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 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.
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.
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.
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
Larger issue is should you use arbitration and if you should, when?
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
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.
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.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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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.
[*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.
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.Posted: October 29, 2012
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
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.
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.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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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 2396Posted: October 29, 2012
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.
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
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.
[*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 ). [***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 ; see also Remco Maintenance, LLC v CC Mgt. & Consulting, Inc., 85 AD3d 477, 925 N.Y.S.2d 30 ).
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] ). 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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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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