, the participant could have avoided arbitration by not signing the agreement, not participating in the auction, and simply walking away. See Id. 04-2804 at 22, 908 So.2d at 17. Under such circumstances, the court found “nothing sufficient to establish the [auctioneers] were in such a superior bargaining position as to render the [auction participant] a far weaker party or the contract adhesionary.” Id. 04-2804 at 23, 908 So.2d at 17.

The rationale of the court in Aguillard applies with equal force to the Sky Zone Agreement at issue in this case. Here, the Agreement concerns not a “necessity of modern life,” but a purely voluntary recreational activity. The plaintiff was not compelled-physically, economically or otherwise-to visit the trampoline park, jump on its trampolines, or sign the Agreement [*28] containing the arbitration clause. Jumping on a trampoline is simply not a practical necessity of modern living like water, electricity, or even airline flight. Like the auction participant in Aguillard, the plaintiff, here, retained the ultimate bargaining chip in this situation: he could have refused to sign Sky Zone’s Agreement, walked away, and pursued an alternative form of recreational activity. Given these circumstances, there is simply no evidence to establish that Sky Zone was in such a superior bargaining position as to render the plaintiff a far weaker party or the contract adhesionary.

Further, and also contrary to the majority, I find nothing in the Sky Zone Agreement, itself, that would call into question the validity of the plaintiff’s consent to the terms of the Agreement. This determination is based on my analysis of the [Pg 4] three factors that are addressed in the majority’s Aguillard analysis-(1) the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause; (2) the distinguishing features of that clause; and (3) the mutuality of the clause-and my differing conclusions as to each.

In addressing the first Aguillard factor-the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause-the [*29] majority acknowledges that “the arbitration language is consistent in size and font with the other provisions in Agreement.” Duhon, slip op. at 9. In fact, the clause is not in small print or otherwise unreadable, but is just as legible as every other word in the Agreement. The majority apparently concedes, therefore, and I agree, that the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause weigh in favor of finding the clause enforceable.

In addressing the second of the Aguillard factors-the distinguishing features of the clause-the majority, in my view, falls into error. It downplays the very feature that distinguishes the arbitration clause and calls its attention to the participant: the box located next to the paragraph in which the clause appears, a box which must be affirmatively checked before the Agreement can be completed. The majority chooses, instead, to focus solely on the fact that the arbitration language is not set out in a stand-alone paragraph to reach the conclusion that it is “camouflaged” and “cloak[ed] … within a blanket of boilerplate language” to such an extent that plaintiff could not have not consented to its terms, despite affirmatively indicating by checking the electronic box that he [*30] did just that. See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 10. While it is true that the arbitration clause appears in a paragraph not limited to the single topic of arbitration, more than one-half of that paragraph concerns the agreed-upon arbitration, its procedure, its locale, governing law, and the consequences for refusing or otherwise breaching the agreement to arbitrate.2 The arbitration language is hardly [Pg 5] camouflaged. Further, the majority’s suggestion, that failure to set the arbitration language out in a stand-alone paragraph fails to sufficiently distinguish the arbitration clause, ignores the check box. See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 10. The presence of that box is akin to, and has the same legal force and effect as, requiring the plaintiff to initial next to the paragraph, a requirement that affirmatively alerts the participant to the contents and significance of the paragraph.3 Like the arbitration provision in Aguillard, and contrary to the majority, I find the arbitration language in the Sky Zone Agreement was not concealed in any way and that the use of the electronic check boxes reasonably distinguished the clause.

2 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op’n at 3.

3 Modern technology has introduced what is referred [*31] to as a “clickwrap” agreement as a mechanism for having a “user manifest his or her assent to the terms of the … agreement by clicking on an icon.” See Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 429 (2nd Cir. 2004).

Finally, as to the third Aguillard factor, the mutuality of the obligation to arbitrate, the majority acknowledges that “Aguillard did not create a per se rule that any degree of non-mutuality in an arbitration agreement renders it unenforceable,”4 and that “requiring term-for-term mutuality in an arbitration clause could risk running afoul of the [Federal Arbitration Act],”5 but then inexplicably invalidates the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement precisely because it lacks the term-for-term mutuality that it acknowledges the law does not require, and may even prohibit.6 In truth, the only difference between the arbitration clause in Aguillard and the one in the Sky Zone Agreement is the use of the “I” in the Sky Zone Agreement. However, the mere use of the word “I” does not render the clause non-mutual, [Pg 6] particularly in light of the fact, acknowledged by the majority, that the Agreement does not reserve to Sky Zone the right to pursue litigation.7

4 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 13.

5 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 12.

6 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 11-13.

7 See [*32] Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 11.

Consequently, unlike the majority, I find an analysis of all four of the factors outlined in Aguillard leads to the conclusion that the Sky Zone Agreement is not adhesionary and is valid and enforceable. This conclusion is strengthened, not only by the strong legislative policy that favors arbitration,8 but also by the long-standing principle that signatures to documents are not mere ornaments.9 As Aguillard notes: “It is well[-]settled that a party who signs a written instrument is presumed to know its contents and cannot avoid its obligations by contending that he did not read it, that he did not understand it, or that the other party failed to explain it to him.” Id., 04-2804 at 22, 908 So.2d at 17. In this case, as in Aguillard, the plaintiff signed the Agreement acknowledging that he “had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document … understand this Agreement and … voluntarily agree to be bound by its terms.”10 As in Aguillard, there was no evidence that the plaintiff was not in an equal bargaining position with Sky Zone because the plaintiff could have avoided arbitration and the contractual provisions as a whole by simply not signing the Sky Zone Agreement and pursuing an alternative recreational [*33] activity. Also as in Aguillard, there is nothing in the Sky Zone Agreement itself-its physical or distinguishing characteristics-that would call into question the validity of the plaintiff’s consent to the terms of the Sky Zone Agreement as indicated by his signature. I would affirm the decision of the court of appeal.

8 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 5 (citing La. R.S. 9:4201, et seq.).

9 See Tweedel v. Brasseaux, 433 So. 2d 133, 137 (La. 1983) (quoting Boullt v. Sarpy, 30 La.Ann. 494, 495 (La. 1878)).

10 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 4.

[Pg 1] GUIDRY, J., dissents and assigns reasons.

I respectfully dissent from the majority’s reversal of the ruling of the court of appeal. In my view, the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement is not part of a contract of adhesion which would render it unenforceable.

As the majority correctly states, a contract of adhesion is a “standard contract, usually in printed form, prepared by a party of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party.” Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 2004-2804, 2004-2857, p.9 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So.2d 1, 8-9. It is undisputed that the real issue in a contract of adhesion analysis is consent, whether the non-drafting party, considered to be the weaker party, truly consented to all the printed terms. Id. In addressing the issue of consent, a court must look to the form, print, or unequal terms [*34] of the contract by considering the factors set forth in Aguillard, namely, the physical characteristics and distinguishing features of the arbitration clause, the relative bargaining position of the parties, and the mutuality or lack thereof in the arbitration clause. Id., 2004-2804, 2004-2857, p. 9, 908 So.2d at 17.

As an initial matter, I disagree with the majority’s finding that the arbitration clause was hidden and camouflaged within the Sky Zone Agreement in such a way that would indicate the plaintiff’s consent to the agreement could be called into [Pg 2] question. Neither the print nor the font size of the arbitration clause differed from that of the remainder of the contract executed by the plaintiff. The standard form agreement was relatively short and straightforward, consisting of a total of nine paragraphs, three of which were set off with boxes to be checked to signify the patron’s consent. The arbitration clause, while not set off alone, consisted of one-half of a paragraph that was required to be checked off. The clause commenced midway through the paragraph and ran until the end of the paragraph. The plaintiff does not dispute that he checked off the box reflecting his consent to the terms of the arbitration [*35] clause.

Furthermore, the record is absent any evidence that the plaintiff was not in an equal bargaining position with the defendants. At the heart of the transaction, the plaintiff was seeking admittance to a recreational facility. Indisputably, this was not a contract to which the plaintiff was compelled to enter into the terms. He could have simply elected to not sign the agreement and bypass the recreational activity. Instead, the plaintiff signed the arbitration agreement acknowledging that he had sufficient opportunity to read the entire document and understood its terms. Having signed the agreement, the plaintiff cannot seek to avoid his obligations by contending that he did not read or understand it. Basic contract law dictates that a party who signs a written instrument is presumed to know its contents and cannot avoid its obligations by contending that he did not read it, that he did not understand it, or that the other party failed to explain it to him. Coleman v. Jim Walter Homes, Inc., 2008-1221, p. 7 (La. 3/17/09), 6 So.3d 179, 183 (citing Tweedel v. Brasseaux, 433 So.2d 133, 137 (La.1983)). To overcome the presumption, the party has the burden of proving with reasonable certainty that he was deceived. Id. The plaintiff is unable to satisfy this burden, because there is no evidence in the record that [*36] the plaintiff made any effort to contact the defendant for an explanation or to discuss the terms of the contract in [Pg 3] any respect.

Next, the arbitration clause at issue substantially mirrors the Aguillard arbitration clause, which this court found to be mutual. The plaintiff has not shown anything in the clause that reserves Sky Zone’s right to litigate disputes related to the agreement that is not equally afforded to the plaintiff. As such, the majority errs in finding the lack of mutuality as to the parties.

Finally, in Aguillard, this court addressed the presumption of arbitrability:

[E]ven when the scope of an arbitration clause is fairly debatable or reasonably in doubt, the court should decide the question of construction in favor of arbitration. The weight of this presumption is heavy and arbitration should not be denied unless it can be said with positive assurance that an arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that could cover the dispute at issue. Therefore, even if some legitimate doubt could be hypothesized, this Court, in conjunction with the Supreme Court, requires resolution of the doubt in favor of arbitration.

Id., 04-2804 at 18, 908 So.2d at 18.

Id., 04-2804 at 18, 908 So.2d at 25. In light of the controlling law indicating [*37] the favorable consideration afforded arbitration agreements, coupled with the plaintiff’s failure to satisfy his burden of proving the contract was adhesionary, the majority erred in invalidating the contract. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent and would affirm the ruling of the court of appeal.


Littlejohn v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, et. al., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96443

Littlejohn v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, et. al., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96443

Joseph P. Littlejohn, Plaintiff, v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, and Corporate Challenge, Inc., d/b/a Adventure Más, Defendants.

Case No. 5:14-cv-200

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF VERMONT

July 20, 2015, Decided

July 21, 2015, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Amended by Littlejohn v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94592 (D. Vt., July 21, 2015)

CORE TERMS: arbitration, customer, ticket, adventure, arbitration clause, motorcycle, mutuality, summary judgment, exculpatory, zip-line, participating, wire, zip, guy, ski area–, arbitration provision, public policy, general public, ski, website, unconscionability, enforceability, unconscionable, recreational, arbitrate, sport, void, cable, enforceable, adhesion

COUNSEL: [*1] For Joseph P. Littlejohn, Plaintiff: Daniel L. Burchard, Esq., Thomas E. McCormick, McCormick, Fitzpatrick, Kasper & Burchard, P.C., Burlington, VT.

For Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, Defendant: Andrew A. Beerworth, Esq., Robert G. Cain, Paul Frank Collins PC, Burlington, VT.

For Corporate Challenge, Inc., doing business as Adventure Mas, Defendant: Heather Z. Cooper, Rodney Edward McPhee, Kenlan, Schwiebert, Facey & Goss, P.C., Rutland, VT.

For ENE Evaluator, ENE Evaluator: Michael J. Marks, Esq., MarksPowers LLP, Middlebury, VT.

For Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, Cross Claimant: Robert G. Cain, Paul Frank Collins PC, Burlington, VT.

For Corporate Challenge, Inc., Cross Defendant: Rodney Edward McPhee, Kenlan, Schwiebert, Facey & Goss, P.C., Rutland, VT.

JUDGES: Geoffrey W. Crawford, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Geoffrey W. Crawford

OPINION

OPINION AND ORDER RE: DEFENDANT’S AND PLAINTIFF’S MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Docs. 44, 46 & 52)

Plaintiff Joseph Littlejohn was severely injured while participating in an adventure zip-line course at Magic Mountain Ski Area in Londondeffy, Vermont on October 5, 2013. He claims that defendants negligently designed, constructed, and operated the course, leading to the [*2] accident which caused his injuries. Both Littlejohn and defendant TimberQuest Park at Magic, LLC (TimberQuest) have filed motions for summary judgment, seeking a determination regarding the enforceability of a liability waiver and arbitration provision signed by Littlejohn prior to participating in the course.

I. Facts

The following facts are undisputed for the purposes of summary judgment, except where otherwise noted. On October 5, 2013, Littlejohn was injured while traversing a self-guided aerial adventure course at Magic Mountain. At the time of his injury, Littlejohn was seventy-six years old. He had never participated in an adventure course before. Defendant TimberQuest operated the adventure course at the time of the incident. Defendant Corporate Challenge, Inc. d/b/a Adventure Mas designed and constructed the course.

The adventure course consists of a series of rope bridges, ladders, cargo nets and zip lines placed between elevated platforms constructed around trees and poles. Participants gradually gain elevation by climbing and traversing a series of uphill course elements and then return to the bottom of the course by sliding down a series of zip lines. Participants wear a [*3] climbing harness equipped with a “smart belay” system that is meant to keep them attached at all times to both a safety cable and a zip line cable. The “smart belay” system is intended to ensure that the participant is always attached to at least one of the cables.

The trees and poles which support the course platforms are stabilized by guy wires. These guy wires are anchored at one end to the tree or pole where a course platform is located and at the other end to another nearby tree or the ground.

On the day he visited, Littlejohn was equipped with a climbing harness and was instructed how to use the smart belay system’s dual carabiners. According to Littlejohn, he was not warned that there were guy wires on the course in addition to safety cables and zip line cables or that he should avoid clipping onto the guy wires.

Littlejohn climbed through the uphill course elements and began to descend on the zip lines. As he was preparing to descend one of the sections of the course, he mistook a guy wire for the zip line cable. He attached his smart belay to the guy wire and slid down the guy wire. At the bottom he ran into the tree which anchored the other end of the guy wire. He suffered severe [*4] injuries.

Littlejohn’s friend Miki Conn had purchased their tickets for the adventure course through TimberQuest’s website on September 12, 2013.

According to Littlejohn, TimberQuest’s website does not alert customers that they will be required to sign a liability waiver prior to participating in the adventure course. Littlejohn alleges that neither Conn nor he was aware that they would have to sign a liability waiver until they arrived at TimberQuest three weeks later. At oral argument, counsel for both sides cleared up some confusion on this point: there is a notice on the website concerning the liability waiver, but it appears only at the point of purchase by the customer. A company other than TimberQuest provides the ticketing, reservation and credit card services. That company’s website includes a warning to customers that they will be required to sign a liability waiver before they enter the course. Since Littlejohn’s counsel did not actually buy a ticket, he did not encounter this information in preparing his motion for summary judgment.

When they arrived at TimberQuest on October 5, Littlejohn and Conn were each presented with a document entitled “Release of Liability, Waiver [*5] of Claims, Indemnification, and Arbitration Agreement.” The agreement was presented to them in digital format on an electronic device and they were instructed to read and sign it electronically.

The agreement stated that the participant agreed to “waive all claims” and “assume all risks” arising from participating in programs at the adventure course, including claims arising from negligent acts or conduct of TimberQuest, and further agreed to release and indemnify TimberQuest from liability for any injury suffered by the participant while using the course. (Doc. 44-3 at 2.) Under the heading “Arbitration,” the agreement stated that:

The Participant … hereby agrees to submit any dispute arising from participation in the Programs, for which Participant intends to seek damages in excess of $75,000.00, to binding arbitration. . . . In the event that Participant . . . files a lawsuit in any court relating to, and/or arising from, Participant’s participation in the Programs, Participant . . . by signing this document, stipulate[s] to a cap on Participant’s damages of $75,000.00, exclusive of interest and costs. As a threshold matter, the Panel, or the Court (if a lawsuit is filed), shall confirm whether [*6] the Waiver and Release contained in this Agreement are enforceable under applicable law. (Id.)

The agreement contains a severability clause stating that if any provision is invalidated, the remainder of the agreement will continue to be binding. Littlejohn signed the agreement prior to participating in the course.

II. Analysis

On March 27, 2015, TimberQuest filed a motion for partial summary judgment seeking a declaration that the $75,000 damages cap contained in the arbitration clause is enforceable against Littlejohn. (Doc. 44.) Littlejohn opposed the motion on the grounds that the damages cap violates public policy and is procedurally and substantively unconscionable. (Doc. 45.) Littlejohn filed a cross-motion for summary judgment seeking to have the waiver, assumption of risk, release and indemnity provisions of the agreement declared void and unenforceable as well. (Doc. 46.) In response, TimberQuest filed a cross-motion for summary judgment arguing that the agreement is enforceable and all of Littlejohn’s claims should be dismissed because he released TimberQuest from liability for negligence by signing the agreement. (Doc. 52.)

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate [*7] where “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In considering a motion for summary judgment, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

B. Enforceability of Provisions Regarding Waiver of Claims, Release, Assumption of Risks from Negligence, and Indemnity

The enforceability of a contract provision providing for the waiver of a customer’s claims for negligence arising out of recreational activities is a matter of Vermont law. It is governed by four Vermont Supreme Court cases which seek to define the circumstances under which a business may contract out of liability for its own negligent conduct.

The leading case remains Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt. 329, 670 A.2d 795 (Vt. 1995), in which the Vermont Supreme Court rejected the exculpatory language in ski tickets issued by the Killington ski resort to its customers. The court reviewed the criteria announced by the California Supreme Court in Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (Cal. 1963),1 and identified the longstanding rule that business owners are responsible for the safety of their premises as the basis on which to strike the exculpatory provisions in the ticket. Dalury, 670 A.2d at 799. The decision [*8] recognized that the ski area–and not the skiers–had the expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards and to reduce negligent conduct by its employees.

1 The Tunkl decision identified the following list of characteristics which may violate the public interest:

It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. 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. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards. 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. 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. Finally, [*9] 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.

Tunkl, 383 P.2d at 445-46.

The Dalury decision did not depend upon a determination that skiing was an essential industry or service. “Whether or not [the ski resort] provide[s] an essential public service does not resolve the public policy question in the recreational sports context.” Id. Skiing is not like taking a cab or visiting the hospital–services for which there may be no substitute and which are necessary to everyday life. Rather, the decision rests upon two related principles: the business is open to the general public without regard to special training or ability and the premises owner is in the best position to assure the safety of visitors. These principles have remained unchanged in the cases which have followed Dalury.

The first was Spencer v. Killington, Ltd., 167 Vt. 137, 702 A.2d 35, 37 (Vt. 1997), in which the exculpatory language used as a condition for entering an amateur ski race was not enforced for the same reasons the court had expressed two years before in Dalury. The dissent identified the fault line in the doctrine:

There is a significant difference between the expectations of the general [*10] public, which has a right to assume reasonable care on the part of the ski area operator, and a ski racer who consciously undertakes risks that he or she knows may strain or exceed the tolerance of any safety system.

Id. at 38 (Allen, C.J., dissenting). Over time this distinction between members of the general public and people engaging in high-risk sports would become more marked.

In Thompson v. Hi Tech Motor Sports, Inc., 183 Vt. 218, 945 A.2d 368, 372 (Vt. 2008), the Vermont Supreme Court upheld the enforceability of a liability waiver on public policy grounds.2 The case concerned a customer at a motorcycle dealership who was injured on her test ride. The court distinguished the policy concerns at issue in Dalury, explaining that “whereas public policy places the burden of maintaining safe premises on a landowner, public policy concerning motorcycle safety places the burden of safe driving on the operator of the motorcycle.” Id. The court also determined that motorcycle dealerships do not provide a necessary service. Id. at 373. In this respect, the case followed Dalury. In contrast to skiers, however, the customer operated the motorcycle on the public road. There were no business premises relevant to the case. The decision also compared motorcyclists to customers of skydive [*11] companies, underwater diving schools, and mountain guiding services–high-risk sports for people with special skills. Id. Further, unlike the ski area in Dalury, the motorcycle dealership only allowed licensed motorcycle drivers with sufficient experience and training to take its motorcycles out for a ride. Id.

2 Although the waiver provision was held not to be void on public policy grounds, the court concluded that the provision failed release the defendant from liability for negligence because the language was ambiguous. Id. at 375.

Finally, in Provoncha v. Vermont Motorcross Association, 185 Vt. 473, 974 A.2d 1261, 1267 (Vt. 2009), the exculpatory language for an off-road motorcycle racing club was enforced because the activities were “neither of great importance to the public nor open to the public at large.” The majority distinguished the case from Dalury because the premises where the accident occurred was a private racetrack open only to members of a small club of 300 members. Id. The general public was not permitted to ride. The decision also drew a parallel to the enforcement of similar provisions in cases involving parachute jumping, stock car racing, scuba diving, and mountaineering–all sports which were said not to be matters of legitimate public interest. Id.

All four [*12] cases call for a flexible case-specific analysis of the factors originally identified in the Dalury decision. Of these, the least significant is whether a recreational activity is necessary to society. Few of them are. Not surprisingly, skiing and motorcycle riding–the two activities which generated the four decisions–were both found to be inessential to daily life. The factors which were most consistently applied were whether the defendant was in control of the location where the injury occurred and whether these premises were open to the general public. When these factors are present–as in Dalury and Spencer–the exculpatory clauses are not enforced. When these factors are absent–as in Thompson and Provoncha–the exculpatory clauses are likely to be enforced.

The court is not persuaded by TimberQuest’s argument that the Dalury case is on its last legs and will not survive much longer. Although the result was different in Thompson and Provoncha, neither case suggested that any member of the Vermont Supreme Court sought to discard the rule announced in Dalury. Instead, the debate from both sides concerned the differences between activities open to the general public and the more risky [*13] pursuits of riding motorcycles, skydiving, scuba diving and mountaineering, all of which generally take place in settings that are not under the control of the business operators.

The remaining factors set out in Tunkl had no particular application in Dalury and the subsequent cases and have little in this case either. These include whether the activity is suitable for public regulation, whether the business enjoys unequal bargaining strength as a result of its essential nature, and whether the contract is one of adhesion. Tunkl, 383 P.2d at 445-46. Although ski lifts are regulated, see 31 V.S.A. §§ 701-12, the downhill experience is not. Neither are rope courses or motorcycle races. Although a person who sought to negotiate the terms of his ski ticket or his adventure course ticket might not be admitted, in the absence of any necessity the customer can always walk away, which gives him or her some degree of economic strength. And all of the contracts involved in these cases–whether enforced or not–were preprinted contracts of adhesion which appeared on tickets and entrance forms.

Before leaving the Dalury factors, the court must consider one final factor which is heavily relied upon by the defendants. This factor arises from [*14] the language in Dalury that thousands of skiers visit Killington every day, 670 A.2d at 799, while only a few come to TimberQuest’s zip-line course. In the course of discovery, TimberQuest’s owner estimated that he has 1000 visitors a season–the number he put down on his worker’s compensation insurance application. (Doc. 52-6 at 3.) He does not actually have a real count. Assuming a 100-day season, this amounts to ten visitors each day or one or two visitors per hour. (The estimate may not be very reliable, but it is the only number in the record.) The defense argues that a small business which is open to the public should receive treatment which is different from a large business. Although the court has reviewed the language in the Dalury decision about the thousands of daily visitors, the court is not convinced that the size of the business alone plays a significant role in whether the exculpatory clause in the ticket should be enforced.

As this discussion indicates, the court is satisfied that attending a zip-line program is more like visiting a ski area than like taking part in a specialized high-risk sport which requires skill and experience. Like the ski area, the zip-line sells tickets to all [*15] comers (subject to age and weight restrictions not relevant here.) It requires no prior training. As an excerpt from the website furnished by defendant indicates, this is a recreational activity open to all without restriction:

TimberQuest is an exhilarating treetop adventure course for the entire family. We have over 20 zip lines and 75 challenges of varying difficulty. Challenges include rope bridges, ladders, cargo nets, and even a course for younger children. Customers are always clipped into a safety guide wire and friendly trained staff provide[] assistance from the ground. (Doc. 52-4 at 5.)

The course is designed and controlled by defendants. There is no indication in the record that anyone needs to learn to use the course beyond an initial training class offered at the park. (Doc. 52-4 at 14.) It is even more open to the public than skiing, which typically involves beginner’s lessons and some degree of acquired skill. The zip-line course requires no such training or skill.

This court’s decision to invalidate the exculpatory clause on public policy grounds falls within the principles laid down by the Vermont Supreme Court in Dalury and the later cases. It recognizes the longstanding [*16] rule that business owners are responsible for the safety of their premises. It also recognizes the expectation that a recreational activity which is open to the general public will be reasonably safe for use by all users. In other words, the business cannot contract out of liability for negligence in the design, maintenance and operation of its business premises.

For these reasons, the court will not enforce the exculpatory language on the public policy grounds first identified in Dalury.

C. Assumption of Risk and Indemnity

Littlejohn seeks to invalidate the assumption-of-risk provision in the agreement. The court has already concluded that the first sentence of this provision, which states that by signing the agreement the participant agrees to assume all risks of participating in the adventure course including those caused by TimberQuest’s negligence, is invalid.

However, Littlejohn’s argument does not specifically address the second sentence of this provision, which states that “[t]he Participant … understand[s] that there are inherent risks of participating in the Programs and using the Equipment, which may be both foreseen and unforeseen and include serious physical injury and death.” (Doc. 44-3 [*17] at 2.) Under Vermont law, “a person who takes part in any sport accepts as a matter of law the dangers that inhere therein insofar as they are obvious and necessary.” 12 V.S.A. § 1037. This defense remains viable even if the defendant’s exculpatory agreement is found to be void as contrary to public policy. Spencer, 702 A.2d at 38. This provision of the agreement remains valid and TimberQuest is free to assert assumption of risk as a defense.

There is no third-party claim against TimberQuest for indemnity. The court does not address this issue.

D. Enforceability of Arbitration Clause

After disposing of the exculpatory clause, the court considers the enforceability of the arbitration clause.

As drafted, the clause works in the following way: a claimant seeking damages in excess of $75,000 is required to proceed to binding arbitration. Claims of $75,000 or less are not subject to arbitration. The arbitration panel is composed of three members. Each side chooses one member. The two members then select the third, who must be “an officer or director of any entity that operates an aerial adventure park with zip lines in the United States.” (Doc. 52-4 at 31.) If the first two panel members cannot agree on a third, a judge within the District of Vermont shall appoint [*18] the third member “utilizing the selection criteria for the neutral as set forth above.” (Id.)

Littlejohn challenges this provision on the following grounds. First, he argues that the provision is procedurally unconscionable because it is contained in small print in a contract of adhesion that was presented to him well after he paid for his tickets. Second, he maintains that the arbitration clause is substantively unconscionable because the third arbitrator is required to be an officer or director of another company that operates a zip-line course, thus tilting the arbitration panel in favor of TimberQuest. Finally, he argues that the arbitration clause lacks mutuality because it has no application to a claim by TimberQuest against a customer.

The first issue is what law governs this dispute. Both the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, and the Vermont Arbitration Act, 12 V.S.A. §§ 5651-5681, apply to this arbitration agreement which was formed in Vermont and which the defendant seeks to enforce in Vermont. When the two statutes differ, the federal provision preempts state law. See David L. Threlkeld & Co., Inc. v. Metallgesellschaft Ltd. (London), 923 F.2d 245, 249-50 (2d Cir. 1991) (holding that FAA preempts VAA); Little v. Allstate Ins. Co., 167 Vt. 171, 705 A.2d 538, 540 (Vt. 1997) (same). The claims of unconscionability raised by Littlejohn, however, are matters arising under state [*19] substantive law and are enforced in the same way under either the federal or state arbitration acts. See 9 U.S.C. § 2 (stating agreements to arbitrate “shall be valid, in-evocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract”); AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1746, 179 L. Ed. 2d 742 (2011) (explaining that final phrase of § 2 provides that agreements to arbitrate may be invalidated by generally applicable state-law contract defenses such as fraud, duress, or unconscionability). In considering issues of both procedural unconscionability relating to the form of the contract to arbitrate and substantive unconscionability relating to its content, the court is guided by Vermont decisional law where it is available.

Littlejohn’s claim of procedural unconscionability is unconvincing. Unlike the provisions at issue in Glassford v. BrickKicker, 191 Vt. 1, 35 A.3d 1044, 1053 (Vt. 2011), the arbitration provision is on the middle of the page, directly under the waiver provisions and is prefaced with a conspicuous header stating “Arbitration.” The print is normal-sized. The customer’s signature line is on the second page, giving him an opportunity to read the text before signing. Although the agreement was presented to Littlejohn as a preprinted contract with no real opportunity [*20] to negotiate the terms, he could have declined to participate in the course and requested his money back if he objected to the arbitration provision. This was not a contract for a necessary service such as home inspection where the weaker party was “at the mercy” of the drafter. See id. at 1052. As the Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly pointed out, “unequal bargaining power alone will not nullify a contract.” Maglin v. Tschannerl, 174 Vt. 39, 800 A.2d 486, 490 (Vt. 2002).

Littlejohn also argues that the arbitration agreement was procedurally unconscionable because he was presented with it upon arrival at TimberQuest, more than three weeks after his companion paid for the tickets, and was not warned in advance that he would have to sign it. This argument was based on his attorney’s mistaken belief that the TimberQuest website did not warn customers prior to payment that they would be required to sign the agreement. However, at oral argument the parties agreed that on the payment page, under Terms and Conditions/Liability Waiver, the website displayed the following message: “All participants MUST sign a release and waiver of claims/indemnification agreement at check-in.” Customers were required to check a box stating “I agree” in order to purchase their [*21] tickets. This provided sufficient constructive warning to Littlejohn through his friend who actually bought the tickets that he would have to sign the agreement prior to participating in the course. Further, this was not the first time that Littlejohn had encountered a recreational liability agreement. As he testified at his deposition, “[w]e did sign a release, but that’s standard to me” since he was often required to sign similar forms at ski areas. (Doc. 44-4 at 4.)

Turning to Littlejohn’s argument of substantive unconscionability, it is obvious that the requirement that the “neutral arbitrator” be drawn from the ranks of the zip-line industry is unfair. It is no more than a requirement that the arbitration be conducted among friends–or at least people who share the same concerns about defending against claims by injured customers. Courts have long refused to enforce arbitration clauses which call for the appointment of panel members who are likely to harbor a bias in favor of one side or another. See Halligan v. Piper Jaffray, Inc., 148 F.3d 197, 202 (2d. Cir. 1998) (discussing possibility of institutional bias due to industry influence over selection of arbitration panel); Rosenberg v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 995 F. Supp. 190, 209 (D. Mass. 1998) (listing cases). TimberQuest’s suggestion that a member of the same industry [*22] will be biased against TimberQuest because he or she will be a competitor willing to do harm to a rival company demonstrates only that the arbitration clause requires the choice of someone likely to hold some form of bias or self-interest–maybe for TimberQuest and maybe against.

The contract between the parties includes a severability clause: “To the extent that any portion of this Agreement is deemed to be invalid under the law of the applicable jurisdiction, the remaining portions of the Agreement shall remain binding and available for use by the Host and its counsel in any proceeding.” (Doc. 52-4 at 32.) Setting aside for a moment the one-sided nature of this clause–“available for use by the Host and its counsel”–the severability clause authorizes the court to reform the arbitration provision by striking the requirement that the neutral be drawn from the zip-line industry and providing for the more conventional selection of a genuinely neutral arbitrator by the other two panel members with provision for selection of a third by the court in the event of a deadlock.

The court will enforce the severability clause to strike the provision requiring the choice of a “neutral” arbitrator [*23] who is likely to hold a bias in favor of the zip-line industry. The remaining question is the issue of mutuality.

Some courts have found arbitration clauses in contracts of adhesion that required one party to go to arbitration but imposed no similar obligation on the other party to be unconscionable. See, e.g., Iberia Credit Bureau, Inc. v. Cingular Wireless LLC, 379 F.3d 159, 170-71 (5th Cir. 2004) (holding arbitration clause in cellular telephone customer service agreement was unconscionable under Louisiana law because it required customer but not provider to arbitrate all claims); Abramson v. Juniper Networks, Inc., 115 Cal. App. 4th 638, 9 Cal. Rptr. 3d 422, 437 (Cal. Ct. App. 2004) (“When only the weaker party’s claims are subject to arbitration, and there is no reasonable justification for that lack of symmetry, the agreement lacks the requisite degree of mutuality.”).

However, this appears to be a minority position. The Second Circuit has rejected the argument that an arbitration clause is void for lack of mutuality where it only requires one party to submit all claims to arbitration. In Doctor’s Associates, Inc. v. Distajo, 66 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 1995), the court held that an arbitration clause in a franchise agreement was not void for lack of mutuality under Connecticut law, even though the clause required the franchisees to submit all controversies to arbitration while reserving to the franchisor the right to seek summary eviction [*24] against the franchisees. The court explained that mutuality was “not an issue.” Id. at 451. Under modern contract law, the doctrine of “mutuality of obligation,” which requires that a contract be based on reciprocal promises, is no longer required so long as the agreement as a whole is supported by consideration. Id. (citing Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 79 (1979)). The court rejected the idea that the arbitration clause must be considered as a separate contract within a contract, supported by its own consideration. Id. at 452. Likewise, the court held that the doctrine of “mutuality of remedy,” which provides that a “plaintiff shall not get specific enforcement unless the defendant could also have obtained it,” is also defunct and did not support the franchisees’ argument. Id. at 453 (citing Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 363 cmt. c. (1979)). Because the agreement to arbitrate was part of a larger contract which was supported by consideration, it did not fail for lack of mutuality.

Other circuits have reached similar conclusions. See Soto v. State Indus. Prods., Inc., 642 F.3d 67, 77 (1st Cir. 2011) (applying Puerto Rico law); Harris v. Green Tree Fin. Corp., 183 F.3d 173, 181 (3d Cir. 1999) (applying Pennsylvania law); Barker v. Golf U.S.A., Inc., 154 F.3d 788, 791 (8th Cir. 1998) (applying Oklahoma law); see also Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Najd, 294 F.3d 1104, 1108 (9th Cir. 2002) (applying California law and holding that employer’s promise to be bound by arbitration process was sufficient consideration for employee’s agreement [*25] to arbitrate); Michalski v. Circuit City Stores, Inc., 177 F.3d 634, 636 (7th Cir. 1999) (applying Wisconsin law and reaching same conclusion as Najd).

Vermont courts have not specifically addressed whether an arbitration clause may be void for lack of mutuality. Vermont contract law does not otherwise require parties to an agreement to have equivalent obligations for the agreement to be valid. See H.P. Hood & Sons v. Heins, 124 Vt. 331, 205 A.2d 561, 566 (Vt. 1964) (“[T]here is no requirement that the option of one promisor must be coextensive with the privilege of termination extended to the counter-promisor.”). “Even if one party has options not provided to the other party … the contract is not per se unsupported by consideration. Rather, a contract is incomplete only if one party’s obligations are so attenuated as to render consideration merely illusory.” Petition of Dep’t of Pub. Serv., 157 Vt. 120, 596 A.2d 1303, 1309 (Vt. 1991) (Morse, J., dissenting); Restatement (Second) of Contracts§ 79 (1981) (“If the requirement of consideration is met, there is no additional requirement of … ‘mutuality of obligation.'”). The FAA would preempt Vermont from imposing such a requirement only in the case of arbitration provisions. See AT&T Mobility LLC, 131 S. Ct. at 1741. Given that Vermont law strongly favors arbitration, Union Sch. Dist. No. 45 v. Wright & Morrissey, Inc., 183 Vt. 555, 945 A.2d 348, 354 (Vt. 2007), the court concludes that mutuality is not required in order for the arbitration provision to be enforceable.

Littlejohn argues that the agreement was unsupported [*26] by consideration because he was forced to sign it weeks after he had paid for the tickets. This argument is without merit. “[A]ny performance which is bargained for is consideration.” Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 72 (1981). TimberQuest’s performance in this case was allowing Littlejohn to use its adventure zip-line course. In exchange, Littlejohn’s friend paid for their tickets. Upon arrival at the park, he promised that he would submit his claims to arbitration or agree to limit his recovery in court to $75,000. As noted above, the payment page required Littlejohn to agree to sign the agreement prior to participating in the course. “In other words, defendant’s offer of services did not extend to anyone who did not sign the Agreement.” Mero v. City Segway Tours of Washington DC, LLC, 962 F. Supp. 2d 92, 103 (D.D.C. 2013) (holding that liability waiver signed by plaintiff who paid for Segway tour in advance was supported by consideration in form of defendant’s provision of Segway and guided tour where confirmation email warned that he would have to sign liability waiver prior to tour). Thus, Littlejohn’s promise was supported by consideration.

As reformed by the court, the arbitration provision is valid. Under the agreement, there is no cap on damages if the participant chooses to go to arbitration. If [*27] the participant chooses to go to court, he or she agrees to seek $75,000 or less in damages. This court only has jurisdiction over a diversity case if the amount in controversy “exceeds the sum or value of $75,000.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). This provision is strictly construed, and does not extend jurisdiction to a claim for an even $75,000. Salis v. Am. Export Lines, 331 Fed. Appx. 811, 814 (2d Cir. 2009); Matherson v. Long Island State Park Comm’n, 442 F.2d 566, 568 (2d Cir. 1971). Thus, Littlejohn may not bring suit in this court. The court accordingly dismisses plaintiff’s negligence claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and without prejudice to plaintiff’s right to demand arbitration.

III. Conclusion

For the reasons stated above, defendant TimberQuest’s motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 44) is GRANTED. TimberQuest’s cross-motion for summary judgment dismissing all claims (Doc. 52) is DENIED. Plaintiff’s cross-motion for summary judgment (Doc. 46) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. The case is dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction without prejudice to plaintiff’s right to demand arbitration.

Dated at Rutland, in the District of Vermont, this 20th day of July, 2015.

/s/ Geoffrey W. Crawford

Geoffrey W. Crawford, Judge

United States District Court


Arbitration clause in a release is upheld in Mississippi, but only because it was “fair”

Larger issue is should you use arbitration and if you should, when?

Daniels v. Virginia College at Jackson; 478 Fed. Appx. 892; 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 13037

State:

Plaintiff: Mississippi, United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Defendant: Virginia College L.L.C.; Education Corporation of America; Willis-Stein and Partners

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, conversion, embezzlement, and unjust enrichment

Defendant Defenses: Mandatory arbitration as found in the release which was part of the enrolment agreement

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2012

The facts of this case are unknown. What is known is the plaintiff enrolled in the defendant college. To enroll she had to sign an Enrollment and Tuition Agreement. The Enrollment and Tuition Agreement (Enrollment form) had a mandatory arbitration clause.

Arbitration is a cross between mediation and a trial. Arbitration is usually done by a member of the American Arbitration Association or by a neutral party picked by both sides. Arbitration is a lot cheaper and faster than going to trial. In many states, an arbitrator cannot award all the types of damages that a jury or judge could. Arbitrators rarely award as much money in damages as a jury does.

Arbitration is supported by state law, which limits damages, compels arbitration and encourages and forces parties to an arbitration clause to arbitrate.

In this case, the plaintiff objected the required arbitration required in the contract. That arbitration was required by the trial court, and the plaintiff appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth circuit court upheld the mandatory arbitration.

Summary of the case

The discussion in this case is fairly simple. The plaintiff was unhappy about how the defendant school had retained portions of the federal financial aid she had received. She sued claiming the arbitration clause was void because it was unconscionable.

Under Mississippi law unconscionability:

…is proven by oppressive contract terms such that there is a one-sided agreement whereby one party is deprived of all the benefits of the agreement or left without a remedy for another party’s nonperformance or breach.

The plaintiff argued that the enrollment agreement was unconscionable because it limited damages, had a jurisdiction and venue clause and awarded the defendant attorney fees if it won its case. To overcome some of the issues, the defendant in its written argument to the appellate court considered the attorney fee’s clause stating the clause allowed any winning party to recover its attorney fees.

Consequently, the arbitration clause was not found to be unconscionable in this situation applying Mississippi law.

So Now What?

The real issue to look at in this case is, should you use arbitration if you run an outdoor recreation business or program and if so when.

Probably, if you are an outdoor recreation activity in a state that supports the use of a release, and you have a well-written release, then no, do not require arbitration. The reason is simple; arbitration does not allow motions for summary judgment, which is a quick and final ending to the litigation.

Arbitration will allow the parties to go to arbitration and allow the plaintiff to have their day in court. Usually, a motion for summary judgment is faster, simpler and cheaper.

The only places I would consider arbitration in an outdoor recreation business setting would be those states that do not allow the use of a release, if those states support mandatory arbitration. At the time of the writing of this article, those states are: Louisiana, Montana, and Virginia (although Virginia attorneys continuously tell me lower courts uphold releases?).

Possibly Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Arizona, New Mexico, and West Virginia for some activities were the state legislature or the courts have held that releases are not valid for those activities. However, in all of those states, you must investigate the statute and make sure arbitration works the way you need as well as limits the damages that can be awarded by an arbitrator.

See States that do not Support the Use of a Release

Arbitration is not a cover up for having a bad release. If your release is bad, an arbitration clause is not going to provide any greater protection. Besides if you have a bad release, you probably have a bad arbitration clause also.

Of note, is the court looked at the over-all fairness of the agreement and the arbitration clause. Without a finding of fundamental fairness, the court might have voided the arbitration clause. In  

For an article on failed arbitration see: Complicated serious of cases created to defend against a mountaineering death.

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Daniels v. Virginia College at Jackson; 478 Fed. Appx. 892; 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 13037

Daniels v. Virginia College at Jackson; 478 Fed. Appx. 892; 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 13037

Natifracuria, Plaintiff-Appellant, Virginia College L.L.C.; Education Corporation of America; Willis-Stein and Partners, Defendants-Appellees,

No. 11-60861 Summary Calendar

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

June 26, 2012, Filed

NOTICE: PLEASE REFER TO FEDERAL RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE RULE 32.1 GOVERNING THE CITATION TO UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1]

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. USDC No. 3:11-CV-496.

DISPOSITION: The district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.

COUNSEL: For NATIFRACURIA DANIELS, Plaintiff – Appellant: Precious Tyrone Martin, Sr., Esq., Precious Martin, Sr. & Associates, P.L.L.C., Jackson, MS.

For VIRGINIA COLLEGE, L.L.C., EDUCATION CORPORATION OF AMERICA, Defendants – Appellees: Ollie Ancil Cleveland, III, Esq., Peter Sean Fruin, Attorney, Maynard, Cooper & Gale, P.C. Birmingham, AL.

For WILLIS-STEIN AND PARTNERS, Defendant – Appellee: Robert Lewis Gibbs, Esq., Gibbs Whitwell, P.L.L.C., Jackson, MS.

JUDGES: Before REAVLEY, SMITH, and PRADO, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

[*893] PER CURIAM:*

* Pursuant to 5th Cir. R. 47.5, the court has determined that this opinion should not be published and is not precedent except under the limited circumstances set forth in 5th Cir. R. 47.5.4.

Plaintiff-Appellant Natifracuria Daniels appeals the district court’s order compelling arbitration of her state-law tort and restitution claims against Defendants-Appellees Virginia College at Jackson, Virginia College, L.L.C., Education Corporation of America, and Willis-Stein and Partners (collectively “Virginia College”). Virginia College moved [**2] to compel arbitration in order to enforce an arbitration clause in the “Enrollment and Tuition Agreement,” which Daniels signed before enrolling as a student at Defendant Virginia College at Jackson (individually, “the College”). On appeal, Daniels contends that the Agreement’s arbitration clause does not cover her tort claims, and she contends that the arbitration clause is unconscionable.

We AFFIRM.

The Enrollment Agreement’s arbitration clause requires arbitration of any claim “arising out of or relating to [the Agreement], together will all other claims . . . of any nature whatsoever arising out of or in relation to [Daniels’s] enrollment and participation in courses at the College . . . .” Daniels alleges that the College unlawfully retained the portion of her federal financial aid monies that should have been disbursed to Daniels to cover her cost of living. She brings state-law claims sounding in negligence, conversion, embezzlement, and unjust enrichment. Because these claims arose “in relation to [Daniels’s] enrollment and participation in courses at the College,” the district court was correct in finding them subject to the arbitration clause.

[HN1] Under Mississippi law,1 substantive [**3] unconscionability “is proven by oppressive contract terms such that there is a one-sided agreement whereby one party is deprived of all the benefits of the agreement or left without a remedy for another party’s nonperformance or breach.” Covenant Health and Rehab. of Picayune, LP v. Estate of Moulds, 14 So. 3d 695, 699-700 (Miss. 2009) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). In Covenant Health, the Mississippi Supreme Court found that a contract containing an arbitration clause “coupled with a multitude of unconscionable provisions,” including asymmetrical limitations on liability, choice of forum, and other matters, was unenforceable in its entirety. Id. at 703. Daniels argues that the Enrollment Agreement is similarly laden with unconscionable provisions.

1 The Enrollment Agreement has an Alabama choice-of-law provision. But no party raises this provision, and they have relied on Mississippi law throughout their briefing on appeal and before the district court.

First, there is language in the arbitration clause that allows the College, but not Daniels, to seek injunctive relief in court. [HN2] An agreement that requires only one party to submit its claims to arbitration is unconscionable [**4] under Mississippi law,2 but the language at issue here merely allows the College to seek a preliminary injunction to halt a student’s ongoing breach of the Enrollment Agreement. The College must seek all other relief though arbitration. An asymmetric exception so limited in scope does not make an arbitration clause unconscionable. Sawyers v. Herrin-Gear Chev. Co., 26 So. 3d 1026, 1035 (Miss. 2010) (arbitration clause between car dealer and purchaser enforceable notwithstanding exception allowing car dealer to bring an action to repossess the car in court).

2 Covenant Health, 14 So. 3d at 700 (citing Pridgen v. Green Tree Fin. Servicing Corp., 88 F. Supp. 2d 655, 658 (S.D. Miss. 2000)).

[*894] Daniels also points to the arbitration clause’s language prohibiting the arbitrator from awarding any damages not “measured by the prevailing party’s actual compensatory damages.” [HN3] Ostensibly bilateral limitations on punitive damages are unconscionable under Mississippi law if they are one-sided in practical effect due to the weaker party’s being “much more likely to be justified in seeking punitive damages.” Vicksburg Partners, L.P. v. Stephens, 911 So.2d 507, 523-24 (Miss 2005) (ostensibly bilateral punitive-damages [**5] limitation in contract of adhesion between nursing home and occupant unenforceable against occupant), overruled on other grounds by Covenant Health, 14 So. 3d at 706 (Miss. 2009). However, as Virginia College concedes in its brief, the arbitration clause does not bar the arbitrator from awarding damages in excess of compensatory damages. It merely requires that the amount of such damages be based on the prevailing party’s compensatory damages. Sawyers, 26 So. 3d at 1036 (interpreting nearly identical language as requiring only that the parties be “limited as to the amount of punitive damages which might be awarded, since such an award would have to be ‘measured by the prevailing party’s actual damages'”). Such provisions are not unconscionable. Id.

Daniels next points to the Enrollment Agreement’s asymmetric liquidated damages provision, which she contends would leave her without any remedy for the wrongs she alleges because its language limits her recovery to “an amount equal to any non-refunded tuition payments . . . .” [HN4] Contractual provisions intended to exculpate a party of liability for its own tortious conduct are particularly suspect under Mississippi law. See Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So.2d 467, 469 (Miss. 1999)). [**6] As Virginia College concedes, however, the liquidated damages provision in the Enrollment Agreement applies only to breach-of-contract damages, and would not affect recovery for Daniels’s claims.

Finally, a provision of the agreement permits the college to recover attorney’s fees against Daniels if it prevails in any action or arbitration that is “permitted” by the Enrollment Agreement or that “aris[es] out of [the Agreement] and the subject matter contained [there]in.” However, while the Enrollment Agreement is silent with respect to Daniels’s recovering fees if she prevails, Virginia College disavows any interpretation of it that would preclude Daniels from recovering attorneys’ fees to which she might otherwise be entitled under the arbitration rules. Given Virginia College’s concessions regarding the meaning of its provisions, enforcing the Enrollment Agreement’s arbitration clause is not unconscionable under Mississippi law.

The district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.


New York case looks whether plaintiff could read and understand the agreement and held for the defendant.

Ayzenberg v Bronx House Emauel Campus, Inc., etc., 93 A.D.3d 607; 941 N.Y.S.2d 106; 2012 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2316; 2012 NY Slip Op 2396

The court also looked at the arbitration clause in the release and found it required arbitration.

This is another short New York Decision that was decided by the New York Appellate Court. The plaintiffs sustained an unknown injury while attending or staying at the defendant’s camp facility. The plaintiffs filed a complaint, and the defendants moved to compel arbitration as required in the application.

Summary of the case

Family camping

The lower court denied the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, and the defendant appealed. The plaintiff argued three theories on why the arbitration clause did not apply to them.

The first was a “language barrier” kept the plaintiffs from understanding what they were signing and that there was an arbitration clause. The court held the parties were bound by the agreement, including the arbitration clause even though they did not understand it.

The second was only the husband signed the agreement. The wife argued the husband could not sign for her. However, the court held the wife was bound by the agreement because the husband at the very least had apparent authority to sign for her. Apparent authority is an agency type of argument where by the actions of one party acting on behalf of the other party the defendant relied on the actions believing the first party had authority to act for the second party. The second party also took advantage of the benefits of the agreement or failed to reject the agreement and therefore, cannot reject the agreement now or say the first party could not sign on their behalf.

If you act like you are responsible and no one questions your authority, including the person you say you are responsible of, you are responsible.

The final argument put forth by the plaintiff was the agreement compelled arbitration by the Commercial Rules of the American Arbitration Association, and the claims of the plaintiffs were personal not commercial. Here the court found the argument failed because the agreement said the parties had to arbitrate any dispute between them.

So Now What?

The first thing that caught my eye was the plaintiffs did not understand the agreement, but understood enough English to get an attorney.

Unidentified group of men camping, Muskoka Lak...

Arbitration is cheaper, faster and normally arbitrators can only award limited damages. Arbitration is usually a great idea. Always combine arbitration with mediation. The parties to an agreement must mediate their dispute first. If that does not work, then they can arbitrate.

Arbitration may have one downfall, and that would be in a state that supports releases. Arbitration is cheaper than a trial; it still usually ends up awarding the plaintiff some money. If your release is solid, you may want to avoid arbitration and rely on your release. It could be faster and probably cheaper. However, it is always a toss-up that you should review with your attorney.

The other point is the plaintiff signed the agreement with a language barrier. This different from signing and not reading the agreement or arguing you did not understand the agreement which courts always throw out. This is a great decision. Whether or not you can rely on it in your state is still, I suspect, up in the air.

However, this is a start.

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Ayzenberg v Bronx House Emauel Campus, Inc., etc., 93 A.D.3d 607; 941 N.Y.S.2d 106; 2012 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2316; 2012 NY Slip Op 2396

Ayzenberg v Bronx House Emauel Campus, Inc., etc., 93 A.D.3d 607; 941 N.Y.S.2d 106; 2012 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2316; 2012 NY Slip Op 2396

Roza Ayzenberg, Plaintiff-Respondent-Appellant, v Bronx House Emauel Campus, Inc., etc., Defendant-Appellant-Respondent.

7224, 116013/10

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT

93 A.D.3d 607; 941 N.Y.S.2d 106; 2012 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2316; 2012 NY Slip Op 2396

March 29, 2012, Decided

March 29, 2012, Entered

NOTICE:

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

COUNSEL: [***1] Mound Cotton Wollan & Greengrass, Garden City (Rodney E. Gould of counsel), for appellant-respondent.

Hill & Moin, LLP, New York (Cheryl Eisberg Moin of counsel), for respondent-appellant.

JUDGES: Mazarelli J.P., Andrias, Moskowitz, Acosta, Abdus-Salaam, JJ.

OPINION

[*607] [**107] Order, Supreme Court, New York County (Milton A. Tingling, J.), entered October 13, 2011, which denied defendant’s motion to stay the proceeding and compel arbitration pending further discovery, unanimously reversed, on the law, without costs, the motion to compel arbitration granted, and the action stayed.

In this action for personal injuries allegedly suffered by plaintiff while she and her husband were guests at defendant’s camp facility, defendant moved to stay the proceeding and compel arbitration based on an arbitration clause contained in the application for defendant’s camp program that was filled out by plaintiff’s husband and bears his signature. We find that the arbitration clause is binding on plaintiff. Irrespective of whether there [**108] was a language barrier that precluded plaintiff and her husband from understanding the content of the application, they are bound by its enforceable terms (see Shklovsky v Kahn, 273 AD2d 371, 372, 709 N.Y.S.2d 208 [2000]). [***2] Although plaintiff’s husband signed the application, which provided for the couples’ joint participation in defendant’s program, plaintiff is bound by it since her husband had, at the very least, apparent authority to sign for her (see Restatement, Agency 2d,§ 8 and § 27).

Plaintiff’s assertion that the arbitration clause does not apply to this personal injury action because it provides for the submission of claims “pursuant to the Commercial Rules of the American Arbitration Association,” is unavailing. The clause provides for arbitration of “any dispute resulting from [their] stay at” defendant’s facility (italics supplied), and thus, this matter is not excluded (see Marmet Health Care Center, Inc., et al. v Brown, US , 132 S Ct 1201, 182 L. Ed. 2d 42 [2012]; see also Remco Maintenance, LLC v CC Mgt. & Consulting, Inc., 85 AD3d 477, 925 N.Y.S.2d 30 [2011]).

Contrary to plaintiff’s argument, we find that the sale/purchase of the services defendant provided constitutes a transaction “involving commerce” within the meaning of the Federal Arbitration Act (see Citizens Bank v Alafabco, 539 U.S. 52, 56, 123 S. Ct. 2037, 156 L. Ed. 2d 46 [*608] [2003]). Thus, we find that to the extent GBL § 399-c may prohibit the subject arbitration clause, it is preempted [***3] by federal law.

We have reviewed plaintiff’s remaining contentions and find them unavailing.

THIS CONSTITUTES THE DECISION AND ORDER OF THE SUPREME COURT, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT.

ENTERED: MARCH 29, 2012

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Delaware holds that mothers signature on contract forces change of venue for minors claims.

Doe v. Cedars Academy, LLC, 2010 Del. Super. LEXIS 559

Court recognizes that you can’t argue rights under the contract and void other parts of the contract in the same lawsuit.

This case alleges that the minor was assaulted at a school for students who have a need for academic and social skills development. To be enrolled in the school the mother had to sign a substantial contract. The contract included a release of liability (pre-injury release) and a venue and jurisdiction clause.

The minor was allegedly threatened and sexually assaulted by another student. The mother and son sued for.

“….negligence, gross negligence, and recklessness; one count raises a breach of contract claim, and one count raises a claim that Defendants violated John Doe’s substantive due process right to bodily integrity.”

The defendants, the school and the parent company of the school moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction. This means the contract says the jurisdiction is located in another state, therefor this court does not have the legal right to hear the claim. i.e. the jurisdiction clause in the contract between the parties.

Summary of the case

The school was located in Delaware; however, the agreement required arbitration in California. The venue and jurisdiction clause was extensive in the contract.

21. Governing Law/Venue: This Agreement, and all matters relating hereto, including any matter or dispute arising between the parties out of this Agreement, tort or otherwise, shall be interpreted, governed and enforced according to the laws of the State of California; and the parties consent and submit to the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of the California Courts in Los Angeles County, California, and any qualified (American Arbitration Association-approved) arbitration service in the State of California, County of Los Angeles, to enforce this Agreement. The parties acknowledge that this Agreement constitutes a business transaction within the State of California. 10

The court looked at four issues in reviewing the contract and the claims of the plaintiffs:

(A) whether the Agreement is binding as to Jane Doe; [the mother]

(B) whether the Agreement is binding as to John Doe; [the son]

(C) whether the pre-injury release provision renders the entire Agreement unenforceable; and, if not

(D) whether the choice of law, choice of forum, and/or arbitration provisions of the Agreement are controlling.

The issue of whether the contract is binding on the mother. The court found it was because the mother also sued for damages under the contract. Here the court found if you are suing for damages under the contract, you cannot claim you are not part of the contract.

The court also held, in what was one of the clearest statements on this issue I’ve read, that the mother could not avail herself of the services of the defendant and put her son in the school and then claim the contract did not apply to her. If the contract allowed her to put her son in the school, then the contract applied to her.

But for the right to contact as a mother, there would be no services for children.

This same analysis was applied to whether or not the minor was bound by the agreement. If the minor could attend the school, based on the contract, then the minor had to be bound by the contract.

To conclude that John Doe is not bound by the Agreements otherwise enforceable terms, as Plaintiffs contend, simply because he is a minor would be tantamount to concluding that a parent can never contract with a private school (or any other service provider) on behalf and for the benefit of her child. As a practical matter, no service provider would ever agree to a contract with a parent if a child could ignore the provisions of the contract that pertain to him without recourse.

The court did not determine or decided if a parent can bind a minor to a pre-injury release. The court held that the contract allowed the court to exclude for the sake of argument, any part of the contract that it felt was unenforceable and therefore, the court could decide the issue without deciding the release issue.

The court then found the jurisdiction and venue clause were valid, and the case must be sent to California. Whether that was going to be a California court or arbitration, as required by the contract, in California was up to the California court.

At this point, the plaintiff argued the minute aspects of the contract did not force the case to be sent to California. This forced the court to scrutinize the agreement, down to the placement of a semi-colon. The court determined the jurisdiction and venue portion of the agreement applied.

Unless the forum selection clause “is shown by the resisting party to be unreasonable under the circumstances,” such clauses are prima facie valid. A choice of forum provision will be deemed “unreasonable” only when its enforcement would seriously impair the plaintiff’s ability to pursue its cause of action.” Mere inconvenience or additional expense is not sufficient evidence of unreasonableness.

So Now What?

Over and over I have stressed the importance of a well-written  jurisdiction and venue (choice of forums) clause in your release and in all documents. Here again, this clause will make litigation more difficult for the plaintiff.

You want the lawsuit in your community. Most of the witnesses are usually located there, the business is there, and you are better prepared to defend a claim there.

Another issue that was not brought up the court, but is present in the case is the decision on arbitration. Arbitration may be a great item for you to use if you are dealing with minors for several reasons.

Arbitration is cheaper and quicker than a trial. The rules governing arbitration have a shorter time frame and do not allow as much time for discovery.

Arbitrators, by statute, are usually limited on the type of amount of damages that they can award. As such, punitive or other excessive damages may not be awarded by an arbitrator.

However, arbitration is not necessarily the way to go in every case. Arbitration does not allow, normally for motions for summary judgment. If you have a well-written  release in a state that allows the use of releases, you will have a faster and better result going to court and filing a motion for summary judgment.

Whether or not to put arbitration in a release or other contract is one to be carefully reviewed based on your state, your state law and your situation with your attorney.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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